Friday, August 15, 2008

Who’s a Bigger Threat: China or Russia?

Standing on the cusp between the 20th and 21st centuries, America and the West face two very different challenges: one with a brutal, thuggish face and the other all cute and cuddly but equally as dangerous.

First, the brutal, thuggish face.

Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has returned to its czarist roots in the nine years since Boris Yeltsin stepped down as the first democratically elected president of the nation. It was Yeltsin, one of the great figures of the last 50 years, who began, however falteringly, to democratize the Russian political institutions. When he resigned as president on Dec. 31, 1999, and Putin, his prime minister, took over, the wheels of progress slowly ground to a halt.

During eight years as president and a year as prime minister to his hand-picked successor, Putin, an apparatchik from the bowels of the old KGB, has emerged as the type of leader so common in Russian history: an absolute-power wielding czar. He’s bent on reassembling the old Soviet empire and running it as a totalitarian state whose sole guiding ideology is the raw exercise of power. Forget the mask of communism.

That’s what is behind the invasion of Georgia under the pretext of “protecting” fellow Slavs in South Ossetia and Azbhakia. The democratic government of Georgia had been seeking full membership in NATO and is a staunch ally of the United States and the West. Destabilizing a democratic ally of the West and a former province of the USSR was behind the 2004 poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko who, as a presidential candidate, had dared to criticize Putin and the thugs running the Kremlin.

The Russian bear has proved to the West that it was merely hibernating in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The threat Russia poses is not one grounded in ideology; it’s based solely on power politics and is infinitely more dangerous to the democratic West.

Now for the cute, cuddly but still dangerous face.

China has been on the world’s television screens for a week now, showcasing itself in the summer games of the 29th Olympiad. The highly choreographed opening ceremony had one overriding goal: present the face of modern China to the world it’s lusting to dominate.

The threat of the totalitarian Chinese state to the democratic West is much more insidious than that of the Kremlin. Whereas Moscow wields its power like a sledgehammer, Beijing does so more like a stiletto.

In three decades since the death of Mao Zedong, his successor Deng Xiaoping essentially killed the communist state and created an oligarchy based on one premise: amassing wealth. Lay the foundation for the country’s 1.3 billion people to get wealthy — “the pursuit of happiness” — and the masses will forget about such trivial things as “life” and “liberty.”

It’s this soulless pursuit of wealth that, in the long term, is the more insidious threat to the concept of Western democracy. Would-be dictators around the developing world see the Chinese model of economic growth as an alternative to Western democratic capitalism: Let the masses get rich, they surmise, and they won’t mind that they have no rights at all.

In both confrontations, America and the West seem to be paralyzed in how to respond, either to the murderous aggression of the Kremlin in Georgia or the smiling malevolence of the Forbidden City. Paralyzed by lack of conviction, by lack of courage, by lack of will power.

Confronting these two monumental challenges, while defeating Islamo-fascism and righting the U.S. economy, will make the next president’s job all the more difficult.