How should liberal democracies deal with China and Russia?

By Michael Ignatieff
July 12, 2012

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we face a new challenge: how to conserve liberal freedoms once our citizens feel safe enough to take them for granted. Totalitarianism of the left and right, which defined liberalism throughout the 20th century, is no longer there to remind us how precious freedom is. It is up to us all to remember who we are, why liberty matters, why it is a discipline worth keeping to, even when our own sinews tell us to relax.

Today, liberal democracy’s decisive encounter is with post-communist oligarchies – Russia and China – that have no ideology other than enrichment and are recalcitrant to the global order. Predatory on their own societies, Russia and China depend for their stability, not on institutions, since there are none that are independent of the ruling elite, but on growth itself, on the capacity of the economic machine to distribute enough riches to enough people. They are regimes whose legitimacy is akin to that of a bicyclist on a bicycle. As long as they keep pedaling, they keep moving; if they stop, they fall off.

Both Russia and China are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible.

The liberal democratic creed is that freedom is indivisible. What this means is the interdependence of political and economic liberty, the interdependence of majority rule and minority rights, the interconnection between rule of law and democratic sovereignty.

Yet our fascination with the economic rise of China, fueled by cheap labor supply chains in global manufacturing and the steady growth of a domestic consumer market measured in the hundreds of millions, often leads us to forget that the new Russia poses an equal strategic challenge to this belief – and thus to the very shape of the 21st century.

The Putin regime is something unprecedented in the annals of political science: a tyranny that ratifies itself with rigged elections; a market society in which everything is for sale, but no one’s property is safe; a petro-state that leaves millions so poor they remember Soviet times with nostalgia; a state ruled by a former secret police agent whose only contact with a liberal Western state was as a spy and whose understanding of power was learned in the interrogation rooms of a police state.

Putin does not express explicit designs on territory or freedom; he offers no ideology for export, no radiant tomorrow, no goal other than power for himself; but all the same, he is not happy and because he is not happy, we are not secure. He knows that millions of his citizens no longer thank him for the security his regime has provided. They have tasted some freedom, and they both resent his authoritarianism and worry that their own economic freedoms are insecure under his rule.

Russia’s wealth is precarious. Its natural-resource income leaves the regime dependent upon the ups and downs of the commodity price cycle. Under Putin, it has become a petro-state vulnerable to Dutch disease, corruption and increasing inequality; its political order is entirely without checks and balances, without the rule of law, and without even an orderly democratic mechanism for leadership transition.

In both Russia and China, rising real incomes have replaced ideology as the key to post-communist legitimacy. Yet wealth is an unstable source of legitimacy. Since both regimes are predatory, wealth is highly concentrated in those with access to power. The strategic question is whether Russia and China are stable. Ostentatious wealth, built on corruption, power concentrated in few hands and unconstrained by institutions, is not a recipe for stability at home or peaceful relations abroad.

Both China and Russia are societies in which power is stacked: political power confers economic, social and cultural power. They remain single-party states, emptied of the ideology of communism, yet imbued with the same Leninist attitude to power. Leninism dies hard, but sheer ruthlessness is a brittle basis for legitimacy.

If liberal democracy is premised on the idea that freedom to own and acquire presupposes and requires the freedom to act, to believe and to know, the liberal ideal also presupposes that the truth is one, can be known and can be shared. Legitimate regimes are regimes that face facts. Regimes become illegitimate when they deny important facts staring them in the face.

Russia and China have quietly put communism aside as a public belief system, but they have never faced up to Communist legacies of terror, starvation and persecution. In both societies, there remains a lurking nostalgia for terror. Mao continues to glower down over Tiananmen Square. Uncle Joe’s picture is still carried in parades in Moscow.

So a critical question for liberal society becomes how do we define ourselves in relation to these new forms of domination – Russian and Chinese – how do we understand them and live in peace beside them?

We should be asking this question, but instead we leave the answer to commerce and capitalism, trusting that as we create contracts and economic relationships, the fundamental question of how liberal societies should relate to non-liberal ones will resolve itself.  The invisible hand will do its work, and if power passes to Moscow and Beijing, so be it.

