The “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning and I resumed after a months hiatus. We discussed the PRC-Taiwan tensions in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit and what pathways, good and bad, may emerge from the escalation of hostilities between the mainland and island. You can find it here.
I have said this in other forums, but here is the deal:
PRC military exercises after Pelosi’s visit are akin to silverback male gorillas who run around thrashing branches and beating their chests when annoyed, disturbed or seeking to show dominance. They are certainly dangerous and not to be ignored, but their aggression is about signaling/posturing, not imminent attack. In other words, the behaviour is a demonstration of physical capabilities and general disposition rather than real immediate intent. If and when the PRC assault on Taiwan comes, it will not be telegraphed.
As for why Pelosi, third in the US chain of command, decided to go in spite of PRC threats and bluster. Along with a number of other factors, it was a show of bipartisan, legislative-executive branch resolve in support of Taiwan to allies and the PRC in a midterm election year. SecDef Austin was at her side, so Biden’s earlier claims that the military “did not think that her trip was a good idea” did not result in an institutional rupture over the issue. The show of unity was designed to allay allied concerns and adversary hopes that the US political elite is too divided to act decisively in a foreign crisis while removing a basis for conservative security hawk accusations in an election year that the Biden administration and Democrats are soft on China.
The PRC can threaten/exercise/engage indirect means of retaliation but cannot seriously escalate at this point. It’s launching of intermediate range ballistic missiles over Taiwan and into Japan’s EEZ as part of the response to Pelosi’s visit certainly deserves concerned attention by security elites, as it signals a readiness by the PRC to broaden the conflict into a regional war involving more than the US and Taiwan. But the PRC is too economically invested in Taiwan (especially in microchips and semi-conductors) to risk economic slow downs caused by disruptions of Taiwanese production in the event of war (which likely will be a protracted affair as Taiwan reverts to the “hedgehog” defence strategy common among island nations and facilitated by Formosa’s terrain), and it is not a full peer competitor with the US when it comes to the East Asian regional military balance, especially if US security allies join the conflict on Taiwan’s side.
The PRC must therefore bide its time and wait until its sea-air-land forces are capable of not only invading and occupying Taiwan, but be able to do so in the face of US-led military response across all kinetic and hybrid warfare domains. Pelosi’s visit was a not to subtle reminder of that fact.
So the visit, while provocative and an act of brinkmanship given the CCP is about to hold its 20th National Party Congress in which President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected unopposed to another term in office, was at its most basic level simply conveying a message that the US will not be bullied by the PRC on what was a symbolic visit to a disputed territory ruled by an independent democratic government.
For the moment the PRC must content itself with mock charges and thrashing the bush in the form of large-scale military exercises and some non-escalatory retaliation against the US and Taiwan, but it is unlikely to go beyond that at the moment. It remains to be seen if this sits well with nationalists and security hardliners in the CCP who may see what they perceive to be the relatively soft response as a loss of face and evidence of Xi’s lack of will to strike a blow for the Motherland when he has the chance and which could have also served as a good patriotic diversion from domestic woes caused by Covid and the ripple effect economic slowdown associated with it.
In that light, the Party Congress should give us a better idea if the factional undercurrents operating within the CCP will now spill out into the open over the Pelosi’s visit. If so, perhaps there was even more to the calculus behind her trip than what I have outlined above.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s two week foreign mission to Europe and Australia was by all accounts a success. She met with business and government leaders, signed and co-signed several commercial and diplomatic agreements including a EU-NZ trade pact, conferred with NATO officials as an invited participant of this year’s NATO’s Leader’s Summit, gave several keynote speeches on foreign policy and international affairs, and in general flew the Aotearoa flag with grace and a considerable dose of celebrity. As she wraps up her visit to Australia, it is worth noting that she gave different takes on foreign policy to different audiences. These may appear incongruous at first glance but in fact display a fair degree of strategic and diplomatic finesse.
In Europe she emphasized the commonality of shared values among liberal democracies across a range of subjects: approaches to trade, security, human rights, representative governance, the rule of law within and across borders, transparency and rejection of corruption, and the common threat posed to all of these values by authoritarian great powers that are trying to usurp the international order via persistent challenges and encroachments on international norms and institutions.
Towards the end of her trip while in Australia, she shifted tack and emphasized NZ’s “independent” foreign policy while dropping the value-based view of a global geostrategic contest marshalled along ideological lines.
Instead, she publicly decoupled the Ruso-Ukrainian war from broader geostrategic competition between democratic and authoritarian-led powers, treating Russian behavior as idiosyncratic rather than as a result of regime type. That framing of the conflict avoids messy arguments about domestic political legitimacy and its impact on great power rivalries. In doing so Ardern reaffirmed the independence of NZ’s foreign policy approach from those of larger Western allies while reducing the possibility of retaliation by the PRC on trade and other diplomatic fronts. The PRC is well aware of the reality of NZ’s recent strategic shift towards the West, but a public position that pointedly refuses to lump together PRC behavior with Russian aggression based on the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes gives NZ some time and diplomatic space in which to maneuver as it charts a course in the international transitional moment that it is currently navigating. That is a prudent position to take and hence a good diplomatic move assuming that the PRC reads the statement as NZ intends it to be read.
