The Free West is winning the war against the Russia-China axis of autocracy

The West is going through a crisis of confidence. Europe’s response to the Russian assault on Ukraine has been fragmented and lackluster. America and its allies continue to ignore the consequences of China’s rise. Along with this weakness of will on the world stage comes wavering faith in liberal principles at home. The West compromised its values ​​as it navigated its way through the pandemic. The likes of Brexit and Trump have even convinced some Western elites that free societies need to soften their commitment to democracy the better to shield them from the whims of the “crowd”.

The irony is that with the world embroiled in a battle of civilizations between free and unfree societies, the superiority of freedom over tyranny has never been more evident. Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine is a classic example of how top-down authoritarian systems can crumble in the face of resistance. The Ukrainians have proven to be nimble, quickly adapting to challenges and effectively deploying game-changing technologies like drones. The Russian military, on the other hand, has been slow to grasp what is perhaps the greatest lesson to emerge from this war: that large, indistinguishable equipment like tanks and helicopters no longer offer the advantages they once had. On the contrary, Vladimir Putin has doubled central control. The catastrophic number of high-ranking Russian casualties testifies to the demand that its generals place themselves ever closer to the front line.

Indeed, Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine shows how vulnerable authoritarian systems are to the epic mistakes of their elites. Putin, surrounded by sycophants, grossly underestimated Ukrainian resolve and overestimated the capabilities of the Russian military. We also see how autocracies – which base their legitimacy on the illusion of flawless judgment – ​​have dangerously little leeway to correct big mistakes. Having plunged Russia into a conflict it cannot win, Putin cannot back down or even secure limited gains through a peace settlement, as that would undermine his decision to launch the war with such maximalist goals. in the first place.

The Kremlin’s inability to show weakness has weakened Russia not just in the heat of the moment, but steadily over time. The Russian military failed to undertake radical reform after the end of the Cold War. He also failed to address his corruption issues. As a result, fuel diversions and equipment shortages compromised its combat performance. Feasible technological innovations that could have tipped the scales in Russia’s favor simply did not see the light of day.

But what about China? Beijing appears to have overcome many of the shortcomings inherent in authoritarian regimes. Unlike Russia, it has proven to be more than capable of humble self-reflection. Aware of its military inferiority, it sought to bridge the gap between conventional forces and the United States and neutralize Washington’s strongest assets, for example by countering air and naval prowess with hypersonics.

The Chinese Communist Party has also shown itself capable of sweeping leadership changes. In the wake of the collapse of the USSR, it played blind by opening up China to free market forces. He thus lifted millions of people out of poverty while pushing back against movements for political freedom. Today, he ruthlessly seeks to reinvent China in the face of adversity once again. Terrified of falling into the middle-income trap and unable to build a home consumer market, he puts technological innovation at the heart of his economic growth plans – plans that put the half-baked technology strategies of the West.

And yet Beijing is beginning to show the same fundamental weaknesses as Russia. The CCP’s calamitous Zero Covid policy betrays its vulnerability to monumental errors of judgment. As the rest of the world returns to normal, Shanghai has become a fortress of containment, fomenting unrest and causing economic chaos.

Moreover, despite the fact that the policy is clearly a disaster, the CCP cannot change course for fear of losing face. The party has not escaped the need of all autocracies to project strength in the face of weakness. The pursuit of Zero Covid allowed the CCP to simulate unlimited state power, even over an invisible virus, while distracting from its struggles to create effective vaccines. Of course, this political theater has actually weakened China, trapping it in a devastating cycle that forces it to shut down every time the number of Covid cases rises.

Beijing and Moscow display another fundamental weakness of authoritarian states: the elites who preside over them will always put their own power before the interests of the people they rule. This becomes evident with regard to the invasion of Ukraine. It is certainly in Russia’s interest to cut its losses. Only by ending the war and Western sanctions can Moscow hope to reshuffle its military and revise its long-term strategic game. Putin and his cronies will not prioritize their country, however, as this would threaten their position internally. As things stand, his country now faces a grueling and drawn-out defeat on the battlefield, and perhaps even the loss of its great power status.

Likewise, the CCP is beginning to subtly alter its great bargain with its people. Since the 1990s, Chinese citizens have accepted totalitarianism on condition that it brings them jobs and prosperity. But increasingly, the country’s leaders are trying to consolidate their power by controlling citizens rather than ensuring growth. Legal experts warn that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns allow officials to lock up entrepreneurs they deem have become too independent of the state. The CCP also recently banned an entire sector of the economy, private lessons, fearing that the financial burden could prevent families from having more children. Time will tell if the Chinese people will eventually feel that their social contract with the state is in jeopardy and will revolt.

Of course, the Western model is not perfect. Our armies must be more open to change if we are to dominate modern warfare. Our policy is too short-term. Unlike the Thatcher and Reagan years, our leaders do not have a clear sense that freedom must be defended as both a strategic asset and a moral good. Yet it is clear from the misfortunes of China and Russia that free societies retain the advantage. This should give us confidence for the difficult times ahead.

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