Zheng Yongnian, Ukraine and the New World Order

Zheng Yongnian, “The War in Ukraine Blurs the Two Main Lines, But Many People Misunderstand China’s Role”[1]

 Introduction and Translation by David Ownby


Zheng Yongnian (b. 1962) is the Presidential Chair Professor and the Founding Director of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, where he relocated in 2020 after spending much of his career at the National University of Singapore.  He has been a prolific scholar and commentator in both English and Chinese (a partial CV is available here).  In the piece translated here, Zheng draws on his specialization in international relations to try to assess the effects of the Russian war in Ukraine on the future world order. 

Zheng’s text is closer to Chinese government and mainstream opinion on the Russian invasion that companion pieces I have translated on the same topic (see herehere, and here), and indeed the piece is singled out in a recent New York Times article (“China Sees at Least One Winner Emerging From Ukraine War: China,” March 14, 2022) as an example of China’s geopolitical ambitions in the context of the war.  Zheng’s argument is indeed fairly predictable, as he praises Putin as a clever strongman, castigates NATO for its eastward expansion, and ridicules Ukraine for its incompetent politicians and its utopian dreams of joining Europe.  He also argues that the Russian resurgence means that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” has been proven wrong yet again, that the conflict between Russia and the West will diminish the effectiveness of efforts to contain China, and that, overall, “the scales of geopolitics are once again tilted in China’s favor.”

At the same time, Zheng appears to hedge his bets.  Despite his seeming optimism, he warns China twice against committing “catastrophic strategic errors,” and his final paragraph is a strangely apt example of the mixture of bluster, extreme caution, and idealism that often characterizes Chinese thinking about international relaitons and the future world:

“For China, the war in Ukraine has further complicated the current situation, described as a ‘once-in-a-century change.’ The international situation changes constantly in bewildering ways, and we need all the more to calmly analyze the new changes and trends in the interaction of major powers and to be more rational and completely dispassionate, because any emotional reaction can produce a catastrophic strategic error. But one thing is very clear: the reason why a great power is a great power, or why it is seen as a great power, does not lie in its ability to challenge the old order, and even less in its ability to conduct war, but in its responsibility and capacity to advance and maintain international peace.”


Will the War in Ukraine Lead to the Reconstruction of the World Order?

The Collapse of the Old International Order

From any perspective, the post-war international order, organized around the United Nations, is on the verge of collapse.  The old order is rapidly disintegrating and strongman politics is becoming popular once again among the world’s major powers, with all countries ambitiously eyeing every opportunity, hoping to build a regional or even international system on the ruins of the old order, with themselves at the center.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is one of these strongmen. When a weak international order encounters the great power politics of strongmen, the result is reorganization and collision of strategic forces. Of course, the collapse of the old order does not mean the establishment of a new one. Empirically, behind the collapse or re-establishment of any international order is blood and fire, violence and war.

Russia has been trying to woo Belarus and eastern Ukraine in every way possible for many years. This time, to achieve a feeling of security, Putin has hit back hard and expanded his sights to the whole of Ukraine, which may well led to the birth of a «mini-Soviet Union» in the future. This is, of course, necessarily related to NATO’s eastward expansion, which has strategically pushed Russia into a corner.

The United States and the West have attributed this to Putin’s personal insecurity, but this is misunderstanding and even a demonization of Putin and the Russian people. NATO has made the entire Russian people extremely insecure.  The veteran American diplomat George Kennan foresaw this war long before NATO began its eastward expansion.

On May 2, 1998, when the U.S. Senate officially approved the plan for NATO expansion, New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman interviewed Kennan by telephone. Kennan, the architect of America’s successful policy of containment, focused on the Soviet Union, began his career at the State Department in 1926, became U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1952, and is considered America’s greatest expert on Russia. The 94-year-old Kennan, when asked what he thought of NATO expansion, replied as follows:

»I think it is the beginning of a new cold war.  I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves.”[2]

“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.” 

Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

»And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. »It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.»

The situation developing today is exactly what Kennan foresaw. If NATO expansion was the decision of ignorant and over-confident politicians, then it is understandable that American politicians today are «at a loss» against Putin. They are, so to speak, looking on helplessly as Russia invades Ukraine without being able to do anything about it.

However, the situation in Ukraine today is not solely the result of the interaction between the two powers, the U.S. (NATO) and Russia, and Ukraine itself is also playing a role, even a major role. Historically, whether in the era of empires or that of sovereign states, small countries have had to survive in the crevices between major powers, and therefore required politicians with outstanding political skills and diplomatic talents. But we see nothing like this in today’s Ukraine.

First, naive politicians fantasize about relying on the power of the United States and NATO for their own security. Since independence, Ukraine’s sense of insecurity is real, but Ukraine’s security must take into account both Russia and NATO. Instead of pursuing this course, Ukraine’s leaders have “opened the door to the enemy 引狼入室” in the hopes of achieving security. But the problem is that once the “enemy is in the house,» then Russia will not feel safe. Once Russia, the great power, feels insecure, Ukraine, the small power, will become a victim of its own behavior. Such behavior of great powers was common in imperial times. In recent times, the international system based on national sovereign states is theoretically designed to protect small states. However, this is only an ideal and does not occur in practice.

A second factor is the utopian imagination of the intellectuals. With the end of the Cold War, there occurred a wave of «nation-building» in various countries. The “imagined community” of the historian Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) was all the rage, and many intellectuals fantasized about employing secular values such as «democracy,» «freedom,» and «human rights» to build a «new people,» in the process often demonizing the original people to which they belonged. Ukrainian intellectuals were like this. They had the illusion that they would feel safe as long as they stood with the West, which shares their values. But reality is cruel, and this kind of moral courage is difficult to translate into reality.

A third factor is the disappearance of astute politicians. For small countries, diplomacy is a matter of life and death, not child’s play. But in the era of populism, more and more «political outsiders» have entered the political arena and assumed the highest power. These people often lack both the skills of domestic governance as well the diplomatic talent needed for the country to survive in the crevices. Aside from their hold on the people, they have nothing to offer.   As a result, they often lead their countries to disaster.

In any case, the crisis in Ukraine is merely one manifestation of the disintegration of the old international order. The back and forth pattern of NATO and Russia’s interactions reflects the logic of countries’ behavior in the anarchic state of the international community, and such actions in turn accelerate the collapse of the old international order and the formation of a new international order.

In retrospect, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 signaled both the collapse of the world order based on the bipolar pattern of the Cold War and the planting of the seeds of a new order. In early 1990, the Japanese-American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, published what he called the “theory of the end of history,” arguing that Western liberal democracy was the world’s best, and mankind’s final political system.  This theory circulated widely, on the one had because it fit the needs of mainstream Western ideology, and on the other, because of the rapid collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

After the Second World War, the United States and Britain led the way in establishing the «free world order.» The immediate background to the construction of this order were the two world wars, which had dealt devastating blows to Europe and even to Western civilization. The primary goal of the «free world order» was to ensure that the international conditions that led to these world wars not occur again. But what is crazy is that the problems and challenges facing this «free world order» began with the «total victory» of this order, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc had its own internal complexities, from a Western perspective it was understood as a complete victory for the Western liberal order. The perception had a tremendous impact on the internal and external behavior of the West, especially the United States, the first manifestation of which was the over-expansion of the American empire. The expansion of the empire was first of all geopolitical. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the U.S. and the West quickly occupied Soviet geopolitical space, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Russia’s insecurity naturally resulted from NATO’s over-expansion. 

Two Main Lines for the Birth of a New International Order

In other words, the disintegration of the old Cold War order was apparently a comprehensive victory for the West, but in fact, the gestation of a new international order began at that very moment. The new international order unfolded along two main lines of history.

