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Global Challenges

“Democracy and solidarity must be strengthened”

We are experiencing a moment of world history in which many certainties are being questioned and the ground under our feet feels shaky. But instead of wallowing in pessimism, we need to mobilize positive forces and face the problems head on, say legal scholar Matthias Mahlmann and political scientist Stefanie Walter.
Thomas Gull; English translation by Caitlin Stephens
Die Attrappe eines Luftverteidigungssystems wird aufgeblasen, bei Moskau, 2012.
The dummy of an air defense system is inflated, near Moscow, 2012.


In the 1990s, US political scientist Francis Fukuyama formulated his theory of the end of history. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he predicted the final victory for democracy and liberalism. Thirty years later, this seems like an impossibly far-off dream. Instead, we are experiencing a moment of world history in which apparent certainties are being called into question. On a global level, there is the war in Ukraine, which has brought an end to decades of peace in Europe, and the imperial ambitions of Russia and China challenging the hegemony of the USA. And on a national level, right-wing populist movements are shaking the democratic foundations of many countries.

Stefanie Walter, Matthias Mahlmann: are the geopolitical power relationships currently shifting, in particular between China and the USA?

Stefanie Walter: Every so often we see phases of transition in the major powers, and I think we’re currently entering into a new phase. But it’s not yet clear where it will lead. An important indicator for the geopolitical significance of a country is its economic power. That’s an area where things are changing a great deal. In the last 150 years, the USA and European countries were the economic leaders, but now China and India are becoming stronger players. China is actually returning to a position that it has held in the past: the country was the largest economic power in the world for centuries, but back then it was a lot less connected to the rest of the world than it is today. Economic clout also has an influence on countries’ military power, so the balance is also shifting here. Not surprisingly, emerging nations, with China at the forefront, are now demanding more space at the table internationally, for example in the IMF.

Matthias Mahlmann: Upon serious reflection, it very quickly becomes clear that history cannot end in the Hegelian sense, as Fukuyama postulated. History is always developing, and forces that are difficult to control play an important role in that development. Economic changes are part of it, but so are new ideologies. Under Xi Jinping, China seems to be realigning both its domestic and foreign policies. Examples are the global infrastructure projects with controversial offshoots, such as China’s part-ownership of Hamburg port, which has justifiably been the subject of geostrategic discussions due to Germany’s previous experience of dependence on raw materials from Russia. A boom in scientific research, which is expected to be a key factor in strengthening the economy, is also important for China. In Russia, there have been significant ideological changes. Putin’s Russia of 2022 is not Putin’s Russia of 2010. Many things have taken a turn for the worse – the new ideological nationalism is one of the reasons for the Ukraine war. Meanwhile, societal change in the USA could also have significant geostrategic consequences.

The demise of US hegemony has been predicted for some time now, and its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan seemed to confirm this thesis. Does the Ukraine war mean a return of the USA’s power as upholder of the international order?

Mahlmann: The US decided to withdraw from Afghanistan not because its power was waning, but rather because of its decision-makers’ sobering assessment of what had been achieved there over the course of 20 years. Whether it was a farsighted decision, given the consequences, is another question entirely. There’s a kind of battle of faith going on in US politics, including in foreign policy issues. Trump’s foreign policy was very different from that of the current Biden administration. He tore up alliances, had a strange relationship with Russia, and attempted to undermine the EU. It seems to me that the question we ought to be asking is: how is the USA evolving domestically, and how does that affect foreign policy? But frankly, I think the idea that the USA will disappear as an international political power is absurd.

Walter: I would say “America first” – the isolationist turn as it’s called in the US – already began under President Obama. Today, the USA is more isolationist, more skeptical of international military operations, and is also closing itself off to migration to a greater extent. The Ukraine war is something of an exception in this development. Obama was already holding back from getting involved in international conflicts such as Syria. And on that score, President Biden is not acting all that differently from President Trump. Much of what Trump instigated, Biden has continued – the best example being the trade war with China. But it’s true that the tone of the Biden administration is different from Trump’s much more confrontational style which caused a lot more upset. The tone set from above plays an important role in international politics. Nevertheless, the USA will remain the hegemon for the foreseeable future, which is why the position it takes is so important to the rest of the world.

Russia was considered a major power because of its army and nuclear weapons. But its GDP is not much larger than Spain’s. Has Russia caused its own downfall by invading Ukraine?

Mahlmann: Russia has suffered great losses on various levels, both military and economic. Geostrategically, the country is now isolated and has maneuvered itself into a position of high dependence on India and China. Russia will pay a high price for this for a long time to come. Not only that, but the myth of the invincible Russian armored corps rolling in and conquering a country with ease has now been busted. It’s difficult to estimate whether the war and Russian losses are delegitimizing Putin’s authority within Russia.

Walter: I agree on that point: the loss of the myth of invincibility will have long-lasting consequences. However, Russia still has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, which confers a status that many other countries lack. This leads to difficult questions: for example, what would happen to all those nuclear warheads if civil war were to break out? It’s no longer completely inconceivable that Putin could be toppled. But that wouldn’t automatically lead to peace in Ukraine and democracy in Russia. The pressure on Putin is currently coming more from the hardliners. Yes, the Russian people are suffering, but Putin has established a very repressive system. It’s very difficult for ordinary people to rise up and defend themselves.