The strategy behind this approach–one that recognizes the larger ideological divide at play in international affairs but treats State actions as unique to individual national history and circumstances–might be called a “confronting coercive politics” approach. Allow me to explain.
Politics ultimately is about the acquisition, accumulation, administration, distribution, maintenance and loss of power. Power is the ability to make others bend to one’s will. It can be persuasive or coercive in nature, i.e., it can induce others to act in certain ways or it can compell them to act under (threat of) duress .
Power is relative and variable across several dimensions, including economic, political, military, personal, class, social (including gender and reputational/”influencer” in this day and age), cultural, intellectual and physical. Power is wielded directly or indirectly as a mixed bag of “hard” and “soft” attributes, a dichotomy that is well mentioned in the international relations and foreign policy literatures. Hybrid combinations of soft and hard power have led to “smart” and “sharp” power subsets depending on the emphasis given to one or the other basic trait.
The harder the exercise of power, the more coercive it is. Conversely, the more persuasive the way in which power is welded, the “softer” it is. Moreover, soft power can give way to hard power if the former is unsuccessful in accomplishing desired objectives, and soft power can be used as a follow up to the exercise of hard power. For example, “dollar diplomacy,” whereby large states fund development projects in small states on generous terms, is a form of soft power that can turn into hard power leverage once it becomes debt diplomacy in the form repayment conditions for those projects.
The exercise of State power has been institutionalized, codified and regulated over the years in a variety of contexts, including international relations and foreign policy. That is designed to strip inter-state relations of more overtly coercive approaches in favor of more consensus or compromise-oriented forms of engagement. However, in recent years the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world-in-the-making has led to international norm erosion and a diminishing of international rule and law enforcement. That has produced a “back to the future” scenario where the international context has regressed to a modern version of the anarchic state of nature that Hobbes warned about in Leviathan. Emerging or restored great powers, particularly but not exclusively the PRC and Russia, have rejected international norms and laws in favor of a “might makes right” approach to international differences. Geopolitical coercion is at the heart of their international perspectives, which challenges the basic rules, norms and institutions of the liberal international order.
The turn towards more coercive forms of international politics is mirrored in the domestic politics of many States, including those led by democratic regimes. It is this–the emergence of coercive politics as a core feature of domestic and international governance–that is the focus of Ardern’s bifurcated foreign policy pronouncements in recent days. Her government understands that “liberal” governance is more than free and fair elections and respect for human rights. It is based on tolerance, compromise and mutual contingent consent between individuals, factions, parties and States.
Being unable to control the domestic regimes that govern States, Ardern’s bifurcated approach to NZ foreign policy (I would not call it a doctrine or anywhere close to one), is focused on countering coercive politics in international affairs. The general value principles of liberalism are upheld, but individual relations with other states, particularly important trade and security partners, are treated with a mix of value-based and pragmatic considerations, with pragmatism prevailing when strategic interests are at stake.
This approach allows NZ to broadly critique a trade partner’s human rights record while increasing or maintaining its trade with that partner in specific commodities under the argument that engagement with NZ’s values is better than isolation from them.
In other words, adherence in principle to liberal international values cloaks realistic assessments of where Aotearoa’s material interests are woven into the global institutional fabric. That may be cynical, hypocritical or short-sighted in its read of how the global order is evolving, but as a short-term diplomatic stance, it splits the difference between adherence to principle and amoral commitment to self-interested practice.
Selwyn Manning and I discussed the upcoming NATO Leader’s summit (to which NZ Prime Minister Ardern is invited), the rival BRICS Leader’s summit and what they could mean for the Ruso-Ukrainian Wa and beyond.
In the latest episode of AVFA Selwyn Manning and I discuss the evolution of Latin American politics and macroeconomic policy since the 1970s as well as US-Latin American relations during that time period. We use recent elections and the 2022 Summit of the Americas as anchor points.
Coming on the heels of the recently signed Solomon Islands-PRC bilateral economic and security agreement, the whirlwind tour of the Southwestern Pacific undertaken by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi has generated much concern in Canberra, Washington DC and Wellington as well as in other Western capitals. Wang and the PRC delegation came to the Southwestern Pacific bearing gifts in the form of offers of developmental assistance and aid, capacity building (including cyber infrastructure), trade opportunities, economic resource management, scholarships and security assistance, something that, as in the case of the Solomons-PRC bilateral agreement, caught the “traditional” Western patrons by surprise. With multiple stops in Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, PNG, Vanuatu and East Timor and video conferencing with other island states, Wang’s visit represents a bold outreach to the Pacific Island Forum community.
