In a world of war, we must recalibrate our grand-strategic thinking. Here are five geopolitical scenarios for what could happen in the coming years
It is beyond doubt that the “rules based international order” chapter of History is coming to a close, removing from the real world many of the traditional assumptions about Western primacy and dominance which, over the past few decades, have become so ingrained in the minds of our “strategic” elites.
Global affairs are certainly in the process of crossing into a new era, but the contour of that geopolitical destination – the configuration of forces that will define power relations between the key states – is yet undetermined.
There are plenty of rhetorical attempts by pundits – many just hawking their podcasts or consulting wares – to make the facts fit their pet theories, whether about the arrival of so-called “multipolarity” or the inexorable decline of the West.
Of more serious concern is the growing and well-directed “information warfare” by revisionist states like Russia and China, which are trying to further demoralise us and shape the narrative over what is supposed to follow the post-1945 US-dominated system. But they’re all grasping at straws.
In reality the world is too volatile and uncertain, and too many structural elements are in motion in the military, economic and political fields, to allow for definitive conclusions to be drawn as to what comes next.
No particular future can be willed into being purely by propaganda tricks or twisted analysis. And no state or grouping of states can claim to have a decisive strategic advantage in the world system at present or in the near future. In other words, it’s all to play for.
All main actors on the global stage still retain the ability to make different policy choices – whether winning moves, or mistakes – and change the course of events. It is worth considering, therefore, what are the main geopolitical scenarios – and some of their potential dynamics – that might frame the minds of those in charge of grand-strategic decisions, particularly in key Western capitals. In a very subjective order of likelihood:
- Downward spiral: multiple regional wars
The eruption of major armed conflict in Israel following the October 7 terrorist attacks by ISIS-Hamas has deepened the sense of a world veering towards the abyss of global conflagration. With Ukraine desperately trying to fight off Putin’s invasion and with China openly readying its own military machine for a potential war with the United States over Taiwan, the new escalation in the Middle East has been seen as confirming the implosion of global security as in the lead-up to 1914 and 1939.
No less eminent an historian than Niall Ferguson wondered, in early November, whether we are headed towards World War Three. The crises in the Ukraine, the Levant and East Asia are driven by the three main “neo-Axis” revisionist powers of the 21st century – Russia, Iran and China – which are drawing ever closer and support each other militarily, economically and diplomatically with one shared final purpose in mind: to wrest control of the international system away from the US-led Western alliance.
For now Western deterrence still holds with respect to its vital interests, as neither the Russians nor the Chinese appear to feel quite ready yet to directly take on NATO and the US, respectively. In the Middle East the situation is more complicated and Iran has multiple avenues for indirect escalation.
But even there the massive display of US and NATO naval power over the past few weeks appears to have deterred the feared assault by Hezbollah on Israel’s northern flank as the IDF went across into Gaza. Israel’s enemies may have missed their best window of opportunity so far, but others may open in the coming weeks.
To summarise, we are facing effective and concerted enemy action at a global scale, at a time of growing Western weakness and division. This is stretching Western – particularly US – military and economic resources and on current trends it will become an increasing problem the longer the neo-Axis maintains this triple geostrategic pressure on Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.
In order to maintain this last-ditch level of deterrence over the long term – which may also involve limited military interventions at key points in the system in the coming years – Western countries will have to start transforming from welfare states to warfare states, becoming increasingly militarised and mobilised for wartime production.
This will have knock-on effects on other aspects of national and global development, with the likely result of dragging everyone down and undoing decades of progress. And in the end we might not escape the big war anyway.
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Gabriel Elefteriu is a Fellow at Yorktown Institute.