The world's superpowers are taking the Cold War out of the fridge

As tension between the West and Russia heats up, Europe is becoming more like Asia

Russian military trucks and buses are seen on the side of a road in Russia's southern Rostov region, which borders the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, on February 23, 2022. AFP
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“Boredom with peace and prosperity has had far graver consequences in the past,” warned Francis Fukuyama in the closing pages of his oft-cited The End of History. Written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama boldly argued that the grand historical battles over the best form of social organisation was now effectively settled.

For Fukuyama, the West’s model of democratic capitalism had emerged as the most desirable form of governance. Thus, he controversially argued that "history" proper, as a battlefield of ideals, had now effectively "ended" with the triumph of the West. What worried him, however, was the prospect of widespread sloth and complacency amid an unprecedented era of prosperity and peace in the West. As an Asian who came of age during the post-Cold War period, I grew up with an image of Europe that resembled Fukuyama’s Elysium, where martial spirits have been supplanted by pacifist materialism.

But during this year’s Munich Security Conference, organised in the shadow of an escalating conflict at the doorstep of Europe, I saw not only trouble in paradise, but also a revitalised and unified western alliance in the face of a Russian military buildup.

All of a sudden, Europe seemed a far more familiar place, a continent struggling with the same conflicts and uncertainties, which have ravaged much of the post-colonial world since the end of the Cold War. Even Fukuyama had recognised that his “End of History” wouldn’t bring about either stability or prosperity in much of the non-western world, where the forces of nationalism and demagoguery continue to haunt countless nations.

In opposite ends of Asia, insurgencies, proxy wars and interstate conflicts have become a staple element of everyday geopolitics. In fact, many regions, from the Caucasus to the North-East Asia, are home to frozen conflicts dating back to the Cold War period.

Such radically different places such as Taiwan and North Korea grapple similarly with the destructive legacy of the superpower conflicts of the past century. For decades, the survival of governments in these places has been a function of strategic patronage by either the West or the East.

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As an Asian who came of age during the post-Cold War period, I grew up with an image of a Europe where martial spirits have been supplanted by pacifist materialism

During the Munich Security Conference, however, it also became crystal clear that even Europe hasn’t moved on fully from the legacy of the Cold War. If anything, what lies at the heart of the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to undo the very geopolitical order that was built on the ashes of the Soviet Union.

As Mr Putin lamented during a national address in 2005: “First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” He repeated almost exactly the same point in a major address last year, where he described the end of the Cold War as “the collapse of historical Russia”.

In response, he has steadily rebuilt his country’s military capabilities and, accordingly, reasserted Moscow’s spheres of influence from Central Asia and the Caucasus all the way to Eastern Europe. In a much-publicised essay, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", Mr Putin effectively portrayed Ukraine as part of a greater Russia.

Having helplessly watched the relentless expansion of Nato from Poland (1999) to North Macedonia (2020), Mr Putin has drawn the red line around Ukraine.

This sense of resentment, this yearning for historic vindication, resonates with many in Asia. After all, the continent is home to a whole host of proud civilisations and former colonies that are determined to rediscover their place in the sun.

Three things stood out during the Munich Security Conference. First of all is the unremitting determination of Ukraine to preserve a right to self-determination, including its constitutionally mandated goal of joining Nato and, by extension, the West in the future.

In his defiant speech in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned the West against “appeasement” and vowed to “protect our country with or without the support of our [western] partners”. It was the kind of speech that would go down well in many smaller East Asian countries that perceive, rightly or wrongly, a growing challenge from their neighbouring superpower, China.

Second, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also took many by surprise, when, instead of firmly standing by allies in Moscow, he extended an olive branch to the West, calling for “dialogue” and “communication” based on goodwill and mutual understanding. Crucially, the Chinese diplomat emphasised the need for upholding territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nation-states, and that "Ukraine is no exception”.

This partially explains why a few days later, when Mr Putin approved the deployment of Russian troops to rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, China immediately reiterated the need for dialogue and diplomacy. In short, China has signalled its ambivalence, if not displeasure, with Russia’s evolving position in Europe.

Above all, however, what stood out for me is that Mr Putin has almost singlehandedly ended the “End of History” in Europe, jolting Nato out of its strategic complacency. The speed and vigour with which western powers closed ranks in the face of an assertive Russia was astonishing. During keynotes speeches in Munich, US Vice President Kamala Harris warned of “swift” and “severe” response, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Nato allies to ensure “Russia should ultimately fail and be seen to fail” in an event of full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The usually taciturn German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was also uncharacteristically assertive, calling on the West to “muster the capabilities” to head off a new war in Europe. Days later, he ordered the immediate suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project, a cornerstone of German-Russian energy co-operation.

For the first time in recent memory, the West is up in arms, taking neither its peace nor its prosperity for granted. What the world saw in Munich could be described as nothing short of a rebooting of history, a renewed clash over the grand ideals that have governed the geopolitical order in Europe and beyond. Far from exceptional, Europe is becoming like Asia, where prosperity has gone hand-in-hand with conflict and uncertainty.

Published: February 24, 2022, 2:00 PM
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