Today is April 7, 2023. In today’s episode I’m going to present my review of the key shifts in the global balance that we’ve seen over the past week:
NATO-Russia contest in Ukraine
If we start by looking at the ongoing contest between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, there have been two main developments there: Finland was finally admitted to NATO, which brought to an end a lengthy period in which there has been increasingly close military cooperation between Finland and NATO and then, the year-long process of Finland’s accession to the alliance. The big change with its final admission to NATO is that Finland now receives protection under Article 5 of NATO’s charter which states that an attack on any full member of NATO is considered an attack on all of NATO, and that other NATO states will then assist it to repel the attack using any means deemed necessary, including the use of force.
This schematic from CSIS traces the 2018 rail links between China, Russia, and the rest of Europe.
In the United States, relations between China and “the West” are viewed as a trans-oceanic affair, with the Asia-Pacific region forming its main arena of cooperation or competition. Viewed from Europe or West Asia (the area formerly known as the Middle East), relations with China look different: in recent decades the many land routes that crisscross Eurasia in all directions have been growing fast in length, connectivity, and capacity.
This could mark a big historical turning-point—or rather, a return after a 600-year hiatus to the kind of world in which, in the late 13th century CE, Marco Polo and his uncle traveled overland to, and through, large portions of China, as shown here.
In the intervening centuries, it was the lethal naval power of a handful of small West European states and their American offspring that came to dominate the destinies of all of humankind.
Everywhere they sailed in 15th through 20th centuries, those European-origined naval empires crushed the power of the large land-based polities they encountered. The Aztecs, Incas, Mughals, Ottoman, Ming and Qing Chinese, and numerous other empires and local confederations were all wiped out.
So now, 600 years after Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator first started to build his network of heavily armed trading posts along the coasts of Africa, it looks as if land empires and the ties that bind them are about to make a comeback.
First, a quick disclosure: As someone extremely fond of the young people in my family, I am deeply concerned about the effect of all social media apps on the lives and psyches of tweens and teens. Not just TikTok, but all of them…
So now, on to TikTok and the outrageous spectacle of the hearing the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee held yesterday into alleged harms that it accused the Chinese-owned company of inflicting on Americans. And no, the spectacle there lay not just in the stunning ignorance some committee members displayed about the basics of the technology they were allegedly investigating… It lay even more in the sad parade of unthinking, anti-China prejudice that they modeled and amplified in their remarks.
Few of these elected representatives showed any interest in actually listening to, or learning from, the answers that TikTok’s ever-patient (and by the way, Singaporean) CEO, Shou Zi Chew, gave to their often baffling questions. The reps were too busy grandstanding for the cameras and for the national audiences that they assumed would just love to see them strut on the big Sinophobic stage that this five-hour hearing afforded them. (Big kudos to NY Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who was the only member of Congress prepared to stick up for TikTok and to question the anti-China nature of the hearings.)
Within the broader “blob” of today’s Washington political elite, anti-China agitation is now, all too often, a quite bipartisan affair. But why? I don’t necessarily expect every member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to be conversant with the writings of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger, or other great strategic thinkers. But I would hope that the relevant leaders of our national-security apparatus might have given serious thought to such matters… especially in the age of possible nuclear annihilation that we’ve been living in for 78 years now.
The history of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War can be seen as a litany of forceful regime-change projects undertaken in other countries around the world, with the force used being sometimes military, sometimes economic, sometimes both. Among these projects, the invasion of Iraq launched twenty years ago, on March 19, 2023, stands out for several reasons. These include the scale of the military operations involved, the level of the destruction inflicted on Iraq, and the jaw-dropping effrontery of the decision Pres. George W. Bush had taken to launch the war without any authorization from the United Nations.
