The battles of political ideology have not ended.

After the Cold War, the West had assumed the contest of ideologies had been settled and that the last man had emerged. Political liberalism was victorious and non-democratic regimes were on “the wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton told the Chinese. The world seemed to agree as it experienced the third democratic wave. It was expected that alternatives to open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would not be welcomed but imposed.

Yet, in 2018, this is no longer true as both China and Russia offer alternative political models which are both gaining appeal around of the world.

What does Russia offer? Mostly a response to the social costs of liberalism. The cultural consequences of open markets and respecting civil liberties are not welcomed by all of society. The multiculturalism which results from respecting individual rights often challenges the traditional foundations of society. What Russia offers is a model to confronts these trends. Under Putin, Russia  is the defender of “the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life” against those that “revise their moral values and ethical norms.” To pursue these goals, Russia offers a semi-autocratic state with leadership not subject to the rule of law or a critical press. In place of a rule bound, consensus driven executive, Russia offers a democratically elected leader yet one not obligated to respect individual rights. Once in power, the majority can impose what it wants on the non-majority. Such a model is usually referred to as illiberal democracy and is arguably the most powerful political trend in the Western world at the moment, recently planting roots in Poland and Hungary.

What China offers is something similar in spirit but with different motives. While Russia promotes a democratically elected head of state tasked to combat the erosion of traditional values, China offers an authoritarian political model responsible for economic growth. The common narrative that emerged after 1989 was that economic development was only possible when state interference was minimal. Free trade, private property, and democratic participation were all thought to be essential ingredients for a healthy economy. China demonstrated that this isn’t entirely true and that an alternative path exists, consisting of state own industries, politically controlled capital, and deep participation in the global supply chain. The political component of this model is an autocratic state with strict one-party political rule. Human rights are not respected nor is public criticism tolerated, and democracy is out of the question.

And the China model has its fans. Before his death in 2012, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi routinely lauded the Chinese growth model and stated he sought to imitate it in Ethiopia. It is obvious why the ruling elites in Africa and Central America find such a model appealing. They get the economic growth but are also allowed to retain their positions of power. But there is a good amount of admiration for the China model among the governed as well. In 2017, Canadians viewed China more favorable than the United States by 5 percentage points. While it does not offer human rights or political participation, the China model is appealing because experiments with democracy and free markets have failed in other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, in 1980, the gdp per person in the worlds largest democracy (India) was 263 dollars. China’s was 194. In 2016, India has a gdp per person of 1,709 and China 8,123. You can see why there is no “India model.” Many view free markets as chaotic and the democratic process slow and inept. Such beliefs were confirmed by the financial crisis of 2007 and chronic political gridlock in America. Not only did China’s economy grow during the great recession, but they have maintained a relatively high degree of social and class cohesion in the process (albeit with a steep cost to human freedom).

What are China and Russia motivated by? They want deference from their neighbors and it is expected that states that share their politics will be more likely to do this. Some of the desire for deference is security driven and some by prestige, but either way, the West should allow it to occur. The principal reason why the Putin model is so popular is because of liberalism overextending itself. The more that Brussels and D.C. pushed their politics into Eastern Europe the more appealing the Putin model became. While not ideal from a human rights perspective, it would be better to find a compromise with the reactionary elements than stubbornly impose on them values they do not want. In regard to the China model, the United States should want to know if alternatives to the Washington Consensus are available. The traditional path to growth has not worked everywhere, as observed with Argentina in the 2000s. Unlike the Western model which is highly ideological, the China model is flexible and pragmatic, and could perhaps better suit the needs of a developing country than Western orthodoxy. Frankly, what the West should do is act more Western, and allow the market place of ideas to determine which model is more suitable for developing countries.

The Trump u-turn on China and Russia is welcomed policy: Why the United States should be wary of Russia, and not China.

During the presidential race, political commentators were equally dismayed and puzzled by the developing relationship between then candidate Trump and President Putin. All sorts of explanations were offered to explain the apparent goodwill, from naked business interests to an alleged sex tape. But whatever the reason, Trump complimented Putin on a regular basis, referring to Russia’s president as a “strong leader” and “smart,” and stated that he intended to have a good working relationship with Russia’s president.

China, however, would be the center of a Trump administration’s ire. Trump accused China of “raping” the United States and promised that on day one he would label China as a currency manipulator and erect steep trade barriers. During his confirmation hearing, his nomination for Secretary of State suggested denying Beijing access to their artificial islands in the South China Sea.

That was then but this is now. After 100 days of Trump, the expected rapprochement with Russia has cooled and Chinese-American relations have apparently warmed. President Trump has directed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russia’s ally Syria, accused Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes, has made no attempt of removing the sanctions imposed after Crimea, and has publicly stated he expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine.

Trump, however, has failed to label China as a currency manipulator, reneged on trade barriers, and restricted Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, apparently, is even President Trump’s friend.

This u-turn is highly welcomed news for the simple fact that Russia is the troublemaker, and China, not so much.

Russia is the bigger problem for American foreign policy primarily because Russia is seeking to undermine 50 plus years of European economic integration and political liberalism. As articulated in a 2013 Center for Strategic Communications policy paper titled “Putin: The New World Leader of Conservatism,” Putin’s strategy of gaining influence in Europe is by assuming the leadership role of a transnational movement that defends and renews traditional social values, both in side Russia in Europe. This means supporting positions that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, and Eurosceptic, among other anti-liberal policies. This essentially makes Russia a proselytizing power as Putin seeks to export these policies to Europe by hacking elections, funding far right parties, and spreading fake news. The French presidential election offers ample evidence of this strategy in motion.

Compare this to China which has no designs on the political makeup of foreign states, doesn’t seek to export any particular culture to its neighbors and, despite lifting 800 million people out of poverty, doesn’t pressure others to adopt its version of state sponsored capitalism. They do hack, but not to influence election outcomes, and the fake news it produces is mainly for Chinese consumption and not to influence foreign elections.

The Chinese and Russian objectives for their respected neighborhoods are in contrast to one another. Russia’s objective is to sow political and economic uncertainty throughout their neighborhood, as a Europe divided by nationalism and economic populism is a plus for Moscow. But where Russia is deliberately stirring up tensions throughout Europe, China’s number one regional goal is stability. From their policy towards North Korea to their relationship with the United States, China’s number one goal is to avoid destabilizing the region. This is because unlike Russia, China has experienced legitimate economic gains and political consolidation over the past 30 years and would prefer not to upset this trend.

When one also considers that Putin’s Russia has also invaded two countries, committed war crimes in Syria, has sold arms to the Taliban, and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is rather clear that Russia, and not China, should be considered the bigger problem for American. American priorities and rhetoric should reflect that.