Geopolitics and great power conflict

Followers of international relations can take their pick of wars at present. There is a trade war between the US and China; Russia waging a cyber-war on the West; a Cold War in Eastern Europe and the Baltics; a proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran; frozen wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova — where the Russians fear that their neighbors are getting too close to NATO; and a conflict in Syria that involves Turkey, Iran, Israel, Russia, and the US. On top of that we have Kim Jong-un test-firing ICBMs over Japan. It’s a tough neighborhood.

The “peace dividend” that was supposed to follow the collapse of Communism is well and truly over. The next major conflict is upon us. Democracy versus the Dictators. For the West to prevail it will have to engage in a coordinated muscular diplomacy over the next few decades. A good start would be Margaret Thatcher’s Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (2002):

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

“For my part, I favor an approach to statecraft that embraces principles, as long as it is not stifled by them; and I prefer such principles to be accompanied by steel along with good intentions.

…The habit of ubiquitous interventionism, combining pinprick strikes by precision weapons with pious invocations of high principle, would lead us into endless difficulties. Interventions must be limited in number and overwhelming in their impact.

….I should therefore prefer to restrict my guidelines to the following:

  • Don’t believe that military interventions, no matter how morally justified, can succeed without clear military goals.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies.
  • Don’t take public opinion for granted — but don’t either underrate the degree to which good people will endure sacrifices for a worthwhile cause.
  • Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it.
  • And when you fight — fight to win.

Thucydides trap and great power conflict

Plaster cast bust of Thucydides

Plaster cast bust of Thucydides

Athenian general and historian Thucydides wrote:

“When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.”

In Thucydides day it was wars between Athens and Sparta but in the modern era, a war between nuclear-armed powers is most unlikely. What we are witnessing instead is not the absence of conflict but a series of small wars fought through proxies — where the instigator can deny involvement — and asymmetric strategies.

Asymmetric war is war by other means. Cyber attacks by state-sponsored proxies can be denied and are unlikely to provoke a major conflict. Spreading misinformation, undermining existing structures through corruption, using economic coercion to influence the behavior of trading partners — all of these fall under the umbrella of asymmetric strategies designed to weaken the power of an adversary. Death by a thousand cuts rather than a single, decisive blow.

Lack of clear rules increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation to a hard conflict.

Summit for Democracy

Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy is aimed at combating asymmetric strategies. The focus is on democracy protection rather than democracy promotion, taking the approach of “fixing your own house first”.

Fighting corruption is one of the three priorities of the summit (the other two being defending against authoritarianism and promoting respect for human rights)….The United States Strategy on Countering Corruption, published this week…. focuses particularly on multilateralism and reforming existing US anti-money-laundering regulations. It was widely praised by the anti-corruption community in Washington: Paul Massaro, a senior policy advisor for Congress’ bipartisan Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (aka the Helsinki Committee), summed up the mood when he tweeted that the strategy is “exactly what we’ve been waiting for.”

The document places a special emphasis on multilateralism. The United States Treasury has promised to work internationally against tax evasion and to make the US and global systems of taxation more equitable. It has also acknowledged that it must step up the fight against the proceeds of foreign government corruption being held at US financial institutions. Cooperation with existing multilateral organizations and the use of new programs as platforms for anti-corruption and countering kleptocracy are highlighted as well. (Atlantic Council)

Energy and politics

Economic power is based on access to cheap and abundant energy.

In the 18th and 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was powered by steam from coal-fired boilers. Coal continued as the primary source of power for rail and marine transport. Even after the advent of the internal combustion engine and the rise of oil, coal-fired power continued to deliver electricity to light homes and power industry. Increased use of gas for heating homes and generating electricity reduced pollution levels in the second half of the 20th century but coal still plays an important part in electricity generation in developing economies like India and China.

Growing emphasis on renewable energy in the early 21st century, to reduce carbon emissions, has slowed investment in coal, oil and gas resources. But the transition to renewable energy has not been smooth and concentrates power in the hands of existing oil and gas producers.

Oil and Autocracy

Oil has dominated geopolitics over the past century, with countries jockeying to secure stable supplies of oil to power their economy. Oil revenues gave leaders in some undeveloped countries inordinate power and encouraged the establishment of dictatorships. Developed economies require rule of law, with secure private ownership and enforcement of contracts enabling private enterprise to flourish. But authoritarian leaders can flout the law if they are able to fund their government through oil revenues rather than levying taxes on the private sector. Reliance on oil resources encourages a “winner takes all” approach rather than cooperation between all sectors of the economy.

Much of the geopolitical conflict in the late 20th century, especially in the Middle East, was about great powers maneuvering to secure cheap sources of oil, or to undermine their adversary’s access to those sources. The drive towards decarbonization is likely to change that over time. But slowly.

The swing to sustainable sources of energy is expected to shrink demand for coal, oil and gas. Sharp rises in energy prices, if the transition is poorly managed, however, could undermine this.

