Geopolitical Watershed Moment?
Some 586 days after Russia's incursion into Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022, an upcoming meeting looms large. President Vladimir Putin is set to converse with China's President Xi Jinping later this month, a continuation of their dialogue from the 20th of March rendezvous in Moscow. Since that gathering, the geopolitical landscape, once shaped by the dominant unipolar moment post-Cold War and swayed by the repercussions of the Global War on Terror from 2001 until the US military's exit from Afghanistan in August 2021, has teetered on the brink of redefinition. The burning question remains: are we transitioning to a multipolar era, or drifting back to a bipolar configuration reminiscent of the Cold War tussle between the US and the Soviet Union? The DW documentary astutely captured the growing complexities between powerhouses like the US, China, Russia, and India. Yet, it seemingly side-stepped Europe's stalwarts, France and Germany and the current epoch's strategic chokepoint: the semiconductor industry, focusing more on regional tensions.
Bulwarks in Decline: The Erosion of Today's Geopolitical Order
"We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." -- Henry John Temple.
The US narrowly avoided a government shutdown after Congress passed an 11th-hour stopgap funding bill, keeping the government operational for another 45 days. The breakthrough came after McCarthy, who had been resistant to negotiations for weeks, suddenly changed direction and presented a bill that did not incorporate the border policies and spending cuts he initially sought to placate conservative factions. President Biden promptly signed the bill just before the midnight cutoff. However, in the rush to prevent the shutdown, Biden had to forego including aid for Ukraine, one of his main concerns. Despite the Congress largely supporting Ukraine against Russia's aggressive actions, no funds for Ukraine were allocated in this agreement. Biden emphasized the importance of not letting Americans suffer from a shutdown but called for consistent support for Ukraine in the future.
While on the other side of the sea in the UK, Rishi Sunak, following his tenure as PM after Litz, has ignited controversy with what appears to be a significant backtrack on prior climate commitments. According to a leaked report by the BBC, Sunak plans to diminish some of the government's critical climate pledges. Proposed changes include lessening energy efficiency targets for private homes, postponing the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles until 2035, delaying the phasing out of gas boilers, discarding tax plans to deter flying, and abandoning recycling initiatives. These revelations prompted a rare late-night statement from the prime minister in anticipation of an impending public backlash. Sunak's policy U-turns seemingly contradict the UK's earlier environmental milestones. The country had previously passed the Climate Change Act, expanded offshore wind energy, and was the first nation to announce a climate emergency. Criticisms highlight that Sunak's claim of the UK's leadership in tackling climate change doesn't reflect his actions. England, for instance, erected only two onshore wind turbines the previous year, while countries like Ukraine outperformed them. The Climate Change Committee has labeled the government's progress on the climate front as "alarmingly slow." As public polls show climate change remains a top concern among citizens, Sunak's diminished commitment to climate objectives suggests a broader disconnect between the leadership and the electorate's expectations.
This shift towards conservatism can be attributed to several factors. The War in Ukraine has undeniably exerted immense pressure on global markets, causing ripple effects, including surging inflation. The worldwide economic revival post-COVID-19 remains uncertain, with many countries yet to fully recover. As inflationary pressures build, largely driven by rising global oil prices, central banks like the US Federal Reserve signal rate hikes in a bid to control spiraling costs.
In times of economic uncertainty and geopolitical tension, a retreat to more conservative, risk-averse policies is historically observed. Governments under pressure from domestic challenges often prioritize immediate concerns over long-term goals, as seen with the US's fiscal challenges and the UK's environmental policy U-turns. This growing influence of conservative agendas, while perhaps expected in these tumultuous times, will shape the trajectory of these nations for years to come.
Rising Titans: The China-Russia Blueprint for a New Geopolitical Order
Richard Walker's incisive documentary from DW, "Decoding Putin and Xi's Blueprint for a New World Order," captures the zeitgeist of the current geopolitical shifts with finesse. Far from being a mere propaganda piece, it traces the narrative arc starting from Putin's pivotal Munich speech. Delivered on February 10, 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, this address is widely viewed as a watershed moment, marking a rekindling of NATO-Russia tensions post-Cold War. In his remarks, Putin did not mince words about the pitfalls of a "unipolar" world, advocating instead for a multipolar one. He stated, "However we dress up the term 'unipolar,' it boils down to a single locus of authority, force, and decision-making. It denotes a world dominated by one master, one sovereign, a situation that's ultimately detrimental to all, including the reigning power, as it implodes from within. Such a setup hardly aligns with the principles of democracy, where the majority's rule takes into account the minority's perspectives... It's a given that the economic prowess of emerging global growth hubs will soon translate to political clout, buttressing the shift towards multipolarity."
The documentary deftly incorporates perspectives from numerous global scholars, most notably Zhou Bo, a retired senior PLA colonel. Zhou provides candid insights into China's stance, elucidating its tempered support for Russia's incursion into Ukraine. Simultaneously, the narrative subtly underscores the burgeoning alliance between China and Russia, a partnership seemingly intent on challenging the US's hegemonic position on the global stage.
From a geopolitical standpoint, as articulated by John Mearsheimer, the proponent of offensive realism, a superpower's primary instinct in global politics is self-preservation. It strives to amplify its dominance, repelling competing forces from its territories, a philosophy echoed in the American Monroe Doctrine, where the US endeavored to exert control over the Western Hemisphere. Yet, offensive realism's reach doesn't end within one's borders; it drives a superpower to keep potential contenders in other regions in check, often by aligning with lesser powers that feel the weight of regional giants.
