The Fracturing World Order & Rise of Revisionist Powers: Insights from Ukraine, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific

Stephen Walt

There’s arguably a growing convergence between Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. In your view, how does this influence the geopolitical landscape, and what potential risks or opportunities does it present?

I don’t think this collaboration marks a fundamental reversal in the global balance of power. But I do think it greatly complicates Western diplomacy and certainly what the United States is trying to accomplish. Russia and China for many years have complained about a world order that they think is being run more or less unilaterally by the United States, with the United States trying to impose its will on others in a variety of different ways, not just with military force. And this, let’s call it, a loose coalition that you mentioned, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran—by helping each other they make it harder for the United States to impose its will to do exactly what it wants. Russia in its war with Ukraine can get ammunition from North Korea. China, Iran, and North Korea can all help Russia evade Western economic sanctions. Russia has gotten drones from Iran as well. So, in all of these ways, it makes it more difficult, it increases or improves Russia’s position, and makes it more difficult for the United States and its Western allies to accomplish their aims. I think that’s completely consistent with the way these states have viewed the existing world order and it’s their attempt to try and push back against it.

What constraints do multiple conflicts and tensions around the world impose on the US’ ability to support its allies, in other words, I suppose, how many conflicts can the US comfortably manage at once?

There are real questions to ask about how many conflicts the United States, despite all of its capabilities, its wealth, and its considerable military power, can handle at once. One of the things we’ve seen in the war in Ukraine is that the possibility of lengthy industrial-strength warfare is still out there. The wars the United States has been fighting have either been counterinsurgency, low-intensity conflicts, or very brief wars—the two wars against Iraq in ‘91 and 2003. What we’re seeing in Ukraine is something very different, where you have to keep forces in the field and keep them supplied for lengthy periods of time. If you had to do that in more than one place, it starts to get extremely difficult. The final problem is simply a bandwidth issue—the President’s time is limited; the time of top officials is limited. So, look at all the attention now being paid to the Middle East, that takes time away from other problems in other places and inevitably makes it harder to accomplish your aims.

Broadly, what do you think are some of the lessons or insights gleaned from the Ukraine War? What are its regional and broader geopolitical implications, diplomacy, alliances, and international institutions?

First of all, it’s a reminder of the unpredictability of large-scale military operations. Everyone’s expectation at the beginning was that Russia was going to win relatively easily, that was certainly Russia’s expectation. That didn’t happen. They miscalculated. Then there was a brief period where people thought that the Ukrainians were coming back, they were making real advances a year ago or more, and that Russia was going to suffer a humiliating defeat. And there were worries about escalation if that happened. That turned out not to be true either—the Russians improved their game; they stabilized their positions. And now this past summer, we’ve seen a Ukrainian counteroffensive that didn’t live up to hopes or expectations either. So, one big lesson here is that it’s hard to anticipate exactly how a military conflict is going to go once it gets started.

Second, I think it’s a reminder of the balance of power theory. The European response surprised everyone, including Russia, weaning themselves off Russian energy, beginning to rearm in a variety of ways, two more states opting to join NATO—and by the way, states that had a long history of neutrality. So that’s another lesson, that large-scale aggression tends to provoke a defensive response by others as well, something that people ought to bear in mind. I think it’s a reminder of the power of nationalism. The heroic actions of the Ukrainians to defend their own independence is something that potential aggressors ought to bear in mind when they go into another country, they should expect to face pretty fierce resistance. And as I said before, it’s also a reminder that large-scale sustained industrial warfare is not a thing of the past, it can still happen.

Would you say the ongoing conflict right now in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas has any potential consequences for Ukraine?

This is terrible news for Ukraine. They had nothing to do with the conflict happening in the Middle East but what’s happened there is really troublesome for them. First of all, it’s taken attention away from Ukraine. They used to be on the front page every day and now they’re back on page nine or ten. The amount of time and attention that American officials and European officials are being able to devote to Ukraine is also diminished by this as well. The European Union was quite united, in part by the conflict in Ukraine—it’s now divided over what’s happening in Gaza with different European countries taking different positions. That’s not good. Then finally, there’s a resource problem. One of the challenges Ukraine has faced is that we haven’t been able to supply them with as much ammunition. I don’t mean sophisticated stuff; I mean basic 155-millimetre artillery shells. We’ve had to take it from stockpiles in Korea, in Israel and elsewhere. Now the United States is trying to rush more military supplies to Israel and that means fewer supplies that can go to Ukraine. It has also complicated the political effort inside the United States to get a new aid package passed, with some Republicans trying to hold up aid for Ukraine. They’re doing that in part because public support for Ukraine is starting to diminish in the United States, and, of course, with everyone’s attention riveted on Gaza that’s likely to continue as well. How many problems can we deal with at once? You put all that together and it’s very bad news for Kyiv.

One final note on Ukraine before we move on, do you have any predictions about how the conflict will resolve, whether that be a ceasefire or any number of other scenarios? What might the implications be for Putin or the Russian government?

I still think the most likely base case is a protracted stalemate, one that continues to damage Ukraine in various ways, but also has some costs on the Russian side, and there is a stage in which then a diplomatic process will begin. But exactly how that plays itself out is really hard to forecast at this point. It will depend a lot on what the level of resolve on each side is, at that point, how long they’re willing to continue it. I would like to see that happen as soon as possible because Ukraine is being wrecked in the process, and I’m more worried about their bargaining position getting worse over time than getting better. And so, the sooner one gets to some kind of a diplomatic process the better. But that’s not going to be an easy one. Anyone who thinks that this is an easy negotiation I think is kidding themselves.