Reduced demand for oil and gas is expected to impoverish a number of authoritarian governments over the long term and encourage the spread of democracy. But this will take time.


…..the energy transition will inevitably transform Russia’s relations with the other major powers. Russia is highly dependent on oil and gas exports, and in the long term, the clean energy transition will pose significant risks to its finances and influence. In the messy transition, however, Russia’s position vis-à-vis the United States and Europe may grow stronger before it weakens. As European countries come to increasingly depend on Russian gas in the coming years and as volatility in the oil market rises, both the United States and Europe will count on Russia to keep prices in check through its partnership with Saudi Arabia as leaders of the OPEC+ alliance…….

Meanwhile, Russia’s largely dismissive approach to climate change will become a growing source of tension in Moscow’s relations with Washington and Brussels—even though Putin’s recent rhetoric has become more climate-friendly. And in a decarbonized world that is increasingly electrified and interconnected digitally via the Internet of Things, Russia may find it hard to resist targeting energy infrastructure with cyberattacks, as it did when it took down Ukraine’s electric grid in 2015 and 2016. Moreover, as traditional energy consumers in the West curb their fossil fuel use, Russia will increasingly turn to the Chinese market to offload its supplies, fostering the geopolitical alignment of Moscow and Beijing. (Green Upheaval, Foreign Affairs)


Xi’s ambition for Chinese centrality on the global stage holds little attraction for much of the rest of the world, and in the current context of mounting international opposition, his outright success appears unlikely. Yet if Xi perceives that his strategy is unraveling, the result for the international community could be as challenging as if he were to succeed. In recent months, Xi has alarmed global leaders by cracking down on China’s world-class technology sector, eradicating the last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong, and flexing China’s military muscles through a hypersonic missile test. And the potential looms large for further, even more destabilizing actions, such as resorting to the use of force to unify with Taiwan. Xi has not articulated a peaceful path forward for unification with the island nation, and he has already demonstrated a willingness to engage in risky military behavior in the East China and South China Seas and on the border with India.

Faced with significant international headwinds, Xi has responded by raising the stakes. He appears unwilling to moderate his ambition, except in areas that do not compromise his core political and strategic priorities, such as climate change. (Xi Jinping’s New World Order, Foreign Affairs)

Economic and cyber war

Absent the willingness to use military force, the country with the greatest economic power is in the strongest position to set the rules.

War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.
~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

We are unlikely to experience an Armageddon scenario, with nuclear war between great powers. The costs of such a conflict are too high for both winners and losers.

Trident C4 Test Flight and Re-entry Vehicle

Test launch of Trident C4 SLBMs and the paths of its reentry vehicles

What we are likely to witness instead is conflict on the economic and cyber front between the US, Russia and China. The US has the advantage of rule of law — enabling peaceful cooperation and extensive alliances with trading partners — while CCP and Russian rule is based on force and coercion. But powerful interest groups in the West have undermined many of these advantages, putting their own interests ahead of their country.

Russia is a declining economic power. Its economy is largely based on oil & gas and its economic base is likely to erode as the world switches to alternative energy sources. It is likely to become even more reliant on the use of force and asymmetric strategies in an attempt to dominate its neighbors and maintain its “sphere of influence”.

Proxy wars and asymmetric strategies are unlikely to disappear but are expected to become more focused on gaining an economic advantage. Either directly, by seizing control of key resources, or indirectly, by diverting attention elsewhere. Both Russia and China were able to take advantage of US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan to advance their interests in other areas. Russia, to further its interests and build an alliance with oil-producers in the Middle East. China, to advance its economy through securing key resources, theft of technology, subsidizing key industries and establishing bases on disputed outcrops in the South China Sea.


The West needs to clean up its house and correct many of the abuses to which capitalism has been subjected over the past few decades. Martin Wolf sums up the challenges:

‘The threat is the decadence of the west, very much including the US — the prevalence of rent extraction as a way of economic life, the indifference to the fate of much of its citizenry, the corrupting role of money in politics, the indifference to the truth, and the sacrifice of long-term investment to private and public consumption….’ ( US-China Rivalry will Shape the 21st Century, FT)

Bold leadership is required. To fight the wars we have to, but more importantly, to resolve conflicts by other means wherever possible. That doesn’t mean avoiding conflict by retreating from red lines, which would simply embolden our adversaries. It means establishing and vigorously enforcing rules that benefit everyone. No one wins in a war. Whether it is a trade war, a cold war or a hot war. Everyone pays a price.

It’s worth remembering that the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic and authoritarian models expose themselves cyclically. Democracies, as is now the case in much of Western Europe, may face rapid turnover among their leaders, but autocracies can see their leadership sink into decrepitude, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping showing no signs of leaving the stage. Democracies may be dysfunctional, like the United States is now, but systemic corruption can paralyze and unsettle autocracies, like what happened in the build-up to the Arab Spring. (Ben Judah, Atlantic Council)