GFJ Commentary

June 22, 2018 

Eurasia’s Comeback as the Pivot of the World Order:

Its Meaning and Significance

By UYAMA Tomohiko

Historically, countries that exerted an influence over wide areas, in most cases, were situated in Asia or Europe. From ancient times until World War II, the center of gravity of the world order was always in Eurasia. The Cold War period was quite exceptional in world history, in that the United States, geographically distant from Eurasia, became the most powerful state of the world and competed with a Eurasian state, i.e., the Soviet Union, over influence in almost every corner of the world. This situation, combined with the advance of means of transportation and communication as well as development of long-range missiles, sometimes created an illusion that superpowers could exert influence, overcoming a barrier of geographical distance and historical conditions. This illusion was even more strengthened after the end of the Cold War and tempted the sole superpower, the United States, to behave unilaterally and recklessly. The ongoing erosion of the US-centric world order means that the pivot of the world order gradually returns to Eurasia. This implies many things, and here let me suggest three points.

First, the importance of geographical and historical conditions is becoming evident again. This is because the Eurasia is located where the various cultures and the regions with complex historical correlation meet. The two most great non-Western powers in Eurasia, namely China and Russia, are former great empires. China’s hegemonic status was overturned by Western powers and Japan in the late nineteenth century, while Russia’s status as a superpower was lost as a result of the Soviet Union’s practical defeat in the Cold War and its final demise in 1991. Both try to recover their spheres of influence, utilizing geographical proximity and connectivity, and relying on historical ties. The United States and its allies are often confronted with difficulties in rivaling Russia and China in regions where the latter two can skillfully make use of geographical connectivity and/or historical ties, most notably in Central Asia. History can also have negative effects on international relations: many Middle Eastern countries have distrust of Western powers based on their historical experiences, and the same can be said of some Central and East European countries’ relations with Russia, and some East and South Asian countries’ relations with China.

Second, while liberal democracy is now at risk in many parts of the world, it is in Eurasia that the confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarianism is most closely connected with international relations. The rulers of Russia and China fear “color revolutions.” Russia, in particular, have taken aggressive attitudes to neighboring countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, where people with democratic slogans and with Western support took power. Russian aggressions deserve blame, but the situation is complicated by the fact that many people in other countries, especially in Central Asia and the Middle East, share Russia’s antipathy against Western democracy promotion, perceiving it as an attempt at imposing alien values, hurting national pride, and undermining sovereignty. Even in Europe, some right-wing groups hail Putin as a defender of “traditional values” and opponent of undesirable globalization. In such way, Russia is not isolated. Inside Russia, China, and other countries, authoritarian leaders have “upgraded” their regimes, using a variety of political technology to maintain power without inciting serious popular discontent. They have improved governance to some degree and are indeed quite popular among the peoples of their countries. Authoritarian leaders of various countries learn experiences from each other and cooperate with each other. China, in particular, has become an attractive model for autocratic leaders of developing country, showing that economic development is possible without political democratization. China also proves that it is able to invest to or aid the developing countries actively, even outside the rules created by the democratic countries. All these circumstances enable China and Russia to use authoritarianism of their inner politics as an asset for international politics.

Third, the intensification of great power competition gives smaller countries in Eurasia both risks and chances. In general, great power competition can undermine smaller countries’ sovereignty. By annexing Crimea, Russia set a dangerous precedent for a greater country to seize a territory of a smaller country. At the same time, great power competition can create more room for bargaining by smaller countries that try to draw benefits. For example, countries in Southeast and Central Asia can compare offers for economic aid and investment made by China, Japan, South Korea, European countries and others. In any case, international relations in Eurasia is getting further away from the ideal of equal partnership independent of difference in national power. Although China advocates “democratization of international relations,” it actually means China’s aspiration for an equal status with the United States, which does not mean to equalize China and other smaller countries’ status. Equal relations between greater and smaller countries are difficult to be guaranteed without fundamentally reforming the United Nations or establishing a new global mechanism.

Needless to say, no one can predict how long the current drift of world politics toward authoritarianism and great power competition will continue. It may prove short-lived and change direction, or it may continue for a long time. In any case, the world order is changing rapidly. In Japan, we tend to think that it is important to preserve the “existing world order,” that is, the US-centric world order. But what sense does the preservation of this order make, if the United States itself becomes an unpredictable and aggressive country? Meanwhile, some suggest containing China. As the history of hegemony teaches us, attempts at forceful containment of rising powers often lead to tragic wars. Rather than stirring up great power competition, it is more important to lessen aggressiveness of great powers and keep their peaceful coexistence. In order to prove that liberal democratic countries have to remain leaders of the world, they have to demonstrate that they are more able than authoritarian countries to assist developing countries and construct a democratic international order. The power of example is important.

(This is the English translation of an article written by UYAMA Tomohiko, Professor, Hokkaido University / Academic Member, Global Forum of Japan, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Giron-Hyakushutsu (Hundred Views in Full Perspective)” of GFJ on April 18, 2018.)