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The View From Moscow And Beijing: What Peace In Ukraine And A Post-Conflict World Look Like To Xi And Putin

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Opening the doors to Russia and China’s perception. Getty Images

Just a few days after being branded a war criminal in an international arrest warrant, Russian President Vladimir Putin was talking peace with his most important ally, Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The setting for the get-together was the late-15th-century Faceted Chamber, the ornate throne room of Muscovite grand princes and czars. The main topics of discussion were fittingly grandiose: How should hostilities in Ukraine end? And after the war is over, how should the international security system be reshaped?

The reaction of many in the West to the proposals put forward by China and discussed with Russia has been notably suspicious of intentions. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the world not to be “fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China … to freeze the war on its own terms.”

Such sentiment is understandable. Putin launched a brutal, unprovoked war in Ukraine. Amid the heightened emotional environment of missile attacks on civilians, horrific atrocities against ordinary citizens and deportation of children from Ukraine, even a cool evaluation of ways to end the fighting, declare a cease-fire, and begin talks by the belligerents has led to accusations of appeasement. And the peace plan put forward by China on Feb. 24, 2023, and discussed with Putin during a March 20-22 meeting in Moscow has been criticized as overly vague and lacking concrete suggestions.

In such circumstances, it can be difficult to consider what the interest of the other side might actually be in bringing the killing to an end, and their sincerity of any purported efforts to do so.

But as a historian, I ask, what does the world look like from the other side? How has the run-up to the war and the war itself been understood by Russia and China? And what do Xi and Putin envision a post-conflict world to look like?

Playing by the rules – but whose?

The rulers of both Russia and China see the West-dominated “rules-based international order” – a system that has dominated geopolitics since the end of the Second World War – as designed to uphold the global hegemony of the United States.

Two men are seen in the background flanked by giant China and Russian flags. Chandeliers hang overhead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin.
Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The two men’s stated preference is for a multilateral system, one which would most probably result in a number of regional hegemons. This would include, to be sure, China and Russia holding sway in their own neighborhoods.

Xi put the matter rather gently during his Moscow trip: “The international community has recognized that no country is superior to others, no model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order. The common interest of all humankind is in a world that is united and peaceful, rather than divided and volatile.”

Reflecting his more street tough style, Putin was more blunt. Russia and China “have consistently advocated the shaping of a more just multipolar world order based on international law rather than certain ‘rules’ serving the needs of the ‘golden billion,’” he said, referencing a theory that holds that the billion people in the richest countries of the world consume the greatest portion of the world’s resources.

Continuing in this vein, Putin said the “crisis in Ukraine” was an example of the West trying to “retain its international dominance and preserve the unipolar world order” while splitting “the common Eurasian space into a network of ‘exclusive clubs’ and military blocs that would serve to contain our countries’ development and harm their interests.”

China as peacemaker?

Beijing appears intent to play the role of negotiator-in-chief in this transition to a multipolar world order.

After its success shouldering aside the United States and brokering a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has turned its attention to Ukraine.

With its peace proposal on Ukraine, China has deftly established certain principles to which other nations would eagerly subscribe.

“The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community,” holds the first principle in language that would be hard to object to.

But those anodyne sentences point in two directions at once. Upholding sovereignty appears, at first, to be aimed at Russia a year after it had so clearly violated the sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine. But the principle also can be read to include the conflict over Taiwan, which is recognized by Beijing and some other states as a part of China. It is perhaps no accident that the plan’s wording come as the U.S., which officially recognizes China’s claim to Taiwan, has toughened its stance, vowing to defend the island should it be invaded. To Beijing, the United States appears intent on turning a rival, China, into an enemy.

Nations, China asserts, have the right to enhance their security but not at the expense of others. This principle echoes directly one of Putin’s most frequently expressed reasons for the conflict with Ukraine: the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the alliance’s promise to expand further by admitting Georgia and Ukraine. In Putin’s view, such NATO encroachment is an existential threat to Russia’s security interests.

But the Chinese plan also rejects Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese strongly insist on the need for an immediate cease-fire and the start of negotiations, a call that Washington vehemently rejected as a concession that amounted to “diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit” war crimes.

