Joschka Fischer

Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

Reckoning With a New Authoritarian Bloc

Le 4 juin 2024 à 11h33

Modifié 4 juin 2024 à 13h08

BERLIN – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to China – his first trip abroad since being “re-elected” – highlights an ongoing shift in the global order. A new alliance has emerged on the world’s largest continent, comprising China and Russia, as well as North Korea. This new authoritarian bloc, the direct result of Russia’s war of aggression against a smaller neighbor, represents a major geopolitical development that will have far-reaching consequences.

The Kremlin aims to extinguish Ukraine as an independent country, and eventually to annex it. The West has responded with strong sanctions and trade restrictions against Russia, leading to a near-complete collapse of trade relations and Russian energy exports to Europe. That created an opportunity for China to fill the gap in Russia’s foreign trade. Because the Kremlin urgently needed to sustain its energy-export revenue to fund the war, China (as well as India) seized the opportunity to import hydrocarbons at a big discount.

But China remained careful not to provoke additional sanctions. It refrained from direct deliveries of arms and sensitive technology, lest it further undermine its already-strained trade relations with the United States. China remains heavily dependent on the West – and especially on the US – for high-end technology, and its leaders do not want to endanger Chinese companies’ sales in Western markets. Thus, it has responded to the Ukraine crisis with a tenuous seesaw policy: increasing its alignment with Russia while maintaining formal neutrality in the war and respecting the West’s red lines.

Following the Russian military’s failure to seize Kyiv or achieve most of its other objectives in 2022, the war has dragged on, putting the Kremlin in an intensifying confrontation with Western governments. The latter see the attack on Ukraine as merely the beginning of a broader effort to challenge Western hegemony, while Putin sees it as a way to revise the outcome of the Cold War and regain Russia’s status as a global power.

But the Russian elites around Putin are fooling themselves if they think a conflict with America and its allies will restore national glory. Russia has neither the economic nor the technological potential to sustain such a confrontation. It has suffered years of economic stagnation, and it remains burdened by a huge modernization deficit. Putin has done absolutely nothing for the country, other than to make it a dependent junior partner of the new Chinese superpower.

While Putin’s delusions of grandeur obviously contrast with China’s more careful policy, his recent visit to Beijing suggests that the Sino-Russian relationship is growing stronger. With the emergence of an authoritarian bloc spanning northern Asia, the crisis in Ukraine could indeed evolve into a full-scale global confrontation.

But even if an open confrontation is avoided, the outlines of a new global bifurcation are already visible. Large parts of the Global South will tend to side with the authoritarian northern Asian bloc, partly owing to the West’s own past mistakes and longstanding ignorance of these countries. Within this broad grouping, Iran will play a particularly important role, given its centrality to the “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East and its pursuit of regional hegemony.

Since these shifts come at America’s expense, they will challenge the US role as the world’s leading superpower and force it to intensify its engagement in the two current theaters of war: Ukraine and the Middle East. In the case of the Middle East, there are already signs that the US may enter a closer security pact with Saudi Arabia – a prospect it had previously rejected.

Taken together, the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the formation of an authoritarian bloc in northern Asia, and Hamas’s attack on Israel last fall seem to have put an end to the period of American retreat that began after its misadventure in Iraq.

Strategists and policymakers in Washington have realized that the ongoing reordering of the world primarily concerns America’s role – and its future status – as the leading superpower. With the new race to achieve dominance in artificial intelligence and other technologies of the future, this process is as much about innovation, economics, immigration, and education as it is about geopolitics. A new rivalry between two fundamentally different systems now pervades all levels of international affairs.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2024

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