Russia, China and the Uncertain Future of the Collective West: Q&A with Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd served alternately as Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister in 2007-2013. He helped found the G-20 and led Australia as it became the only major developed economy not to go into recession during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. He is currently president of the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. While he regularly notes that he is not a Russia expert, he has visited Russia several times a year for the past few years, speaking at forums and getting to know Russian government officials and analysts. Mr. Rudd spoke with Russia Matters Project director Simon Saradzhyan and editor Natasha Yefimova-Trilling.
RM: What does the rise of China mean for the U.S., Russia and the world?
KR: China’s future regional and global influence lies in the economy. Long before [Bill] Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” Deng Xiaoping had worked it out. Now the growth model is under some pressure, particularly the future of state-owned enterprise reform, but I think it’s still a robust assumption that China’s economy will continue to grow. For sufficient employment in the Chinese economy to sustain social stability, you need a growth rate of around 6%; that’s the magic number. So, by whatever means, there’s an overwhelming Chinese political imperative to ensure that that annual target is realized. China’s growing force is also reflected in Chinese foreign policy around the world. Will China become a truly global power in the same tradition as the United States? That’s an open question. The Chinese have always been keen not to overextend themselves and there’s a deep internal literature in China on that subject.
On China-Russia and on U.S.-China: Since the election of President Trump, you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to conclude that there are going to be some problems on the U.S.-China front—on a whole range of fundamental conflicting interests. And it’s not clear how stable that relationship will remain. We also have to watch carefully what happens in the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship. There is a question of expectation management about whether normalization can occur and [there are] different benchmarks of normalization: the withdrawal of sanctions? a new accommodation on eastern Ukraine? formalization of the annexation of Crimea? concrete details of Syria policy? The future of China-Russia relations is likewise an open question. There has obviously been a significant strategic embrace between the two countries, not just over the last three years, but frankly an emerging one over the last decade or so. Will Russia seek to become more balanced in its relationship between Beijing and Washington? Open question. Overall, we are in a year of great strategic uncertainty and we see a lot of these uncertainties rising from the unknown policy directions of the Trump administration.
Russia is a deeply nationalist government which believes the international order is best sustained by the robust prosecution of national interests and through bilateral negotiations which reconcile one set of interests against another.
RM: One of our colleagues recently said that since Trump sees China as a major threat he wants to have Russia be at least neutral—an updated version of Kissinger’s balancing. What is your of-the-cuff impression of that assessment?
KR: I am not a specialist on Russia, but plainly there is an appetite in Moscow and there is some appetite in the new [U.S.] administration to normalize the relationship. The stated rationale for that is common action against what the Trump administration identifies as its number one strategic threat: global Islamic terrorism. Mr. Trump’s view of China is that it does constitute an economic threat, not just in terms of trade but acutely in terms of investment decisions, which affect American jobs, industries, cities, regions and the future. He does not see Russia in the same frame. Whether the administration has fully thought through the connection of these two, I am in no position to comment. But the bottom line is that if we are going to have strategic friction between the U.S. and China, there is a certain logic to suggest that the United States at the same time would want there to be greater strategic stability in the relationship with Moscow.
RM: In your view, what are the top three threats to the Western world?
KR: Well, I don’t normally engage in hierarchical descriptions of threats. Life is much more complex than that. But a core challenge faced by the collective West is a belief in itself: What does the future of the idea of the West actually represent in the current mind of the West? What does the West believe are its core values? What does the West believe it has inherited from the Judeo-Christian world that it can preserve? What is the future of the enlightenment project, whether it is empiricism or rationalism? In this age of post-truth what does the West hold to be true? And then there is the question of what is its future economic and political project?
The second core challenge of the West is the health of its democracies and the fundamental shifting of the assumptions of what a democracy is—that is, that there is a common platform for discourse. With the collapse of the traditional media, the emergence of certain media monopolies and the Balkanization of social media, what is the common platform of discussion for the citizenry? Answer: more fragile than ever before.
The collective West has fallen between two stools: We have global institutions not sufficiently empowered to deal with global problems that lie beyond national borders, but we do not have national governments with sufficient power to deal with those problems either.
The third challenge is the great internal debate in the West between the forces of neo-liberal globalization on the one hand—by more open capital flows, by more open technology flows, by more open communication—and the political reaction domestically, with calls for tighter immigration control, calls for greater protectionism, calls for even greater retreat to cultural isolationism. These are the three deep, interrelated challenges within the West.
RM: Do you see these challenges as signs that the West’s domination is ending? Are we seeing the emergence of a new world order? What would that order look like? Who would be the key players?
KR: Certainly, it’s too early to tell. But the collective West, and more broadly the international community, appear to have fallen between two stools: We have global institutions not sufficiently empowered to deal with global problems that lie beyond national borders, but at the same time we do not have national governments with sufficient power to deal with those problems either. As a result, we see the citizenry throwing up their hands in horror saying, “Who does have a real solution?” There’s a constant resort to populism as a protest against the failure to deliver real outcomes to real problems. What worries me about that is when populism proves to have no answers. Do you then see the ultimate destruction of… let’s call it the Western democratic project’s credibility, more broadly? I think that is a live factor at present.
Secondly, in terms of the post-war institutions themselves—the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions—unless they reform they will die. They were created in the circumstances of the 1940s, [and] none have been significantly internally reformed, in terms of their governance machinery, since then. Having just completed a two-year-long review exercise of the UN system, I’ve concluded that these institutions, created by the West, run the danger of dying the death of a thousand cuts, in terms of their credibility eroding step by step because they’ve failed to solve global problems effectively. But at the same time there are no institutions to replace them. As further evidence of that, we increasingly see nation-states walking around or outside the UN, the IMF, the WTO, and resorting to other means, often national and unilateral means, in seeking to solve problems. That delegitimizes the institutions of global governance, which are largely a Western construct.