What will Russia settle for?

Russia’s aims in the Ukraine war are simple enough to dissect, though they have been reduced after the effective Ukrainian resistance to the initial invasion.

Instead of taking over all of Ukraine, and perhaps setting up a puppet government, Moscow has been forced to accept limited territorial gains in the Donbas and the coastal crescent linking both the region and Russia with Crimea. Reduced though they are, such Russian goals are completely unacceptable to Ukraine and to the Western alliance – and, indeed, to all countries that accept that principle that international borders cannot be legitimately changed unilaterally by military force.

Although not clearly spelled out, this principle is even contained in the very first sentence of the Chinese peace plan: “Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed.”

That notwithstanding, Putin has welcomed the intervention of China and the plan in general terms.

Rival global ambitions

So what’s in this for Beijing, given that to many, the peace plan is already a non-starter?

The conflict in Ukraine is not only devastating to the two belligerents involved, but destabilizing for states around the world. In the short run, China may be benefiting from the war because it consumes attention and armaments from the West and diverts its gaze from East Asia. The U.S. “pivot to the east” – a planned refocusing from the Obama administration onward aimed at countering the perceived threat of China – has stalled.

But there is an argument that Xi is most concerned with China’s renewal of economic development, which would rely on less confrontational relations with Europe and the United States. Stability, both domestically and internationally, works to China’s economic advantage as a major producer and exporter of industrial goods. And Beijing is mindful that a slump in foreign demand and investment is hitting the country’s economic prospects.

As such, Beijing’s new role as peacemaker – whether in the Middle East or Eastern Europe – may indeed be sincere. Further, Xi may be the only person on the globe able to persuade Putin to think seriously about a way out of war.

Standing in the way of peace, however, is not only the current intransigence of Russia and Ukraine. The United States’ long-held foreign policy aim of maintaining its “indispensable nation” status runs counter to Russia and China’s ambition to end American global dominance.

It presents two, seemingly insurmountable, rival ambitions.

The Conversation

Ronald Suny does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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'Mistaken, Misread, Misquoted, Mislabeled, And Mis-Spoken' — What Woody Guthrie Wrote About The National Debt Debate In Congress During The Depression

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Guthrie questioned whether politicians really cared about the public interest — such as the welfare of these veterans demonstrating in front of Congress in 1932. Senate Historical Office

The debt ceiling debate between the House GOP and President Joe Biden could, if not solved, lead to economic chaos and destruction – so it might seem strangely lighthearted to wonder what a Great Depression-era singer and activist would think about this particular political moment.

Certainly, in all the research I did in putting together my book “Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie,” I never came across any comment Woody Guthrie made about the debt ceiling.

But he lived through the Great Depression and its aftermath. He also stood witness to legislators struggling to correct the direction that the nation was headed in during the 1930s and early ‘40s.

He had a lot to say about Congress in general and how it handled the national debt in particular.

He once made a folksy joke that suggests his feelings about this supposedly august body.

“The Housewives of the country are always afraid at nite, afraid they’s a Robber in the House. Nope, Milady most of em is in the Senate,” he wrote in his regular column for The People’s Daily, called “Woody Sez.”

Guthrie constantly railed against politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who he thought represented their own selfish interests rather than those of deserving working men and women.

What if he could survey today’s America? Would his comments on the state of the nation in the past suggest that he would have something to say in 2023?

In fact, some of his observations sound as if they were written about this political moment – rather than his own.

A man with a hat playing a guitar with a sticker attached that says, 'This Machine Kills Fascists.'
Guthrie, who was known as ‘the Dust Bowl troubador’ for his songs about the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
Library of Congress, World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller

‘Hearin’ the hens a cacklin’

When Guthrie visited Washington, D.C., in 1940, he managed to hear some Senate debates and provided his thoughts on their effectiveness.

“I gawthered the Reactionary Republicans was in love with the Reactionary Republicans; also that the Liberal Democrats was in love with th’ Liberal Demacrats. Each presented a brief case of statistics proving that the other brief cases of statistics, was mistaken, misread, misquoted, mislabeled, and mis-spoken,” he wrote in his column.

