Text by Michael W. Doyle published in the testimonial book “Rocard par…” Flammarion, 2018. ( following the discussions at the Collegium International with Michel Rocard, after his article “Realpolitik et droits de l'Homme” Le Figaro, April 9, 2004. )
Michael Doyle is a University Professor of Columbia University and a member of the Collegium International, including during the period in which Michel Rocard served as its distinguished co-chair.This essay draws on and revises an article published in Dissent, “New World Disorder,” Dissent, Winter 2017, pp. 123-128.
Michel Rocard believed and acted on the view that politics, especially international politics, was a matter of conscience and power. Neither could be divorced from the other. No statesman had a duty to do the impossible or to threaten the security of his or her country in the name of abstract moral principles. No pursuit of power made sense if its object was simply more power. He wrote eloquently about “Realpolitik and Human Rights” in Le Figaro in 2004 when tensions between Russia and Europe were escalating and politicians in France debated whether to follow interests or principles. His thoughtful views on how one must combine both interests and principles are inspirational again today as threats of a global New Cold War emerge on all sides.
For when we look at world politics, we cannot fail to see that systems of government are scraping against each other like continents grinding at a fault line. The noise they make announces a new world disordered.
These clashes are not just because of Vladimir Putin or the new hard- line Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping. Nor are they a product of the alleged missteps of the Obama administration. Leadership does make a difference. The reverberations of the Donald Trump earthquake are still trembling through the world. But, at the root, it is the systems of government that are clashing, and Trump’s bromance with Putin is unlikely to change that.
It was not supposed to be this way. For some, the end of the Cold War was an end to strife over ideology. Liberal democratic capitalism was every nation’s future and an ever-growing international liberal order of peace and cooperation would follow. For others, all great powers are seen to be the same and the minuet of their crises over spheres of influence and shifting alignments is normal, legitimate—nothing unusual.
But in the last few years, a different reality has begun to emerge. Russia and China are not liberal democracies in the wings, at least not anytime soon. They have their own political systems, interests, and ideologies that are deeply engrained. Russia and China are not like the democracies of the United States, Germany, Japan, the UK, France, India, Brazil, or South Africa.
Their approaches to global trade and investment are filtered through different political systems. China and Russia are much more corporatist and nationalist, and they are also autocratic. The state owns large parts of the economy and bureaucrats govern it. Elections are limited to a single party, or the party controls the media and intimidates any rivals. They lack open markets, the rights of property and democratic precepts such as equal protection of the law.
The legitimacy of these political systems must be bolstered by political repression of dissidents, with strong economic performance (poverty or economic crisis is but a generation in the past), or with extreme nationalism—or all three. Both regimes feel they have been slighted globally through the loss of empire: the Chinese by Western and Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Russians by the collapse of the USSR.
National corporatist systems are not all the same. In China, the state ruled by the Communist Party still dominates the oligarchs who control the economy. In Russia, before Putin, and in Ukraine, oligarchs dominated the state. Putin is attempting to assert the dominance of the Russian state by intimidating opponents; whether he will succeed or just emerge as another—albeit, the wealthiest and most powerful—oligarch is an open question.
Both China and Russia feel deeply threatened by market democracies on their borders, having already been frightened by the Tiananmen pro- tests in China in 1989 and by the democratic contagion that swept aside the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then undermined the Soviet Union itself. But the security threats to these regimes are internal, not external. They arise from disgruntled and empowered citizens, not armies threatening to cross their borders. Their border threats are all seen through this internal security prism. China asserts control of the South China Sea and has no wish for North Korea to collapse into a united democratic Korea on its Manchurian border. It has shown that it will not tolerate a fully democratic Hong Kong. Putin supports the Belarusian strongman to his west, and, to the south, would not stand for a Ukraine that would join the EU. If Russia’s client in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, could not be propped up, bet- ter a Ukraine stripped of Crimea with a restive and newly vulnerable Russian minority in constant need of potential rescue: all this to keep Ukraine divided and crisis-ridden and a lesson to all who might seek democracy within or autonomy outside the Russian orbit.
