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Global Perspective: Liberal values face tough challenges

Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, left, Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde, right, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attend a media conference after the signing of the NATO Accession Protocols for Finland and Sweden at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on July 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

By Akihiko Tanaka, Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo

    It is fortunate for the future international order that Russia's invasion of Ukraine did not end with the fall of the capital Kyiv in a few days, as President Vladimir Putin had initially envisioned. If Ukraine had capitulated to Russia's unilateral military invasion, the international legal norms prevailing since the latter half of the 20th century outlawing aggressive war would have crumbled, and we would have faced a world in which "might is right."

    After more than four months since the start of the Russian invasion, the fighting remains stalemated and Moscow has not yet achieved its war aims, thanks to the strenuous effort of the Ukrainian army and the sacrifices made by the Ukrainian people. The world has stopped short of descending into a place where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

    Yet the war continues to drag on, and there is no guarantee that Russia will remain stalled or that other countries will refrain from similar behavior. One has to wonder what kind of place our world will become down the road.

    A glimpse into what is to come may be found in a new "Strategic Concept" agreed upon at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid in late June. The alliance's Madrid declaration saw Russia as "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area." In the post-Cold War era, where the threat from the Soviet Union was long gone, Putin's Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union, is again identified as a "threat" to the alliance.

    Russia is not, however, NATO's only concern. The Strategic Concept 2022 asserts that "China's stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values," and devotes two full paragraphs to China. It emphasizes the unity of Beijing and Moscow by stating that the "deepening strategic partnership between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests." Although the document does not rule out "constructive engagement" with China, it does not hide its alarm at China's "coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance."

    During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was both a direct military threat and a challenger to the entire post-World War II global order. The first major military challenge, however, occurred on the Korean Peninsula. Before the war, the U.S. implied that its military would not intervene in Korea. When the war broke out, however, the U.S. intervened, immediately condemning North Korea for attempting to topple the international order.

    At the time, the Soviet Union was absent from the U.N. Security Council over the issue of Chinese representation at the world body, so the council was able to pass a resolution without a Russian veto to organize a U.N. force led by the United States. When North Korea was overwhelmed by the U.N. force's offensive, China joined the fray and fought the Americans. The Soviet Union ostensibly did not take part in the war, and the conflict stayed local and did not become a clash between Washington and Moscow, or World War III. (According to documents revealed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Soviet soldiers did participate in the war.)

    In other words, as of 1950, as NATO was engaged in a tense face-off against the Russians in a divided Berlin, the actual "hot war" was being fought on the Korean Peninsula in East Asia, with the Soviet Union publicly on the sidelines. Fighting against the U.S. was China, a junior partner of the Soviet Union at the time. "Cold War" means a war that does not turn hot, at least between the two superpowers, but hot wars were fought in many parts of the world.

    In the world of 2022, Ukraine is the scene of a hot war, and the U.S. is not directly involved, but Ukraine and Russia are fighting. Mr. Putin may not see it that way, but the current war is a war being fought by Ukraine, with the support of the United States and NATO countries, against Russia, which has effectively become China's junior partner.

    In the Cold War, the two camps led respectively by the United States and the Soviet Union faced off on the European front, most prominently in Berlin, while actual battles took place across the globe. Sometimes that hot war involved one of the two superpowers, but never both. Thus, the Cold War remained "cold" and was described by some historians such as John L. Gaddis as the "Long Peace."

    Today's world has also become one in which the freedom-seeking camp, represented by the United States, is pitted against the authoritarian camp, headed by China and Russia. The most dangerous thing in this world is an all-out war between the U.S. and China, and the possible trigger for such a confrontation is the Taiwan Strait. In the early 1950s, East and West faced each other in Berlin and fought a hot war on the Korean Peninsula. Today, the liberal and authoritarian camps face each other across the Taiwan Strait and are engaged in a hot war in Ukraine.

    What kind of "order" will such a geopolitical landscape bring about? The Cold War was a tense period of cascading crises. However, in some respects, the behaviors of both East and West settled into predictable patterns. Both sides developed deterrence and defense systems, and by increasing predictability, they competed on the one hand, while reducing the possibility of direct military confrontation on the other. Similarly, today's vision of order for liberal democracies should be one where the true value of liberalism is demonstrated while avoiding direct military confrontation.

    A confrontation between the free and authoritarian camps would never neatly divide the entire world in two. Even during the Cold War, there were many countries that advocated "non-alignment." Just as the East and West competed for the support of non-aligned countries during the Cold War, the two camps will compete for the support of countries that do not necessarily favor one side over the other.

    While there is often talk of "democracies in retreat," I do not believe there is any need to underestimate the strength of the liberal democratic camp. There are far more liberal democracies today than there were during the Cold War, and the total gross domestic product (GDP) of liberal democracies is much larger than the total GDP of authoritarian countries. At the NATO summit in Madrid, Sweden and Finland, which had remained neutral even during the Cold War era, began the process to become NATO members. Their participation shows that the unity of today's freedom-seeking countries is stronger than it was in the Cold War era.

    *****

    Born in 1954, Akihiko Tanaka graduated from the University of Tokyo's faculty of liberal arts with a degree in international relations, and completed a doctoral program in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After serving as a professor at the University of Tokyo, he was the president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies from April 2017 through March 2022. He assumed the current position at the helm of JICA in April 2022. A scholar of international politics, Tanaka is the author of "Atarashii Chusei" (The New Middle Ages) and "Posuto Modan no Kindai" (Postmodern 'Modernity').

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