United States and the world, the new geopolitical era

President Joe Biden calls it the "defining decade.

NewsEditor
NewsEditor
31 December 2022 Saturday 22:30
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United States and the world, the new geopolitical era

President Joe Biden calls it the "defining decade." Yet the label barely captures the moment: the beginning of a post-Cold War era in which the US-shaped world order may be violently disrupted by Russia and China. The label "great power competition" falls short amid Russia's destruction of Ukraine; The "new Cold War" is too reductionist given the West's complex economic interdependence with China.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered the rule, established after the Second World War, that borders should not be changed by force. The specter of nuclear war has risen for the first time since the end of the Cold War, albeit with a caveat: Russian President Vladimir Putin has not wielded the threat of nuclear weapons as a last resort, but as an opening gambit to protect his aggressive war.

However, in the US view of things, Russia only represents the "acute" problem. The greatest threat to the world order (what the Pentagon considers its “stepping stone” challenge) comes from China, the only country with the potential to unseat the United States as the world's preeminent power. The Chinese military is expanding rapidly. The country already has the world's largest navy, the world's third largest air force, a wide range of missiles and the means to wage war in space and cyberspace.

And if the "without limits" friendship between Russia and China turns into a real alliance? Right now there is little evidence that China is helping Russia in the war. However, the Eurasian autocracies regularly hold military exercises, and some top US officials think the two will eventually become closer. As China builds its nuclear arsenal to perhaps 1,500 warheads by 2035 (approaching the size of the US and Russian arsenals), the US will need to learn the new art of three-way nuclear deterrence. That, in turn, could lead to another arms race, especially if the New START treaty, which limits US and Russian nuclear weapons, expires in early 2026 without a successor agreement.

The transformation takes place at a time when the relative weight of the United States in the world economy is diminishing. Over the last century, US GDP has been much higher than that of its rivals: Germany and Japan in World War II, the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. However, China's GDP is not far behind that of the United States (and already exceeds it measured in purchasing power parity). US defense spending, while formidable in absolute terms, has remained near record lows as a percentage of GDP. The situation has begun to change: on December 23, Congress approved an increase in defense spending substantially more than what Biden requested.

Old geopolitical theories are being reconsidered. In 1904, the British geostrategist Halford Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the continental heartland of Eurasia—roughly speaking, the area between the Arctic Sea and the Himalayas—could rule the world. In such an analysis, an alliance between Russia and China would pose a grave threat. In contrast, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Mackinder's American contemporary, saw the key to world power as lying in control of the commercial sea lanes. Somewhat in the middle, Nicholas Spykman, another American, argued in 1942 that what was important was not the heart of Eurasia but its littoral ring. He argued that the vital terrain was the maritime regions from the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean, around South Asia to Japan. "Whoever controls the littoral ring controls Eurasia," he wrote. "Whoever controls Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." In its attempt to push for alliances to counter its Eurasian rivals, the United States appears to be moving closer to Spykman's thesis.

In the far West, NATO has been reinvigorated to strengthen Europe and deal with Russia. US and other allied forces have been reinforced along the border with Russia. Abandoning the last vestiges of neutrality, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. If final ratification hurdles from Turkey and Hungary are cleared, new members should join in 2023.

Above all, the Western allies have broadly armed and supported Ukraine in repelling the Russian onslaught. Despite complaints from supporters of the "America First" of Donald Trump, Biden's predecessor, Congress has agreed to allocate an additional $7 billion to the $37.7 billion requested by Biden to help Ukraine throughout the fiscal year. which ends in September 2023. Far from weakening the Western alliance, Putin has strengthened it. Aaron David Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think tank, lists two other unintended consequences: "He has created a moment of bipartisan unity in the United States. And he has offered Biden a moment of redemption after the chaotic withdrawal of Afghanistan".

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the ring, rumors of a future war with China over Taiwan have intensified; especially since the controversial visit to the island in August by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Biden hopes that his recent meeting (his first as president) with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has put "floor" on the deterioration of relations. Perhaps Xi is worried about internal problems and, not least, about the slowdown in the economy and the riots caused by his covid policies; But US military officials, above all, maintain that he wants to develop the military capability necessary to seize Taiwan by 2027.

The United States does not have an alliance similar to NATO in Asia to limit China. Instead, it maintains a hub-and-spoke system of bilateral defense agreements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand; those countries have no obligations to each other. To create greater consistency, the United States has worked to expand specific systems. The "Five Eyes" (with Australia, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand) share intelligence; AUKUS (with Australia and Great Britain) aims to develop nuclear-powered submarines and other weapons; and the Quad (with Australia, India and Japan) discussing everything from vaccinations to maritime safety. South Korea and Japan are putting aside old feuds and holding joint exercises amid heavy missile fire from North Korea (as well as a planned nuclear test).