And just what were politicians arguing over then? The national debt.

Bipartisan legislative efforts raised the debt ceiling three times under President Donald Trump. Now, House Republicans are balking unless certain conditions are met, while the Democrats are demanding a clean bill with no restrictions.

Guthrie witnessed much the same situation in his era. During his visit to Washington, D.C., he listened to “senators a making speeches – on every conceivable subject under the sun, an’ though the manner in which they brought forth their arguments, their polished wit, and subtle maneuvers, were all very entertaining, I come out of it as empty handed as I went in,” he wrote in “Woody Sez.”

He then compared their debates to “hearin’ the hens a cacklin’ – and a runnin’ out to th barn.” Despite the scene’s being “loud, noisy, and plenty entertaining,” the result was “no eggs.”

There’s a lot of noise coming from Congress today also – but no results.

What could happen if the two sides cannot agree? A telling example occurred in 2011, when the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling came so late that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating – which hiked the interest that needed to be paid on the U.S. debt.

But if an agreement does not happen, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that such a crisis would bring on “economic and financial catastrophe” on a national and global scale.

Guthrie would find this kind of brinkmanship troubling. Not because he was a political operative, with merely an intellectual understanding of the risks. Instead, he was driven by a personal knowledge of the day-to-day hardships, the human toll of such momentous political decisions. His family had fallen from middle-class safety into abject poverty even before the onset of the Great Depression.

A family on the road, standing next to a rickety truck with their belongings. Two boys in overalls are wearing no shirts.
Guthrie knew and sang about the needs of America’s poor, such as this Depression-era impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway.
Dorothea Lange, photographer; Library of Congress

Because of falling agricultural prices in the aftermath of World War I and his father’s real estate speculation in some small farms surrounding their hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, the Guthries could not keep up with their mortgages. They were forced into foreclosure.

Guthrie joked that his father “was the only man in the world that lost a farm a day for thirty days.”

Foreclosures would likely be just one of the ruinous effects of default now, along with interest rates hikes, slashing of social programs, unemployment spikes and decimation of pension plans. All are negative results, but they are certain to hit the poor and working class the hardest.

Those are the people whom Woody Guthrie advocated for throughout his career. Those are the people whose hardships he lamented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Bowl Refugee.”

But he also expressed optimism about the power of those same people to make a positive change, such as in “Union Maid” and “Better World A-Comin’.” Individual and collective action was necessary, according to Guthrie, and he celebrated both. The union maid would “always get her way when she asked for better pay,” and in “Better World” he sings, “we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free.”

Perhaps his best-known comments about the nation appear in “This Land Is Your Land,” with the popular version praising the American landscape. But in his early version of that song, he ended it with his narrator surveying a line of hungry people lined up “by the relief office” and then asked, “Was this land made for you and me?”

That question could rise again in 2023: If congressional leaders debating over the debt ceiling fail to find common ground for the nation’s greater good, perhaps someone will challenge them and ask if the politicians are in office for the American people, or for themselves – just as Woody Guthrie would have.

The Conversation

Mark Allan Jackson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Symbols Of The Confederacy Are Slowly Coming Down From US Military Bases: 3 Essential Reads

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People pose next to a newly unveiled Fort Moore sign on May 11, 2023. Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images

Without much fanfare, a federal panel is removing the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases and replacing them with names that exemplify modern-day values and patriotism.

Most recently, on May 11, 2023, the U.S. Army base in Georgia originally named after Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Benning was renamed Fort Moore after both Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” Moore, who served in Vietnam, and his wife, Julia Moore, who had been an advocate for military families and reformed the military’s death notice procedures.

In stark contrast to the Moores, Benning was a leader in the South’s secession movement and strongly defended slavery.

Over the years, The Conversation US has published numerous stories exploring the legacy of Confederate nostalgia, everything from national monuments to U.S. military bases. Here are selections from those articles.

1. Reconsidering Confederate iconography

For decades, nine U.S. Army bases have carried the names of men who fought against the United States and its Union army – in a war waged to defend and perpetuate the slavery of people of African descent.

