While the news cycle continues to be dominated by nonsensical Trump news, real issues wait to be addressed. Geopolitics and the future of international conflict have been discussed in short detail, however, it is one of the most important issues of the election cycle. Theories have come and gone to how the international system will look in the next couple of years, however, Robert Kagan’s analysis in The Return of History and the End of Dreams seems to be the most poignant and applicable analysis to the current state of affairs. My following analysis of the history of geopolitics quotes Robert Kagan’s work extensively. Peace will not define the future of geopolitics, nor everlasting war. Instead, we return to a nineteenth-century geopolitical conflict. Alliances will return, fault lines give way, and conflict will not be between ideologies but between nation-states.
The End of the Cold War Geopolitics
Directly following the Cold War, many theorized that peace was imminent and that conflict would be minimal in the following decades. Although it may have seemed that those predictions were correct in the early nineties, as time progressed it became clear to many that conflict was returning. Because of nationalistic tendencies, advances in military technologies, and economic explosions, the nation-States of Russia, China, Japan, Iran, India, and the United States have formed alliances and initiated conflict along certain fault lines that mimic those of the nineteenth century.
When the Cold War ended, many saw that as an end to major ideological conflicts and in a sense they were right. Communism will most likely lay dormant for centuries, especially after the Cold War revealed its true intentions and consequences. If ideological conflicts are no longer existent, then another type of conflict has to dominate the international system. As mentioned above, many theorized that in the absence of conflict, peace would come to the forefront. Again, while this was true for several years in the early nineties, it would not last. Kagan notes, “The world was witnessing not a transformation but merely a pause in the endless competition of nations and peoples.” The late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century would witness the growing of once defunct superpowers, the forming of confusing and intricate alliances, and the initiation of conflicts that are similar to those of the nineteenth century. Kagan argues, “Instead of a new world order, the clashing interests and ambitions of the great powers are again producing the alliances and counter-alliances, and the elaborate dances and shifting partnerships, that a nineteenth-century diplomat would recognize instantly.” To fully understand why these alliances are formed or why these conflicts occur, one must look at each state individually and analyze their path after the Cold War.
Post-Cold War Russian Geopolitics
Russia is the most important country to observe when researching conflict after the Cold War simply because Russia entered the twenty-first century absolutely gutted. They had the most to lose. After the war, its economy was anemic, its military was outdated, and its morale was non-existent. Because the Cold War evaporated Russia’s power and knocked Russia to its knees, many thought Russia would stay docile and accepting of the new changes. Kagan argues that these predictions are false, saying, “If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned.” The Soviet Union was revered and feared as a great power during the Cold War. After the war, the country was stripped of most of its power. Today, Russia looks to regain the power that they had during the Cold War. Most of their actions follow a pattern of accumulating power or dominion over neighboring countries. One must note that although Russia and its citizenry seek to return to mid-Cold War power, they do not seek to return to communism. Kagan reinforces this by saying, “It is not that they yearn for a return to Soviet communism, rather, they yearn for the days when Russia was respected by others and capable of influencing the world and safeguarding the nation’s interests.” He continues, “[Russia’s leaders’] grand ambition is to undo the post-Cold War settlement and to reestablish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia, to make it one of the two or three great powers of the world.” Russia’s reaction to losing all of their influence after the Cold War can only be called an overcorrection; their thirst for more power and influence greatly outweighs their capacity to exist peacefully with other states.
Russia’s postwar power can be derived from several sources. Russia has incredibly vast natural resources, specifically petroleum. Russia uses their oil as a weapon against other nations by threatening to withhold oil until the rival state complies with Russia’s wishes. Kagan, citing specific examples, says, “[Russia] has episodically denied oil supplies to Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus; cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and Moldova; and punished Estonia with a suspension of rail traffic.” Several other conflicts have occurred along the “fault line” between Russia and its Baltic neighbors and Ukraine. Specifically, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March of 2014 citing cultural reasons. Russia believes that they must control the states along their fault lines and borders in order to compete in the national arena. To become a major force in Eurasia and a top superpower, Russia controls the countries along their fault line. This mimics state behavior from the nineteenth century: states would control and intimidate surrounding territories to tighten their grip on the region. Nationalism and pride are the driving force behind Russia’s increased aggressiveness.
