What you need to know
By taking Ukraine, Putin is attempting to annul universal values with “might makes right.”
China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have made public displays of friendship in the last couple of months. This was probably most visible during the Winter Olympics, held in Beijing, where Putin was the guest of honor of Xi. The banquet at the opening night was a rogues’ gallery of today’s autocrats: Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the autocratic prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan were in attendance, but the spotlight was on the two principals, Xi and Putin, and their relationship based on opposition to the European and U.S. world order.
But Xi and Putin are more than just friends of convenience. Their values align as well, as neither displays any interest in human rights, individual freedoms, and democracy. Both have made use of a nationalist rhetoric, placing their respective countries as the drivers of world history. Both leaders claim that “the West” has taken their privileged spot in the world — and they have vowed to take it back. Xi’s dream is the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by ending what he calls China’s “Century of Humiliation.” Likewise, Putin laments that the demise of the USSR was the worst catastrophe in Russian history.
Putin aims to “reunite” what he perceives to be the Russian motherland. In his view Ukraine, and also the Baltic States, belong in the Russian sphere of influence. Similarly, Xi claims that Taiwan is a “breakaway province” from China that needs to be “reunified” with the mainland. Neither has a leg to stand on in international law to wage wars to “reunite” with these countries. The People’s Republic of China, it always bears repeating, did not rule a single day over Taiwan, nor has the Russian Federation ever governed Kyiv. So both have had to conjure imperial nostalgia and victimhood narratives to justify their irredentist claims.
Many thinkers in the academic canon, from Hegel and Marx, to Huntington and Fukuyama, can be described as determinists. They believe that history is unfolding according to a plan. Xi and Putin are, in their own ways, children of very distorted and simplified versions of these thinkers. (Both, of course, were raised and educated in Communist countries and are certainly familiar with the most deterministic and least humanistic interpretations of Marx.) Though neither is by any means a communist, it might be said that they have remained faithful in a way in the creeds of their youths, in their belief in history as playing a role in leading their nations back to their owed status. They also may see nothing other than colonialism and imperialism, interference in their respective country’s internal affairs, behind the rhetoric of human rights, freedom, and democracy espoused by Euro-American leaders.
Nothing, I believe, could be further from the truth. Today’s international order rests on the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by all UN member states. We live in a world order bound by principles to which Russia and China are committed. Human rights, indeed, are therefore not a western invention, and neither were Russia or China coerced into signing these documents.
By taking Ukraine, Putin is attempting to annul these universal values with “might makes right.” Putin seems to believe that the people of Ukraine have no right to their sovereignty. Xi says the same about Taiwan, though he has not acted yet on his designs. Certainly, the Ukrainians and Russians have a complicated, intertwined history, just as many (though not all) Taiwanese have ancestral homes and deep connections in China. Yet both peoples have had formative experiences of democratization in the 1990s, giving their governments a legitimacy lacking in China and Russia. What’s more, both peoples have made expressly clear that they have no desire to assent to the wishes of their regional bullies.
The debate should end here. The right of a people to self-determination, inscribed in international law, a principle shared by everyone from Wilsonian liberals to Vladimir Lenin, is unimpeachable. Unprovoked wars of aggression are, as well, an absolute taboo in international law.
By undermining these principles and violating these taboos, the alliance, if it can be called that, of Russia and China, is a threat to the world as a whole. Xi and Putin have been seen as hyper-rational, Machiavellian, and shrewd. A part of their appeal to their followers was exactly in this reputation. But Putin and Xi have embraced a theological faith in their historical role, and Putin has now acted on it in a most horrific, senseless way. If the free world does not come up with a plan to contain this hubris, then I fear for what is to come for not just the countries in their sights, but for the rest of the world.
READ NEXT: Reading Putin’s Speech From Taiwan
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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