For a long time China lived by a credo of peaceful competition with the West. But increasingly the country is pursuing a much more aggressive foreign policy. A similar situation to Russia and Ukraine is even possible in the region, namely if China attacks Taiwan. What would that mean for the future?

Mahlmann: China is waiting to see how the world order resettles and how the Ukraine war plays out. One thing’s for sure: there won’t be many winners. China is proceeding according to a planned approach, for example in accessing Western resources. The West has long been somewhat naive in relation to Chinese economic policy – which is after all also power politics.
Walter: The strategic implications of individual decisions become clear here: had the West looked away as Russia invaded Ukraine, China might have invaded Taiwan by now.

Has the West’s experience with Russia shocked it into being more critical of China?

Walter: Awareness of the geopolitical and strategic aspect of the West’s relationship with China has increased. For example, Western countries for years allowed China to become a front-runner in many technologies. At the last national congress, Xi Jinping declared that China wanted to be the world leader in technology. The USA has now put the dampener on these ambitions with extensive export controls for computer chips. It’s also important to think about who sets international standards. The West must be careful not to lose its leadership role. China, meanwhile, traditionally focuses on improving infrastructure. It has invested heavily in this area in recent years, for example with the Silk Road, as well as in Africa. As a result, many developing countries are heavily in debt to China. This causes high dependence and gives China access to important infrastructure in those countries. The G-7 states are now trying to implement a program to counteract these developments, so that they do not get left behind.

Why is China now adopting a more aggressive and imperialistic foreign policy even though it did well with peaceful economic competition?

Mahlmann: If imperialism held no sway, world history would be a less bloody spectacle. But evidently those in power continue to be drawn to such ideas. The war in Ukraine is certainly not just a military means of halting the feared expansion of NATO; it is also an ideological war based on the beguiling and intoxicating nationalistic-imperialistic vision of the restoration to glory of an imagined Great Russia. From the perspective of the ideologues, loss of lives and economic consequences are a price worth paying to fulfill this dream of greatness. It’s no use to tell them that it’s irrational. Such ideological motives are an important element of world history and have driven events many times in the past. The issue between China and Taiwan is more about power. China is convinced that Taiwan traditionally belongs to China and should now be returned to its sphere of influence.

Could the lesson for China from the Ukraine war be that the price may be too high?

Mahlmann: That is certainly one of the reasons the USA is giving Ukraine so much support. The US is thus showing the world: when we support a state, it is not so easy to defeat it. The technological advances the USA has made are impressive. But I would like to see such technologies used for peace.

Let’s move to domestic issues. In some countries, democracy is under pressure, especially from the political right. How resilient do you think the democratic systems are?

Walter: It’s true we’re seeing a trend toward more autocratic regimes. The situation in the USA particularly worries me. Democracy is based on the principle of politicians acknowledging the legitimacy of their rivals, even if they do not share their views or goals. This principle has been violated in the US, which I find concerning. It’s much more difficult to accept an election defeat, for example, if you no longer perceive your opponent as legitimate. It could be difficult to overcome the deep divisions that have formed.

Mahlmann: That’s very important. Democracy is based on a culture of respect. Participants respect each other as autonomous co-decisionmakers and as partners with whom they can solve problems together and sometimes even come up with better solutions than when working alone. The even more worrying aspect of current trends is the breakdown of certain standards of truth. When there is no longer a consensus on the standards by which facts can be measured, the situation is dangerous. This is exactly what’s happening in the USA. There are also comparable developments in Europe: Orbán is decoupled from reality but continues to hold the reins of power in Hungary; Poland and now it seems Italy are going in a similar direction.

Walter: The question is, where is the limit? In Hungary, Orbán has shown how a system can be redesigned so as to decouple politics from reality to a large extent, by shutting out the opposition and the media. Nevertheless, Liz Truss’s incompetent government in the UK was quickly ousted, and in the USA many election deniers lost in the midterms. That gives me a certain level of hope for a democratic corrective.

Mahlmann: We need to avoid having a purely tactical relationship to democracy, i.e. finding it a good thing only when the results suit us. And we also need to be aware of the value of democracy and realize that protecting it is more important than daily politics. It depends on each of us: there can be no democracy without people who support it. I worry about how many people are really passionate about defending democratic rights, and whether there are enough of us to counteract movements in the opposite direction.

To conclude: 30 years after the “end of history”, are there grounds for optimism?

Walter: The last few decades were a good time for Europe – we had peace and prosperity, things were improving all the time. Now, it looks set to get more difficult. There are many worrying developments. We are living in a time of geopolitical change. Climate change will put additional pressure on our established systems. But humankind has survived existential challenges before. So it’s better to try to find solutions than to succumb to pessimism and gloomy predictions about the end of the world.

Mahlmann: Certainly, terrible scenarios have become more believable than ever. That should motivate us to strengthen counter-measures even more. I’m convinced that many people would prefer to live in a world with democracy and solidarity. To do that, we need to try to achieve things together instead of playing power politics at the expense of others. The global climate movement is based on solidarity – including toward people who have not been born yet and who deserve the chance to live a humane and fulfilling life. There is great potential in this movement. But we also need those with political power to demonstrate that solidarity is the best way to secure the future.

This interview first appeared in UZH Magazin 4/22.

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