Japan has announced plans to double defense spending over the next five years, but remains hampered by its pacifist tradition. The autonomously governed island of Taiwan does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with most countries and is excluded from the many regional military exercises of the United States. Biden has repeatedly stated that he would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, but there are many doubts that remain to be cleared up. Under the "strategic ambiguity" doctrine, the United States will not say precisely under what circumstances it will intervene or what it will do, especially in the case of "grey area" attacks, such as a blockade. That makes it difficult for Taiwan to heed the US call to adopt a "porcupine" defensive strategy, prioritizing asymmetric weapons. In addition, congressional budget officials have largely ignored a bipartisan bill to provide Taiwan with billions of dollars in subsidies for the purchase of military equipment, aid similar to that given to Ukraine and Israel.

The central part of Spykman's ring is complex. The Biden administration has gone out of its way to court members of ASEAN, the regional grouping for Southeast Asia. However, for the most part, these members do not want to be forced to choose between China, their main trading partner, and the United States, the main guarantor of regional security.

India remains the grand prize for American strategists. The country has a tradition of nonalignment and pro-Soviet leanings, but has grown closer to the United States as relations with China have soured. The Malabar naval exercises, held annually between the United States and India, have grown to include all members of the Quad. The differences persist. India has avoided directly criticizing Putin's aggression against Ukraine. However, according to Kurt Campbell, White House senior adviser for Asia, India represents "by far the most important bilateral relationship for the United States in the 21st century."

Meanwhile, in the Middle East and Central Asia, successive US presidents have tried to reduce their military commitments after decades of fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is to be expected that a new House of Representatives with a Republican majority will harass the Biden administration over the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. However, the attack carried out in July with drones in Kabul and in which the leader of Al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri was killed highlights Biden's claim to keep a fight against terrorism "beyond the horizon".

On the other hand, this year's spike in oil and gas prices, aggravated by the war in Ukraine, has reaffirmed the geopolitical importance of the Gulf. Having long branded Saudi Arabia a "pariah," Biden visited the country in July and bumped his fist into that of Muhammad bin Salman, the country's crown prince and de facto ruler. "We will not walk away or leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran," Biden told Arab leaders in Jeddah. He didn't get much in return, neither in terms of lowering oil prices nor normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In December, Gulf leaders offered Xi a noticeably warmer welcome.

US relations with Israel may also be tested by the return of Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of a coalition that includes far-right ministers. And Biden's hope of curbing Iran's atomic program by reviving a nuclear deal has been dashed. Any agreement leading to the lifting of sanctions is now impossible given the extent of the protests against the Iranian regime. Yet Iran continues to enrich uranium apace, challenging Biden's promise to stop the mullahs from getting nuclear weapons.

As for the rest of the world, the United States and its allies have assembled a lopsided cast of votes to denounce Russia in the United Nations General Assembly. However, support for the West in the global South is fragile. Many countries see themselves as victims of a distant European war that has raised fuel and food prices and diverted international attention from other crises. Furthermore, they do not want to be caught in the middle of a Cold War between the United States and China.

The West has responded to those concerns in a number of ways: by pressing for a mechanism that would allow Ukraine to export grain from its Black Sea ports; trying to impose a cap on Russian oil prices; promoting global health initiatives; and creating a Western mechanism to finance infrastructure projects and challenge China's Belt and Road Initiative. More generally, Biden has tempered his initial efforts to divide the world into democracies and autocracies. He has organized a series of large regional summits, notably with leaders from Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America and Africa.

The big hole in his strategy is the absence of an attractive economic and trade policy that strengthens ties between allies and friends. The US-EU Council on Trade and Technology provides a useful discussion forum for emerging technology. The 14-country Indo-Pacific Economic Framework promises future initiatives on the digital economy, supply chain resilience, clean energy, and equity (ie, rules on taxation, money laundering, and bribery). However, they are not substantial trade agreements. The United States will not heed, for example, the desire of its Asian allies to join the Global and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly TPP), signed by 11 countries.

In reality, Biden's "middle-class foreign policy" measures offer a healthy dose of protectionism and industrial policy. The most recent measures include subsidies for green technology and semiconductors, as well as restrictions on China's access to advanced microchips. Those policies are causing tensions with European and Asian allies by limiting access to the US market, restricting exports to China and diverting investment. The European Union could respond by subsidizing its own semiconductor and green technology sectors. Still, Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, appears to view the prospect of a subsidy war as positive. As he told the Carnegie Foundation, the United States was helping the middle classes elsewhere by fostering "a virtuous circle of investment in other parts of the world."

The other permanent concern refers to democracy in the West and, above all, in the United States, almost two years after a Trumpist mob stormed the Capitol. The United States appears to be moving away from Trump and his election deniers, but politics at home remains intensely polarized. The health of American democracy is essential to its ability to attract friends and assert its leadership. Sullivan has recounted how in November, when Biden attended an Asian summit in Phnom Penh, other leaders asked about the details of the midterm elections in places like Nevada. In Sullivan's words, "it was a reminder that the rest of the world is looking at the state of American democracy...and asking, 'What does all this tell us about America's staying power on the international stage? '".

© 2022 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix

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