Stephen Kotkin, Princeton professor, historian, and author of two magnificent volumes on Stalin (with a third planned), appeared recently on the Hoover Institution program GoodFellows with British historian Niall Ferguson, former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, economist John Cochrane, and host Bill Whalen to discuss China, Russia, and the current world crisis. Kotkin conveyed insights on the nature of the Chinese and Russian regimes and the evolving war in Ukraine. It is well worth your time to watch, listen, and learn.
Kotkin began by bluntly stating the challenge we face in confronting China: “We’ve never had an economy this large run by a political system this opaque.” The Chinese regime is Leninist to its core, exercising a monopoly of political power in a country of more than 1 billion people. And it has been that way, Kotkin said, since Mao Zedong seized power in 1949. Western statesmen and businessmen, and some scholars, deluded themselves into believing that post-Mao China was evolving toward a pluralistic political society. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have studied Mikhail Gorbachev’s fall in the Soviet Union, he said. Don’t expect a Chinese Gorbachev to emerge in this opaque political system.
The CCP did not cause China’s economic growth but hijacked it to serve the ends of the party.
The CCP, Kotkin continued, is not motivated by economics. Its legitimacy does not depend on economic growth but, rather, on its control of the levers of power — a huge security apparatus that specializes in surveillance, control, and political repression. China’s remarkable economic growth since the 1980s, he explained, resulted from the hard work of the Chinese people in engaging in “market behavior” that the CCP tolerated but never really lost control over. So, the CCP created “special economic zones” where market economics thrived, but never outside of the watchful eyes of the party. This market activity encouraged the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other free-market countries to trade with and invest in China. Productivity boomed. The standards of living for tens of millions of Chinese citizens greatly improved. The CCP did not cause this economic growth but hijacked it to serve the ends of the party — and took credit for it. And then it used it to become a military superpower.
Kotkin acknowledged that, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a geopolitical component to the West’s embrace of China — exploiting the Sino-Soviet split to help undermine Soviet power. But after the Cold War ended, economics, or what Edward Luttwak called “geoeconomics,” replaced geopolitics as the motivation for the West’s continued engagement with China. The West, including the United States, took a geopolitical holiday and helped fuel China’s remarkable economic (and military) growth.
Kotkin applauded the Trump administration’s recognition that unrestricted engagement with China was folly. On the other hand, Kotkin said that the Biden administration plays geopolitics with a plus-30 handicap, with respect not only to China but also to Russia. Kotkin described Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime as a “praetorian guard” of 30,000–50,000 members who flourish even when the country suffers. It is similar to the old Soviet nomenklatura. Putin understands, according to Kotkin, that suppressing political alternatives is the key to staying in power, and he will likely be able to do that even if the war in Ukraine continues to go badly for Russia. Putin’s mistake in Ukraine was attempting to change the regime and install a pro-Russian regime on the cheap — similar to what the George W. Bush administration tried to do in Iraq. (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: Elbridge Colby Has It Right on Taiwan and Ukraine)
Putin (and U.S. President Joe Biden) underestimated the bravery and valor of the Ukrainian people, Kotkin said, and Ukrainian valor and Russian atrocities have thus far kept the West united in support of Ukraine. But, in the long run, Russian resources will likely enable Russia to hold on to some Ukrainian territory. Russia is inflicting terrible damage on Ukraine’s infrastructure (energy, transportation, and communication). Kotkin said that Ukraine’s definition of “victory” should not be our definition, and he suggested that the most realistic outcome of the war will be an armistice with compromises made on both sides.
Kotkin understands that in formulating policies to deal with the current world crises in Europe and the Far East, history is an indispensable guide. If only the Biden administration understood this, too, then America would be better prepared and equipped to successfully meet these geopolitical challenges.