Cold War liberals, like the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, thought differently. They thought that the question of how liberal societies should relate to non-liberal powers could not be left to fate and the global division of labor, but was a political, strategic, and moral issue to be decided by democratic peoples.

Isaiah Berlin did not live to see these new tyrannies arise in Russia and China, and he would have trouble recognizing the world we now inhabit – post 9/11, post-meltdown, post-liberal in so many ways – but he did know a lot about living beside barbarians. His Cold War liberalism has much to teach us still.

The first lesson, as the 19th century Russian writer Alexander Herzen said and Berlin liked to repeat, is that history has no libretto. We should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society, anymore than it made sense to predict in 1950, say, that both Chinese and Russian totalitarianism were doomed to crumble. Since no one predicted the direction these societies have taken, no one can be sure that either will evolve toward anything remotely like a liberal democratic order.

To say that history has no libretto is not a counsel of pessimism. Berlin’s historical humility was always paired with a strong belief in the efficacy of freedom. Leadership, he knew, could bend the arc of history, if not always toward justice, at least away from tyranny.

If this is true, then in our dealings with the Chinese and Russians, it matters to give help to those who campaign for the rule of law, not the rule of men, who want poor villagers to be fairly compensated for expropriations of their land, who want ordinary people to have the right to read anything they want on the Internet, who want free and fair elections and an end to the rule of billionaire oligarchs.

History is not necessarily on the side of these liberal values, but fighting for them remains a moral duty. We do this because history is on nobody’s side, and freedom needs all the help it can get.

If this seems a defiant stance toward the new tyrannies in China and Russia, and it is, then we need to learn from Berlin how to balance resolution toward tyranny with openness toward what these societies can teach us. This balance between firmness and openness is the equilibrium the liberal temperament is always seeking and a liberal foreign policy should always aim for.

While liberal tolerance can look a lot like appeasement, Berlin shows us how it is possible to combine tolerance with firmness. The true pairing of tolerance should be with curiosity, with an appetite to learn from beliefs we cannot share.

The larger point is that Berlin thought it was dangerous to organize one’s mind into fixed and immovable categories of “us” and “them”, still worse to believe that without a “them” there can be no “us”.

Liberals refuse to treat opponents as enemies. They see their antagonists differently, as persons who must sometimes be opposed, and with force if necessary, but also as persons who might be persuaded to change their minds, and who, in any case, must be lived with, if they cannot be changed.

In the domestic politics of liberal societies, we need to maintain this distinction between opponent and enemy. Democracy cannot function without opposition, and the opposition must be given the presumption of loyalty.

Likewise, on the international stage, observing the distinction between enemies and opponents is vital in any situation short of actual war. In war, we have enemies. Short of war, they are opponents, and we are in the domain of politics, that is to say, in the domain of negotiation, bargaining, compromise, and where compromise is impossible, “agreeing to disagree”.

What Berlin’s Cold War liberalism has to teach us is that in international relations with opponents we should practice politics, not war, politics, not religion.

Nothing is gained by pretending that Russia and China are not the chief strategic threat to the moral and political commitments of liberal democracies. We should understand this threat for what it is. We are faced with political opponents, and if our belief in freedom is grounded in the facts, we will win.

This is adapted from the Isaiah Berlin Riga Memorial Lecture, delivered by the author last month.

PHOTO: China’s President Hu Jintao (R) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) attend a signing ceremony at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 7, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Ralston/Pool


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Well Justinian, you certainly have bought into Western propaganda, hook, line and sinker!

We Americans must have special powers of discerning right from wrong? Funny how people in other countries see things differently than us? How is that possible? Must be the water they drink. Couldn’t be their genes: that would be racist blasphemy. For example, counter to usual Western propaganda, I know intelligent, educated Russians who think that the elections in Russia are essentially fair, that is, not rigged.

Isn’t it possible that our system could be improved? Doesn’t that require critique and questioning of the present system?

Regards Syria: What can you say about the West/US which puts its interests over that of the Syrian people, but demanding that Iran be kept out of the regional discussions? Annan is demanding inclusion of Iran, as an important possible contributor to stability in Syria. Please note also, that flat out civil war, with the West and its synchophants (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) arming insurgents, can lead to many more deaths than in the present terrible situation. Do you want to save Syrians by killing hundreds of thousands of them as in Iraq?

