Russia's war on Ukraine and the New World Order

RW Johnson says this is probably the last chapter in the USA's ability to play a comprehensive world role

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has signalled a major change in the international order.

(1) East European states which have already experienced Russian invasion and occupation have all been so deeply scarred by the experience that they have remained deeply fearful of Russia’s imperial ambitions.

NATO did not so much decide to expand in their direction as they themselves demanded NATO membership. West Europeans and Americans tended to dismiss their Russophobia as hysterical. No more: no one doubts Russia’s imperialism now.

(2) As a result, Western Europe is cutting its economic links to Russia and the fact of the Russia-China alliance is causing some to consider limiting their links to China too. This is not only de-globalisation but could be the start of a new Cold War. Western investors are leaving China and nobody in the West trusts Chinese telecom companies any more.

(3) Putin’s decision to invade a peaceful neighbouring country and annex parts of its territory has been disastrous for Russia which, whatever the result, is bound to emerge greatly weakened from the experience. Its economy will shrink, its intelligentsia is fleeing abroad, its army has been exposed as third-rate, and NATO has been revitalised and has two major new members on the Russian border.

Even Emmanuel Macron is now concerned that Russia will be completely humiliated. The Chinese are doubtless appalled at this huge act of self-harm, but the result is that Russia is more than ever the weak appendage in its alliance with China.

(4) Germany’s decision to greatly increase its defence spending represents a major re-balancing within Europe. The German defence budget will now be substantially bigger than those of France, Britain or Russia.

Germany could become the military as well as the economic leader of Europe. Given the history, this will cause alarm in many parts of Europe though that may be surpassed by the alarm caused by Russia.

(5) Obama, Trump and now Biden have all agreed that the US must give priority to Asia but in effect the US has been strongly pulled back to its European involvement. China’s reaction is inevitably complex, but it is doubtless pleased by that. Simultaneously, however, Western concern has increased at China’s hostile intentions towards Taiwan.

(6) Putin has from the outset relied heavily on his threat of recourse to nuclear weapons. The suspicion is that when Russia had war-gamed the Ukraine invasion in advance it won all confrontations by threatening nuclear escalation. In practice this has not worked.

Effectively the West has ignored these threats. At first the West refused to allow Poland to supply Ukraine with Mig-29s for fear of provoking Moscow. Now the West is sending so many Mig-29 parts to Ukraine that it almost amounts to the same thing. Similarly, the West is now supplying Ukraine with heavy weaponry which it would not have sent in the first weeks of the war.

The fact is that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would immediately result in nuclear catastrophe for Russia. Deterrence works.

In effect, nuclear weapons are things you brandish rather than use, which in turn quickly takes away the point of brandishing them. As many defence experts have argued for decades, nuclear weapons may in fact be all but useless.

Speculation continues as to Putin’s state of mind. His face has blown up much as President Pompidou’s did due to cortisone treatment when in fact he was dying of cancer.

Just as Xi Jinping has vowed to return Taiwan to China in his lifetime, so Putin seems to have nourished a similar long-term fixation about Ukraine.

Putin certainly seems to have relied on an ever-smaller circle of advisers, becoming more and more isolated. As he moved towards war he also established dictatorial rule within Russia, clearly being unwilling to allow any domestic opposition. He seems to have taken few military leaders into his confidence and, it should be remembered, as an ex-KGB man, Putin lacks military experience.

A variety of endings is still possible for the Ukraine war. It is likely, however, that the war will ultimately be seen as the last act of an old era in which the USA was still attempting to play a comprehensive world role. Ahead clearly lies a new era in which America will be more and more strongly challenged by China, forcing it to make painful choices to pull in its horns outside Asia.

In 1945 America accounted for a whole 50% of the world’s industrial production. All the other major industrial areas had been devastated by war: Japan and Russia both lay in ruins as did much of Europe. In that new era the USA could not only build all the major international institutions, but its economic and military power made it the dominant power everywhere.

American expectations of its role were constructed in the golden glow of that supremacy. America had complete global primacy and its people expected nothing less. This meant that its rulers were free to adopt a sort of Wilsonian liberalism across the world – containing the Soviet bloc while simultaneously forcing the old imperial powers to decolonize and intervening wherever it wished in the name of the Free World.

By the 1970s its economic position was challenged by Europe and Japan but it remained militarily supreme. When John Lehman became Reagan’s Navy Secretary in 1981 he set about building a 600 ship Navy, the aim being to have the capacity to fight three simultaneous wars in different parts of the world. No other power had ever in history aimed at such a thing.

This was, however, the apogee. The rising power of China has made it clear that America’s global primacy is now under serious threat, even if it retains, for the present, a lead in military technology.

The weakening of America’s position has not only made opposition to China a completely bipartisan foreign policy but the unease it has generated enabled Trump’s ascent with his “Make America Great Again” theme.

Such slogans are the decisive mark of a declining imperial power: as Britain lost its empire many politicians campaigned on “Put the Great back into Great Britain”.

That, however, is merely a matter of histrionics and rhetoric. In the real world – whoever the President is – the USA will be forced to choose. A useful guide to these unfolding choices is to be seen in Elbridge Colby’s The Strategy of Denial.

Colby is an extremely influential defence strategist who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in the Trump administration, and was in part responsible for that administration’s National Defense Strategy of 2018.

Colby, a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, is a ruthless realist. He has no time for “promoting democracy”, “nation-building”, “defending American values” and other such canons of the idealist school. He wants America to retain its global primacy and since Asia is the world’s economic centre, everything depends on whether the USA can retain hegemony in Asia.

