Little reason to expect agreement between democracies and the rest

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Appeared in the Okanagan Saturday, Waterloo Region Record, and Trail Daily Times

International talks often become forums of mutual incomprehension as the world again breaks into two opposing camps with two incompatible worldviews: “the democracies” and “the rest.”

Democracies see other nations, as they do their own people, as self-directed agents, whose decisions can be influenced but not controlled. The “rest” see other nations as part of a sphere of influence that owes obedience to the regional hegemon—in other words, they see other nations like they see their own people, not as independent actors but as members of a collective under leadership control.

The Ukraine crisis and its background provide a good example. The Russian leadership was furious the West “expanded” east after the end of the cold war. NATO added 12 new members and the European Union 16 in Central and Eastern Europe, an area Russia viewed as its legitimate sphere of influence.

Western nations missed the problem. These new, if imperfect, democracies clamored to join the EU for economic development and NATO for security. The West saw this as the free choice of nations; Russia saw it as an attack on its sphere of influence.

This worldview can be seen in a recent Foreign Affairs article by Alexander Lukin, vice-president of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Forgetting the promises made by Western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev after the unification of Germany—most notably that they would not expand NATO eastward—the United States and its allies … trumpeted NATO’s expansion… while trying to convince Russia that the foreign forces newly stationed near its borders, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, would not threaten its security.”

According to Lukin, what these nations and their citizens wanted is not relevant; they were part of Russia’s sphere of influence and their Western drift was a betrayal. In a touch of unintended irony, Lukin charges, “Western leaders maintained the zero-sum mindset left over from the Cold War.” In fact, this represents the Russian view of the world, as a zero sum game of spheres of influence, rather than a world of independent actors.

This Russian perspective was evident during the Maidan demonstrations in Ukraine protesting the deal then-president Viktor Yanukovych made with Russia and his rejection of an EU agreement. The demonstrators believed their future lay with the West and not Russia but Russia saw the demonstrators as dupes of the West acting in an anti-Russian conspiracy, not as independent agents.

China is much the same as Russia. In Beijing’s view, the will of the peoples of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet doesn’t count. They are part of China and must be subservient to the Chinese leadership. The South China Sea is within China’s sphere of influence, so China’s often-absurd territorial claims trump those of regional nations such as Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Although democratic nations often have a common view of the world, their conflicting interests complicate coordination. The “rest” tend to get pushed together less by mutual attraction than by rejection of the democratic model. The liberal democratic view of the world threatens the hegemony of the “rest,” whether over “their” region or “their” people.

Thus, the West squabbles but can sometimes work together. Russia and China typically back each other, and protect and support unsavory regimes the world over such as Venezuela, Belarus, Assad’s Syria, and North Korea.

The West’s and the “rest’s” opposing worldviews are incompatible and arguments based on them are mutually incomprehensible. Thus, negotiations cannot end in a mutually advantageous solution—except in response to a threat both sides see as common, such as Iran’s nuclear program, Islamic terrorism, or North Korea’s recklessness. Even here, agreement is fragile if the non-democracies think the bad actors are doing more harm to the West than to them.

In most cases, no comprehensive agreement is possible in these assemblies of the deaf. Forms of force, not dialogue, become the tools of the day, whether annexations by Russia or sanctions against Russia, China’s dangerous provocations in the South China Sea or ad hoc alliances in response. This will be the shape of our world for decades, maybe centuries.

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