John E. Pepper: The Risk and Danger of Turning Nations Who Are Competitors into Existential Enemies

It was December, 1989.  I had just assumed responsibility for Procter & Gamble’s International business.  I was excited about the future opportunities, for P&G and for the world and personally.  Francie and I had always loved going to and understanding other countries and their cultures.  It was an exciting time.

Eastern and Central Europe were opening for business as the Berlin Wall came down.  Presidents Bush and Gorbachev pledged mutual cooperation in reducing conventional arms and limiting the future development of new arms.

At the same time, for P&G, China was opening for business at a rapidly accelerating pace.

In hindsight, I, like most of the world, carried overly optimistic expectations into the transition underway in China and what was still the Soviet Union.

I hoped, and rather expected that, as China grew economically and standards of living increased, which they did far faster than we ever expected, it would bring increasing democratization and the freedom for people to speak out openly for their own interests and beliefs.

In Russia, I realized as the 1990s unfolded, that the country and its people faced enormous challenges.  Everything was changing.  How businesses operated.  People’s lives.  How they worked.  How they shopped.  Prices were set free.  Better products emerged.  But prices exploded.  The press opened to different views.  People could say what was on their minds.  It was liberating but for many frightening.  Long familiar support systems were eroding or vanishing.

Leaders, some eloquently pronouncing democratic values, emerged, none more so than where P&G began its business, in St. Petersburg, with its charismatic, brave mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. We knew the times were tough for people.  But we—at least I—didn’t know the half of it.

I didn’t know then, no one did, where Russia would come to stand.  It was clear to me that Russia would need to re-establish its identity.  I knew that Russia possessed too distinct and “grand” a history and too rich a culture and had too large a global presence to become just another Western European country.  But I did hope it would gravitate toward the West to which many of its leaders had a  strong affinity.

There were options which we hoped would not come to pass in Russia.  We realized we could have had a far right Nationalistic leader who opposed the U.S.  We welcomed the election of Yeltsin.  We saw him as a strong and brave successor to Gorbachev, fitting the mold of the strong leader Russians have always followed.  I did not realize then how Yeltsin’s life would be decimated by alcoholism.  And how weak a leader he would prove to be, especially during the last years of his presidency.

I had high hopes for Vladimir Putin.  He was smart.  I knew he was a Nationalist, but I thought Russia needed a Nationalist.  But I also believed he would lean toward being integrated in some way with the West. And in fact just as was the case with Gorbachev, this was also Putin’s first instinct as well. An instinct pursued I am sure with some hesitation given Putin’s background but pursued I believe it might have been if we had had leadership of the temperament of George H.W. Bush.

That was not to be.  The chasm between Putin and the West grew, starting in 2003, to this very day.  It is a chasm marked by distrust on our part and by an increasing feeling on Putin’s part that “the West is out to get us.”  A Cold War view of each other as existential enemies has reemerged, bringing with it great risk to the world.

In reasserting its identity, Russia has returned in many ways to its past, even as it has come through a period of “gold-rush,” frenzied, all-too-often corrupt pursuit of capitalism.  As in the past, it has positioned itself ideologically as a pillar against overly-permissive, neo-left liberal values, even as a narrowing minority of Russians benefit from the pursuit of these values. It has positioned itself as a protector of established leaders, and increasingly as an opponent of what has proven to be the United States over-reach, even with the best of intentions, to help nations like Iraq and Libya and Egypt “change for the better.”

What we see today is that Russia is not only viewed as having certain ideological convictions that differ from the United States and the West but as a country that has become a dangerous existential enemy.  There are, of course, reasons for this.  The annexation of Crimea.  Russia’s military support of opponents to Ukraine’s central government in Eastern Ukraine.  Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and evidence that that interference is continuing.  The alleged murder of Russia dissidents.  Russia’s incursion into Syria to support the Assad regime.

Russia counters with its grievances. And many of them have strong foundations  The expansion of NATO to its very borders, even though  Secretary of State James Baker told Gorbachev that having  agreed to the reuniting of Germany, NATO would not be expanded east of Germany.  Then there was our unilateral decision to invade Iraq and drive Hussein out of office. And there was the overthrow of Qaddafi and cavalier dismissal of mutual nuclear control treaties. Increasing  sanctions in response Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Taken altogether, there are real issues, compounding what are genuine ideological differences.

Still we face the central question.  Are we right to conclude that Russia has become an existential enemy?

I would argue strongly that the answer is no.

The only basis for reaching that conclusion is if we believe these actions and the ideological differences are forerunners and drivers of Russia’s strategic intent to expand its territorial domain or otherwise threaten the existence of the sovereignty or form of government of the United States or other free nations.

