I will argue today1 that Homo Geopoliticus has entered a new period of global rivalry more like the periods before World War I and II than that of the Cold War2.
I will also argue that the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) will not necessarily deter the real possibility of a major power war fought with advanced weaponry over key geostrategic and political-economic focal points, such as eastern Ukraine and Taiwan, among other strategic and economic concerns—as the threat to deploy nuclear weapons could be held in the background of what are initially “conventional” military conflicts.
1. “Bipolarity” and “multipolarity” are misnomers
During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow had used their superior power capabilities to keep potential challengers as weak and divided as possible—while attempting to undermine each other's spheres of influence and alliances through proxy wars and by means of U.S. support for “democratic” socio-political movements and Soviet support for “socialist” political parties. Both “superpowers” also tried to strain each other’s economic capabilities and systems of social welfare through a multi-trillion-dollar arms race.
The post-Cold War global system is evidently no longer "bi-centric"—but "polycentric" with multiple centers of power and influence that possess highly uneven degrees of power and influence. Here, I am not using the terms “bipolarity” and "multipolarity"—terms that should be abolished from IR theory in that they imply permanent tensions between impermeable centers of power—when it is possible for different, often permeable, “centers of power” to collaborate or align with each other in differing circumstances3. Not all inter-state power relations are “polarized.”
Nevertheless, the term "polarity" becomes relevant when different “centers of power” begin to align against each other, thereby polarizing the global system—both internationally through the formation of rival alliances and domestically through the formation of opposing classes, ethnic movements, and political factions. Alliance polarization is what must be averted—if ongoing regional conflicts are not to escalate to global war.
2. Domestic political economy
As Homo Geopoliticus enters the new year, we can expect more extensive social and political conflicts due to burgeoning extremes in wealth and the lack of a fair distribution of social benefits, health, welfare and status in most countries. In the U.S. alone, since the height of the Cold War in 1978, CEO compensation has grown 940%, while average worker compensation has risen only 12%.
In 2020, more than 2,365 of the world's billionaires boosted their wealth by $4 trillion while the impact of the global Covid pandemic itself could push an additional 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty—with the total number of poor rising to as many as 150 million.
The grotesque imbalance of wealth distribution augments the chances that domestic class, ethnic and regional conflicts, coupled with mass migration, will spill out into conflicts in the international arena—in addition to acts of “terrorism” and criminality that have both benefited from the new weapons of cyber-sabotage.
3. International political economy
Not only are domestic dimensions of contemporary global political economy more destabilizing than those of the Cold War, but the international dimensions are more like those of the pre-World War I and interwar periods.
Contrary to neoliberal theory, the view that China’s economy is much more interwoven with the economies of the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and the world in general, than were the Soviet and Chinese economies interlinked with the U.S. and other countries during the Cold War, will not necessarily prevent major power war.
A more important cause for war is the degree to which elite, class and ethnic disputes destabilize a domestic society. What also magnifies inter-state tensions are elite fears that domestic opposition movements are being supported by foreign powers that seek to overthrow the leadership. Interstate wars thus become more likely when political elites call for national unity and alliance solidarity in the effort to deflect attention from both domestic quarrels and international tensions—rather than fully engaging in both domestic socio-economic reforms and full-fledged diplomacy with foreign rivals.
In the pre-World War I era, monarchist elites opposed both constitutionalist and socialist movements, plus Anarchist assassinations. In the post-Cold War era, both Russia and China have opposed democracy and regional independence movements, plus pan-Islamist terrorism. And more like the period before World War II, both the U.S. and European elites now fear the rise of extreme nationalist groups—in addition to acts of pan-Islamist terrorism.
The neoliberal belief that economic inter-dependence will help prevent major power wars does not apply to Imperial Germany whose economic inter-dependence with Britain did not prevent World War I. It is true that Berlin’s goals were not initially aimed against Britain—instead, Berlin’s two-front war was aimed primarily at breaking the Franco-Russian “encirclement.” Nevertheless, London’s defense ties to Paris drew the British (and then the Americans) into the war—contrary to the expectations of the Imperial German leadership4.
In today’s circumstances, it is likewise possible that China’s efforts to absorb Taiwan—so as to gain a geo-strategic and political-economic advantage vis-a-vis the U.S. and its allies—could draw Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S., among other states, into direct conflict with China—despite closely intertwined economic ties.
4. Environmental sword of Damocles
An environmental sword of Damocles has begun to augment disputes between continental states and regions whose infrastructure is primarily based upon carbon energies versus those essentially insular states that are hesitatingly beginning to develop the new “green” infrastructures and energies.
