The new geopolitical epoch | The Economist

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN calls this the “decisive decade”. Yet the label scarcely captures the moment—the start of a post-post-cold-war epoch in which the American-shaped world order may be violently undone by Russia and China. “Great-power competition” is too tame amid Russia’s destruction of Ukraine; the “new cold war” too reductive given the West’s complex economic interdependence with China.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the norm, established after the second world war, that borders should not be changed by force. It has revived the spectre of nuclear war for the first time since the end of the cold war, with a twist: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has wielded the threat of nukes not as a last resort but as an opening gambit to shield his war of aggression.

Russia, though, represents only the “acute” problem, as America sees things. The greater threat to the world order—what the Pentagon calls its “pacing” challenge—comes from China, the only country with the potential to dethrone America as the world’s pre-eminent power. China’s armed forces are expanding rapidly. It already has the largest navy in the world, the third-largest air force, a thick array of missiles and the means to wage war in space and cyberspace.

What if the friendship “with no limits” between Russia and China turns into an actual alliance? Right now there is little evidence of China helping Russia’s war. But the Eurasian autocracies regularly hold military exercises, and some senior American officials think the two are bound to draw closer. As China builds up its nuclear arsenal to perhaps 1,500 warheads by 2035—approaching the size of the American and Russian arsenals—the United States will have to learn the novel art of three-way nuclear deterrence. That, in turn, may lead to a new arms race, particularly if the New START treaty, which limits American and Russian nukes, expires in early 2026 without a follow-on accord.

The transformation is taking place at a time when America’s relative weight in the global economy has declined. Over the past century America’s GDP has been much greater than that of its rivals—Germany and Japan in the second world war, the Soviet Union and China in the cold war. These days, though, China’s GDP is not far behind America’s (and already exceeds it when measured at purchasing-power parity). American defence spending, though gargantuan in absolute terms, has been close to historical lows as a share of GDP. That is starting to change, after Congress voted on December 23rd to approve an increase in defence spending substantially larger than Mr Biden had requested.

Heartland v Rimland
Old geopolitical theories are being re-examined. In 1904 the British geostrategist Halford Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the core of Eurasia—roughly between the Arctic Sea and the Himalayas—could command the world. In that analysis, an alliance between Russia and China could pose a grievous threat. In contrast, Mackinder’s American contemporary Alfred Thayer Mahan reckoned that control of commercial sea lanes was the key to global power. Somewhere in between, Nicholas Spykman, another American, argued in 1942 that what mattered was not Eurasia’s heartland but its rim. He held that the maritime borderlands stretching from the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean, around south Asia to Japan were the vital ground. “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia,” he wrote. “Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” In seeking to boost its alliances to counterbalance its Eurasian rivals, America seems to be hewing closest to Spykman’s thesis.

At the western end, NATO has been revitalised to strengthen Europe and confront Russia. American and other allied forces have been reinforced along the border with Russia. Abandoning the last vestiges of neutrality, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. Assuming the final obstacles to ratification, from Turkey and Hungary, can be overcome, the new members ought to join in 2023.

Above all, the Western allies have extensively armed and supported Ukraine to start pushing back the Russian onslaught. Despite grumbling from “America first” devotees of Donald Trump, Mr Biden’s predecessor, Congress agreed to provide $7bn more than the $37.7bn requested by Mr Biden in aid for Ukraine in the fiscal year ending in September 2023. Far from weakening the Western alliance, Mr Putin has invigorated it. Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank, lists two other unintended consequences: “He has created a moment of bipartisanship in America. And he has offered Biden a moment of redemption after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

At the eastern end of the rim, meanwhile, talk of a future war with China over Taiwan has intensified, especially since a controversial visit to the island in August by the speaker of America’s House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Mr Biden hopes that his recent in-person meeting (his first as president) with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will have put a “floor” on deteriorating relations. Mr Xi may be preoccupied with troubles at home, not least the slowing economy and the upheavals of his covid policies. But American military officials, in particular, say he wants to develop the military capability to seize Taiwan by 2027.

America has no NATO-like alliance in Asia to constrain China. Instead it operates a hub-and-spokes system of bilateral defence agreements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand; these countries do not have obligations towards each other. To create greater coherence, America has been working on expanding ad-hoc schemes. The “Five Eyes” (with Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand) share intelligence; AUKUS (with Australia and Britain) is seeking to develop nuclear-powered submarines and other weapons; and the Quad (with Australia, India and Japan) discusses everything from vaccines to maritime security. South Korea and Japan are setting aside old grievances to conduct joint exercises, amid intense missile launches (and an expected nuclear test) by North Korea.

