On march 2023, russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons with nuclear-capable launchers to Belarus caught the attention of media commentators and military experts. This announcement comes on the heels of Putin’s three-day meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow, after which a number of agreements were reached by the two heads of state on political, military, and economic cooperation going forward. Russia and China are now explicitly and jointly working to create a new world order in which the United States is marginalized and, from their perspective, a unipolar world dominated by the United States is supplanted by a multipolar system more conducive to Chinese and Russian objectives. For decades, international relations theory provided reasons for optimism—that the major powers could enjoy mostly cooperative relations and resolve their differences short of armed conflict.
Realist IR theories focus on power, and for decades, they maintained that the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar post-Cold War world dominated by the United States were relatively simple systems not prone to wars of miscalculation. They also held that nuclear weapons raised the cost of conflict and made war among the major powers unthinkable. Meanwhile, liberal theorists argued that a triumvirate of causal variables (institutions, interdependence, and democracy) facilitated cooperation and mitigated conflict. The dense set of international institutions and agreements (the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, etc.) established after World War II—and expanded and depended on since the end of the Cold War—provided forums for major powers to work out their differences peacefully. Moreover, economic globalization made armed conflict too costly. Why quarrel when business is good and everyone is getting rich? Finally, according to this theory, democracies are less likely to fight and more likely to cooperate, and the major waves of democratization around the world over the past 70 years have made the globe a more peaceful place. At the same time, constructivist scholars explained how new ideas, norms, and identities have transformed international politics in a more positive direction. In the past, piracy, slavery, torture, and wars of aggression were common practices. Over the years, however, strengthening human rights norms and taboos against the use of weapons of mass destruction placed guardrails on international conflict. Unfortunately, nearly all of these pacifying forces appear to be unraveling before our eyes. The major driving forces of international politics, according to IR theory, suggest that the new Cold War among the United States, China, and Russia is unlikely to be peaceful. Let us begin with power politics. We are entering a more multipolar world. To be sure, the United States is still the world’s leading power, according to nearly all objective measures, but China has risen to occupy a strong second-place position in military and economic might. Europe is an economic and regulatory superpower in its own right. A more aggressive Russia maintains the largest nuclear weapons stockpile on Earth. And major powers in the developing world—such as India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil—are choosing a nonaligned path. Realists argue that multipolar systems are unstable and prone to major wars of miscalculation. World War I is a classic example. Multipolar systems are unstable in part because each country must worry about multiple potential adversaries. Indeed, at present, the U.S. Defense Department frets about possible simultaneous conflicts with Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, U.S. President Joe Biden has stated that the use of military force remains on the table as a last resort to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. A three-front war is not out of the question.
Wars of miscalculation often result when states underestimate their adversary. States doubt their opponent’s power or resolve to fight, so they test them. Sometimes, the enemy is bluffing, and the challenge pays off. If the enemy is determined to defend its interests, however, major war can result. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely miscalculated in launching an invasion of Ukraine, incorrectly assuming that war would be easy. Some realist scholars warned for some time that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was coming, and there is still the possibility that the war in Ukraine could spill across NATO’s borders, turning this conflict into a direct U.S.-Russia conflagration. In addition, there is the danger that Chinese President Xi Jinping might miscalculate over Taiwan. Washington’s confusing “strategic ambiguity” policy as to whether it would defend the island only adds to the instability. Biden has said he would defend Taiwan, but his own White House contradicted him. Many leaders are confused, including possibly Xi. He might mistakenly believe he could get away with an attack on Taiwan—only to have the United States intervene violently to stop him. Realists also focus on shifts in the balance of power and worry about the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States. Power transition theory says that the fall of a dominant great power and the rise of an ascendant challenger often results in war. Some experts worry that Washington and Beijing may be falling into this “Thucydides Trap.” Their dysfunctional autocratic systems make it unlikely that Beijing or Moscow will usurp global leadership from the United States anytime soon, but a closer look at the historical record shows that challengers sometimes start wars of aggression when their expansive ambitions are thwarted. Like Germany in World War I and Japan in World War II, Russia may be lashing out to reverse its decline, and China may also be weak and dangerous.