These military installations, all in Southern states, were named to honor such figures as Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army, and John Bell Hood, an associate of Lee’s known for being both brave and impetuous.

Until recently, the military installations honoring Confederate leaders received little scrutiny from the media. As a newspaper reporter four decades ago, Jeff South gave the names a free pass. In 1981, South wrote, he covered the Boy Scouts Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia without mentioning that the base was named for a man who had turned against the United States and fought to defend slavery.

“In recent years, more Americans, including those living in the South, have reconsidered the use of Confederate iconography,” South wrote.




Read more:
US moves to rename Army bases honoring Confederate generals who fought to defend slavery


2. Memorializing modern-day values

As a professor of pop culture history who studies Black statues within mainstream society, Frederick Gooding Jr. wrote about America’s reckoning with its oppressive past.

“The nation (faces) the question of not just which statues and other images should be taken down,” Gooding explained, “but what else – if anything – should be put up in their place.”

Gooding pointed out that the lack of Black statues, for example, is an overlooked barometer of racial progress and “sends a clear message of exclusion.”




Read more:
Old statues of Confederate generals are slowly disappearing – will monuments honoring people of color replace them?


3. Memorials have expiration dates too?

Alan Marcus and Walter Woodward have been studying the role of Confederate monuments and other nostalgia in American memory.

“Historical monuments are intended to be timeless, but almost all have an expiration date,” they wrote. “As society’s values shift, the legitimacy of monuments can and often does erode.”

This is because monuments, including the names of U.S. military bases, reveal the values of the time in which they were created and advance the agendas of their creators.




Read more:
Monuments ‘expire’ – but offensive monuments can become powerful history lessons


Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation

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How China Uses 'geostrategic Corruption' To Exert Its Influence In Latin America

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The successful courting of Honduras is the latest example of China’s influence in Latin America. Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images

Corruption has long been a scourge in parts of Latin America.

Traditionally, it has funneled down domestic routes, with local politicians, business interests and drug lords benefiting from graft and dodgy dealings. Indeed, a 2022 report from Transparency International found that 27 out of 30 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have shown stagnant corruption levels with no improvement in recent years.

But over the last two decades, a new form of corruption has taken hold in countries in the region, a phenomenon we call “geostrategic corruption.”

It is characterized by external countries using corrupt methods – no-bid contracts, insider financial deals, special relations with those in power – to become stakeholders in multiple facets of the politics, economy and society of a country. China is a master of the art; the United States, less so.

As scholars of Latin American politics, we have seen how China has used geostrategic corruption to gain a foothold in the region as U.S. influence has waned.

What is geostrategic corruption?

Geostrategic corruption builds on traditional pervasive patterns of clientelism and patronage. In Latin America in particular, the growth of the drug gangs since the 1980s introduced “narco-corruption” in which police and local officials collude with organized gangs, which are able to “buy protection” from prosecution.

As a result, police, local governments and elected representatives are considered by watchdogs as among the most corrupt political entities in Latin America, with the region consistently scoring low in annual global corruption perception rating.

This pattern of corruption has coincided with a period in which the U.S. has turned its attention away from Latin America and toward first the Middle East and then Asia.

The vacuum has largely been filled by China. Trade between the region and China skyrocketed from US$10 billion worth of goods in 2000 to $450 billion in 2021. China is now the top trading partner of South America, making up to 34% of total trade in Chile, Brazil and Peru.

China’s expansion in the region is largely driven by the country’s search for resources such as cobalt, lithium, rare earths, hydrocarbons and access to foodstuffs, which are abundant in Latin America. In the past 20 years, China has also poured massive investments into infrastructure, energy and financial sectors of Latin America.

And China isn’t alone in upping its interest in Latin America. The last two decades have also seen an increase in investment and influence in the region from Russia and Iran.

These countries have found Latin America a fertile ground due in no small part to the region’s culture of corruption and weak institutions, we argue. Local criminal networks and the disregard of democratic norms on the ground have made it easier for countries that themselves are perceived to be dogged by corruption to gain a foothold in Latin America.

US-China global competition

China’s presence in the region forms part of the country’s long-term strategic objective to challenge U.S. influence across the globe through economic, military, financial and political means.