We have to ask ourselves:  Is this a credible scenario?  I see no evidence that it is—either in an objective analysis of what is in the interest of the Russian nation or in the pronouncements or actions by Russia leadership.

There can be no question that Ukraine has formed a uniquely historic part of Russia and that, within Ukraine, Crimea has and is today overwhelmingly populated by people of Russian extraction.

On Crimea, we are where we are. I believe history will record that it was a mistake for Russia to annex Crimea. They could have protected Russian citizens without dong that, with all its negative consequences for Russia and the rest of the world.

However , what I believe is of no consequence.  There will be no going back.  Crimea will remain part of Russia.

As to the nation of  Ukraine, any thought that Russia would seek to conquer it  it by force lacks any semblance of credibility. Russian leadership knows that Ukrainians would overwhelmingly reject and resist this.  Russia doesn’t need Ukraine.  It poses no threat.  We should face it:  Ukraine and Crimea are “one-off” situations.

I believe Syria, too, is a “one-off” situation.  It provides the only access to the Mediterranean which Russia has.  The decision to support Assad, a horrible tyrant if there ever was one, was taken by Russia with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Ghaddafi fresh in their minds and without any evident alternative government that would have avoided the trauma that now exists throughout most of the Middle East.

I believe Russia and Putin clearly understand that economically they must be part of a multi-polar world, including Europe and the United States.

I believe  Putin means what he said: “Respect for the people’s national, state, spiritual and cultural identity is an indispensable condition for steady international environment that Europe and the world now need to cross the historic watershed and attain a new period of peace”.

Over the past fifteen years, I have seen Russia and Putin personally presented more and more as an existential threat and enemy.  This is being fueled by the media and Democratic and Republican leadership speaking with virtually one voice.  Only President Trump, for reasons which are hard to fully explain, advocates building a constructive relationship with Russia.  This message, which I embrace, could not have a less credible messenger.

What worries me deeply is that this conception of Russia as an existential enemy will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I worry that it will lead to our not having the tough but constructive conversations and negotiations necessary to ensure we and the world do not enter into potentially catastrophic armed conflict; conversations and ultimately cooperation to avoid nuclear proliferation, to combat terrorism and combat the threat of climate change.

We are allowing legitimate ideological differences to morph into a perception of threat that has created a chasm of trust and creation of expectations that risk creating the very cataclysm now portrayed that never should happen.

The China story is in many ways similar to Russia’s, although the path to getting here has been very different. Thirty years ago, very few people, certainly not I, would have conceived of China’s becoming a threatening global economic and geo-political competitor, let alone an existential threat.  I, of course, appreciated the grandeur and uniqueness of China’s history and culture and appreciation of the significance of its almost one and a half billion people. I also came to quickly appreciate the superior caliber of China’s political leaders.  They were the strongest I had ever encountered in their intellect and focus on building partnerships and achieving economic growth.

For me and many other business leaders, these strengths were exemplified in Vice Premier, Zhu Rongji. I would describe his stance as “a-political,” focused on doing what was needed to promote strong domestic growth needed to create jobs and lift people out of poverty.

To that end and believing it was in the interest of the entire developed world, we supported and lobbied hard to have China brought within the global trading system, including through “most favored nation” status.

Little did we anticipate the speed with which China’s economy has grown: decade after decade of close to double-digit growth in GNP.  It is not surprising that along with this has come increasing consciousness of China’s global presence and the desire for external influence and involvement especially as a means of driving the continued economic growth seen as essential to avoid unrest by its people.

Like Russia, China has reverted to its past historical roots in important ways, including the tendency for strong centralized, autocratic leadership to keep this complex enormous country together.  That has been the story of China’s history.  China has always looked to strong central leadership to control the often warring factions that divided China over centuries.  Security, economic well-being and safety are dominant values for the great majority of people.  Most are willing to sacrifice a greater degree of privacy and independence to achieve these ends than we in the Western world would.  China’s massive expansion of economic investment in the world and the growth of its military and the flexing of its near-China territorial ambitions, e.g., in the South China Sea, have raised the specter of China as a military geo-political threat.

Let me return to this vital question.  Do the ideologies and economic and territorial interests of Russia and China have the potential to challenge and threaten the very existence and current way of life of the United States and the West?

In assessing whether Russia’s and China’s ideologies today are projectable to other countries, including our own, as Communism once was,  I believe we need to weigh two elements:  the inherent appeal of the ideologies and the intent of the leaders to expand these ideologies to other countries.

Before weighing in on these two factors, let me differentiate between two dimensions of a country’s ideology.