While states (such as Russia, China, and India) are slow to make progress, even states (the U.S., Europe, and Japan) with more advanced economies are not necessarily transforming their carbon-based infrastructure rapidly enough into a new “green” infrastructure that could significantly lessen the impact of global warming.
On the one hand, the fact that the Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the U.S., and also the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum, means that it will prove very difficult to reduce greenhouse gases without also reaching a diplomatic rapprochement and arms reductions agreements with Russia and China, among other states—in an effort to reduce global military tensions.
On the other hand, the fact that Beijing is seeking to monopolize its political control over the “rare earth” resources that are needed for the new “green” economy has begun to spur worldwide neo-imperialist rivalries for access to, and control over, those resources.
Likewise, China’s dam and water policies are augmenting regional tensions by creating friction with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam over the Mekong River. China’s diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had a devastating downstream impact upon Central Asia while its plan to dam the Brahmaputra river in the Himalayas has enraged India.
These environmental disputes could make a global war more plausible—if “green diplomacy” with China and Russia and other “carbon” energy states fail.
5. Arms treaties: dead or dying!
The major arms control treaties that had helped to prevent an all-out arms race during the Cold War, such as the Open Skies Treaty and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, appear to be dead or dying.
The 1987 INF Treaty—which had helped to end the Cold War by eliminating thousands of intermediate-range nuclear weapons—has also been dumped. This means that the U.S. and Russia could once again begin to deploy such warfighting missiles along with other states such as China, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, and Pakistan.
In Europe, the post-Cold War 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act—in which Moscow acquiesced to NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe closer to Russian borders on the grounds that NATO would not deploy permanent troops or nuclear weapons—has largely broken down after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and political-military interference in Eastern Ukraine in 2014—actions are taken, at least in part, to check Kiev from becoming a NATO member.
In the Indo-Pacific, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act—that defined U.S. and Chinese relations with respect to Taipei during the Cold War—appears nearly dead as China has pressed for unification by force and as the U.S. has appeared to be supporting Taiwan’s independence.
6. MAD is dead!
The Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is dead—even if it can be argued that it never really existed. Both the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and 1983 Able Archer Crisis, among other nuclear incidents, came very close the sparking a nuclear war.
The fact that the September 11, 2001 attacks came from the “inside” of the U.S. undermines the concept of MAD—as the entire American nuclear arsenal did nothing to deter those attacks. The September 11 attack opened the door for future acts of terrorism, as well as for cyber- and drone- attacks, to take place from within a country.
Other aspects of nuclear deterrence appear dead as well. Tactical and intermediate-range nuclear missiles can theoretically make "limited" nuclear war possible in certain regions—even if intercontinental ballistic missiles are held in reserve. Concurrently, hypersonic missiles can penetrate missile defenses—thus making missile defense even less effective.
With the possibility of drones and cyber-sabotage initiating advanced “conventional” warfare, the panoply of new weapons systems also risks "launch on warning" due to their speed and stealth. The deployment of dual-capable weapons systems, for example, can lead the opposing side to counter by the use of nuclear weapons—if the Chinese military, for example, does not know whether a conventional or nuclear warhead is being launched against it.
In addition, the rapid speed and stealth of the new “high-intensity warfare” mean that supercomputers will battle against supercomputers. The winner of such a war could be the side that possesses the most advanced technological capabilities and systems of Artificial Intelligence.
7. The “Thucydides trap”
The “Thucydides trap”5—in which a rising China threatens to displace the U.S. from its achieved status as a regional, if not global, hegemon—does not fully explain why and how major power conflict between the U.S. and China could “go global.”
The dilemma is that China’s efforts to pressure and blockade Taiwan into acquiescence without fighting could still generate a wider conflict. This is because the more the U.S. and its allies continue to expand their political-economic and defense interconnections with Taiwan—even if they do not necessarily forge formal alliances—the greater the chance that tensions between Beijing and Taipei will expand throughout the region.
The real danger is not so much the rise of China by itself, but the fact that the post-Cold War polycentric system is polarizing into two rival alliances—more like the alliance systems before World War I and World War II than like the “bicentric” Cold War.
Washington has accordingly been pressing NATO and EU members, including Sweden and Finland, plus NATO and EU associates such as Ukraine, as well as Japan, Australia, and India, into a new coalition that is intended to counter the ambitions of a new “Eurasian Axis” of China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, North Korea, among other actual and potential rivals.
