The U.S. must hold the line against their imperial ambitions in Ukraine, Taiwan and elsewhere.
Intellectuals can’t stop denouncing the West for its legacy of imperialism. But the imperialism on the march today is in the East. Russia and China are determined to consume Ukraine and Taiwan, legacies of the Romanov and Qing dynasties respectively, into the latest versions of their historical empires. Technology has intensified this struggle for imperial geography. Great-power war has become entirely imaginable because of the reduced emphasis on thermonuclear bombs in an era of hypersonic missiles, automated weapons systems, and information warfare. Russia and China demonstrate that the struggle for empire has rarely had such nerve-racking stakes.
The notion that we can play Russia off against China—as the Nixon administration played China off against the Soviet Union—is a fantasy. President Biden’s reward for giving up opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany has been the advance of nearly 100,000 Russian troops to the Ukrainian border area. National security adviser Henry Kissinger’s secret 1971 visit to Beijing occurred in the context of dramatic military tensions on the Chinese-Soviet frontier. China was in desperate need of U.S. help. Russia today has no such need.
True, the Chinese are making large-scale economic advances in formerly Soviet Central Asia, as well as providing security assistance to the Muslim republics there. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has calculated that China, a fellow authoritarian regime, isn’t a threat to his rule in the way the West is. (Indeed, Mr. Putin easily moved antiriot police into Kazakhstan, a place that the Russian empire settled with peasants from Russia and Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th centuries.) He has little need to line up with the West to balance against China.
Rather the reverse: Mr. Putin needs China to balance against the West. Since it is the West, in his view, that has helped install a hostile regime in Ukraine, whose border is less than 300 miles from Moscow, and would like to install a similarly hostile and democratic regime in Belarus, also relatively close to the Russian capital. What we see as potential or fledgling democratic states, Mr. Putin sees as vital parts of the former Soviet Union, a great power whose sprawling territory was based on czarist imperial conquests. While Ukraine was the birthplace of Kyivan Rus, it was also forcibly absorbed inside the czarist empire in the late 18th century, only to declare independence in 1918, before the Soviet conquest.
Mr. Putin’s goal isn’t only to restore the former Soviet Union in some form or other, but to establish a zone of influence throughout Central and Eastern Europe that approximates the borders of the former Warsaw Pact. Rather than direct rule through brotherly Communist parties—which proved too expensive and helped bring down the Soviet Union—Mr. Putin’s model is a form of mass Finlandization, in which the countries from Berlin to the east and to the southeast will know exactly what red lines not to cross in terms of Moscow’s interests.
A Pharaonic network of gas pipelines, intelligence operations, organized crime, disinformation and constant self-generated crises are the tools of Russian 21st-century imperialism. The crises of the moment are Ukraine, Belarus and Bosnia. In Belarus Middle Eastern refugees have been weaponized against Poland by President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin lackey. In the western Balkans, Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatens to break up Bosnia-Herzegovina with backing from Russia and China. Russia’s aim in all of this is to insert itself into Europe as a power broker, the ultimate revenge against a region that in previous centuries generated many military invasions of the Russian heartland.
Imperialism throughout history has often originated from a deep well of insecurity. That is the case with Russia and China today. Just as Ukraine was for centuries part of the czarist and Soviet imperial heartland, Taiwan was a Chinese dynastic conquest until the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War forced China to cede Taiwan to Japan. In Beijing’s view, restoring control of Taiwan to mainland China would right not only a Western depredation against a historic Chinese empire, the Qing Dynasty, but a Japanese depredation as well. Unlike Western countries, which are busy apologizing for their former conquests, the Chinese as well as the Russians take pride in their imperial legacies. Adm. Zheng He, an early Ming Dynasty explorer who sailed a vast armed fleet as far as the Middle East and East Africa, is a Chinese national hero.
If China and Russia didn’t take pride in empire, they wouldn’t be attempting to rule Taiwan and Ukraine today. For China, the return of Macau, the brutal suppression of Hong Kong and economic dominance over Outer Mongolia make Taiwan the only missing piece of its Middle Kingdom’s imperial geography. As for Tibet and Xinjiang (home to the Muslim Uyghur Turks), they represent colonial legacies of former Qing rule.
The problem now isn’t imperialism per se but the melding of imperialism with Leninist methods of control, which continue to define Russian and Chinese rule. Thus, the U.S. has no choice but to be a status quo power—that is, it need not defeat or even seriously undermine these two revisionist empires, but it must firmly hold the line against their advance. Ukraine needs not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union, as long as it remains independent and democratic. Taiwan needs not declare independence, as long as it isn’t incorporated into China. These are unsatisfying positions, but they are moral in the sense that they represent both U.S. values and Americans’ wariness of armed overseas involvements.
Containment is a word nobody likes to say out loud. But it works. Remember especially that it was Richard Nixon’s Vietnam-era policy of détente and tactical maneuvering—rather than an attempt to seek all-out victory in the Cold War—that preceded Ronald Reagan’s successful Wilsonianism. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed of its own accord. We should keep that in mind, given that domestic tensions inside Russia and China, though more opaque than our own, aren’t to be underestimated and in fact help fuel their aggression.
Meanwhile, the American left should focus on where empire as an ideal truly endures, which isn’t in the West.
Mr. Kaplan holds a chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is author, most recently, of “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian.”