The first dimension concerns its governance philosophy—more specifically the position it occupies between the choice of very strong central control by a more or less autocratic leader on the one hand and, on the other, a highly distributed balance of power similar to what exists in the United States and most free countries.

As I’ve written, the leadership of China and Russia (as well as countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia), attach far greater weight to maintaining tight central control than do countries such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe and Japan.  For historical reasons, this is not likely to change.

The other dimension of a country’s ideology is cultural.  How do people live in the country day to day?  How attractive and aspirational is their way of life to people outside the country?  This is influenced by many factors, including what are perceived to be the opportunities for growth individually and as families?  What is the degree of personal freedom?

The appeal of a nation’s cultural identify is subject to change over time.  It can shift.  Different perceptions can emerge on how people live and the overall quality of their lives.

The external view of the U.S. culture was different, for example, in the Great Depression of the 1930s than during the “Roaring” 1920s.  And race riots and the Civil Rights movement probably had an influence, as likely the plethora of mass killings do today.  Still, over time, I think it’s safe to say that the consistent prominent view of the U.S. culture has been one of being open, committed to the rule of law and self-expression and spontaneous in offering a relatively high degree of individual opportunity and freedom.

This is all background to address the question:  How attractive are the governance and cultural ideologies of China and Russia to the leaders and the people of other nations?

I find the answers to this question to be clear.

The governance ideology which characterizes China and Russia is of definite appeal to leaders of other countries who, for whatever reason, aspire to exercise strong autocratic control.  They seek to create a political structure in their countries which enables them to achieve strong control.  Erdogan’s Turkey, Maduro’s Venezuela, Kim Jung’s North Korea are examples.

Russia and China have and I believe will continue to support and defend leaders of this ilk and the sovereignties of the nations they represent.  They will use social media to support such leaders and try to denigrate their opponents.

But will they use military force to expand or sustain success of autocratic governments?

I believe they might, but only in  very qualified circumstances, including believing doing so is not in conflict with their long-term economic interests.  Russia’s involvement in Syria is probably a case in point.  Russia’s motivation in preventing Assad’s overthrow stems from such a motivation, and it appears to have worked.  I believe Putin’s decision to do this was particularly motivated by his having witnessed the downfall of Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

As I have written, I believe Russia’s incursion into Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, as well as Putin’s military support of Assad, are one-off situations driven importantly by the historical strategic importance and geographical proximity of Ukraine to Russia and Syria’s providing the only Russian access to the Mediterranean.

I do not believe this constitutes evidence of a broad inclination by Russia to intervene militarily in support of autocratic rulers broadly. Nor do I believe China’s leaders have any such inclination.

In this connection, I would underscore how any decision to intervene militarily, by either Russia or China, will be constrained by the embedded global economic system in which they are an integral part.

The constraint on military action imposed by Russia’s and China’s economic health being inextricably tied to the global system of commerce is demonstrated—to date, thankfully—by Mainland China’s hesitancy in strongly intervening to combat the freedom movement in Hong Kong.

The other consideration which rules against China’s and Russia’s being an existential threat is the lack of appeal of their ideological culture.  My appraisal could be challenged as being too high-handed.  But facts support it.  Ask yourself:  How does the number of people seeking to move to the United States compare to the number seeking to emigrate to China and Russia?  To be sure, many people have gone to China because of its economic opportunities.  But how many have gone because this is where they wanted their family to live and their children to grow up culturally?

I wouldn’t want this statement to belittle the culture of these two countries.  I have spent a lot of time in Russia and a considerable amount in China.  There is an enormous amount in their cultures and their people which I resonate to and deeply appreciate:  the history, the arts, the courage and stamina of the people, and strength and inspiration to be gained from friendships which, if not always quickly formed, can be deep and long-lasting if built on trust.

With all of this—where do we end up?

I have tried to convey my belief that, while China and Russia are and will remain competitors, in some ways very serious competitors of the United States and West, with important differences in ideologies, they are not existential enemies and should not be treated as such.

This is not a semantic issue.  There is an enormous danger in approaching and dealing with these countries as existential enemies as opposed to competitors whom we should engage on the world stage to advance our mutual interests and those of the entire world. What is the danger I refer to?

To repeat for emphasis, it  is the risk that we will not enter into the necessary negotiations  with these nations in order to minimize the planet-threatening risk of nuclear annihilation and terrorism and failed states and to advance preservation of the environment. We simply cannot come to grips with resolving these issues if we are not working to address them together, in concert with other nations.

Our goal should be to establish a sustained, trust-based relationship at the highest level of government that will allow the identification of common interests and competing interests and how the latter can be best resolved.  Our preeminent objective should be to avoid military conflict and achieve policies which balance the interests of both countries.