A couple of days ago I did a TV interview about the trip and its implications. Although I posted a link to the interview, I thought that I would flesh out was what unsaid in the interview both in terms of broader context as well as some of the specific issues canvassed during the junket. First, in order to understand the backdrop to recent developments, we must address some key concepts. Be forewarned: this is long.
China on the Rise and Transitional Conflict.
For the last three decades the PRC has been a nation on the ascent. Great in size, it is now a Great Power with global ambitions. It has the second largest economy in the world and the largest active duty military, including the largest navy in terms of ships afloat. It has a sophisticated space program and is a high tech world leader. It is the epicenter of consumer non-durable production and one of the largest consumers of raw materials and primary goods in the world. Its GDP growth during that time period has been phenomenal and even after the Covid-induced contraction, it has averaged well over 7 percent yearly growth in the decade since 2011.
The list of measures of its rise are many so will not be elaborated upon here. The hard fact is that the PRC is a Great Power and as such is behaving on the world stage in self-conscious recognition of that fact. In parallel, the US is a former superpower that has now descended to Great Power status. It is divided domestically and diminished when it comes to its influence abroad. Some analysts inside and outside both countries believe that the PRC will eventually supplant the US as the world’s superpower or hegemon. Whether that proves true or not, the period of transition between one international status quo (unipolar, bipolar or multipolar) is characterised by competition and often conflict between ascendent and descendent Great Powers as the contours of the new world order are thrashed out. In fact, conflict is the systems regulator during times of transition. Conflict may be diplomatic, economic or military, including war. As noted in previous posts, wars during moments of international transition are often started by descendent powers clinging or attempting a return to the former status quo. Most recently, Russia fits the pattern of a Great Power in decline starting a war to regain its former glory and, most importantly, stave off its eclipse. We shall see how that turns out.
Spheres of Influence.
More immediate to our concerns, the contest between ascendent and descendent Great Powers is seen in the evolution of their spheres of influence. Spheres of influence are territorially demarcated areas in which a State has dominant political, economic, diplomatic and military sway. That does not mean that the areas in question are as subservient as colonies (although they may include former colonies) or that this influence is not contested by local or external actors. It simply means at any given moment some States—most often Great Powers—have distinct and recognized geopolitical spheres of influence in which they have primacy of interest and operate as the dominant regional actor.
In many instances spheres of influence are the object of conquest by an ascendent power over a descendent power. Historic US dominance of the Western Hemisphere (and the Philippines) came at the direct expense of a Spanish Empire in decline. The rise of the British Empire came at the expense of the French and Portuguese Empires, and was seen in its appropriation of spheres of influence that used to be those of its diminished competitors. The British and Dutch spheres of influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia were supplanted by the Japanese by force, who in turn was forced in defeat to relinquish regional dominance to the US. Now the PRC has made its entrance into the West Pacific region as a direct peer competitor to the US.
Peripheral, Shatter and Contested Zones.
Not all spheres of influence have equal value, depending on the perspective of individual States. In geopolitical terms the world is divided into peripheral zones, shatter zones and zones of contestation. Peripheral zones are areas of the world where Great Power interests are either not in play or are not contested. Examples would be the South Pacific for most of its modern history, North Africa before the discovery of oil, the Andean region before mineral and nitrate extraction became feasible or Sub-Saharan Africa until recently. In the modern era spheres of influence involving peripheral zones tend to involve colonial legacies without signifiant economic value.
Shatter zones are those areas where Great Power interests meet head to head, and where spheres of influence clash. They involve territory that has high economic, cultural or military value. Central Europe is the classic shatter zone because it has always been an arena for Great Power conflict. The Middle East has emerged as a potential shatter zone, as has East Asia. The basic idea is that these areas are zones in which the threat of direct Great Power conflict (rather than via proxies or surrogates) is real and imminent, if not ongoing. Given the threat of escalation into nuclear war, conflict in shatter zones has the potential to become global in nature. That is a main reason why the Ruso-Ukrainian War has many military strategists worried, because the war is not just about Russia and Ukraine or NATO versus Russian spheres of influence.
In between peripheral and shatter zones lie zones of contestation. Contested zones are areas in which States vie for supremacy in terms of wielding influence, but short of direct conflict. They are often former peripheral zones that, because of the discovery of material riches or technological advancements that enhance their geopolitical value, become objects of dispute between previously disinterested parties. Contested zones can eventually become part of a Great Power’s sphere of influence but they can also become shatter zones when Great Power interests are multiple and mutually disputed to the point of war.