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Maybe we can treat them like the bankrupt hobo-beggars we are who need to borrow lots of money to purchase lots of whatever is necessary to buy enough votes to keep the Chicago mob in charge of what’s left of the U.S.A. How’s that? Do I win?

Posted by wuwei_meteor | Report as abusive

China is far worse than Russia in terms of lacking in democracy. There is hardly a country in the world that fights against democracy more than China. Overall, an excellent article and I wish more people really understood what is really going on.

Posted by marisa70394 | Report as abusive

They can start by acting like liberal democracies themselves.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Never underestimate the trifecta known as arrogance, ignorance and hubris which plagues western “liberal democracies.”

Decades of do as I say, not as I do. Didn’t you know, the West can and never does any wrong. Between the wars, the torture, human rights depending on which way the wind is blowing, the hypocrisy, the double standards, the decades of self-interested meddling, the horrendous, corrupt, greed driven state of American banking and finance exported and which has propelled the world to near economic collapse…Yet the arrogance, the hubris and willful ignorance carries on about how bad ‘THEY’ are.

In America, the Supreme Court essentially has stated that corporations are people and money is speech. So how many of these great citizens known as corporations use Chinese labor and manufacturing and for how long now?

Sorry, no moral authority here.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive


As I remember history (you really should be more aware of it), Russia had a pact with Nazi Germany all the way until Hitler surprised Stalin by attacking Russia. Once Germany, Japan and Italy’s ambitions were crushed, “Uncle Joe” made his own bid to rule the world, only done in by second rate minds, the inefficient Soviet economy, and the absolute knowledge that the West would finish anything they dared start.

Russian duplicity is ever present under Putin, and only a fool would not count their fingers after shaking hands with him.

China plays nice when it feel such to be in their interests, but they are currently the destabilizing influence in the South China Sea area. The combination of Chinese belligerency towards Hong Kong and Taiwan together with the timidity of the western powers is why each has moved closer into China’s influence. You don’t think those actions are driven by “human fear”?

Since WW II the west watches these two much the same way that suburban dwellers watch stray dogs when they trespass. So far “watchful waiting” has been a policy largely responsible for the relative peace we enjoy today

If you, TheUSofA and xCanada2 had gotten timely rabies shots, maybe you wouldn’t have all these anger issues.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Both Russia and China are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible… Eh… Not that novel… The US and Israel are trampling the human rights of people in the Middle East for decades with impunity. US Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich slaughtered 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha including 10 women or children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom… The creature did not even suffer a pay cut.

Posted by RasTinny | Report as abusive

I agree with Qeds. I think the reason for fear driven policy is to divert the populace’s attention for the government’s own imcompetency.

From 50s to 70s roughly about 25 years, our government kept on telling us the American imperialism deployed troops at our doorsteps and was about to invade us. The whole nation prepared for this coming war. At that time the economy was the worst in our history even famine occured. But the spirit of the whole nation was high and patriotism was eminent.

Some of us know by now since the open up policy that imperialists are not that stupid to invade the poorest nation resulting in gaining nothing after spending high military cost. The British invaded China in 1850s after she had enjoyed social stability of over 100 years thus her government and people accumulated substantial wealths. Therfore the Qing government had the money to pay for the British costs of war and the people had ample cash to buy British imported goods after the Opium War. By the way I always tell my friends the USA is not that sort of imperialist compare with Britain. Because the USA deploys her military everywhere on earth and never stop waging wars without taking into accounts of profit and loss analysis as any business decision making carried out by the British long time ago.

If we look at the behavior and speeches of American politicians, it is very obvious that they are the disciples of Mao Tsedong in exercising fear driven policies for diverting people’s attention of chaotic economy at home.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive


OK, precisely WHO is YOUR “government”? Then we’ll have the frame of reference to judge the opinions you express.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


I am a common Chinese who is not interest in any political doctrines at all, be it liberal democracy, capitalism, socialism, communism etc. I just like to analyse people’s behavior, interactions, mentality etc basing upon my habitual way of work at management level inside companies in China including Hong Kong. I may have bigoty or prejudgment according to my experiences gained from business administration instead of relatively far larger scale in governance for a nation. Rational and impartial comments on my opinions are always welcome.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive


While I disagree with some of your conclusions, had I traveled the path you have I might well see the world as you do today.