The first was the extreme pressure on Russia’s strategic space caused by NATO’s eastward expansion, which resulted in Russia’s extreme insecurity. NATO is a product of the Cold War. Putin, now 68, was active as a KGB agent on the front lines of the Cold War, especially in East Germany. Putin lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2004, saying, «The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, and it was a tragedy for the Russian people.» NATO did not die out with the dissolution of its rival, the Warsaw Pact, after the end of the Cold War, but continued to expand.

For Putin, NATO’s eastward expansion runs counter to the promises Western leaders made to Russia at the time of East-West German reunification and is a historic betrayal of Russia. In academic and policy research circles, it is often assumed that this «gentlemen’s agreement,» as Putin calls it, is not in the official documents, and the controversy has become a historical case of «he said, she said» between Russia and the West. But even if it was in the official documents, it would not constitute any effective check on the behavior of the major powers, because the essence of the world order is what international relations scholars call «anarchy.»

NATO expanded for the first time in 1999, and in 2004 it welcomed into the alliance the three former Soviet Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). With the wave of «color revolutions» beginning in the new millennium, the situation became increasingly unfavorable for Russia. Both the «Rose Revolution» in Georgia (2003) and the «Orange Revolution» in Ukraine (2004) ended in regime change, and the pro-Western leaders who came to power spared no effort in requesting NATO and EU membership, intensifying the conflict with Russia. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the result of the conflict getting out of hand.

At the end of 2021, NATO reaffirmed its stated policy of 2008, which foresaw Ukraine’s eventual accession to NATO, which undoubtedly reignited Russian anger based on fear and a sense of being squeezed geographically. For Russia, Ukraine is much more important than Georgia, not only because of its large population and extensive territory, but also because of the Russian people’s feelings toward Ukraine. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the birthplace of the first Russian nation-state in history, and writers such as Gogol as well as political figures like Trotsky and Brezhnev, were born in Ukraine.

Russians consider themselves «of the same language and ethnicity» as Ukrainians, and Putin and others still compare the division of Russia and Ukraine to «a great shared disaster» and a «wound wrapped in a wound.»  As long as one understands Russian history and the extreme insecurity Russia faces today, one will not be at all surprised by Putin’s war in Ukraine, but only by Putin’s skillful and shrewd political calculations.

The second thread is the rise of China and U.S. efforts to slow that rise. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States the sole world hegemon, and the invasion of former Soviet territory in the name of NATO is only one of the U.S. fronts; the other, more important, U.S. front is that dealing with a rapidly rising China in Asia.

The George W. Bush administration established a neoconservative policy toward China immediately after taking office in 2001. The main goal of this neo-conservatism focused the creation of a «mini-NATO» in Asia to contain China. It was only after the September 11 attacks by Osama bin Laden that the United States temporarily abandoned this strategy and concentrated on the war on terror.

Obama was the first post-Cold War president to shift the U.S. strategic focus eastward to China, and his signature policy was his «pivot to Asia» strategy. The security objective of  the «pivot to Asia» was mainly to protect the security and stability of the Pacific region, but a series of U.S. actions have instead increased regional tensions. The economic pillar of the «pivot to Asia» was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a «(trade and investment) club that excluded China» and that ultimately failed due to middle-class opposition to the policy in the United States and the Trump administration’s withdrawal.

The Trump administration changed the basic tone of U.S. policy toward China, announcing that it was abandoning America’s long-term policy of engagement and replacing it with U.S.-China competition; the concept of «Indo-Pacific» has replaced «Asia-Pacific» in terms of strategy, and the first “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” was released, with the main policy pivot for Asian security being the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QUAD).