That process has been aided by global trends. Countries such as Brazil and Argentina have increasingly sought to diversify bilateral relationship and become less dependent on U.S. trade.

Meanwhile, Russian aggression in Ukraine has seemingly given China more weight on the international scene, with Beijing positioning itself as an alternative diplomatic force to Washington, especially to countries that feel nonaligned to the West. A recent example was seen in March, when Honduras announced it would establish diplomatic relations with Beijing and break off ties with Taiwan – a development that Taiwanese officials say followed the “bribing” of Honduran officials.

What gives China an added competitive edge as it extends its influence is that it is able to eschew constraints that bind many would-be investors in the West – such as environmental concerns or hesitation over a country’s labor rights and level of corruption. Chinese companies are judged by international watchdogs to be among the least transparent in the world, and bribery watchdogs have long noted Beijing’s reluctance to prosecute Chinese companies or individuals accused of bribery in regard to foreign contracts. A 2021 study found that 35% of China’s “Belt and Road” projects worldwide have been marked by environmental, labor and corruption problems.

The U.S. administration, in contrast, is more restricted by commitments to encourage democratic development as well as public pressure and international image. Washington does not have the same privilege of diplomatic pragmatism as China.

U.S. companies are, of course, not spotless when it comes to engaging in corrupt practices overseas. But unlike China, the U.S. government is bound to an international treaty prohibiting the use of bribes to win contracts. Moreover, the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act strictly prohibits American companies from bribing foreign officials; China has no such equivalent.

Chinese corruption in the region

Chinese investment has been easier where populist regimes govern and where the rule of law has long been undermined, such as Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

For example, in Bolivia during the 14-year tenure of President Evo Morales, Chinese companies achieved a major foothold in key sectors of the economy that has translated into a monopoly over the lithium industry there, despite a strong anti-mining movement in the country.

Geostrategic corruption in Argentina is firmly rooted at the local level, in provinces and regions across the country, feudal-like governors have enabled a sophisticated corruption network that China has seemingly used to invest in everything from nuclear plants and building lithium battery plants to constructing a satellite-tracking deep-space ground station, railroads, hydroelectric plants, research facilities and maybe even fighter jets.

In Ecuador, such projects include a dam built in exchange for oil contracts; the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant, which developed massive cracks soon after construction; and the Quijos hydroelectric project, which failed to generate promised volumes of power. Similarly, the Chinese-financed Interoceanic Grand Canal in Nicaragua was estimated by opponents of the project to irreversibly impact the ecosystem and displace about 120,000 people, while local activists faced harassment, violence and unlawful detention.

In Venezuela, China initiated but never completed construction of a multibillion dollar bullet train line, and an iron mining deal not only allowed the Asian country to buy Venezuela’s iron ore at a price 75% below market, but also turned out to be an instance of Chinese predatory financing, leaving Venezuela in a catastrophic $1 billion debt. Likewise, in Panama, port concessions and a high-speed train line were frozen or canceled, while the investor is under investigation in China.

Throughout the region, Chinese firms have been cited in numerous cases involving bribery and kickback schemes that have enriched local officials in return for contracts and access.

What does it mean for the US?

This use of geostrategic corruption works to the direct detriment of U.S. interests.

In Argentina and Bolivia, Chinese expansion means that sectors that are crucial for the success of the U.S.’s green energy goals are increasingly under Beijing’s hold. It also undermines U.S. efforts to counter corruption and human rights abuses in the region.

And U.S. companies are unable to compete. The Biden administration has set high standards for U.S. investment in the very sectors where the Chinese have a strong foothold. These include transparency and accountability, as well as commitments to environmental, labor and human rights standards.

President Joe Biden has stated that adherence to these standards is what distinguishes U.S. foreign investments from its competitors. But it does hamstring American companies when it comes to competing with China.

In the meantime, while the U.S. is looking for answers and trying to figure out how to reestablish influence in Latin America, China is quietly and pragmatically increasing its presence in the region.

The Conversation

As an academic and as director of a university research center, I’ve received funding from foundations, US government agencies, and multilateral institutions.

Valeriia Popova does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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