This theoretical lens provides a vantage point to understand the US, and broadly NATO's, ambitions to expand their embrace, welcoming the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe into their fold post-Cold War. Successive Russian leaders, from Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, have resisted this encroachment. But Putin's approach deviates from his predecessors'; he not only articulates opposition but actively counters it. This strategic assertiveness manifested in the 2008 "limited war" over Georgia, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and escalated into the overt military campaign in Ukraine in 2021 — a conflict that persists to this day.
Following a similar line of reasoning, China aims to expand its influence across Asia, if not the broader Asia-Pacific. From the strategic skepticism of the first island chain to the "String of Pearls" approach bolstered by the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative, formerly known as OBOR - One Belt One Road), China is actively pushing to validate its historic 'nine-dash line' claim in the South China Sea. This stance puts it at odds with several of its ASEAN neighbors, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, with overlapping territorial claims. The establishment of key BRI projects, such as the ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan (Hambantota and Gwadar respectively), has put India on high alert, leading to a significant shift in New Delhi's geopolitical narrative.
The Reminding Bulwark: Rzeszów as the 21st Century's Gate of Vienna
However, a WSJ report spotlights a peculiar incident in Rzeszów, Poland, where an unwittingly tipsy local accidentally discovered a covert Russian espionage plot. This man’s incidental find of an odd camera near rail tracks mushroomed into a full-blown revelation of a complex spy network, primarily targeting a logistics hub crucial to Ukraine’s defense. Positioned near the Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport and roughly 60 miles from the Ukrainian border, this hub, informally dubbed "J-Town" by military personnel, evolved rapidly following Russia’s invasion in 2022. Once a tranquil town, it now stands as a bustling epicenter channeling a vast supply of Western-sourced arms to Ukrainian forces. However, the resilience of this hub isn't just tested by espionage but also by diplomatic intricacies. A seemingly minor tiff over grain shipments between Poland and Ukraine threatened their historically strong ties, especially when Poland's Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, hinted at a potential interruption in armament supplies. This was later clarified, ensuring the continuation of support, yet exposing the fragility of this pivotal alliance in the larger conflict with Russia.
Another missing analytical aspect from DW's documentary piece is the delicate geopolitical dance in the heart of Europe, particularly Germany's precarious position. Historically ensnared by its central European location, Germany has perennially sought to avoid the nightmare of a two-front conflict. While NATO's American-led security umbrella has historically swayed Germany to lean westwards, a direct threat from Russia – say, dominance over Poland – could dramatically alter this orientation. The protective cushion offered by Eastern European nations would vanish, heightening Germany's vulnerability to Russian advances. Such a scenario could see Germany, prioritizing its immediate security, extending economic and diplomatic olive branches to Russia, potentially undermining EU unity.
Meanwhile, France, blessed with a relative geographic detachment from Russia, has historically relished its distinct, independent role, even within alliances. Rather than viewing Russia as a direct threat, France often perceives it as a counterweight. However, should Germany inch closer to Russia in the aftermath of a hypothetical Polish subjugation, alarm bells would ring in Paris. The potential for EU disintegration would jeopardize France's European vision. Thus, in defense of the overarching European dream, France might intensify efforts to fortify EU unity and could adopt a tougher stance against Russia.
The 21st Century Choke Point
Yet also another missing part is 'the choke point of the 21st century', it's no longer the maritime-wide straits or the sea lanes, but the Chip industry. The concept of chokepoints has dramatically shifted from a conventional geographical perspective to high-tech domains and supply chains.
Semiconductor dominance is emerging as a critical facet of global geopolitical dynamics. The U.S. continues to maintain its technological edge by exercising strict control over the trade of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools, particularly exports to China. This dominance over the advanced chip industry influences a broad spectrum of sectors, from defense and artificial intelligence, to everyday consumer electronics.
In addition, control over the digital infrastructure has become a defining aspect of our times, with the rollout of 5G technologies being central to global competitiveness. The U.S., however, has been assertively discouraging allies from leaning towards Chinese technology—primarily from companies like Huawei—citing national security concerns.
The U.S. financial system and its role as a global reserve currency, serves as an integral linchpin allowing the implementation of sanctions, SWIFT exclusions, and other financial tools as critical elements of its geopolitical strategy. Furthermore, a keen emphasis on data security is evident from the measures taken against Chinese tech companies and certain apps, which underscores the criticality of data as a vital 21st-century asset.
Moving beyond tech, the U.S. actively negotiates and revises trade agreements, engages with strategic economic alliances targeting China's ascending influence—Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is a key example. Concurrently, despite the shift towards green energy and lower carbon emissions, the strategic importance of energy resources is evident in the active relationships with major oil producers and control over global energy routes.
The U.S. persistently prioritizes innovation and emphasizes heavy investment in research and development across domains like AI, quantum computing, and biotechnology to uphold its global technological leadership.
The strengthening of defense and military alliances is also a crucial part of the strategic puzzle, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, signifying the growing importance of this geopolitical arena. Additionally, the U.S. effectively harnesses its educational and cultural soft power, leveraging global perceptions and talent attraction.
Effectively, the chokepoint of the 21st century, as exhibited by the U.S., focuses on maintaining or acquiring dominance in crucial sectors and technologies, reinforcing strategic alliances, and capably deploying its economic, military, and soft power arsenal. This approach embodies a blend of defensive measures that safeguard its interests and proactive strategies to sustain its global leadership. What must be understood, however, is the fluidity of these strategies as a function of the evolving global dynamics.