The world is on the brink of cataclysmic change.
In Russia, a fierce nationalist seeks his fourth term as the president presiding over a resurgent Superpower – one he helped rebuild after seeing the Soviet Union crumble before his bewildered eyes. The wounds run deep, but to Vladimir Putin, revenge is sweet. He is the world’s most powerful man, and Russia is calling the shots in every geopolitical arena it has stormed into since he came to power. Russia has annexed Georgia, seized Crimea and a large chunk of Eastern Ukraine; it is opening new military bases in Syria and Vietnam, and toying with the idea of reopening the Soviet-era bases in Havana that sent the US into a panic in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yes, we are in a new cold war – but this time Russia is taking steps to ensure it won’t lose again.
A little over 3,600 miles away in Beijing, Xi Xinping – the “New Mao” – has just had his term limits as president removed. And for Xi, it’s probably just as well. In 2018, China is presiding over the largest economy, military and political party on earth. This must continue at any cost. And this year, China completed its militarisation of the strategic South China Sea, where the world’s most critical trade route is located. The “New Silk Road” (otherwise known as One Belt, One Road) is being built, spanning the globe. And Xi knows that, as with the South China Sea, the roads, ports and airstrips can just as easily have a military dimension as a civilian one – should the circumstances permit.
And then we have Donald Trump – a beleaguered president who is being investigated by his own intelligence agencies. He presides over a nation that is, in many ways, strategically ‘on the ropes’. In the space of 12 months, America’s influence has declined as the Trump Administration continues to undermine the institutions (both domestic and international) that have helped America remain a Superpower. Perhaps this is why Trump’s promises to “make America great again” have been met with confusion and concern. This week, he slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium imports and shrugged at the prospect of a trade war with his country’s largest creditor – China. As it stands, America is shying away from global responsibilities and embracing protectionism as China steps in to fill the void. Making matters worse, Trump faces the real prospect of becoming a lame duck president after the mid-term elections in November.
So where does all of this leave us?
The next generation will likely grow up watching a resurgent Russia and rapidly expanding China push ahead with their Masterplan for the 21st Century. But as the US formulates a plan to somehow reverse this process and get back on top, are there realistic solutions? Perhaps it’s better put like this: Can anything short of an all-out war help America regain the ability to act with such impunity around the world?
Some believe that by financially pressuring Russia and China, the two great competitors might collapse and become failed states, but there are two problems with that theory:
Firstly, China and Russia are establishing a new financial architecture to circumvent the almighty ‘Petrodollar’ and protect themselves from Western sanctions. Weaker nations that attempted to do this (notably Iraq in 2000 and Libya in 2009) were promptly bombed and invaded by US-led coalitions. But America can take no such action against Russia and China.
Secondly, Russia and China both wield significant power over much of the world’s economies. Russia is the world’s largest oil producer, while China is the world’s largest economy. Of course, the US could wage economic war against Russia and China, but it is unlikely that the US would emerge as the winner.
So, as Trump’s national security team are no doubt telling him, the determination by Russia and China to establish a new world order means that it is only a short matter of time before America’s position at the top of the geopolitical food chain is lost. In this scenario, America can certainly remain a formidable world power, but it can wave goodbye to the impunity it has enjoyed since WW2. Those days are truly gone.
In the minds of the neo-conservative cabals walking the halls of power in Washington, the nightmare scenario will be all too real, and it will look something like this: America’s friends experiencing regime change; Russian and Chinese ships enforcing blockades, containing the rise of smaller powers. Russia and China slapping painful sanctions on NATO countries until they bend to the will of Beijing and Moscow. Russian or Chinese cruise missiles striking targets of smaller powers that defy them. All happening under international law, just as America’s operations in the Gulf War and Kosovo did. All by the books. Attempts to stop it will be vetoed. And the madness of the world order will go on, albeit under much different leadership.
It is visions like this that will have the most hawkish voices in Washington clamoring for Trump’s ear. While some of these voices are confined to think tanks and lobby groups, others have great influence – and this is where things get interesting.
In the early days of the George W Bush Administration, senior bureaucrats were introduced to the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) – a document which laid out a plan for “Pax Americana” in the 21st Century. In many ways, it informed the Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks, but it didn’t stop there. After all, PNAC was about “the long game”, and would span future Administrations, and wars. In this way, America didn’t need a dictator to see through the completion of global Pax Americana, it just required all US President’s, whoever they might be, to adhere to its chief goal.
One of PNAC’s strongest supporters has been former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who is tipped to become President Trump’s next National Security Adviser.
Should Bolton get the job, we can expect a much more aggressive US stance on the crises in Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. But as pointed out earlier, such a stance would ultimately not work in America’s favour. In China, Sun Tsu’s philosophy of winning the war without fighting it is well at work. Meanwhile in Russia, Putin is using the language of brute force and power projection to change realities. Effective ‘soft power’ on one side, head-spinning ‘hard power’ on the other.
And somewhere in the middle is an Administration talking about “a new American moment” to reclaim America’s spot on the mantle. But with the mid-term elections, and a potential ‘lame duck’ presidency and impeachment fast approaching, that moment may never come.