The Developing World’s Geopolitics: China, India, Japan, and Korea
Another recognized superpower in a multipolar system is China. China experienced a massive economic boom following the Cold War. Moving from the “autarky of the Mao years,” China has become “deeply entangled in the international liberal economic order” and has become more dependent on the American economy. China’s booming economy has instilled in the Chinese people the notion that their country will again be at the top of the international system. Kagan describes this notion by saying, “[China’s economy] has given the Chinese people and their leaders a new confidence, a new pride, and a not unreasonable feeling that the future belongs to them. Their newfound economic prowess has revived old feelings of what Americans would call manifest destiny, a deeply rooted belief that China will be a central force in the world” (Kagan 27). Economic success is also followed by incremental but substantial increases in the Chinese military. China “has shifted its strategic doctrine away from defending the homeland against foreign invasion and toward a strategy of projecting force overseas.” Nationalism is better described as honor in China, and it grew substantially in the nineties. It can best be described by China’s persistent albeit stupid quest for the annexation of Taiwan. China is prepared to go to war with the United States over Taiwan. Kagan notes, “Chinese society, culture, and economy are not suffering for lack of 24 million Taiwanese, the majority of whom do not consider themselves part of China.” If the attraction to Taiwan isn’t due to material gain, then the only possible explanation for the annexation would be China’s pride and national honor. Kagan agrees, saying, “On the subject of Taiwan, China’s is a traditional nineteenth-century mentality. The issue is not only one of material interests. It is a matter of national pride and honor.” China’s aggression is fueled by economic and military increases and justified by honor and national pride.
Japan and India also play a considerable role in the discussion simply because their involvement in the international system prompts several alliances and counter-alliances that fuel tension among states. Economic boosts since the nineties have propelled Japan and India onto the world stage as major international players. On Japan, Kagan notes, “Its economy remains the second largest in the world, a remarkable fact given its relatively small population, smaller territory, and lack of natural resources.” Japan has been at odds with China since the nineteenth-century, and will continue to be for decades to come. China sees Japan as an inferior race, a metaphorical little brother. The Japanese people resent the treatment they receive at the hands of the Chinese and want to be taken more seriously, so they cozy up to the United States. In doing so, the international system becomes more complicated and more prone to conflict. Like the ever-changing alliance systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, alliances between major superpowers today continue to change and evolve.
Like Japan, India also experienced quite an economic boom in the years after the Cold War, however, their push to become more known as a world superpower involved building a nuclear weapons arsenal. However, unlike Iran, their push for nuclear weapons was mostly for self-defense against countries like Pakistan and China. India isn’t particularly friendly with China and several other countries and because of this, India has formed alliances with several countries. To be more specific, Kagan describes several alliances that pit different countries against each other. He says, “As in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great powers are forming combinations, formal and informal alliances to protect their interests and further their ambitions.” He continues, “When China tried to exclude India from the first East Asian summit, Japan took India’s side. When Pakistan offered China observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, India brought in Japan, South Korea, and the United States.” In addition to the alliances and partnerships mentioned above, China stands with Pakistan, which creates tension with India. Japan has moved closer to the United States because of China’s poor treatment. Russia and China have an unspoken alliance against the United States. Just like in the nineteenth century, alliances and partnerships between superpowers create division and conflict in the international system.
The United States’s New Role In Multipolar Geopolitics
The United States plays a large role in international politics; however, they seem to be reluctant to engage as the aggressor in any conflict. Kagan describes the United States as the reluctant sheriff, resting until called into action. The United States usually partakes in humanitarian interventions and is sometimes hell-bent on imposing democratic capitalism in places they feel need help. Driven by patriotism and alliance obligations, the United States only acts when provoked, similar to their policy in the twentieth century.
As a way to alleviate conflict, one can consider different ways that the international system can be organized, however, since conflict is ingrained in us, most systems will almost always result in conflict. In his book The Principles of International Relations, J. Martin Rochester implores us to explore alternative world order models. Despite how the world is organized, a general state of conflict will almost always befall humanity. One of the systems that Rochester explores is “regionalism,” a system in which five or six regions exist instead of two hundred nation-states. Ultimately finding the flaw in regionalism, Rochester says, “One can argue that regional entities would simply be nation-states writ large with the same propensity for conflict.” Another possibility mentioned is a centralized world government that would rule over the nation-states of the world with something similar to the United States constitution. The problem with this is that a centralized government can easily abuse its power and become despotic which, in turn, would possibly lead to armed revolution from certain nation-states. Lastly, Rochester suggests organizing the world into city-states. Rochester says, “While decentralization might well maximize individual freedom, democracy, and economic justice, some central guidance mechanism would still be needed to address global issues.” He continues, “As hard as it is to forge agreement on nuclear arms control among 200 sovereign actors, it would be all the more daunting a task if several hundred or thousand actors had to be consulted.” The nation-state will not last forever. Another system will replace it. Regardless, our general tendency towards conflict will always plague humanity.
So why does this matter?
This election is pivotal in many ways, however, none more important that geopolitics and international relations. For one to correctly understand what possible solutions there are to international conflict, one must realize that geopolitics is not entering a new stage of existence, rather it is reverting back to mimic the nineteenth century. The next few decades will be marked not by good vs. evil ideological conflicts, but by entangling alliances and agreements, skirmishes between neighboring countries, and an increased importance of skillful diplomacy. Certain nations’ roles and responsibilities will shift, some good and some bad. We may not know who will run the country next year, however, we do know that we will truly be experiencing a throwback in geopolitics.
Cover photo credit: Wikimedia Commons