The interplay of States in and between their spheres of influence or as subjects of Great Power influence-mongering is at the core of what is known as strategic balancing. Strategic balancing is not just about relative military power and its distribution, but involves the full measure of a State’s capabilities, including hard, soft, smart and sharp powers, as it is brought to bear on its international relations.
That is the crux of what is playing out in the South Pacific today. The South Pacific is a former peripheral zone that has long been within Western spheres of influence, be they French, Dutch, British and German in the past and French, US and (as allies and junior partners) Australia and New Zealand today. Japan tried to wrest the West Pacific from Western grasp and ultimately failed. Now the PRC is making its move to do the same, replacing the Western-oriented sphere of influence status quo with a PRC-centric alternative.
The reason for the move is that the Western Pacific, and particularly the Southwestern Pacific has become a contested zone given technological advances and increased geopolitical competition for primary good resource extraction in previously unexploited territories. With small populations dispersed throughout an area ten times the size of the continental US covering major sea lines of communication, trade and exchange and with valuable fisheries and deep water mineral extraction possibilities increasingly accessible, the territory covered by the Pacific Island Forum countries has become a valuable prize for the PRC in its pursuit of regional supremacy. But in order to achieve this objective it must first displace the West as the major extra-regional patron of the Pacific Island community. That is a matter of strategic balancing as a prelude to achieving strategic supremacy.
Three Island Chains and Two Level Games.
The core of the PRC strategy rests in a geopolitical conceptualization known as the “three island chains” This is a power projection perspective based on the PRC eventually gaining control of three imaginary chains of islands off of its East Coast. The first island chain, often referred to those included in the PRC’s “Nine Dash Line” mapping of the region, is bounded by Japan, Northwestern Philippines, Northern Borneo, Malaysia and Vietnam and includes all the waters within it. These are considered to be the PRC’s “inner sea” and its last line of maritime defense. This is a territory that the PRC is now claiming with its island-building projects in the South China Sea and increasingly assertive maritime presence in the East China Sea and the straits connecting them south of Taiwan.
The second island chain extends from Japan to west of Guam and north of New Guinea and Sulawesi in Indonesia, including all of the Philippines, Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo and the island of Palau. The third island chain, more aspirational than achievable at the moment, extends from the Aleutian Islands through Hawaii to New Zealand. It includes all of the Southwestern Pacific island states. It is this territory that is being geopolitically prepared by the PRC as a future sphere of influence, and which turns it into a contested zone.
The PRC approach to the Southwestern Pacific can be seen as a Two Level game. On one level the PRC is attempting to negotiate bilateral economic and security agreements with individual island States that include developmental aid and support, scholarship and cultural exchange programs, resource management and security assistance, including cyber security, police training and emergency security reinforcement in the event of unrest as well as “rest and re-supply” and ”show the flag” port visits by PLAN vessels. The Solomon Island has signed such a deal, and Foreign Minister Wang has made similar proposals to the Samoan and Tongan governments (the PRC already has this type of agreement in place with Fiji). The PRC has signed a number of specific agreements with Kiribati that lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive pact of this type in the future. With visits to Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor still to come, the approach has been replicated at every stop on Minister Wang’s itinerary. Each proposal is tailored to individual island State needs and idiosyncrasies, but the general blueprint is oriented towards tying development, trade and security into one comprehensive package.
None of this comes as a surprise. For over two decades the PRC has been using its soft power to cultivate friends and influence policy in Pacific Island states. Whether it is called checkbook or debt diplomacy (depending on whether developmental aid and assistance is gifted or purchased), the PRC has had considerable success in swaying island elite views on issues of foreign policy and international affairs. This has helped prepare the political and diplomatic terrain in Pacific Island capitals for the overtures that have been made most recently. That is the thrust of level one of this strategic game.
That opens the second level play. With a number of bilateral economic and security agreements serving as pillars or pilings, the PRC intends to propose a multinational regional agreement modeled on them. The first attempt at this failed a few days ago, when Pacific Island Forum leaders rejected it. They objected to a lack of detailed attention to specific concerns like climate change mitigation but did not exclude the possibility of a region-wide compact sometime in the future. That is exactly what the PRC wanted, because now that it has the feedback to its initial, purposefully vague offer, it can re-draft a regional pact tailored to the specific shared concerns that animate Pacific Island Forum discussions. Even if its rebuffed on second, third or fourth attempts, the PRC is clearly employing a “rinse, revise and repeat” approach to the second level aspect of the strategic game.
An analogy the captures the PRC approach is that of an off-shore oil rig. The bilateral agreements serve as the pilings or legs of the rig, and once a critical mass of these have been constructed, then an overarching regional platform can be erected on top of them, cementing the component parts into a comprehensive whole. In other words, a sphere of influence.
Western Reaction: Knee-Jerk or Nuanced?
