If Putin takes over Ukraine, he won’t stop there. (…) If Putin attacks a NATO ally (…) then we will be faced with a situation that we are not looking for and which does not exist today: American troops fighting Russian troops (President Joe Biden in US Congress, December 6).
“The world is sick and most likely on the verge of a new world war” (former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, April 26, 2023). “The probability of moving from limited conflicts to a more uncontrolled global war, including the great powers, has increased from approximately 35% to 50% over the last two years” (Ray Dalio, the former boss of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest investment fund, October 12, 2023). For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the American national security strategy estimates that “the risk of conflicts between major powers is increasing”.
Should these alarmist predictions keep us from sleeping? Almost two years after the Russian aggression against Ukraine, February 22, 2022 – this change of era or Zeitenwendeas Chancellor Olaf Scholz summed up before the German parliament – is the threat of an extension of the war serious?
The reasons for concern, it is true, are accumulating. Military operations continue on the Dnieper. In the Middle East, the Israeli response to the attack of October 7 threatens at any moment to lead to a conflagration throughout the Middle East, which could begin in Lebanon or elsewhere. In Yemen, repeated attacks by Houthi rebels against Western ships are now hampering freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and a multinational force is being set up to deal with them. In the Far East, the North Korean dictatorship continues its missile attacks to the point of alarming its Japanese neighbor, which announces doubling its military budget by 2027. Further south there is the risk of an escalation in the China Sea or an invasion of Taiwan by the Chinese communist power, about to be destabilized by the structural slowdown of its economy and an implosion of the real estate bubble with unpredictable consequences for its financial system.
In its “global conflict index”, the Council on Foreign Relations think tank identifies twenty-five hot or latent conflict zones, including eight in Africa and eight in the Middle East. In 2022, these wars would have caused 237,000 deaths. The period of “long peace”, which began in 1945 and theorized by the American historian John Lewis Gaddis, could well be coming to an end. “The world of Pax americana after 1945 seems more vulnerable than ever,” analyzed the former German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joschka Fischer, this fall. However, History has shown that any challenge to the world order requires the test of war.
How can we explain such destabilization? The reasons are multiple. The America of Presidents Obama and Trump grew tired of its role as world policeman and opened the field to new and competing appetites. If, at the end of the American election on November 5, 2024, Donald Trump wins a second term, the re-election of the one who continues to criticize the cost for the American taxpayer of solidarity with his allies in Europe and Asia would add to the ‘uncertainty. For its part, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, “this aging tyranny”, has engaged, from Ukraine to Africa via cyberattacks against the West, in a strategy of exporting “chaos” – the term is from the historian Timothy Snyder, author of The road to bondage.
While Beijing has embarked on an arms race, particularly naval ones. It worries all its South-East Asian neighbors confronted with its desire for hegemony in the China Sea and its contestation of maritime borders. Rising middle powers (India, Turkey, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, etc.) are also playing their own strategic role, even if it means disorienting them, like Ankara with its NATO allies. Azerbaijan’s victorious blitzkrieg in Nagorno-Karabakh – which led to the exodus of 100,000 Armenians during the fall of 2023 – showed that this new multipolar world escaped the supervision of the big powers or UN institutions. We may fear that the lesson will be learned by others.
Glimmers of hope
This geopolitical fracturing is encouraged by the reorientation of global trade against a backdrop of protectionism, the repatriation of production chains to regional space and mutual distrust. “If this fragmentation increases, we will find ourselves in a new cold war,” warned Gita Gopinath, number 2 of the International Monetary Fund, last month. In fact, Mexico has now replaced China as the United States’ main trading partner. And Beijing’s first client is Moscow, which has ousted Berlin.
However, we must not despair. Firstly because public opinion shows no sign of warmongering. Neither in Russia where, from what we can say at this time, weariness seems to be winning in the face of a long war which is bleeding young people, nor in the West. According to a recent poll, less than a quarter of Americans (24%) would support sending troops to Ukraine. Then, the demographic decline underway in Russia and China should contain adventurist initiatives: we cannot go to war with empty classes in the long term.
Finally, the formidable military advance of the United States remains dissuasive: its defense budget is equivalent to that, combined, of the ten most important countries after it. Above all, the risk of a general conflagration would jeopardize the survival of humanity, even without the use of atomic weapons. “Establish collective coexistence through a logic of ensuring mutual survival”, this should be the line of the great powers, recommends Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action. For example, through coordinated mobilization in the face of climate challenges and pandemic risks. It remains to ensure its practical translation.
“While tragically it is not tomorrow that we will experience peace in Ukraine or the Middle East, in the rest of the world it is not tomorrow that we will experience war either,” summarizes researcher Rafael Jacob, from the University of Quebec in Montreal. We console ourselves as best we can.