The drivers of tension and conflict are not all one-sided. In the democratic West, realists worry about the threats emanating from the destabilizing power dynamics caused by the rise of China and the decline of Russia. This is the so-called “Thucydides Trap” harking back to the Peloponnesian War between a rising Athens and a conservative Sparta, now the subject of a popular book by the American political scientist Graham Allison. Liberals decry and want to impose additional sanctions on the authoritarians for their widespread violations of human rights. And multinational corporate elites sound the alarm at having to compete with state-controlled or state-owned enterprises.
Russian or Chinese national corporatism would be a challenge even if democratic liberalism were flourishing. But this is manifestly not the case. Elected leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary explicitly reject the premises of liberal democracy in favor of what he praises as the “illiberal state.” Similar trends appear in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, Poland under the Law and Justice Party, in Slovakia, Serbia, and with (so far) minority movements in Austria, Germany, Greece, France, and Britain. The mismanagement of the Greek financial collapse, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Brexit illustrate regional- level dysfunctions in what hitherto had been the deepening and widening of the European Union.
Even more striking has been the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party and his election to the U.S. presidency. Not since Charles Lindbergh’s pre–Second World War and similarly styled “America First” movement has the United States seen so forthright a rejection of international engagement and embrace of xenophobic nationalism. During his campaign, Trump endorsed torture, the targeting of civilians, and wars for looting (seizing Iraqi oil). The right-wing populists flirt with the dictators: as Lindbergh did with Hitler, Trump does with Putin. Unlike Lindbergh, Trump was actually elected. But whether his campaign rhetoric will shape long run U.S. policy remains obscure. The record so far is mixed. The trade negotiations across the Pacific have been trashed; NAFTA is under threat. A nuclear standoff with North Korea has been exacerbated by puerile posing by both Kim Jung-Un and Donald Trump. But NATO is still in place and the arms control regime with Iran is still (January, 2018) in effect.
Significant foreign policy departures will require congressional approval and funding; and the Republican Party is deeply split between interventionists and isolationists. Other democracies have elected right-wing populists with results ranging from farce (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and his bungabunga parties) to political assassinations (the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte and his gangs of vigilantes).
The roots of these populist upheavals are in a combination of increasing domestic inequalities in some places (such as the United States) with seeming loss of control of borders and economy in others (as in Europe). Both have rocked the foundations of stable liberal democracy. Political polarization strains the governability, and xenophobia erodes the values, of all liberal democracies, and it is not yet clear how many Orbáns or Trumps are likely to prevail.
Rational interests do and should push back against a cold war between national corporatism and democratic liberalism. The fates of both are deeply engaged and interdependent, as the East and West never were in 1946. (The EU depends on Russian natural gas; and Russian banks rely on sales of their bonds in Europe and the United States.) The first Cold War is estimated to have cost the United States about $11 trillion (in current U.S. dollars) in defense expenditures alone. A second could be even more expensive: China is still one of the fastest growing and has now just become the world’s largest economy according to some measures. Isolating Russia would be extremely costly to Europe. Moreover, restraining Iranian nuclear proliferation rests on U.S.-Russian cooperation. And the habitability of the planet itself will rely on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in leading curbs on global warming. All these are put at risk by a new cold war.
Moreover, the dangers posed by Russia and China should not be exaggerated. Putin is not Stalin, Xi is not Mao . . . and neither one is Hitler. The historical analogies, though far from perfect, are Mussolini’s Italy and Fran- co’s Spain, the Japanese military of the 1930s and the Argentina of Juan Perón. Russia and China, like their corporatist predecessors, are regimes that can and will change and that are subject to influence and bargaining. A cold war is therefore not inevitable; nor, a fortiori, is a hot war.
But neither complacency that history is on liberal capitalism’s side, nor appeasement, nor militarism, nor isolationism, nor balancing flexibly among great powers will serve liberal democracies well. Isolationist liberal democracies became corrupt in the 1920s, failed in the Great Depression, appeased dictators, and were nearly crushed by Fascism in the Second World War. Trump’s “America First” vision serves up an odd combination of isolationism and militarism that compounds those ill-starred doctrines.
Another world war is now unlikely; nuclear weapons deter it. But debilitating crises could undermine the West again. Putin is clearly counting on Western weakness in his strategy to disrupt Ukraine and sustain Assad in Syria.