The reaction amongst the traditional patrons has been expectedly negative. Washington and Canberra sent off high level emissaries to Honiara once the Solomon Islands-PRC deal was leaked before signature, in a futile attempt to derail it. The newly elected Australian Labor government has sent its foreign minister, sworn into office under urgency, twice to the Pacific in two weeks (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) in the wake of Minister Wang’s visits. The US is considering a State visit for Fijian Prime Minister (and former dictator) Frank Baimimarama. The New Zealand government has warned that a PRC military presence in the region could be seriously destabilising and signed on to a joint US-NZ statement at the end of Prime Minister Ardern’s trade and diplomatic junket to the US re-emphasising (and deepening) the two countries’ security ties in the Pacific pursuant to the Wellington and Washington Agreements of a decade ago.
The problem with these approaches is two-fold, one general and one specific. If countries like New Zealand and its partners proclaim their respect for national sovereignty and independence, then why are they so perturbed when a country like the Solomon Islands signs agreements with non-traditional patrons like the PRC? Besides the US history of intervening in other countries militarily and otherwise, and some darker history along those lines involving Australian and New Zealand actions in the South Pacific, when does championing of sovereignty and independence in foreign affairs become more than lip service? Since the PRC has no history of imperialist adventurism in the South Pacific and worked hard to cultivate friends in the region with exceptional displays of material largesse, is it not a bit neo-colonial paternalistic of Australia, NZ and the US to warn Pacific Island states against engagement with it? Can Pacific Island states not find out themselves what is in store for them should they decide to play the Two Level Game?
More specifically, NZ, Australia and the US have different security perspectives regarding the South Pacific. The US has a traditional security focus that emphasises great power competition over spheres of influence, including the Western Pacific Rim. It has openly said that the PRC is a threat to the liberal, rules-based international order (again, the irony abounds) and a growing military threat to the region (or at least US military supremacy in it). As a US mini-me or Deputy Sheriff in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia shares the US’s traditional security perspective and emphasis when it comes to threat assessments, so its strategic outlook dove-tails nicely with its larger 5 Eyes partner.
New Zealand, however, has a non-traditional security perspective on the Pacific that emphasises the threats posed by climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, poor governance, criminal enterprise, poverty and involuntary migration. As a small island state, NZ sees itself in a solidarity position with and as a champion of its Pacific Island neighbours when it comes to representing their views in international fora. Yet it is now being pulled by its Anglophone partners into a more traditional security perspective when it comes to the PRC in the Pacific, something that in turn will likely impact on its relations with the Pacific Island community, to say nothing of its delicate relationship with the PRC.
In any event, the Southwestern Pacific is a microcosmic reflection of an international system in transition. The issue is whether the inevitable conflicts that arise as rising and falling Great Powers jockey for position and regional spheres of influence will be resolved via coercive or peaceful means, and how one or the other means of resolution will impact on their allies, partners and strategic objects of attention such as the Pacific Island community.
In the words of the late Donald Rumsfeld, those are the unknown unknowns.
I got up early to do a TV interview about the recent (and ongoing) trip by the PRC foreign minister around the SW Pacific looking to sign bilateral and multilateral agreements. I never got to discuss the concept of “sphere of influence” as it applies to the power play, nor the fact that the territorial size and resource exploitation potential of any potential PRC-Pacific Island community multilateral economic and security agreement would mark a major shift in the Pacific strategic balance of power. But I did get to try and put the recent moves in broader context, which is unusual for a TV talking head. You can see the interview here.
In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I speculate on how the Ruso-Ukrainian War will shape future regional security dynamics. We start with NATO and work our way East to the Northern Pacific. It is not comprehensive but we outline some potential ramifications with regard to Western, Russian and even Chinese responses to the war. Bottom line is that no matter what the outcome, Russia comes out of the war diminished on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts, which in turn changes the regional security landscape moving forward. The episode is here.
After a brief hiatus, the “A View from Afar” podcast is back on air with Selwyn Manning leading the Q&A with me. This week is a grab bag of topics: Russian V-Day celebrations, Asian and European elections, and the impact of the PRC-Solomon Islands on the regional strategic balance. Plus a bunch more. Check it out.
For the last three decades the global geopolitical system has been in a state of transition. It first transited from the tight bi-polar arrangement of the Cold War, where two nuclear superpowers with closely integrated alliance systems (NATO and the Warsaw Pact, plus other related networks) strategicaly balanced each other by deterrence through credible counterforce. That is, the threat of nuclear counter-strikes prevented first use of those weapons and limited conflicts to conventional and unconventional wars in regions and theatres that were considered peripheral rather than shatter zones because the threat of escalation into nuclear war in those regions was low. Conversely, conventional wars in places like Central Europe were shatter zones because the possibility of escalation into nuclear war was distinctly feasible.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world transited to a unipolar geopolitical order, where the US reigned supreme (as the “hegemonic” power, in international relations parlance) over all adversaries and allies on both military and economic dimensions. Conflicts became increasingly “small,” meaning that wars tended to involve minor or failed states and/or non-state ideological actors that at best served as proxies for inter-state conflict (say, Iranian clients like Hamas and Hizbollah versus Israel).