Throughout the post-Cold War era, government officials and members of the (often fawningly compliant) U.S. punditocracy have cloaked most of Washington’s regime-change projects in some form of “humanitarian” or “international law” justification. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in their initial inception, different. The main driver of the decision to invade Afghanistan was angry revenge for the attacks of 9/11. The excuse used for invading Iraq was the (quite unsubstantiated) allegation that Pres. Saddam Hussein was manufacturing chemical or biological weapons. In both those cases, though, the original “reason” for the invasion was soon adorned with all kinds of other gauzy, feel-good justifications, usually lumped together under the rubric of “nation-building.” In the case of Iraq, after Pres. Hussein was removed by force of U.S. arms, his ruling Baath Party would be speedily disbanded and a democracy would magically be planted in Iraq featuring a new Constitution; a court system capable of conducting war-crimes trials; a decentralized political system; a flourishing free-market economy; and even—as many of the invasion’s most ardent proponents hoped—peace with Israel. The template that many of the war’s planners seemed to be using for their post-war planning was that of the Allied occupations of Germany or Japan in 1945.
As we know, almost none of those oft-touted goals were achieved—or, when they were, they proved of little or no value to Iraq’s people. Iraq did, at a formal level, get a new Constitution; but the version adopted foisted onto the country a “muhasasa” system of divvying up the top posts along sectarian lines, such as had already, for many decades prior, proven deeply dysfunctional in Lebanon. Iraq did get some political decentralization (as foisted onto it by numerous DC politicians including then-Senator Joe Biden, who had earlier voted enthusiastically for the invasion itself.) But Iraq’s decentralization did not prevent the intrusion into its political sphere of numerous powerful militias or, in 2014, the explosive arrival of the completely new and disruptive political force IS, the Islamic State.
Today, Iraq is a country broken in many, many ways. More than 600,000 Iraqis died as a result of an invasion and occupation that also cost U.S. taxpayers $2 trillion. And the U.S. military is still deployed today in large parts of the country (and in neighboring parts of Syria), in areas to which it rushed to after the eruption of IS, and where it has still stayed.
In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a completely unauthorized use of force and therefore in violation of international law. But no serious attempt was ever made at the United Nations (or within U.S. domestic politics) to hold the Bush administration accountable for that violation.
Washington “got away with it” in 2003. Pres. Bush and his top officials invaded Iraq because they could. And they got away with their aggression completely unpunished.
Eight years later, in March 2011, the Obama administration was a little more careful when it worked with NATO to use military force to effect regime change in Libya. It pushed the British and French militaries to take the lead and it expended a little energy to get a force-permitting resolution at the Security Council. But when it did get one (Resolution 1973, authorizing creation of a no-fly zone around Benghazi), it immediately worked with the NATO allies to exceed the terms of that resolution and to chase Pres. Muammar Qadhafi and his government to a cruel and deadly finish.
Libya’s shattered society still feels the disastrous effects of that upheaval, today.
Later in 2011, seeing what they had gotten away with in Libya, Pres. Obama, Sec. of State Clinton, and their coterie of regime-changers made a plan to similarly stir up, and then exploit, anti-government demonstrations in Syria. They had the help of key anti-Asad governments in the region, including Türkiye, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE. But in Syria they could not topple Pres. Asad. Instead, their destabilization campaign left the country locked until today into a debilitating series of interlocking conflicts with no end in sight.
Twelve years after 2011, Libya and Syria are still badly broken countries… And so are Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Venezuela, and numerous other countries that have been the targets of U.S. regime-change projects since the 1990s.
Small wonder that the Sri Lankan commentator on international affairs Indi Samarajiva recently wrote,
If Westerners start talking about ‘liberating’ your country and start waving your flag, fucking run… Flooding a warzone with more weapons, more propaganda, more conflict, all under the guise of ‘helping’. Like they helped Afghanistan, like they helped Iraq, like they helped Vietnam, in truth like they wrecked countless nations for countless years. If a Westerner tries to help you, fucking run. Their arms dealers help themselves and leave your country in ruins.
This truly was “the handshake seen around the world.” Yesterday, China’s top negotiator, Wang Yi, concluded the diplomacy he and his colleagues have pursued for some months now by bringing together top negotiators from Saudi Arabia and Iran (Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and Ali Shamkhani) to conclude an agreement under which their two countries would resume their long-torn diplomatic relations within two months and start cooperation on a number of other matters.
