Sabre-rattling between North Korea and the US has prompted a wave of apocalyptic panic. But there are two relationships pivotal to international security, and for the moment they look stable, writes Nicholas Ross Smith
Last Saturday, Pope Francis said he feared that the rising tension between North Korea and the United States has the potential to destroy a “large part of humanity”. Indeed, the talk of a new major global war, even a World War III, has increased recently. Add the current sabre-rattling between Pyongyang and Washington to the ongoing troubles in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine and there is little to be optimistic about in international relations at the moment.
There is a lot of anxiety and, frankly, paranoia – propagated by the media and especially felt among ordinary citizens – that an armageddon event is on the horizon. Certainly, when nuclear-armed powers engage in rhetorical slanging matches and power projections, one can hardly help but entertain doomsday scenarios. However, as someone who researches great power rivalry and competition in international relations, let me reassure you that a major conflict between great powers and, especially, a World War III scenario remain a remote possibility.
We are experiencing a particularly volatile time in international relations. The end of the US-led liberal international order that had been in place since the fall of the Soviet Union appears nigh with a less ordered multipolar system (a system beset by many powers with no overarching order) emerging in its place. This new system is undeniably less stable than either the bipolar (two powers) system of the Cold War or the unipolar (one power) system that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, unlike the last time we had a multipolar system – which, some would argue, helped make World War I and II structurally feasible – this time we have far greater levels of interdependence and more channels of multilateralism. For all the bad press globalisation has got over the years, some of it obviously justified, one beneficial thing is that it has made conflict less likely by tying countries closer together.
Of course, just because our current international system disincentivises great power conflict does not mean that conflict cannot arise. One big criticism of looking solely at the nature of the international system in an analysis is that it assumes all countries act the same. However, this is clearly not the case. Each country has a different foreign policy-making process which interprets and digests international relations in a unique way, leading to clear differences in foreign policy outcomes.
In some countries, especially non-democratic ones, individual leaders have a greater say on foreign policy. This is why the potential for a megalomaniac leader to emerge – a label that is often given to Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – is something which elicits great fear and anxiety. However, only in exceptional cases has a truly mad individual assumed office unchecked, and, truth be told, all of the leaders mentioned in the previous sentence, perhaps save for Kim, has significant domestic constraints on their power.
When contemplating doomsday scenarios, we can probably overlook the threat of North Korea as it has neither the power to be a truly global threat nor the international support to spark a World War III (South Korea and Japan should be slightly worried, however). Therefore, right now, two relationships are pivotal to international security: the United States-Russia relationship and the United States-China relationship.
There has been much hullabaloo recently about the threat of Russia, from its perceived machinations in trying to recreate the Soviet Union and hasten the decline of the West to its perceived undermining of the presidential election in the United States last year. Certainly, Russia is at odds with the West. It feels threatened by what it sees as a Western policy of containment, especially through the expansion of the EU and NATO towards its borders, and patronised by the lack of respect it gets from the West internationally.
Russia has lashed out and attempted to regain dominance in its “near abroad” – interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014 attest to this – and some semblance of international relevance again – its Syrian (mis)adventures are an example of this. However, while many have interpreted these moves as part of an escalation that could result in an eventual nuclear conflict between Russia and Nato, to my reading it makes absolutely no sense for Russia to go to war with Nato. Bluntly, Russia is not the Soviet Union and these days there exists a significant imbalance in power capabilities between Nato and Russia.
Only a lunatic would take their country into such a one-sided conflict. Some think Putin is this lunatic, but I personally do not buy it. His rhetoric is often scary and his actions can be brash, but all of this seems engineered for domestic consumption; a way of justifying his strongman rule to ordinary Russians (the same can be said of Erdogan’s rhetoric and action in Turkey). In reality, when it comes to Russia’s international action, I see shrewd geopolitical calculations, which, in the short term at least, have had their desired result: Putin’s popularity is robust and his grip on power is arguably stronger than ever too.
Although I abhorred the election of Trump, the one policy I was quietly hopeful about was his pledge to reconcile the United States’ relationship with Russia. Although Russia deserves ridicule for being belligerent in its Ukraine and Syria actions, the West deserves ridicule for failing to understand in the first place Russia’s fears of Western containment. While a thawing of the relationship with Russia has not yet happened under Trump – Rex Tillerson says sanctions are to remain in place until Crimea is returned – the prospect of rapprochement with Russia remains higher than at any time over the past six years.
Whereas the management of the United States-Russia relationship has significant short-term implications, the most important relationship for international security moving forward, by far, is that of China and the United States. China’s unstoppable rise has long been a key question in international relations and many have hypothesised that conflict between the two is inevitable. Indeed, tensions between the two have been rising over the past decade; China has become far more assertive in its backyard (especially the South China Sea) and, at the same time, the United States has been undertaking an Asian pivot (moving away from Europe, at least until Trump arrived on the scene).
All of this points to a challenging future for the relationship. However, after some interesting discussions I had on a recent trip to China, I think that perhaps one mistake we make about China is that we make assumptions about it from a Western-centric viewpoint. We assume that as China’s power grows that it will behave like the United States did in the 20th and 21st centuries, or like Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries, or like the Netherlands did in the 17th century; that it will become expansionist and (neo)imperialist like so many Western powers in the past have.
However, such an assumption discounts three millennia of Chinese history. China has often had a curious worldview in that it has been largely content with its own lot (the middle kingdom) and, traditionally, its most imperialist actions were to set up tributary relationships with weaker powers on its periphery (domination of Tibet and Xinjiang are notable exceptions). Even though the above is a romanticised view of China’s history, perhaps we should listen when China says it wants to step up and take on a positive international role and not just assume the worst (although a contingency for the worst is obviously necessary).
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, the current (albeit tense) pragmatic United States-China relationship seemed under immediate threat. Trump threatened to impose massive tariffs on Chinese goods and to deepen the United States’ strategic relationship with Taiwan. However, more recently, this pessimism has dissipated somewhat. Trump has already had one seemingly successful meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and, perhaps because of this, China has toed the line somewhat on North Korea over the past few weeks. Remembering that trade ties between the two remain robust and crucial to either side’s economy, it is in the interest of both China and the United States to find some common ground moving forward.
Ultimately, if the United States-Russia relationship can be pacified in the meantime (which I think it can) and the United States-China relationship can be evolved into an even more complementary and pragmatic one moving forward (which I think it can), then the prospects of a devastating global conflict are significantly reduced. Of course, we should not become complacent and we should never stop closely critiquing the foreign policies of great powers, but doing so under an objective, rational lens is a more constructive way than embracing our paranoid delusions.
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