What inter-state conflict did occur was limited and short. Irregular conflicts simmered and sputtered but posed no existential threat to either the hegemonic power or its alliance networks. After a period of glasnost (openness and transparency) in its foreign and domestic affairs and perestroika (reconstruction and reform) of its political institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Russians retrenched at home and retreated from major commitments abroad. Several Warsaw Pact states became NATO members, and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 the PRC began liberalising under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. The “new world order” of the 1990s was a time of relative peace under what was then the dominant international relations ideology of the time (at least in the West): liberal internationalism, where the combination of democratic governments and free markets were considered to be the best possible political-economic combination. By analytic extension, the more nation-states adopted that combination, the less likely there would be wars between them. This was construed in foreign policy practice as the Pax Americana, which was theoretically grounded in a liberal internationalist sub-concept known as the democratic peace thesis (I am crudely summarizing here but readers will get the drift).
The unipolar world ended on September 11, 2001. It was not the spectacular terrorist attacks on US symbols of power that undermined the “hegemon.” It was its response.
In a classic sucker ploy (where a weaker belligerent provokes an over-reaction from a stronger opponent), Osama bin-Laden and his comrades provoked the US into its own type of Crusade, where not only did it invade Afghanistan in order to hunt down bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda events in that country, but also in order to overthrow and replace the Taliban regime that gave them shelter. Using the ruse of promoting democracy, the US then invaded Iraq under the pretext that it was somehow involved with al-Qaeda (it was not) and also was preparing to launch weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against Israel and other Western targets (it was not). The US then expanded the scope of anti-jihadist operations world-wide, with special operations forces dispersed throughout the globe looking Islamicists of all stripes.
With that, the W. Bush administration turned liberal internationalism into a form of neo-imperialist hubris whereby it sought to redraw the map of the Middle East by conquering Iraq and turning it into a large US base, which it believed would not only make it easier to project force into Africa and Central Asia but also intimidate Iran and undermine Saudi and Emirati control of world oil supplies once Iraqi oil production resumed under US guidance (it did neither).
Instead, the US was sucked into a 20 year irregular war of a thousand cuts in Afghanistan and a ten year war of occupation in Iraq that gave rise to ISIS out of the ashes of the Iraqi Sunni rebellion (especially in Anbar and Najaf Governorates, where Sunnis were targeted by US forces because of their support for Saddam Hussein). Both turned out to be wars of attrition in which the will and commitment of the US public to them waned rapidly while local insurgents remained steadfast in spite of incalculable losses, which then became a political issue that Donald Trump eventually was able to exploit in his presidential campaign with his commitment to withdrawing troops from both countries (Barak Obama had initiated the process of withdrawals but they were ongoing during the 2016 US presidential election campaign).
During the time that the US pursued these wars of opportunity (since neither involved fighting an existential threat to the US that would have defined them as wars of necessity), its main rivals, Russia and China, politically regrouped, militarily rearmed, economically reintegrated into the global system of production, trade and exchange, and began to project power abroad. The US was able to cajole and coerce friends and allies into supporting the “War on Terror” around the world, but its two main rivals sat those conflicts out and used the window of opportunity to re-establish themselves as the giant’s rivals.
In addition, other powers began to emerge during the early 2000s and 2010s, especially India, Brazil and restored powers like Germany and Japan along with non-democratic states like Turkey and Iran. Under the Obama administration the US tacitly admitted the inevitability of geopolitical change and attempted to accomodate and channel the aspirations of the emerging and reemerging powers. Then, in the political equivalent of the last gasp of a drowning person, Trump reversed course and tried to grasp at one final attempt at global supremacy even while withdrawing from the world stage in order to focus on his domestic national-populist project. He misconstrued military capability and economic nationalism as primary measures of national strength and ignored the concepts of soft and smart power. He turned a relatively straight-forward pandemic mitigation effort into a ideological civil war over masks, mandates and vaccines, further dividing the country in the process. Along with his bullying of allies and his kowtowing and fawning to adversaries, his administration was the straw the broke the hegemon’s back. The world is now a different place and the US is no longer the only hub around which global wheel revolves.
Although the balance between ascendent and descendent states in the merging multipolar system is fluid and as of yet not fully established, what is clear is the the global geopolitical order has moved from a unipolar to a multipolar configuration in which the US is no longer the sole superpower but now one among several great powers. It may not like it, but its internal political and social divisions and over-extension in fruitless wars has exhausted the US capability to maintain its hegemonic status.