Some people might argue that nuclear deterrence will still work, but military technology is changing. The world is experiencing a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” as new technologies—such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and communications, additive manufacturing, robotics, hypersonic missiles, directed energy, and others—promise to transform the global economy, societies, and the battlefield. Many defense experts believe we are on the eve of a new revolution in military affairs. It is possible that these new technologies could, like tanks and aircraft on the eve of World War II, give an advantage to militaries that go on the offense, making war more likely. At a minimum, these new weapons systems could confuse assessments of the balance of power, contributing to the above risks of miscalculation. China, for example, is leading in several of these technologies, including hypersonic missiles, certain applications for artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. These advantages—or even the false perception in Beijing that these advantages might exist—could tempt China to invade Taiwan Even liberalism, a more optimistic theory in general, provides a reason for pessimism. To be sure, liberals are right that institutions, economic interdependence, and democracy have facilitated cooperation within the liberal world order. The United States and its democratic allies in North America, Europe, and East Asia are more united than ever before. But these same factors are increasingly sparking conflict on the fault lines between the liberal and illiberal world orders.
In the new Cold War, international institutions have simply become new arenas for competition. Russia and China are infiltrating these institutions and turning them against their intended purposes. Who can forget Russia chairing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council as its armies invaded Ukraine in February? Similarly, China used its influence in the World Health Organization to stymie an effective investigation into COVID-19’s origins. And dictators vie for seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council to ensure their egregious human rights abuses escape scrutiny. Instead of facilitating cooperation, international institutions are increasingly exacerbating conflict. Liberal scholars also argue that economic interdependence mitigates conflict. But this theory always had a chicken-and-egg problem. Is trade driving good relations, or are good relations driving trade? We are seeing the answer play out in real time. On the other hand, as Clausewitz warned, the character of war changes from one era to another, based on changes in technology and tactics, but the nature of war does not. One aspect of the nature of war is that escalation is inherent in the process of fighting. Left to its own devices, and undisciplined by wiser political control from heads of state, fighting has a natural tendency to expand in destructiveness.
As the war in Ukraine continues and US-Russia relations go from bad to worse, the American relationship with China is also radically changing. Decades of bipartisan consensus in Washington about engaging Beijing are now under attack, as a different policy emerges. Despite U.S. officials’ efforts to establish guardrails for strategic competition with China, and Chinese officials’ insistence that they have no interest in economic decoupling, prospects for cooperation look increasingly remote. Fragmentation and decoupling are becoming the new normal, the two countries remain on a collision course, and a dangerous deepening of the ongoing “geopolitical depression” is all but inevitable. The Trump administration claimed to have a clearer vision about China’s real intentions, but its more assertive policy has not served American interests any better. Since August 2019, when the US imposed tariffs on a wide range of Chinese goods, China’s exports to the US have reached $350bn. Ironically, the tariffs have also played a role in soaring inflation inside the US; the Biden administration is now considering revoking them. A clear thread is woven throughout Pottinger’s paper and all subsequent US strategic documents on China: the US views a rising China as an unacceptable threat to its leadership around the world. There is room for only one hegemon, and a true multilateralism – as advocated by Beijing – is an option Washington will not consider. The net effect is that, as the US mobilises its Nato allies in isolating Russia, a similar policy is under way towards China, as reflected by the new Strategic Concept adopted at the recent Nato summit.
Could such a policy escalate into a major war, as we’ve seen in past historic conflicts? Is there a part of the Washington establishment that is really considering war as the only way to stop China’s rise? There are too many signals that the world’s top two nations are on a path of dangerous escalation. US pressure on its European and Asian allies to review their political and economic engagement with China is perceived by the latter as a deliberate attempt to isolate, contain and damage it. At the same time, China’s repressive policies against its Uyghur minority and in Hong Kong, and its assertive moves in the South China Sea and against Taiwan, are seen as evidence of its authoritarianism and its violation of the rules-based world order.
There is now a mutual lack of trust between the parties, which seem trapped in a dangerous zero-sum game. Any hopes that the Biden administration, contrary to Trump’s bullish conduct, could place more manageable terms on this complex relationship are fading away. At the same time, President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leadership are progressively losing faith in the possibility of finding common ground.