May your analysis of people lead to not only your own further enlightenment but that of all who work with you.

The best solution for any challenge is that each party benefit appropriately and ethically. It is better to engage than overwhelm and to set a good example than a bad one.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


Thank you sincerely.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

Russia and China depend for their stability, not on institutions, since there are none that are independent of the ruling elite, but on growth itself, on the capacity of the economic machine to distribute enough riches to enough people. They are regimes whose legitimacy is akin to that of a bicyclist on a bicycle. As long as they keep pedaling, they keep moving; if they stop, they fall off.

Posted by Domsayshi | Report as abusive

And the people of Greece are so content, as those in Spain are, now that they are bancrupt. No threats to those governments at all. They would rather drink from an empty cup that has the label democracy on the outside, than take a sip of sustainment from something a bit harsher.
There have been no riots, I just imagined them. There have been no turmoil, those were just rumors.
The fact is that all societies require capital to thrive.
The fact is that it was economic collapse and financial burden that brought the leaders to power in the 30′s, freely elected at that. The fact is that people like to eat first, and party second. But not being able to do the second, they still need to do the first. Europe had better straighten out its own house and fast, or people will kick the party girl off their laps and return home to the woman cooking potatoes.

Posted by Domsayshi | Report as abusive

Flashrooster has it entirely correct.

Americans are so brainwashed with the belief that they, and only they, are ‘right’ on any matter, that they ignore the possibility of doing things any different to *their* way.

But the American Way is economically unviable – America has spiralling debts it is incapable of paying. Printing more dollars is the only thing that keeps the American economy afloat. But suppose America’s third-world-nation suppliers suddenly say that don’t want this worthless green money any longer?

That was what Saddam Hussein said. It had nothing to do with ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction” – which were a hopeless lie cooked up by George Bush and Tony Blair, and have never, ever, been found. What prompted the war was the Saddam priced his oil-barrels in Euros instead of Dollars. It hinted that the dollar was toy money – and no-one is allowed to say that. So when trade ceases, war begins.

It’s capitalism at the barrel of a gun, and those who will not accept the green dollar must instead accept the bombardment of their cities by Uncle Sam.

Welcome to the New World Order. The old politics is dead. There is no “left” or “right” any longer. Shillary Clinton is far more vicious than even Condi Rice was. The new politics is a military alliance of the rich nations – America, Britain, France, Germany, and some wannabes and hangers-on – against everyone else.

The BRIC Alliance – Brazil, Russia, India, China – didn’t arise out of opposition to America. It arose because they were countries who found themselves locked out of the New World Order… and decided to fight their corner, instead of laying on their backs and waiting to have their teeth kicked in by Uncle Sam.

Very, very few people here in Russia (where I have lived and worked the last 12 years, in preference to living in my warmongering puppet country of Great Britain) particularly “like” Vladimir Putin. And most of the intellectual community despise him entirely. But people have still voted for him, because he represents a force that will stand up sabre-rattling from Shillary Clinton, who wants to place ICBMs in Poland pointed at Russia… and, get this bit… she claims they are there to prevent attack by Iran. (HINT – try looking at a map of the world here? What route are the Iranian missiles going to take? The scenic route?).

It was American bombs, American threats, American shouts of “Old Europe” and “Freedom Fries” that backed your former allies into a corner.

“They hate us for our freedoms”?? Bwaaahahaha, you should be on the Disney Channel with that crapola. THEY HATE YOU BECAUSE YOU BOMBED THE CRAP OUT OF THEM.

Being allies and partners is a two-way process. “Love us or we turn your country to a potato-crisp” is a peculiarly unpersuasive argument.

Try making nice – like you used to?

Posted by Neil_McGowan | Report as abusive

How should liberal democracies deal with China and Russia?

Very good question and the article is on points. However, I would add that liberal democracies need not worried about these kleplutocratic societies. They will self destruct and implode. History is littered with them.

Posted by ChinaSucksTV | Report as abusive