Playing balance-of-power politics is not an effective answer either. It makes no sense to grant Putin a license to control Eastern Europe, as Trump seems inclined to do. It would be even more counter-productive for the United States to try to assert itself as an equivalent regional hegemon trying to control by gunboat diplomacy the politics of its Caribbean and other neighbors. Accepting Russian dominance of Eastern Europe or asserting U.S. hegemony over the Caribbean would simply alienate the fellow democracies on whom the security and prosperity of the West depends.
Instead, cooler statesmanship suggests that the United States should stay the course with the moderate policies of the Obama administration. The original, soft containment strategies advocated by George Kennan in the early part of the Cold War make the most sense; not the hard containment policies of confrontation and rollback. The door should also be kept open to engagement that furthers common interests and, without any illusions that change is proximate, lays a welcome mat for the possibility of domestic democratic reform in both Russia and China in the long run.
When Michel Rocard contemplated how to balance realpolitik and human rights, he made a case for a hierarchical approach. Sensible priorities had to govern policy when dealing with a nuclear power that abused human rights. The first tier of the hierarchy (priority) had to be focused on the basics: curbing foreign aggression, acknowledging the importance of domestic stability and responsible domestic government, and cooperating in essential international trade and financial transactions. With these in place, basic foreign relations are warranted and become feasible. With those in place, attention can and should be paid to basic rights like free speech and an independent judiciary. And, only when those secondary conditions are met and the situation looks promising can encouragement be given (in a third tier) to free elections and democratic pluralism. Reversing the order would provoke confusion and, indeed, chaos.
In that spirit, when we turn policy making to Russia, its conquest of Crimea should not be recognized unless it is accepted through a credible, internationally conducted, referendum of the local popular will and Ukraine’s territorial losses are compensated. Economic sanctions should be targeted to alienate as few ordinary Russians as possible while imposing genuine costs on the oligarchs that support Putin, until a negotiated settlement of Ukraine is reached. Negotiations, facilitated by the international community, should be priority number one, not cold war belligerence. NATO should not be (over)extended to countries that are not yet either vital to the alliance or stable democracies. Russia has legitimate interests in the welfare of those who identify with Russia in Crimea, Ukraine, and elsewhere. And Russia needs the cooperation of Ukraine since the current Crimea is nonviable: Ukraine controls its water supply. Ukraine depends vitally on imports of Russian gas. Genuine negotiations among Kiev and Moscow need to protect Russia’s supporters in Ukraine and Ukraine’s in Crimea and recognize these interdependencies.
Diplomacy toward Syria is equally difficult. The Russian air campaign and Syrian armored offensive campaign have driven the opposition to its knees. But because there is no stable victory in sight, there is no route to resolving the internationalized civil war in Syria other than negotiation across the divides. This needs to include Assad, the domestic opposition, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, if it is going to successfully exclude a revived ISIS. The first goal is to end the slaughter, but this requires an immensely difficult bargain that ensures that domestic competitors for power can compete peacefully through elections even if that means accepting a continuation of Assad’s continued control of th military and dependence on Russia and Iran and the reliance of various opposition groups on Turkey and Saudi Arabia. One route to this might be a radical weakening of the Syrian presidency (Assad) in favor of a more parliamentary (and coalitional) government.
More widely and as importantly, the liberal West should rally fellow democracies for a long twilight struggle. The liberal democratic community of nations should not cut off the ties that have sustained cooperation. It should, instead, reinforce its own foundations at home and abroad.
At home, the first step is making sure the benefits of globalization are shared, not monopolized by the elite. An ill-founded faith in perfectly operating markets blinded the U.S. policy elite to the potentially adverse effects of trade, technology, and immigration on the less skilled and those in industries directly competing with imports. It is difficult to imagine any strategy to sustain globalization and grow national and global GDP without policies that also invest in education, repair an eroded infrastructure, boost demand for industrial skills idled by international competition, and, where needed, offer direct compensation through negative income taxes.
Abroad, reinforcing the liberal order calls for reasserting international rule of law principles, reaffirming existing alliances, and improving trade regimes across the Atlantic and the Pacific that are opened to all who are willing to abide by its rules. These are the foundations of long-term security: all were rejected by Trump. The lesson of the grim politics of the past year in both Europe and the United States is that international security will not be achieved without first rebuilding the economic foundations of liberal democracy at home.
 “Realpolitik et droits de l’homme,” Le Figaro, 9 Avril, 2004, no. 18561, p. 12.