The Trump administration’s economic and science and technology policies toward China were highly aggressive, claiming that «China’s industrial and science and technology policies break the rules and undermine U.S. global interests.” Instead of excluding China through multilateral agreements, Trump started a direct trade war with China. In terms of competitive policies in the science and technology industry, U.S. policy toward China directly targeted companies and technologies, using a series of tools such as sanctions, financial decoupling, investment reviews, technology embargoes, and diplomatic boycotts to thwart Chinese technology companies and technological advances.

Much of the Biden administration’s national security team has carried over from the Obama administration. Kurt Campbell was a key architect of the «pivot to Asia» strategy and is now in charge of «China strategy» and «Indo-Pacific strategy» for the Biden administration. Biden’s and Obama’s China strategies are highly similar in their goals to promote «human rights» and «militarization of the Indo-Pacific,» with technology and the supply chains being the main focus of Biden’s China strategy. Although Biden and Trump’s views diverge widely on almost all issues (including Russia), the two administrations are very similar in their thinking about China, and Biden is now refining and faithfully following Trump’s China policy.

U.S. policy toward China today has moved beyond the economic sphere to focus on what it calls «the strategic diplomatic and geopolitical threat posed by China.” The Biden administration issued the «U.S. Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China» in May of 2020, formalizing the competitive relationship between the United States and China. A new version of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” has recently been put forward.

Operationally, the U.S. is building various so-called alliances, including the U.S.-UK-Australia Core Alliance, the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India «Quadrilateral Security Dialogue» and the «Five Eyes Alliance.” All of these have only one goal, which is to target China, especially to hinder China’s national reunification. The militarization of Asia is accelerating around the issues of the South China Sea and Taiwan. More and more strategists are worried that Asia is becoming a «powder keg» for a new world war.

But now, Putin has shocked Europe, the United States, and the world by launching a full-scale war in Ukraine. It is unlikely that the U.S. will engage in this war by sending troops to Ukraine, but the U.S. truly recognizes its strategic misjudgment and realizes that Putin and Russia are still not to be underestimated. This will significantly slow down the shift of U.S. strategic energies from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region.

Moving forward, Putin expects to have another 15-20 years to further build and perfect his «mini-Soviet Union.” For Americans, the assertion of the past few years that «China is the number one threat to the United States» may lose traction. This means that as long as we do not make any catastrophic strategic errors ourselves, not only will China’s modernization process not be interrupted by the United States, but China can also play a more important role in the construction of the new world order.

China and the Emerging New World Order 

The Scales of Geopolitics are once again Tilted in China’s Favor

The behavior of NATO under U.S. leadership shows that the U.S. is no longer able to maintain the original world order of one superpower, and that the new world order is developing towards a complex pluralism. Today’s world is dominated by not only Putin’s Russia, but also Modi’s India, Erdogan’s Turkey, France and Germany in the European Union, and so on.

In the gestation period of the New World Order, each superpower is putting together its own picture of the future world order, and their expectations are often in conflict, which means that they will be unable to reach strategic consensus on fundamental interests, or they may even lack the will to make strategic compromises. The new international order will be one of more decentralized wealth, power, and cultural authority, with no superpowers, only great powers and regional powers. Western liberal ideology will continue to exist, but will no longer dominate the international order.

For China, the war in Ukraine has further complicated the current situation, described as a “once-in-a-century change.” The international situation changes constantly in bewildering ways, and we need all the more to calmly analyze the new changes and trends in the interaction of major powers and to be more rational and completely dispassionate, because any emotional reaction can produce a catastrophic strategic error. But one thing is very clear: the reason why a great power is a great power, or why it is seen as a great power, does not lie in its ability to challenge the old order, and even less in its ability to conduct war, but in its responsibility and capacity to advance and maintain international peace.


[1]郑永年, “乌克兰战争动摇两条主线, 很多人却误解中国角色,” originally published in IPP评论  on February 25, 2022, and subsequently republished in 文化纵横/Beijing Cultural Review on the same day. 

[2]See https://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/02/opinion/foreign-affairs-now-a-word-from-x.html .

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