Japan has announced plans to double defence spending over the next five years, but is still hamstrung by its tradition of pacifism. The self-governing island of Taiwan has no formal diplomatic relations with most countries and is excluded from America’s many regional military exercises. Mr Biden has repeatedly suggested he would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, but much remains unclear. Under the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” America will not say precisely in which circumstances it might intervene and what it would do, especially in the case of “grey-one” attacks such as a blockade. That makes it hard for Taiwan to heed America’s call to shift more fully to a “porcupine” defensive strategy. Congressional budget appropriators, moreover, have largely ignored a bipartisan bill to provide Taiwan with billions of dollars’ in grants to buy military equipment, akin to the aid given to Ukraine and Israel.

The middle of Spykman’s rimland is tricky. The Biden administration has worked hard to woo members of ASEAN, the South-East Asian regional group. But for the most part they don’t want to be forced to choose between China, their main trading partner, and America, the principal guarantor of regional security.

India remains the big prize for American strategists. It has a tradition of non-alignment and pro-Soviet leanings, but has drawn closer to America as its relations with China have frayed. The yearly Malabar naval exercises between America and India have grown to include all members of the Quad. Differences persist. India has been coy about directly criticising Mr Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Nevertheless, says Kurt Campbell, a senior White House adviser on Asia, it represents “far and away the most important bilateral relationship for the United States into the 21st century”.

In the Middle East and central Asia, meanwhile, successive American presidents have sought to reduce their military commitments after decades of fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Expect a new Republican-dominated House of Representatives to harry the Biden administration over the chaotic departure from Afghanistan. But the drone strike in Kabul in July that killed al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, underlines Mr Biden’s claim to be keeping up an “over-the-horizon” fight against terrorism.

Moreover, the spike earlier this year in oil and gas prices aggravated by the war in Ukraine has reaffirmed the geopolitical importance of the Gulf. Having once declared Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, Mr Biden visited the country in July and fist-bumped Muhammad bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de-facto ruler. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Mr Biden told Arab leaders in Jeddah. He got little in return, either in terms of a reduction in oil prices or Saudi normalisation with Israel. In December Gulf leaders gave Mr Xi a noticeably warmer reception.

America’s relations with Israel may also be tested by the return of Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a coalition including far-right ministers. Mr Biden’s hope of restraining Iran’s atomic programme by reviving a nuclear deal has come to naught. Any accord to lift sanctions is now impossible given the extensive anti-regime protests in Iran. Yet Iran’s work on uranium enrichment continues apace, presenting a challenge to Mr Biden’s vow to prevent the mullahs from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.

As for the wider world, America and its allies have mustered a succession of lop-sided votes denouncing Russia at the UN General Assembly. Yet support for the West in the global south is fragile. Many countries regard themselves as victims of a faraway war in Europe which has increased fuel and food prices, and diverted international attention from other crises. Moreover, they do not want to be caught in the middle of a cold war between America and China.

The West has responded to such concerns in several ways: by pressing for a mechanism to allow Ukraine to export grain from its Black Sea ports; attempting to impose a cap on Russian oil prices; promoting global health initiatives; and creating a Western mechanism to finance infrastructure projects and challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative. More broadly, Mr Biden has toned down his early effort to divide the world into democracies and autocracies. He has hosted a succession of large regional summits, not least with leaders from Asia, Pacific islands, Latin America and Africa.

The big hole in his strategy is the lack of an appealing economic and trade policy to bind allies and friends closer together. The USEU Trade and Technology Council is a useful talking shop for emerging tech. The 14-country Indo-Pacific Economic Framework promises future initiatives on the digital economy, supply-chain resilience, clean energy and fairness (ie, rules on tax, money laundering and bribery). But these do not amount to substantial trade deals. America will not, for instance, heed Asian allies’ wish for it to join the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formerly the TPP).

Indeed, Mr Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” features much protectionism and industrial policy. Recent measures include subsidies for green technology and semiconductors, and restrictions on China’s access to advanced chips. These policies are causing tension with European and Asian allies by limiting access to the American market, restricting exports to China and diverting investment. The European Union may respond by subsidising its own green-tech and semiconductor industries. But Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national-security adviser, appears to regard the prospect of a subsidy war as a good outcome. He told the Carnegie Endowment that America was helping middle classes elsewhere by encouraging “a virtuous cycle of investment in other parts of the world”.

The other enduring worry is about democracy in the West—particularly in America, nearly two years after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. America appears to be moving away from Mr Trump and his fellow election-deniers, but its politics remain intensely polarised. The health of America’s democracy is essential to its ability to attract friends and assert leadership. Mr Sullivan recounted how in November, when Mr Biden attended an Asian summit in Phnom Penh, other leaders wanted to know the details of midterm elections in places such as Nevada. As Mr Sullivan put it, “it was a reminder that the rest of the world is looking at the state of American democracy…and saying: ‘What does this tell us about America’s staying power on the international stage?’”

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