In March 1990, Estonia and Lithuania declared the Soviet Union an occupying power and announced their transition toward independence. Latvia made a similar announcement in May. They had no choice. A demand for political transparency culminating in Moscow’s 1989 acknowledgment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which consigned the Baltic states to Soviet domination and Poland to dismemberment, exposed the Soviet Empire for what it was: illegitimate. Over the next 20 months, the Warsaw Pact came unglued, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence, and the titanic ideological struggle between Marxist-Leninism and capitalism concluded.
But the conflicts that typified the Cold War did not end as definitively; they were only papered over. The second decade of the 21st century has exposed the extent to which those battles still rage. The Bolivarian socialism practiced in Venezuela clings to power through repression and violence, propped up by the last Marxist revolutionary government in the Western hemisphere: Cuba. The destabilizing activities of the governments in Havana and Caracas increasingly demand the attention of policymakers in Washington. So, too, does the Stalinist enclave north of the 38th Parallel. The Communist government in North Korea has shunned integration into the global economy in favor of arms and drug trafficking, the promotion of terrorism, and the development of an illicit nuclear-weapons program. Whether explicitly or implicitly, Russia and China both gave up on the centrally planned economy but not their national interests, many of which conflict intractably with those of the United States.
These geostrategic challenges represent persistent military threats, but they are neither explained nor resolved by bloodless realpolitik alone. The contest of ideas is not over. It never will be. The ideological struggle of the 21st century is not about whether the globalized marketplace maximizes human happiness and potential but, rather, whether society should be organized around the pursuit of human flourishing at all.
In that sense, the People’s Republic of China represents the greatest ideological challenge to the order that emerged from the rubble of the Berlin Wall. China began its march toward economic liberalism ten years before the students who crowded Tiananmen Square demanding equivalent political reforms were brutally crushed, 30 years ago today. Beijing has no interest in exporting its way of life, but it does represent an alternative model of societal organization that is in as much competition with the West as was Soviet socialism. And the stakes of that ideological struggle are as high as any that characterized the Cold War.
Thirty years after the revolutions that swept Marxism off the board, China is leading the experiment in whether relatively liberalized markets can coexist with illiberal political structures. Beijing’s maximalist political repression is aided by an increasingly omniscient surveillance state, which exists with the support of the Western technology industry and is being exported to aspiring illiberal governments around the world. It imprisons millions of religious and ethnic minorities in forced labor and reeducation camps designed to rid them of their attachment to their particular traditions, languages, and religions and transform them into “normal people.” Beijing disappears international officials of Chinese origin, imprisons human-rights activists and journalists, and tortures and sexually abuses dissidents. As the inauspicious anniversary of the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen approached, China even rounded up foreign journalists who dared ask residents for their recollection of the events, and it did so with impunity.
This gilded authoritarianism has become an attractive alternative for governments that want to enjoy the benefits of the market economy without all the democratizing that accompanies it. Around the world, journalists operate with the understanding that they could be killed for doing their jobs. Opposition political figures, too, risk assassination or usurpation by the jealous governments against which they protest. Fragile young democratic institutions are being systematically dismantled to the cheers of those who perceive themselves under threat by freedom’s disaggregating and disintegrating effects. China is the model, but its brutality is as much a source of strength as a weakness.
The abolition of term limits that gives Xi Jinping the authority to remain China’s president for life is a sign of the country’s institutional rot. A stagnating political culture around Xi’s strikingly small cadre of loyalists in leadership will rob it of the nimbleness it will need to navigate the economic and political challenges China will face in the coming years. The Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power creates tremendous incentives toward corruption and inefficiency, which puts downward pressure on foreign investment, augmenting the economy’s hidebound reliance on government investment and inefficient state-owned enterprises. All this increases political instability. Though they are often catalyzed by economic or social stresses, protest movements in China are not uncommon despite the risks to participants and their loved ones. Indeed, international public-opinion polls suggest China’s hostility toward freedom is its chief disadvantage.
Like its most recent predecessors, the Trump administration has not adopted a coherent policy toward the post-Cold War period’s stragglers. It has aggressively countered the ambitions of Cuba and Venezuela while taking a less consistent approach toward North Korea. It makes common cause with some illiberal governments abroad while condemning and isolating others. On China, it has taken a long overdue stand against Beijing’s unfair economic practices, one that is so ambitious it arguably sacrifices U.S. interests in the process, and senior administration officials have begun to take an admirable stand against “China’s one-party state” and its human rights abuses. But these efforts are uncoordinated and inconsistent. The West must come to see that these are not isolated and distinct conflicts against illiberalism but one globalized contest.
Anti-liberal orthodoxies are incompatible with their liberal alternatives. It is as true today as it was 30 years ago. One or the other must cease to exist. Americans have a horse in that race. It’s high time they place their bets.