by Iskren Ivanov
Recently more and more geopolitical analysts started talking about how we should call the system of international relations after the end of the pandemic. And although this and is still far, there are already terms such as ‘post-unipolar’, ‘post-pandemic’ or simply multipolar world.
The common disadvantage of most definitions is that they focus too much on specific events such as the war in Ukraine, Covid pandemic or the conflict in Taiwan. Although all these turbulences are important in the formation of the New World, they are more of separate variables which give us a hint of what it will look like. In order to perceive more clear picture of what expects us, it is necessary first of all to consider what are the main challenges facing the global players in world politics.
One of the biggest myths is that the end of the unipolar model means expeditious and tragic end of America. Such claims find support even in some American scientists such as Christopher Layne, who claim that Washington should not engage with the problems of its allies.
The failure of such positions stems from the populist wave that swept America after the election of Donald Trump as US president. Quite the opposite: if Washington stops honoring the arrangements in the system of alliances it built after the end of World War II, it will lead to a decline in American foreign policy. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt has also stated, alliances can be rethought and modified, but not destroyed, because the status of the US as a global power rests on them.
This is also the first and biggest challenge against America – to preserve confidence in itself and reconstruct its alliances so that they correspond to the new geopolitical realities.
The second task before the US is to debunk the legend of its decline by formulating a new foreign policy approach that would reform smart power – an instrument with the help of which Washington successfully combined the force of arms and diplomacy. Having in mind the fact that the world enters in state of intense geopolitical opposition, the most rational substitute for this tool is the Cold War doctrine of containment. It is important to note, however, that the new deterrence will be much more nuclear than ideological, as neither Russia nor China claim to export ideology.
And in third place come the army and the economy. Washington must invest in a strong, well-equipped and high-tech military that can respond at any time, anywhere in the world. Economically, the US must defend its energy sovereignty and ensure the effectiveness of the so-called dollar diplomacy - the concept that the US dollar should not cede its position as a major reserve currency. There is also a hidden factor here - America must do everything it can to reduce the widening gap between rich and poor by stimulating the revival of a powerful middle class that will become the engine of the American economy. Only if this polarization in society is overcome will the US remain united in the face of new global challenges.
Overall, the horizon for Washington is clear. Even if America loses some of its key geopolitical positions, this will not lead to a significant weakening of its role in international relations, as it still continues to lead globally in three indicators that are key to any great power - army, economy, culture.
The rise of China is the most serious challenge to the US, which at some point will have to accept the fact that it is dealing with an opponent that is very different from the USSR.
There are two theses about how China will become a superpower. John Mearsmeier, following the logic of realism, warns that despite its Confucian strategic culture, Beijing will become increasingly aggressive in its actions because there is no way a great power can be completely and utterly peaceful. Chinese scientist Yan Xuetong, on the other hand, argues that China is very different from other great powers - because of its thousand-year history, and therefore - its rise will be peaceful, not accompanied by constant wars.
At this stage, it is difficult to give an unequivocal answer which of the two statements will turn out to be correct, but given the serious friction between the US and China, it is quite possible that the realists will turn out to be right. If provoked in Taiwan, Beijing will use force because the Chinese consider the island an indivisible part of China and will not budge from this position. And despite everything, China's most important task remains to prove that it is ready to bear the responsibilities of a great power. Regardless of its philosophy and economic system, Beijing will have to shoulder more global commitments, the first of which will be peaceful coexistence with America in the Pacific. If such a balance is struck, Chinese policymakers will have plenty of time to displace Washington as the center of influence in the region. However, if Beijing succumbs to the temptation to enter into a heated conflict before parity with the US is achieved, it could halt its rise and create a geopolitical vacuum with no one to fill.
The second problem standing against China is its civilization choice. The main reason why it achieved the position of the second economy in the world was the so-called "socialism with Chinese characteristics" whose roots can be traced back to Deng Xiaoping's reforms. Deng's doctrine has the following key features: it shifts the focus from class struggle to the nation's economic development and prosperity; allows the introduction of market elements with the aim of harmony between the economic development of the country and the centralized socialist model; forms a policy aimed at cooperation and dialogue with all countries without pretending to export values and ideology. If socialism with Chinese characteristics is abandoned in favor of Western-style liberalization or Cold War-era Sovietization, China will enter a period of decline. The unique model of Dunn shall be preserved due to one more reason –the Chinese will not recognize democracy as an alternative and therefore any hope of westernizing China should be abandoned.