Our underlying mindset must recognize that we must go beyond co-existence to active cooperation in areas of common interest in order to achieve the peace and prosperity in the world that we seek.

This will require a long-term view (10+ years, not 1 or 2 years).  It will require the willingness to share different views on issues such as human rights without crossing over into an attack on the other nation’s sovereignty. It will require a joint determination to make decisions based insofar as possible on a win-win and expand the pie view of what is possible rather than a lose-lose or zero-sum view.

How do we proceed?

For starters, deep discussions within the leadership of the United States, China and Russia, in concert with our allies, should lead to a joint statement that the relationship among these countries will not be based on the premise that they are existential enemies but rather are competitors.  It would acknowledge nations’ differing ideologies but forcefully commit to collaborating to advance the interests and safety of the countries and the entire world.

The statement would explain the basis for this conclusion.

This statement, in and of itself, would be huge news, comparable in impact to the announcements in the late 1980s from Presidents Reagan and Bush and Gorbachev that we would no longer regard each other as enemies.  That was an astounding conclusion to announce then.  It would, if anything, be more astounding today.

This statement would be accompanied by a listing of common interests that bring the countries together and competing interests which remain and which would be the subject of ongoing negotiation.

While far beyond my capability to identify, today these issues might include:

For Russia and the United States – Resolution of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia’s involvement in tampering with U.S. elections through the use of social media and other means.  Similarly, their involvement in what is seen as efforts to undermine democracy in Western Europe.

For China and the U.S. – Reaching a constructive agreement on the ongoing trade war, including the honoring of intellectual property.  Negotiation on the trade and intellectual property issues, of course, are ongoing.  However, the likelihood of reaching agreement on a path forward is far more likely to occur if the discussion were taking place in a context that we are not dealing with each other as existential enemies.

For all these countries, the control of nuclear weapons would be subjects for negotiation, with the understanding that this process would be a long and continuing one.

Some will say even trying to undertake this effort is a fool’s errand, for either of two reasons. First, because they believe that Russia (and perhaps China as well) is out to fundamentally undermine our form of governance, much as communism did. They will point to election interference as primary evidence. I agree Russia at some level has done this.and it needs to be confronted directly and strongly and actions taken to defuse whatever attempst are made. However, without claiming to be sure I have the right answer, I believe this is more a defensive reaction than a concerted strategic plan and most importantly I see it most unlikely to have a decisive impact on election outcomes.

The other reason for considering this a proverbial fools errand is that so many other efforts to do what I am advocating—the League of Nations and United Nations being two–have failed to achieve lasting peace. My proposal here could easily be looked at as another ill fated venture into Wilsonian utopianism.

I acknowledge this possibility.  I have lived longer than long enough to come to appreciate man’s darker instincts including the quest for power and tragic instinct to see the “other’ as an “enemy”.  While previous efforts to prevent the outbreak of devastating global warfare though united action have failed, should we not keep open the possibility that now knowing the world-ending potential of nuclear weapons, and learning from failed previous efforts, we will be motivated to put in place a process that will work?

Really, what choice to we have? The alternative is sobering and frightening:   The three major powers of the world viewing ourselves as existential enemies, building up unending defense budgets, increasing the risk of accidental conflict, arguing from a win-lose frame of mind, cooperating only on the margin without established trust based on deep channels of negotiation.  That is an alternative we cannot and should not accept. Conscious of the possibility of failure but even more conscious of the importance of doing it right, we must try. We owe if to the generations of the future.


Even if we concede that Russia and China do not represent existential threats  the question presents itself: are there are other nations—or movements—that do represent existential  threats in terms of intent and capability.  Yes, I believe there are. The most significant threat I see comes from states or movements committed to the expansion of radical Muslim ideology and way of living. ISIS is such a movement and it has expansionary ambitions. I believe Iran is such a nation. Failed states, like Iraq and Syria, represent the natural prey of this threat and so does Pakistan.

What must be avoided at all costs is allowing these entities to gain access to weapons of mass destruction. The containment of this threat must be joined by the all theleading nations of the world.

This should take place within multi-national networks such as the G-7 and United Nations.


Use of nuclear weapons should be renounced and treaties established to reduce the number of nuclear weapons which now exist and their delivery systems. The most important concrete objective which must be met to preserve the world as we know it is to minimize insofar as possible the risk of nuclear war, including by accident and long term deterioration of the earth’s environment by adopting protocols as the Paris Accord did informed by continuing learning and development of technology.

John E. Pepper is member of the Board of the American Committee for East-West Accord and the former chief executive of Procter and Gamble.

Comments are closed.

site by iKnow