Europe, says Colby, is only of second order importance. It cannot produce any challenger to American or Chinese hegemony and in comparison to Asia it is a sideshow. The implication is clear: due to the Cold War America has been the main protector of Europe and has accordingly given security guarantees to all manner of countries.

It needs to withdraw from these as soon as possible. It is ludicrous to think that America has literally promised nuclear war if such micro-states as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia are attacked. This cannot possibly be in America’s national interest. France, Germany and Britain may be worth defending but they ought to be doing that themselves.

Colby agrees with Obama, Trump and Biden that America needs largely to withdraw from the Middle East. Its priorities there were to safeguard the oil rich states and protect Israel. But America no longer needs Middle Eastern oil and Israel can pretty much look after itself.

The big problem is Iran. Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and might even launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike to prevent that. America cannot allow a nuclear war in which the Jewish nation might perish so it must work to head that off, but it must not get drawn into Middle East wars again. Or, indeed, into minor Asian wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan). China has to be the focus.

Otherwise, the rest of the world hardly matters. No dominant player is expected to emerge from Latin America and Africa hardly counts at all. Whoever dominates Asia will easily establish their dominance over Africa. Colby naturally has no time for such illusions as “the global South”.

By 2050 China will be the world’s biggest economy, followed by India, the US 3rd and Indonesia 4th with Japan 8th. So four of the top ten will be Asian but in addition there will be Pakistan (16th), South Korea (18th), the Philippines (19th), Vietnam (20th), Bangladesh (23rd), Malaysia (24th), Thailand (25th) and Australia (28th).

France will no longer be in the top ten and Italy not even in the top 20. The EU will produce less than 10% of the world’s GNP. It’s not just that the 21st century will be the Asian century. Quite possibly every century after that will be too.

Colby argues that the US will have two major objectives: to weave as many Indo-Pacific countries as possible into a defensive coalition which can collectively block China; and to prevent China taking Taiwan.

Taiwan, while it remains as it is, constrains Chinese expansion in the Pacific and it is the centre of the world’s computer microchip industry. In particular it is the home of TSMC – the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s most advanced microchip enterprise. To allow China to take Taiwan would be to cede to it an unthinkable technological supremacy.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be difficult. The island lies 100 miles offshore China and amphibious landings over such a distance would be extremely hazardous. Biden, of course, wants to insist that while there is only one China, the way for China to incorporate Taiwan is by diplomacy and persuasion.

The trouble is that China won back Hong Kong with a promise that it could continue to develop in its own fashion and we know what happened to that promise. Getting Taiwan to trust China’s good intentions is now as difficult as getting Poland to trust Moscow’s promises. China is, like Russia, an imperial state and it is, also like Russia, a totalitarian autocracy.

Such states seem unable to tolerate anything less than complete control. Effectively Biden is saying China should deal with Taiwan in the way that Britain deals with Scotland’s mooted independence: persuasion, free votes, complete respect for democracy and no resort to force. But that is simply not Beijing’s way. And, given the example of Hong Kong, it would not work, as Biden surely knows.

Colby dismisses views such as Biden’s as nonsense. It is straightforwardly in America’s interest to prevent Beijing taking Taiwan. It must do this not by war but by denial – a sort of Asian equivalent of the containment policy which, in the end, dealt with the Soviet Union.

It must arm Taiwan to ensure that a Chinese invasion would be prohibitively costly. In addition, it must use its influence to ensure that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would create the same huge hostile coalition facing China as now faces Russia over Ukraine.

Colby’s book is important simply because whichever party wins the presidency, America is likely to be forced down the road that Colby indicates. One might add, indeed, that America’s Asian focus is also likely to be strengthened by the fact that Asians are expected to become America’s biggest immigrant group and probably its most successful. Already Indians in the US have the highest per capita income of any group.

Probably the biggest question mark is that over Europe. If Europe is going to protect itself Germany has to step up. But only France and Britain have nuclear weapons and Britain is no longer even in the EU.

Germany probably doesn’t want nuclear weapons and most Europeans don’t want that either. How to put together a common defence policy out of that is not easy to see. Moreover, if Asia is where the action is then ambitious European states like France and Britain will want to be involved there too – as is already clear.

And to be blunt, the Europeans don’t trust one another. Macron has continued to make phone calls to Putin, causing Poland to remark bitterly that once war broke out “nobody talked to Hitler”. Nobody has much faith in Italy. The Germans still have to wrestle with history.

The French bitterly distrust Britain after the row over AUKUS and Australia’s submarines. And so on. Even if the US withdraws from some of its NATO commitments Europe probably lacks the solidarity required to fill the gaps which that would leave.

And Europe remains important to Africa. Europe ran Africa until 1960 and even now it is Africa’s biggest investor and largest market. Europe is at present also more willing than anyone else to send troops to Africa or at least pay for peacekeeping operations there. But if Europe’s world role is going to shrink this is unlikely to remain true.

And China will be no substitute. China may want Africa’s raw materials and Africa’s market for its goods but it has no humanitarian objectives, so if Africa remains riven by wars and dictatorships it is likely to be left to get on with it as the major powers occupy themselves elsewhere.

Even such multilateral institutions as Africa has managed to mount – the AU and the African Development Bank – depend crucially on subsidies from the EU and others. Without that they would probably collapse.

In the new Realist world that Colby envisages whether nation states grow and develop is likely to depend entirely on self-help. That is, after all, how Asia’s states have grown and they will be the models in that new world, which is likely to be dispassionate rather than compassionate.

R.W. Johnson