There is much more to the transitional dynamics that have marked international relations since 1990, but the gist is clear: we live in a period of transition that is seeing the emergence and consolidation of a new multipolar geopolitical order.
There is good news and bad news in this changing panorama. On the one hand, multipolar systems are considered by international relations scholars to be more stable that unipolar or bipolar systems. That is because a unipolar world breeds resentment and subversion on the part of would-be pretenders to the throne, and bi-polar systems limit state’s independence of action in foreign affairs because they have to chose between two opposing camps. The non-aligned movement (NAM) tried to straddle the fence during the Cold War, but other than India most of those who adhered to geopolitical neutrality wound up being marginalised or eventually forced to chose a side.
A multipolar world, preferably a system dominated by 3, 5 or 7 great powers, is more stable because those powers can balance each other on specific issues and form tactical coalitions to achieve majority outcomes on disputed subjects. Minor powers can ally or align with individual great powers on specific areas of mutual concern, thereby giving diplomatic “depth” or “weight” to those areas in the face of opposition from other great powers (say, on climate change or arms control). The operative premise is that the strategic balance is malleable and contingent: malleable because the specific coalition of great power partners changes over time based on their contingent agreement or disagreement on distinct matters within an overall framework of self-interested, yet collective respect.
The down side of the transition from one international order to another is that the transitional “moment”–which can last decades before being consolidated as a new status quo–is marked by an erosion of international norms and rules, increased violations of them, and by default the use of conflict as a systems regulator. Conflict may be economic, diplomatic, social, military or a combination thereof. It involves clashes between ascendent and descendent powers, that is, powers that are in decline and those that are in international ascendence. In most cases conflicts are initiated by descendent powers attempting to preserve or cling to the extant status quo and their positions within it. The trouble is that by the time a nation-state realises it is in decline and attempts to forestall its eclipse by others, it is too late. Confronted by the spectre of irreversible withering, sclerosis or collapse, descendent powers resort to all that they have left. War. And they lose those wars, which hastens their demise as great powers.
WW1 is a good example of this syndrome. The Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were descendent powers when war broke out. The Axis was defeated by a coalition led by the UK and France (at the height of their powers) belatedly joined by the US. Although the Tsarist regime was on the winning side of the war its Army disintegrated during fighting that left both Russian society and the Tsarists exhausted by the effort (and therefor ripe for revolution). It was overthrown and replaced by the Bolsheviks in 1917-23. As a result of defeat, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered. The US benefitted from its late arrival to the fray because its military-industrial complex enjoyed its first real Industrial Revolution moment of growth, something that sustained its rise to pre-eminence over the subsequent course of the 20th century (and many wars). As Poulantzas noted, in wars amongst Great Powers, the weak links in the imperialist chain wind up defeated by the stronger ones.
A brief aside here for those academically inclined. Although long time readers will know that I am a realist at heart, having studied under Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger (and Albert Wohlstetter about nuclear strategy!), this analysis conforms to the systems school of international relations theory pioneered by Morton A. Kaplan, who I also studied under. Systems theory is a macro-level theory in the sense that it seeks to explain the workings of an (entire) unit of study in the aggregate rather than as the combined behaviour of its component parts. Realist international theory explains the behaviour of the component parts and the impact of their aggregated interaction, so is a meso-level theory when it comes to foreign policy analysis and international relations scholarship. Study of domestic sources of foreign policy behaviour round out the theoretical whole by focusing on micro-level approaches to international relations theory (the so-called “Second Image”).
There is plenty of reason to use realism, idealism or constructivism to explain the rise and decline of States in a process of international geopolitical transition, but here I have chosen to stick with a systems approach because there are plenty of analyses that explain individual state and multinational behaviour over the short-term.That has been the case with contemporary analyses of the Ruso-Ukrainian war.
Returning to the matter of transitional dynamics and for reasons outlined above, it has long been assumed that the great power in decline that was most inclined to war would be the US. The indicators are all there: social malaise, hyper partisanship, political sclerosis and corruption, economic decay, racial division, public and private unrest and violence, vulgarisation of popular culture, reification of xenophobic militarism and false patriotism. The symptoms are many and indeed the US has been trapped in a cycle of endless wars that mainly serve the interests of the military-industrial complex that profit from them and the politicians who enable and abet them (however the material benefits of war wind up trickling down to shareholders and employees of the complex).
But it turns out that while the US is a relatively young power that has managed to weather (not manage) its decline so far, there is another country whose descent is longer term and irreversible: Russia. That is why it has resorted to invading Ukraine, and that is why it is doomed to fail whether it “wins” or loses.
The Russian Empire once extended across three continents from the Eastern Shores of Siberia and Northern and Central Asia deep into Scandinavia, the Baltics, Caucasus’s, Persian and Ottomon territories and Alaska. It was the third largest Empire to have existed.
