The 19th Century Never Ended
Old school international rivalries never disappeared—and never will.
After Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, a profound incredulity was discernible in the Democratic elite. Then Secretary of State John Kerry—as good a representative of this breed as any—said in disbelief: “It’s really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century.”
Kerry was referring to an age of bloody geopolitical rivalry that was supposed to be a distant memory in the enlightened 21st century. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the prevailing consensus in the West was that geoeconomics was replacing geopolitics. Competition and war, we were told, were not only grotesque, but effectively futile in our modern, globalized world. With the growing cultural appeal of “McWorld” and the interdependence of the international commons, it would be unlikely, if not impossible, for armed conflict to break out again on a mass scale.
But the “19th century,” as Kerry calls it, never ended and never will. It’s not just the prevalence of struggle and strife that endures. The 19th century was an age of political enlightenment that set the stage for a great clash between entrenched monarchies and upstart republics. The old story of power politics based on competing national interests was supplemented by a ferocious battle of ideas and beliefs that feels distinctly contemporary.
Across time and space, republican systems of government have generally been a historical anomaly. But in the recent past, there has been an astonishing and sobering reversal of this age-old pattern. The march of democracy has been a signature achievement of the liberal order that took root after World War Two. After that global conflagration, dictatorship lost its allure, and by the end of the 20th century more than half of all human beings lived under some form of representative government. This was not an accident. The democratic wave that spread over vast swaths of the planet was the result of various factors, but it could hardly have come about without the preponderant power and influence of the United States. We need not romanticize America’s role to give it its due: The superpower’s republican ideology was not always evident in its foreign policy, but neither was it ever long absent. Through a range of methods, from moral suasion to material support, America helped cultivate the growth of democracy from South Korea to Poland.
Today, that global order conspicuously conducive to liberal principles is under threat, and at least some Americans have taken note. During last year’s Summit for Democracy, President Biden declared that the return of ideological competition and conflict would be the defining fact of world politics for a generation to come. As if in confirmation of this emerging struggle, at another summit in Beijing in February, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping outlined a vision of vaulting authoritarian ambition.
During the Beijing summit, the world did not yet know that the Russian autocrat was planning a wild bid for conquest in Ukraine partly based on ethnic nationalism as well as anti-liberal imperialism. It only saw a pledge of friendship and cooperation between the leaders of the most powerful authoritarian nations on earth. The despots on opposite sides of Eurasia issued an expansive joint manifesto that laid bare their intentions to wreck the liberal world order.
China and Russia, the statement said, were irrevocably committed to forging a new world order. The order they sought would be founded on very different precepts and principles than the world we live in—“the world America made,” to borrow a phrase. Both regimes would cooperate with “no limits” to assume dominant positions in the world. They would build “international relations of a new type,” distinct from the prevailing liberal order. In this new multipolar environment, Beijing and Moscow would represent robust poles that would no longer be subordinate to Washington and its allies.
Not for the first time, the world was put on notice that the consolidation of ideological or military alliances—NATO enlargement, say—would no longer be met with meek acceptance by these great powers. Actors “representing but the minority on the international scale”—that is, the U.S. and its allies—might continue to “incite contradictions, differences and confrontation,” but, separately and together, Beijing and Moscow would resist them.
If this counterrevolutionary vision is realized, then the Chinese Communist Party and Putin’s Russia will have free rein not merely in their “internal affairs,” but across an expansive sphere of influence in their respective regions. Democracy itself would be redefined and subject to no universal standard. “It is only up to the people of the country,” the manifesto declared, “to decide whether their State is a democratic one.”
Even if Putin’s unwarranted war in Ukraine has become a humiliating fiasco for the Kremlin and looks likely to yield an uneasy armistice, it will not end the global competition for power that is underway between liberal democracy and revanchist autocracy. Putin’s embittered and dangerous regime will limp on into the future, possibly with sanctions relief in exchange for some peaceful arrangement in Ukraine, and his lifelong enmity against the West will be aggravated by a newfound lust for revenge.
Meanwhile, a crisis over Taiwan in the near future cannot be ruled out. The Chinese leadership has good reason to expect that such a power grab would play out very differently than Putin’s ill-fated mission in Ukraine. In such a scenario, the West won’t be able to apply crushing economic pressure against the Chinese elite in the same way that it has against Russian oligarchs. China is more independently powerful and more enmeshed in the global trading system.
The latest invasion of Ukraine has delivered more of a shock in the West than the initial invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea nearly a decade ago. Putin’s war of conquest should be the last instance of authoritarian aggression that prompts such surprised hand-wringing about “violated commitments” and “breaching international law.” The world is not a post-historical paradise where “right makes might,” and will not be anytime soon. But whether it becomes a jungle where “might makes right”—the order that Putin and Xi are struggling to create—will depend on the power of the free world, as well as its determination to use it with prudence and conviction.
Those are the world-historical stakes today in Ukraine, and most probably tomorrow in Taiwan. In these struggles, the free world may find inspiration—where else?—in the 19th century, when James Madison called the clash between liberty and despotism “the great struggle of the epoch.” It still is.
Victory in the new phase of this old struggle will require a blend of principles and power. This means vigorous support for vulnerable democratic allies and permanent military garrisons on the eastern edge of Europe and in East Asia. But it will also demand that we discard illusions about the end of conflict, to say nothing of the inevitable triumph of liberalism. To prevent a world of unrestrained chaos and mayhem, America must embrace the primacy of global leadership in a way it hasn’t since the demise of Soviet communism.
“Democracy needs champions,” President Biden declared at the summit on democracy. And in this solemn hour, it needs them to act with imagination and urgency.
Brian Stewart is a political writer based in New York.