And lastly, it is important to mention that in order to complete the transition from a regional actor to a great power, Beijing needs to make a clear request about what its relations with other actors in the region will be. Taking on more global responsibilities will change the relationship between China and ASEAN countries, which will have important implications for global trade. The same logic applies to Chinese relations with Japan. Although the two countries have a different geopolitical vision, the trade exchange between them should not become a victim of their conflicts because it would have an extremely adverse impact on the global economy. In all likelihood, however, even if China succeeds in achieving a sustained path to great power, unification with Taiwan seems inevitable.
Until the war in Ukraine, west analysts were seeing Russia as fading empire which gradually disappears from the map of the world. The term declining power from the geopolitics books was the main argument in favor of this thesis, with the main argument in it being based on the aging population and weak economy. The problem with such reasoning, however, is that it does not abstract from the irrational nature of the Eurasian doctrine. In other words, The West cannot fully understand Russia because Eurasianism does not emphasize political segments such as living standards, economic prosperity or free competition. The political doctrines that Moscow professes have a single direction - the preservation of Great Russia. That's why few understood what Putin's real plans were when he warned that Russian troops could enter Ukraine if the country took a course toward joining NATO. For the Europeans, it was madness that would exhaust the country to the limit and doom millions of Russians to starvation. But for those same Russians, it was the feat that would bring them victory: a mindset that hasn't changed since World War II.
The main task of Moscow in the new world would be to preserve its sovereignty. Unfortunately, that seems increasingly unlikely, because if the war in Ukraine ends without escalating into something more serious, an exhausted Russia will most likely become an economic colony of China. The only chance for the Kremlin is to reintegrate back into the European security system and thus once again use its vast natural resources to have some influence in the world economy. However, this prospect seems highly unrealistic, at least as long as Putin is president. It is unlikely that Russia's course will change after it, because after the war in Ukraine, political thinking in Moscow will never be the same and will return to the ancient Russian philosophy that says - better with Asia and the Mongols than with the West.
And despite the fact that Russia’s future seems unclear, one thing is sure - readiness to use nuclear weapons to protect its interests in Ukraine should not be ruled out. Moscow is the only nuclear power to allow the use of its nuclear arsenal for offensive purposes. And although such a scenario is seen as unrealistic by the West, the US and NATO must be ready to prevent it.
The European Union needs urgent reform because one of the reasons why the European project has been so successful is its ability to reform and adapt to different geopolitical realities. Europe remains the region with the highest standard of living globally, but this is about to change with the gas crisis. In essence, what is happening now is reminiscent of the period of the 1970s, which historians call Eurosclerosis. The then European Community is in a state of institutional and economic crisis, which was subsequently overcome at the cost of many compromises laid down in the Single European Act.
Unfortunately, the European union today faces even bigger challenge which does not have purely institutional dimensions – the construction of European armed forces. After the end of the Cold War, Europe had three decades to build up its military within NATO, but it never happened. European politicians have not even made an effort to energetically emancipate themselves from Russia, despite numerous warnings from the US. Instead, EU decided to build values community – a step that was always considered the last by its founding fathers. That is why the first and most important task for Brussels is to create a concept for the formation of a rapid reaction force to operate within NATO. In the future, they could grow into something more when Germany finally overcomes its historical complexes and is ready to rearm.
In addition, the EU will have to form a coherent energy strategy to replace Russian gas, with which to end its dependence on Moscow. However, this will take years. Still, Europe is too profitable a project to abandon. If Germany and France succeed once again in turning their cooperation into an engine of European integration, the EU will enter the new world stronger and more united.
In conclusion, we could say that the New World will end with a redistribution of the balance of power, but the victors of the current conflicts should have no illusions that they will dominate the international system in the way that the US did after the collapse of the USSR. The unipolar model has remained in history, and with it a new Cold War is looming, in which the West must preserve its unity and abandon the illusions of "weak enemies" Russia and China if it wants to win.
We are entering a two-bloc, two-polar model, led by the US and China, whose camps will be joined by weaker states that could not survive without their support. Sometimes these alliances are based on trust, sometimes on fear, but most of all they are based on shared interests - as always in the history of the Cold War.
The most important task of the new players will be to prevent World War III and nuclear escalation, because if this happens the expectations of the future winners will remain just unfulfilled illusions.