One of the hardest things to forecast is what happens inside an autocracy and how political movements change. But I think what many people in the West have failed to understand is that this was not something that Putin dreamed up all by himself, that the concerns about where Ukraine was headed were widely held in the Russian political elite, that there have been, yes, some protests, some opposition, but there’s nothing that suggests his hold on power is loosening, that he’s about to collapse. And more importantly, even if he did, even if he were removed from power, or even if he died tomorrow, he is likely to be replaced by someone who would want to continue the war to what they regard as a successful conclusion. So, the idea that you could solve this problem by simply removing one person I think is naive.

What is the likelihood of Taiwan becoming a third sphere of conflict in the coming years? How does the expansion of military capabilities by China, particularly its naval and nuclear forces, contribute to the complexities of global power dynamics?

Assuming Taiwan does not unilaterally declare independence, which Beijing has always said is a red line, assuming that does not happen—and that’s something I think the US government continues to discourage—then I don’t anticipate any overt military action or a Chinese invasion to conquer the island anytime soon. How far out I’d be willing to extend that, I’m not sure, but over the next several years, maybe as far as five. Now, that said, China’s rising military capabilities in a number of different dimensions complicate any effort to protect Taiwan, either to deter an actual invasion or to deter continued military pressure. I think many people worry more about interference with shipping, with imposing some kind of no-fly zone, and various forms of harassment over time. And all of that becomes harder to deal with the stronger that that China gets.

I still think the military prospects of a direct invasion are quite risky from a Chinese point of view. Amphibious invasions are hard to do, it’s not a particularly hospitable body of water they have to cross, and there are not a lot of places to land. And with proper defensive preparations, that could be a real disaster, which is something I think China doesn’t want to bear. But lower-level forms of pressure, it seems to me, are sustainable. The one thing that’s sort of the good news in all of this story is that China’s rising power and assertiveness, its tendency to throw sharp elbows in the region, has not gone unnoticed by other countries in Asia. So, you see greater cooperation among them, the mending of fences between South Korea and Japan, Japan announcing a doubling of its defence budget, all of these states want to be closer to the United States now. We’re seeing a balancing coalition form and take on greater capacity and that hopefully will be sufficient to deter China from any overt attempt to alter the regional status quo.

How might China’s economic challenges, such as an aging population and declining productivity, interact with its assertive stance on Taiwan, influencing both domestic stability and international relations?

I don’t know how it’s going to shape their domestic stability. I don’t think there are any signs that the Chinese Communist Party is losing its grip on power or anything like that despite some unhappiness over various policy decisions that have been taken. This is the $64,000 question that divides China watchers and the problem is you can tell two kinds of equally persuasive stories. One is that with all the problems you mentioned, a slowing economy, demographic issues, etc., China is not going to want to take on some big international challenge, particularly because doing something overt would have enormous consequences for the Chinese economy. It would immediately lead to various forms of sanctions and punishment and be highly disruptive, and you don’t want to do that if your economy is already in a fragile condition. So that’s one version, that this is actually good news, it slows China’s growth and forces them to concentrate on things at home.

The gloomy version says that, well, one way you distract people from problems at home is by revving up nationalism and achieving some great foreign policy victory. Furthermore, if you think your power may be peaking, that growth is going to be slower, that over the next 10 years is your best opportunity and if you wait too long the opportunity might be lost—then the temptation to do something now, even if it’s risky, and even if the prospects for success are less than 50/50, goes up. So, I can tell you two equally plausible stories, and the only person who will ultimately be able to answer that is Xi Jinping.

In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, Michael Kimmage and Hannah Notte write “This is not an era of strengthening international order. It is not merely another era of great-power competition. It is a moment of anarchically fragmenting power, an age of great-power distraction.” What do current conflicts or tensions in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Asia reveal about the present state of the international order, from your perspective?

I think we are dealing with the fallout of the unipolar era, that there was a brief period where the United States really had a dominant position of primacy. We couldn’t run everything around the world, but we’re certainly in an unchallenged position. Unfortunately, we didn’t seize that opportunity to try and create a set of workable, relatively stable relations that had a broad degree of buy-in, including buy-in from countries like Russia and China. Instead, the United States went off and tried to spread its liberal principles far and wide, including in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and it didn’t work out all that well. I think we didn’t take Russian and Chinese interests, especially Russian interests, into account very much and ended up driving those two countries closer together. Now, there are things happening in other parts of the world that are independent of that, but all of that has contributed to both less confidence in American leadership and also a series of overt conflicts in a variety of places, whether it’s Asia, the Middle East, or now in Ukraine, that the United States is going to have enormous trouble dealing with. If you look ahead, I think you are seeing the emergence of more of a bipolar kind of arrangement, where the United States has its traditional set of allies and competes for influence in the Global South. China, Russia, and some of the countries you mentioned at the beginning are forming another grouping and they will compete for influence in the Global South, and countries like India and Brazil and others will basically try to play both sides off against each other and get the best deal they can. That’s the overall architecture we’re likely to see going forward.

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