By analyzing recent speeches from the U.S., Russia and China at the UN, it’s easy to pinpoint how and why the three nations are locked in a new type of geopolitical confrontation.
Leaders pose for a group photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the International Convention Center in Yanqi Lake, Beijing, in November, 2014. Pictured, from left to right: U.S. President Barack Obama; Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott; Chinese President Xi Jinping; Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak; Russian President Vladimir Putin; New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. Photo: AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s speech on Nov. 7 warning about Russian and Chinese efforts to challenge the U.S.-built international order is but the latest sign of Washington’s unease at the dual challenge to U.S. global leadership from Moscow and Beijing.
When the presidents of Russia, China, and the United States all participated in the General Debate of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 28, their remarks were aimed at each other as much as anyone.
However, it would be incorrect to say that, “The recent speeches made by Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the 70th UN General Assembly clearly show that Russian and American leaders are once again locked in a global ideological confrontation of the type once witnessed during the Cold War.”
Rather than an ideological clash between Moscow and Washington, what we see is more a conflict of worldviews amplified by misperceptions and public relations. Still, parsing these comments from the UN provides us with an insight into how the battle for ideas might evolve among the three great powers.
The U.S. worldview
A major point in President Barack Obama’s UN address was his message that, while the U.S. seeks better ties with Russia and China, both Beijing and Moscow represent wayward great powers that need correcting.
Obama adamantly denied that the United States wanted to return to a Cold War with Russia or sought to isolate or weaken Russia. He insisted that the U.S. sanctions against Moscow for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity aimed to modify Russia’s course and convince other states like China to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states.
Although all three presidents declared their support for the UN system and international law, for Obama, the value of the United Nations lies in its principles and norms, especially those that have “helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.”
Though acknowledging that, “democracy is going to take different forms in different parts of the world,” Obama insisted that, “Some universal truths are self-evident.” He also cited the practical advantages of having an “inclusive” democracy”—“it makes countries stronger” by exposing corruption, spurring innovation, and liberating civil activism.
Whereas Putin warns about color revolutions, Obama insisted that dictators are brittle political institutions prone to internal decay and collapse, “It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it's technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.” He attributed the “catastrophe” in Syria to that country’s dictatorship, whose brutal tactics fueled militant opposition
Likewise, Obama insisted that the United States had no preference in the substantive outcome of China’s maritime disputes in East Asia “but, like every nation gathered here, we have an interest in upholding the basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and in resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force.”
Obama also countered the Russian-Chinese criticism of NATO’s Libya intervention by arguing that, while diplomacy is the preferred foreign-policy tool, the collective use of military force to avert “terrorist enclaves and humanitarian disasters” is justified, even if in that case “our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.”
The Russian worldview
In his opening comments, Putin argued that, “The United Nations is unique in terms of legitimacy, representation and universality.” Attacking Americans for thinking that “they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN,” Putin notably defended the veto right of its permanent members: “Any action taken by circumventing this procedure is illegitimate and constitutes a violation of the UN Charter and contemporary international law.”
Putin also defended democracy and freedom at the level of international relations rather than within countries, describing that as the essence of “state sovereignty,” which in his view requires accepting that, “Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one.”
The Russian President correctly recalled how the Soviet effort to export its ideology to foreign countries “often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.” But he argued that the more recent U.S. efforts to promote “democratic” revolutions in the Middle East and Northern Africa—driven by arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity” have backfired by undermining political order and creating vacuums filed by extremists: “Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life.”
Putin was particularly scathing of Western military intervention in Libya, “whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973,” and accused Western governments’ of making the same mistake now in Syria. Western leaders, he says, are trying to “manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.” Actually, they were only making “the global terrorist threat much worse” by failing to cooperate with the Syrian authorities who, along with the Kurdish fighters, “are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria.”
The Russian leader made his familiar complaint that the Western leaders not “creating an equal and indivisible security environment that would not serve a privileged few, but everyone,” but were “still dominated by their Cold War-era bloc mentality and the ambition to conquer new geopolitical areas,” as seen by “their policy of expanding NATO” despite the end of the Soviet bloc and forcing the post-Soviet countries to join or confront the West.”
He attributed the civil war in Ukraine to Western manipulation of “people's widespread frustration with the government… for instigating a coup d’état from abroad.”
Returning to an earlier charge that the United states was exploiting the Ukraine crisis to impose sanctions on Russia, Putin also accused the West of following the same practice of creating dividing lines in the world economy through “unilaterally imposed sanctions circumventing the UN Charter…[that] not only serve political objectives, but are also used for eliminating market competition,” as well as their “rising economic selfishness” seen in their building “exclusive economic associations … behind closed doors” that aims to “impose upon us some new game rules” without “discussing those issues within the framework of the United Nations, the WTO and the G20.”
The Chinese worldview
During his visit to the United States, President Xi Jinping dutifully avoided any detailed public comment on the Russia-China relationship or Russia-U.S tensions. These issues presumably did come up in the meetings between Xi and Obama; however, if one reads carefully, especially in Xi’s first public address at the United Nations, one sees a closer alignment between Xi and Putin, than between Xi and Obama, on critical issues.
Echoing the Russian objections to U.S. unilateralism, when asked by The Wall Street Journal, “Is China trying to rearrange the architecture of global governance, away from the U.S. and toward China?” Xi responded that, “The global governance system is built and shared by the world, not monopolized by a single country.”
Like Putin, Xi called the UN the “most representative and authoritative international organization” and insisted on “the central role of the United Nations and its Security Council” in international peace and security issues. Xi further called for a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation” based on “The principle of sovereign equality underpins the UN Charter.”
Similar to Putin, Xi’s view of that principle was very 19th-century: “The principle of sovereignty not only means that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries are inviolable and their internal affairs are not subjected to interference. It also means that all countries’ right to independently choose social systems and development paths should be upheld, and that all countries’ endeavors to promote economic and social development and improve their people’s lives should be respected.”
Elaborating on this latter point about non-interference and rejection of universal values, Xi added later that, “In their interactions, civilizations must accept their differences. Only through mutual respect, mutual learning and harmonious coexistence can the world maintain its diversity and thrive. Each civilization represents the unique vision and contribution of its people, and no civilization is superior to others. Different civilizations should have dialogue and exchanges instead of trying to exclude or replace each other.”
In addition to attacking “unilateralism” and calling for “partnership rather than alliance,” Xi joined Putin in insisting that, “No country can maintain absolute security with its own effort, and no country can achieve stability out of other countries’ instability.” He also called for an end to a “Cold War mentality in all its manifestations.”
We are not yet in an “ideologically driven system of international relations.” But Carter’s speech shows that official Washington recognizes a threat in how Russian and Chinese worldviews are converging in opposition to that of the United States.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.