The Ukraine War and the World’s Increasingly Dangerous Geopolitical Landscape

NATO ships exercise with Romanian Navy in the Black Sea, 2019. Photo: NATO
NATO ships exercise with Romanian Navy in the Black Sea, 2019. Photo: NATO

by Joseph Gerson

*First posted in Common Dreams*

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s devastating and illegal invasion of Ukraine, launched in large measure to compensate for strategic vulnerabilities caused by NATO’s expansion, has triggered the most tumultuous and potentially dangerous transformation of the geopolitical disorder since the end of World War II. Internationally, there is a near-complete absence of trust and cooperation between the world’s most powerful nations even as we face the existential threats of nuclear, climate, and pandemics. We are cursed with the near-complete absence of arms control agreements with the exception of New START which will soon expire. And hopes that global warming can be limited to 1.5C have evaporated.

The Ukraine War is transforming the world’s geopolitical systems. Russia will be increasingly dependent on China, and their tacit alliance will be institutionalized as they confront the United States, NATO, and their global allies. Putin has united NATO and restored U.S. primacy across Europe. With Finland and Sweden joining the Alliance, NATO’s border with Russia will double in size. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been ramping up its military, diplomatic, and technological campaign to reinforce its Indo-Pacific primacy against a rising China. One hopeful note is that a non-aligned movement may emerge.

With its 2010 Out of Area Doctrine and accumulation of “partner” nations, NATO became a global alliance. In addition, countries like Columbia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are deepening their integration with NATO. Germany, France, and Britain have joined the U.S. and Japan in South China Sea maritime operations. And this month NATO will further institutionalize its NATO 2030 doctrine to contain and manage China’s rise, as well as to enforce Russia’s deepening isolation.

That said, Western unity may not endure. While Eastern European and Baltic nations are committed to a decisive victory over Russia, in Western Europe there are growing concerns about energy and escalation to possible nuclear war. In the U.S., with inflation hemorrhaging support for President Joe Biden, there could be major policy changes as we approach November’s midterms and the following 2024 elections. Regardless of who will be in power, Beijing will continue to be seen in the U.S. as the rising power challenging U.S. primacy. The absence of mutual trust and nuclear, cyber, artificial intelligence, and other high-tech weapons arms control negotiations leaves humanity hurtling into an uncertain future with no guardrails.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently warned that China is undermining the global order. This is the disorder imposed and negotiated to advantage the world’s post-World War II hegemon when China was impoverished and weak. Of course, China is now pursuing what its leaders believe to be their national interests, sometimes—as with the nine-dash line in the South China/West Philippine Sea—with little regard for the rights and interests of others.

With 2018 National Defense Strategy, essentially reiterated by Biden, the U.S. prioritized competition with other great powers, with China as the Pentagon’s “pacing” challenge. The goal: maintain the U.S. competitive advantage and ensure that U,S. military capabilities can defeat China in a war. It mandates increased funding for advanced and nuclear weapons, massive investments in high-tech. The Strategy led to the creation of the QUAD (U.S., Japan, India, Australia) semi-alliance and the AUKUS (Australia, Britain, U.S.) alliance. Washington hopes that these will serve as foundations for a future Asian NATO. Add to this the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework designed to soften how Washington’s military fist is seen across the Indo-Pacific region.

Despite the Ukraine War, the Biden Administration remains focused on China. Biden and his mandarins recently traveled to Asian and Pacific capitals, and with their Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States warned that the U.S. is “determined to strengthen our long-term position and commitment to the Indo-Pacific” by shaping the “strategic environment.” We see this in Washington’s threat following China’s establishment of a security relationship with the Solomon Islands.

One need not be an apologist for Beijing’s repression of human rights and provocative military actions to be concerned about Washington’s assaults against the One China policy. “Strategic ambiguity” is being replaced by “strategic clarity” the commitment to defending Taiwan militarily. The Washington Establishment is determined to bring Taiwan fully into the U.S. sphere to reinforce U.S.-Japanese domination of the First Island Chain, and thus China’s containment. The State Department recently removed the statement that the U.S. “does not support independence” for Taiwan from its official Taiwan Fact Sheet. Language recognizing “the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China” and that “Taiwan is part of China” was also removed.

Japan’s leaders have signaled that in case of a war for Taiwan, Tokyo’s military would join the fight. In violation of Japan’s peace constitution, Tokyo—already a significant military power—is also moving to double its military spending and to develop conventional first-strike capabilities. Across the water, the Korean government is seeking the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to reinforce extended deterrence.

Former Australian Prime Minister and China scholar Kevin Rudd argues that U.S. and Chinese core national interests and values are in direct conflict and that we must concentrate on preventing an “avoidable war.” Some in Washington believe that war with China is inevitable and that the U.S. should strike first while it has military overmatch. Rudd also argues that Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks to establish a Monroe-Doctrine-like sphere of influence to reinforce China’s security, and says Xi believes that China will have the military power needed to prevail over the U.S. in Taiwan by 2027.

The combination of Taiwan’s geostrategic value as the vulnerable hinge of U.S. power and influence in East Asia and the western Pacific and U.S. military commitments to defend Taiwan make the island today’ geopolitical center of the struggle for world power. Were the U.S. to fail to defend Taiwan, it would call U.S. commitments to its alliances in Asia, the Pacific and across Europe into question, and thus the future of its global empire. The belief that nuclear weapons are the only way the U.S. can guarantee Taiwan’s defense helps to explain Biden’s reaffirmation of the first use nuclear war fighting doctrine.

Another critical uncertainty is who will rule the United States. Noam Chomsky recently wrote that “It’s quite incredible what’s going on… I’ve never experienced such utter irrationality and conformism.” Democrats have become a war party and are seemingly powerless to control inflation. Our constitution’s bias toward minority and conservative rule and the corruption of our electoral systems point to right-wing, authoritarian, America-First white supremacist control of Congress in November’s election, and possibly in the 2024 presidential election. But, regardless of who is in power, the confrontational military, economic, and technological initiatives to contain and manage China’s rise will continue.

Where to from here?

Building on the Palme Commissions 1982 Common Security Report which taught that security cannot be created against a nation’s rival but only with it, and which paved the way for the end of the Cold War, the Palme Center, the IPB and the ITUC recently issued Common Security 2020. Its principles and recommendations include revitalization of the global architecture for peace and renewed nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations that we desperately need.

Those of us coming from great power and allied nations have the urgent responsibility to build pressure for a Ukraine ceasefire and just negotiated settlement and to bring our governments back from the brink of confrontation. Cooperation for disarmament, climate stability, health, and economic development are existential necessities.

Finally, we can hope for the emergence of a non-aligned force in global geopolitics, the nations which abstained from the U.N. General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A new non-aligned movement could become an important force to mediate great power tensions and to press for peace, development, and other Common Security initiatives.

These are extremely tumultuous and dangerous times. We are threatened by war, nuclear annihilation, climate chaos, pandemics, and devastating economic and social inequalities. But it is also true that these are crises created by human beings, and that we have the resources and solutions to resolve each of them. What has been lacking is the popular and political will. Together we must find the ways to generate that will.

By Joseph Gerson