Top officials from the United States, which has long seen itself as the overseer of all diplomatic matters in the strategically sensitive Persian Gulf and which has been maintaining tight sanctions on Iran for many years now, seemed to be taken by surprise. (One news report had a seemingly befuddled Pres. Joe Biden, on being asked about this diplomatic breakthrough, responding with boilerplate that didn’t even mention the three countries involved, but only “Israel and the Arab neighbours.”)
The photo shows a unanimous vote at the U.N. Security Council in January 2022, affirming that nuclear wars must never be fought
Unless your name is Tom Friedman, I guess you’d agree that the world is not flat. But what shape does our world have today—and what shape of a world do we want to build over the years ahead?
I’m pulling strongly for the kind of multipolar order in which all the world’s children have a decent chance of growing up in an environment with a sustainably livable climate and from which the threat of nuclear ecocide has been removed.
Joe Biden seems to have a different preference. Time after time, and in a rising crescendo this past week, he has loudly been painting the world as dominated by a bipolar fight between what he calls the “rules-based order” and Russian aggression—and one that the “West” (as embodied by NATO) must win… And from the other side of the Ukraine frontline, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has been loudly proclaiming his own, mirror-image version of that view.
There are two big problems with seeing the world as essentially bipolar:
The zero-sum-game aspect of any bipolar view of the world entrenches competitive actions at a time when the already evident effects of climate change (hello!) and the threat of nuclear annihilation demand cooperation, rather than competition.
Our world is already deeply and irreversibly multipolar! Hence, seeing it as bipolar, or acting as if it were, is extremely retrograde and ends up being damaging for all the peoples of the world (and almost certainly counter-productive for any leader who follows such a path.)
We should all be glad that this week, the government of China has published a concept paper for a new “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) that presents a realistic, essentially multipolar description of the nature of global power. And just today, Pres. Xi Jinping has issued a powerful call for a ceasefire and peace talks in Ukraine that is clearly derived from the GSI’s principles.
There’s no word yet on whether anyone in China’s corps of global diplomats has been exploring with Moscow or Washington whether and how a Ukraine ceasefire can be attained, or what role Beijing or others might play in that diplomacy. (If such contacts are being conducted, by any party, we most likely wouldn’t hear about them until they were close to success… For my part, I live in hope.)
Meanwhile, two studies recently published in “the West” underline the degree to which power in the world has already become widely diffused. In this one, “The New Geopolitics”, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs focuses on the economic underpinnings of today’s world. And in this one, “United West, divided from the rest”, three analysts from the European Council on Foreign Relations look at the degree to which the public attitudes in China, India, Türkiye, and Russia already diverge starkly from those in NATO countries.
In today’s essay, I will quickly summarize the key findings of the Sachs and ECFR papers, then offer my own preliminary thoughts on the nature and shape of power in today’s world.
For a number of reasons, I am inclined to believe that the landmark piece of reporting that Sy Hersh released last week on Pres. Biden’s decision to bomb the Nord Stream pipelines, got the essential facts of the story right. I also, for what it’s worth, don’t rule out the possibility that the single insider source on whose revelations much of Hersh’s story relied may also to some extent have been playing him by revealing facts that the source’s bosses in the national security apparatus wanted to be revealed. But even if that’s the case, it doesn’t undermine the credibility of the revelations themselves, though it would raise other intriguing questions.
Two basic facts stand out, with or without the new revelations from Hersh’s source. The first is Pres. Biden’s stark declarationon February 7 last year that, “If Russia invades . . . there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it… I promise you that we will be able to do it.” The second is the fact that on September 26 the two Nord Stream pipelines were indeed blown up, in an operation that investigators from nearby Sweden and Denmark later concluded had been conducted by agents of a state actor, un-named.
We might also note that the countries that have benefited the most from the explosion have been Norway and the United States. And the countries that have suffered most from the explosion have been Germany and Russia.
Image: Syrian Arab Red Crescent rescue teams at a collapsed building in Aleppo
We’ve all seen the pictures. On February 6, a 7.8-degree earthquake struck broad swathes of northern Syria, along with neighboring portions of Türkiye…
Türkiye has a functioning government, and since the earthquake it has received and deployed significant amounts of aid from all around the world. But Syria? The delivery of aid to that country’s people is hamstrung by the super-harsh sanctions that Washington and the EU have maintained on the country for many years now. These sanctions inflict their greatest harm on the government-held parts of the country, but they also seriously impede the flow of aid to residents of the rebel-held parts.