War could accordingly be caused by expanding U.S. alliances to ‘constrain’ China and Russia, among other rivals. War could also be caused by the fear that key U.S. allies could either shift into neutrality or else join the opposition. The fear of alliance defection could then impel Washington to whip its allies into line by making them spend even more money on defense—even though the U.S. itself already spends more on the military than 11 countries combined.
Moreover, in a highly polarized global system, both “terrorist” organizations and third states, including U.S. allies, could try to draw the U.S. or other major powers into regional disputes in an effort to defend their strategic and economic interests against rivals—thus widening the possibility of war. In short, a third actor could set a match to the whole system of rival alliances—much as was the case for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914.
8. Peace and sustainable development
In addition to the need for a revised “new start” treaty and new arms reduction and elimination treaties—that include efforts to control cyber warfare capabilities—it is crucial that concerted UN-backed Contact Group diplomacy begin to resolve the significant disputes between major and regional powers in key areas of the world—while likewise seeking to convert military-industrial complexes and arms technologies toward goals of sustainable development.
With UN Contact Groups providing peacekeeping and security, each region concerned would engage in joint sustainable development projects with respect to energy, resources, fishing, and agriculture—in internationally supervised interaction with the natural environment. If diplomacy can move forward, the proceeds from these joint sustainable development projects could be shared among the states and corporations involved in the Black Sea, South and East China Seas, the Eastern Mediterranean, Central America and the Caribbean, areas in the wider Middle East, as well as the Arctic, among many other regions.
This proposal is not utopian. At the end of the Cold War, UN-backed Contact Groups helped work toward solutions in the killing fields in Cambodia and in the war over Namibia between the Soviet Union, Cuba and South Africa, while also putting an end to the dirty wars in Central America—in America’s backyard.
By contrast, there had been no UN Contact Group effort to put an end to the conflict in Afghanistan when Moscow finally withdrew of forces in 1988-89 after its initial massive invasion in 1979. The world has subsequently witnessed the catastrophic results of the initial American refusal to fully engage in UN peace efforts after Soviet withdrawal—now that the U.S. and NATO have also had to withdraw in 2021 from the Afghan “graveyard of empires”—after having failed to achieve their proclaimed democratic “nation-building” goals since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
9. How to get from here to there?
How does Homo Geopoliticus begin to implement a worldwide system of interwoven “regional peace and sustainable development communities”6 in the midst of the most dangerous arms race in the history of humanity?
How is peace possible with Russia massing troops around Ukraine, with China flying nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan’s air space, with North Korea threatening a new nuclear arms build-up, with NATO members Turkey and Greece facing off militarily in the eastern Mediterranean, with Israel and Iran threatening war over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, with Saudi Arabia producing new missiles, with India, Pakistan, and China in the confrontation over Kashmir, with Morocco and Algeria threatening war over Western Sahara, and with Daesh (ISIS), among other anti-state organizations, promising new attacks after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, among many other conflicts?
Given the immediate dangers of war that are greeting Homo Geopoliticus in the new year, along with the Omicron variant, the best option is to implement a more coordinated U.S. and EU global strategy that will engage in concerted UN-backed Contact Group diplomacy—and that involves as many international organizations, states, non-state actors, and civil society groups as possible.
An UN-backed Contact Group process is presently meeting “jaw to jaw” in Churchill’s words in the effort to reach an accord over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program—with the threat of war still hovering in the background. Yet the Iran question is not the only dispute that needs to be tackled by complex concerted diplomacy. The U.S., UK, and the EU also need to meet “jaw to jaw” with Russia and China, among other rivals, both bilaterally and multilaterally—in a dangerous atmosphere of mutual distrust in which threats to use nuclear weaponry have become part of the bargaining process.
Given the reality that the permanent UN Security Council members—the U.S., Russia, and China—could be on the eve of a major power conflict, and that peace proposals may not immediately prove acceptable to all the parties concerned, there is a real danger that the twists and turns of the diplomatic process itself—what can be called tough power-based bargaining or Brinkman&Womanship—could soon take the world close to the brink of major power war…
Let us hope that our leaderships possess the foresight to take the appropriate steps on the path toward global peace and sustainable development—in the effort to overcome a situation that is much more dangerous than even the Cold War!
1 This is the updated text based on my TedxAUP talk, American University of Paris, December 4, 2021. I was working on this discussion when a TV journalist had stated that the world was entering into a new Cold War—but that a possible major power war would be prevented by Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
2 Hall Gardner, IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2019).
3 Hall Gardner, IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War, ibid.
4 Hall Gardner The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon (London: Ashgate, 2015).
5 Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (Scribe Publications, 2017).
6 Hall Gardner, World War Trump (Prometheus Books, 2018).