‘A free market for unfree people’ – POLITICO



Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed here are his own.

For three decades following the Cold War, we lived in a world in which — we were told — history had “ended.” The fusion of free markets and individual freedom was to follow as globalism, aided by the digital revolution, knitted the world economy into an ever more interdependent whole.

In such a world, ideology would no longer matter. Markets would overpower cultural idiosyncrasies. China and Russia would democratize. They would take their place in the international system built by the United States, becoming “responsible stakeholders” in a world of liberal democracy and free market capitalism.

Even when the Kremlin opted out ideologically just a decade after the Cold War, Moscow’s revisionist impulses were largely dismissed. The Russian Federation was seen as a declining power, a long way from the days when it once dreamed of becoming the new “Third Rome.”

But now the shock to our complacency has arrived, and it has come from communist China. During the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing sent yet again a clear message that it intends to mount an all-out challenge to American hegemony.

China’s ideological challenge against liberal democracy seems orders of magnitude more effective than anything Soviet propaganda of the Cold War era could hope to achieve. As the U.S. sinks ever-deeper into an economic and political crisis, Beijing has been aligning with revisionist Russia and offering economic inducements to countries in Europe and Asia to consider breaking ranks with Washington.

This nature of this ideological challenge merits special attention. China has the wherewithal to become the first high-tech totalitarian state in history. This would allow it not just to control its citizens, but also information flows within and across other countries, targeting Washington’s allies and the U.S. itself.

What Beijing is offering is a deceptively compelling vision of the world: “a free market for unfree people,” in which prosperity and individual freedom no longer need to be inextricably intertwined.

To the contrary, at a time of profound turmoil in the U.S., Beijing’s message is that China has found a way to create spectacular economic growth — a 900 percent increase in GDP in just one generation — in exchange for adherence to the rules set by the Chinese Communist Party.

In our new transnational digital world, the message goes, it is prosperity and order — not liberty — that should be prized above all else.

This message is backed by the billions of dollars Beijing accumulated when America misguidedly offshored its industrial base and provided China with unfettered access to its society. Even as China continued to restrict access to outsiders, the U.S. allowed Beijing’s operatives to venture freely where no other communist regime reached before: into our boardrooms, academia and R&D centers, our media and the policy community.

The challenge for Washington is that it has been unable to deliver a clear message of the sort that gave it a critical advantage over the Soviets — that liberty equals prosperity.

During the Cold War, the West didn’t just represent a set of liberal values; it was also precisely because of its freedoms that Westerners were able to prosper economically. In a nutshell, democracy meant a good life — and those living in the German Democratic Republic, communist Czechoslovakia or the Polish People’s Republic knew it.

China’s challenge arrives at a vulnerable time for the U.S. It comes after two decades of inconclusive wars in secondary theaters, and at a time when Washington’s runaway borrowing to cope with the pandemic, in combination with the economic pain and societal stresses at home, has thrown in doubt heretofore regnant assumptions about the world order and the power distribution across the globe.

The transmogrification of American companies into increasingly transnational entities unmoored from their home base also makes the task of countering Chinese ideological messaging much more difficult.

At the same time, the change in values that has taken place across the West, spurred by the surge of neo-Marxist theory in American educational institutions, provide an increasingly fertile ground for Beijing’s ideological messaging, especially among the young.

The ideological dimension of this unfolding great power competition will only grow in importance, because the U.S.’s elite class has been seized by self-doubt over the past decade about the core tenets of our democratic republican project, with the progressive degradation of the central tenet of citizenship displaced by race and gender group categories.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that Marxist collectivism — having been destroyed in Russia and the former Eastern bloc — would three decades later rear its head in America and Europe, thereby making the Beijing job of selling its ideology easier.

And yet, this is the reality we must deal with going forward: that history never ended, and that ideology will yet again frame great power competition for years to come. The question is: Are we up to the task? Can Americans still rally as a nation to defend what those who came before us sacrificed so much to protect?





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