In northwestern Syria, the quake destroyed apartment buildings, mosques, and vital bridges in both the government-held and the rebel-held areas.
On February 9 the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen stressed that, “We need to do everything to make sure that there are no impediments whatsoever to delay lifesaving support that is needed in Syria.” He added that representatives of the United States and the EU had assured him, “they will do whatever they can to make sure that there are no impediments to assistance coming to Syria to help in this operation”.
Let’s hope that happens. Back on February 6, shortly after the earthquake struck, State Department spokesman Ned Price said glibly that, “It would be quite ironic if not even counterproductive…for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now.”
(Charlton Heston as Marc Antony, giving “Cry Havoc!” speech)
The war in Ukraine continues to have a devastating impact on our already troubled world, including on the global flow of grains and other essential items and on the integrity of our global governance system. It drapes the shadow of possible nuclear annihilation across the whole globe… So it’s great to see that a growing number of mainstream voices here in the United States are now voicing support for a speedy ceasefire in Ukraine. Last week, the Rand Corporation published this short-ish study by Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe. And The Economist published this piece (paywalled) by Christopher Chivvis, who heads the Carnegie Endowment’s American Statecraft Program.
Both these articles have enriched the public discourse significantly. However, neither goes as far, or is as clear, as I think is needed. (You can read my first critique of the Rand piece here.) Specifically, I think that any calls for a speedy ceasefire in Ukraine need to address the larger issue of the need for a U.S.-Russia détente in Ukraine.
Image: Signing ceremony for the 2015 “Minsk II” agreement on Ukraine. Shown l. to r. are the leaders of host country Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine.
This week’s news that the United States, Germany, and other NATO countries will be adding two more types of complex Western tanks to the confused mix the Ukrainian military are already trying to deal with is a worrying sign of Washington’s readiness to climb to a higher rung of the potentially catastrophic escalation ladder in Ukraine. But it will take quite some time till those tanks can be used in Ukraine by capable, trained-up Ukrainian tank crews…
Meantime, the need for a speedy, total, country-wide armistice in Ukraine only continues to grow.
Any sustainable peace effort in Ukraine is going to have to address issues at three (or more!) different levels. None of these issues is easy. Initially, I thought of the three levels as constituting three potential “circles of hell.” Then, on further reflection, I concluded we should also think of them as challenges, or even opportunities to build a better-governed and more sustainable world… But first, we need to recognize and understand what the levels are and how they are inter-connected.
Addressing them all will, of course, take time. But luckily there is one powerful tool that diplomats can use today that will speedily stop the carnage on the ground and allow the breathing-space that’s needed to address the deeper issues. It’s called an armistice. As I wrote here, an armistice is what Ukrainians and everyone who has been harmed by this conflict needs right now. (Note: not more weapons, more fear and dispossession, more carnage…)
But let me, anyway, first try to delineate the different levels of confrontation involved in Ukraine, which for now I’ll continue, a little tongue-in-cheek, to describe as the “three circles of hell.”
The good news is that the Ukraine conflict sits amid only three circles of hell, far fewer than the nine identified by Dante Aligheri! The bad news is that each of these is a very tough nut to crack. Then again, two other items of good news: (a) None of these “nuts” need to be cracked immediately. Remember, the leaders of NATO and Russia can agree to a complete armistice in Ukraine any time they choose to, without even starting to negotiate the terms of a “final” peace settlement; and (b) Addressing these challenges in international relations can turn out to be a holistic effort that lays the basis for global stability for many decades to come. (Humankind does, after all, have quite a few other massive challenges to address over the years ahead… )
So what are the three “circles of hell” of which the Ukraine conflict is the epicenter? They are:
The intra-Ukrainian & Ukraine-Russia circle
The European circle, and
The global-balance circle
For now, let me sketch the dimensions of each of these circles briefly. Then, in one or more subsequent essays I’ll unpack them a little more and start to look at the many interactions among them.