For those who look to China to provide a replacement in global leadership through a replacement of global institutions, that is just not the Chinese script.
Finally, in terms of the West’s future, if the West itself, led by the United States, begins to say that the future lies in closing the door to free trade, then that is a deep repudiation of what much of the West’s idea of itself has been for centuries. I understand there has been an uneven development of free trade as a system, but frankly the West is what it is on the basis of its free-trading history. If that gets thrown out the window, the question becomes: What does the West then stand for in the future? For those who look to China to provide a replacement in global leadership through a replacement of global institutions, that is just not the Chinese script. And Russia, as we know, is a deeply nationalist government which believes that the international order is best sustained by the robust prosecution of national interests and through bilateral negotiations which reconcile one set of interests against another.
RM: So is Russia’s view of the world the future world order? Or will it be more like “G-Zero,” which is essentially global chaos?
KR: There’s a spectrum of possibilities, and in the absence of clearly defined U.S. global leadership, any of these possibilities could unfold. One is an optimistic assumption that the global institutions are themselves internally reformed by their collective memberships—the UN, the Bretton institutions, the G20. The less optimistic view is that we retreat into spheres of influence and regional power groupings. How would the “concert of Europe” be reflected in other concerts, quote-unquote, around the world in different regions? What does a concert of Africa look like, or a concert of Asia, or a concert of the Americas?
RM: Russia would want a global version of the concert of Europe—China, Russia, the U.S., perhaps the EU—and they would decide on world affairs.
KR: Simply a global power diarchy, or tri-archy, or whatever comes after a tri-archy, would involve an Orwellian division of power. Remember? George Orwell spoke about three great concentrations of regional power as being the world of 1984. I find it difficult to see that cleanly emerging, let alone whether such a set of arrangements would be desirable. Those sorts of great power balances have an appalling history in terms of preventing conflict on a grand scale; we’ve seen that in the First World War. And those who romanticize the concert of Europe within Europe seem to forget what actually happened in that century: the colonialisms of the rest of the world, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War—some minor problems which tended to leave some blots on the century.
Anyone who regards Russia as a declining power is looking at it through an ideological lens. Respect goes a long way. It helps open the door to substantive dialogue. The danger for all of us in international relations or diplomacy is this binary construct: You are either a confrontationist or an apologist.
RM: In the long term is Russia a rising power, holding steady or a declining power?
KR: I think there is a wrong external analysis of Russia, and I say this as a non-Russia expert. One, Russia has an acute sense of national identity—more acute than the in the Unites States, because of its ethnocentricity and probably even more acute than I’d find in China. (Although China also has its own ethnocentricity, it is as much a civilization as it is a state.) Secondly, the world view of Russia as a continental power has always been problematic—[because of] the geography to the east, the far east, the west, the south and its exposure to instabilities in Central Europe and Central Asia. Thirdly, depending on the future of global energy supplies, Russia was, is and is likely to remain a global energy superpower and that is not inconsequential in the world’s future. The challenge for Russia, fourthly, will be its capacity to broaden its economic base. I had a question put to me recently by [economist] Vladimir Mao on what Russia could learn from the Australian experience of being a resource-based economy, but one that had managed to diversify and not simply go through total commodity boom and bust. And that’s an open question for the Russians; I don’t pretend to have the answer. And finally, of course, you’ve got other elements of national power, like a population of 140 million, which is no longer shrinking but has begun to grow again. And the point I’ve left to last is one that many put first, which is: Russia remains a globally formidable conventional and nuclear power with a strong state apparatus.
Anyone who regards all that as evidence of a declining power is, I think, looking at Russia through an ideological lens. It’s not declining; it’s a significant regional and global power. Therefore, I think one of the enduring messages for everybody in the collective West, particularly with their Russian friends, is a very simple one that applies to China as well: Respect goes a long way. It helps open the door to substantive dialogue. And understanding the other person’s point of view is the beginning of wisdom. Then you get into the business of a radical exchange of ideas and interests on which basis you can craft a future. So I think the way forward with Russia is, frankly, leaving aside the machinations of any particular government or time in Moscow, is a respect for the country, respect for its civilization, respect for its current power status, understanding where people like Vladimir Putin come from and their worldview, and then entering into what I describe as robust engagement.
RM: How can one adhere to that without being seen as, or indeed becoming, an apologist for actions that are unpalatable for the collective West?
KR: I think the danger for all of us engaged in international relations or diplomacy is this binary construct: You are either a confrontationist or an apologist. I seek to do three things as president of an American think tank: to describe what I believe to be the other country’s view and why they have that view. Second, what is my view? And why do I have that view? Sometimes—and I say this as a friend of this country—the American ability for self-analysis and self-reflection is somewhat limited. And then thirdly, to craft or find a way through, given as dispassionate as possible an analysis of the ideals, ideas and interests of each of these major states, if we’re taking the China-Russia-U.S. relationship. Those of us who come from these middle powers in the world, like mine [i.e., Australia], we do this as a matter of discipline.
RM: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently compared Vladimir Putin to Bismarck. Who does Putin remind you of?
KR: I see Mr. Putin as over and above everything else a Russian nationalist. And I think when we seek to understand Mr. Trump, it is wrong to describe him as a populist; it is right to call Mr. Trump a nationalist. So how do nationalist political leaders get along with each other? Now there is a rich subject in history and for the future.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.