Since then it has lost territory all along its former borders and, in spite of political reorganisation under the Soviets (into the Soviet Union (USSR)), it has not been able to maintain its once vaunted status in spite of being on the victorious side in WW2 and acquiring nuclear weapons. After the Cold War it has seen former “protectorates” join NATO and/or the EU and faced Islamicist irredentism in areas with significant Muslim populations like Chechnya. It has invaded and annexed territory in Georgia and Ukraine after they flirted with NATO membership. It has propped up the Assad regime in Syria and meddled in post-Gaddafi Libya as a way of demonstrating power projection capability.
After a decade trying to adopt democracy, it returned to personalist autocratic rule under Vladimir Putin, and because of the way perestroika was mismanaged by opportunists in the newly privatised former state enterprise sector in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, it has become a kleptocracy of epic proportions (hence the constant reference to oligarchs who made their money in less than honourable ways).
But there is more to Russian decline than its political and economic criminality. It has a declining birth rate and worsening health indicators. It has absurdly high levels of alcoholism. It has no genuine entrepreneurial sector, including in high technology. The much vaunted Russian hackers use Western technologies to do so, and basic industrial non-durables like tractors, automobiles and aircraft (once staples of Soviet production) are increasingly Western in origin. It has become reliant on fossil fuel exports for the bulk of its GDP. Its black market economies, be they trafficking in drugs, currency, pornography or humans (sometimes together), rival the “real” Russian economy in terms of size and scope.
There is much more to it but the picture should be clear. Russia has been on a long term decline since the early 20th century regardless of pogroms, putches, purges and reforms in and of its institutional bases. Since 1991 that slide has accelerated, ending in Putin’s desperate gamble to invade Ukraine.
The immediate justification for the invasion was that Russian geopolitical perspectives have always emphasised having “buffers” along their borders. Russia has the longest land borders in the world and, since the days of Empire, has always been apprehensive about controlling them. When the USSR collapse it resisted and warned against but could do nothing about NATO expansion up to its Western borders, with Estonia and Latvia becoming NATO members as well as former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria. Whatever NATO’s intentions were at the beginning, it is clear that many of the former Warsaw Pact members asked to join NATO precisely because of their experience with the USSR. In retrospect it may have been foolhardy to ignore Russian warnings about the existential nature of the threat posed by NATO on its borders, but whatever the case, when Ukraine pondered the possibility of joining NATO, that became a key precipitant reason why the Russians decided to invade it (remembering that the 2014 invasion of the Dombas and Crimea was done for the exact same reason).
But this must be seen against the backdrop of long-term decline. In July 2021 Putin gave a speech emphasising the Russian origins of all Slavic people and openly mentioned the glory days of the Russian Empire. He and his associates have spoken of a Russian-centric sphere of influence ranging from “Lisbon to Vladivostok.” It is clear that such talk is destined for domestic consumption and part of a propaganda effort to get the Russian people behind Putin’s project of restoring the Motherland’s grandeur. But it is delusional nevertheless. Whether Russia “wins” or loses in Ukraine, that will not resolve and reverse the long-term negative trends that plague the country and may well accelerate them (for example, the exodus of highly educated Russians to the West since the invasion began). Even in the closed world of the Siloviki that surround Putin as a type of Praetorian Guard, there surely is little true belief that the long-term Russian decline can be arrested by a territorial grab of a neighbouring Slavic country with ethnic Russians inhabiting parts of it. As the war has already shown, being ethnic Russian and Russian speaking in the Ukraine does not necessarily translate into love of Mother Russia or support for the invasion. So what do the Russians hope to get out of this venture?
Truth be told Russia will not be any better for this war. It is more isolated, more reviled, demonstrably weaker and militarily exposed by what is clearly a miscalculated over-reach by Putin and the Siloviki. If Russia manages to annex the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, it will be a temporary victory at best and instead serve as a stop-gap, finger-in-the-dike last resort attempt to stem the tide of national decline. Eventually it will be exposed for what it is and fail, especially because Ukraine and its Western partners will work hard to make it fail even in the event of annexation. Exposure of the real costs of the invasion in turn will lead to domestic unrest and political in-fighting in the Kremlin, something that will eventually leach out into society at large. The sum total of the events is that Russia will enter into crisis and perhaps retreat into a form of isolationist hibernation while internal forces fight for national political control. It will still have a large military as a deterrent to aggression against the homeland but in an ironic twist it will have returned to what the USSR was at the end of its reign: a military hollow shell protecting a dejected and alienated society.
The precipitants of the Ruso-Ukranian War may be immediate in nature, but its roots lie in long term Russian decline. At systemic level the war will serve as a regulating device that will remove a descendent Russia from the Great Power constellation that will become the new multipolar status quo. Whether it is followed in terminal descent by the US is a matter of conjecture, but as things stand Russia has become the poster child for long-term Imperial decline.