By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja
The term ‘new world order’ has generally been used to refer to any new period of world history that displays a striking change in world political thought and the balance of power amongst nations. The term is associated with an ideological concept of global governance, not through a world government, but through various institutions of global governance, such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the World Bank and others.
In use after the end of WW I, America presumed that it had the right to dictate terms to make the world safe through an international body, the League of Nations. While President Woodrow Wilson firmly believed that collective security could be achieved thus, the US Senate rejected membership to it. The League of Nations failed to live up to its charter, and the term – new world order – was hence, sparingly used after WW II, even when the formation of the United Nations Organisation was being discussed. It was used widely only when other multilateral organisations, such as the NATO and IMF, were created. In recent times, the term has been used extensively after the American ‘victory’ in the Cold War; it used the UN platform to build consensus for its many military and economic actions against nations, assumed to be in contradiction of its ideology.
In April 1994, the veteran US diplomat, Henry Kissinger, stated, “The New World Order cannot happen without US participation, as we are the most significant single component.” Notwithstanding such a statement, there have been quite a few world leaders who have opposed the American role at the helm of the world order, dictating its terms and conditions to other nations; leading the list was the maverick Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There is no accepted classification for what defines a powerful state. It is normally based on the economic and military components of State power that can be used to manipulate the workings of the international system for its own interest. In the international system, the States are further segregated as small powers, middle powers, regional powers, great powers, and superpowers. America, as the sole super-power after 1991, was an accepted member of almost all multilateral organisations that could exert varying degrees of influence on the global scale, until the rise of other nations and resultant groups, such as China, India, G20, and BRICS; although America, and its allies, are the prominent members of the G20, other nations have questioned the inclusiveness and methodology in implementing its charter of worldwide economic reforms. Decisions by such organisations lack legitimacy as global policies cannot be enforced leading to an open question: What is the future of the international system, a ‘new world order’ or a ‘new world disorder’, or is it something in between?
The American Influence is Waning
It shall be a fallacy to state that “American power is waning”; whatever the reasons for the perceived slowdown, America continues to remain a powerful country – economically, militarily, and technologically. Yet, it has to be admitted that American global power has definitely been seen to have been eroding for some time. The decline of American influence had started even before Trump’s belligerent foreign policy positions – from pulling out of treaties, to running down allies, to starting trade wars; the brash, and sometimes pompous behaviour of President Trump has flipped over the international order.
The domestic arena within America too, has witnessed an upheaval. Both political parties have been grappling with these fast-developing changes. Until they sort out their differences, American global involvement is likely to be less effective, may be even unfavourable to its standing in the world order. It is not only Russia and China that are contesting America’s standing, some other nations too are asserting an independent and increasingly influential role in altering regional dynamics. America has not been able to isolate Iran; power shifts are occurring in the Middle East with talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, between UAE and Iran; Russia is well entrenched in Syria, and is challenging NATO advancement in East Europe by massing troops against Ukraine; Turkey, once a firm NATO ally, is playing its own hand, much against the preferences of America.
When USA entered WW II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, a clear-sighted Japanese Admiral, reportedly regretted: “I fear all that we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant”. The giant may not be snoozing now, but does appear to be tiring of playing the guarantor of the world’s liberal order.
China is the main contender to replace USA, and it has been its ambition to do so. America, under President Biden, is making attempts to sound, and act forceful, but not with much success. China continues to threaten Taiwan with a military takeover, should the latter not agree to a peaceful re-unification. Apart from announcing its ‘firm commitment’ to defend Taiwan, America, however, has never confirmed to despatching its own troops to Taiwan, should the need arise.
Although it really does not translate to any immediate threat to its superpower status, but the gradual erosion of America’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcomes in faraway regions has already shaken up the structures of American unipolarity. A string of failures – and the Afghan withdrawal was not an isolated incident – have strengthened this perception of great power fatigue and emboldened America’s rivals to openly challenge the US-centric ‘rules-based order.’
While China, as it appears, is the main challenger to America, there are others too. The much-talked about US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, has created intense geopolitical competition from the three major rivals of America.
Russia, notwithstanding the severe sanctions against it for the annexation of Crimea, has mobilised about 200,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, as a cautionary message to the Western nations for NATO to stay away from its borders. It has also supported the stand adopted by Belarus against Poland, on the migrants’ issue. As yet an invasion of Ukraine may not be on the horizon, yet the continuing preparations by Russia, has America and its NATO allies on tenterhooks.
Iran is the other major challenger to American influence in the Middle East. After President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement of 2015, Iran has steadfastly refused to have face-to-face talks with America. Since it was America that had violated the terms of the Treaty, Iran insists that it should be the one to take the first steps for the restoration too. After eight rounds of indirect negotiations in Vienna, there is little progress to show on ground, with Iran doggedly demanding the lifting of sanctions as the first step. Meanwhile Iran, has continuously been increasing its stockpile of enriched Uranium, and is willing to accept the punishing effects of the sanctions, rather than succumb to American pressure.
China’s activities in the seas South and East of it (SCS and ECS), the Indo-Pacific, and Indian Ocean, are another cause of concern to America, giving its policy-makers many sleepless nights. China has been continuously increasing its air and naval activity around Taiwan, almost on a weekly basis. This has triggered apprehensions of a forceful annexation of the island, as a part of China’s rhetoric of reunification. In a bid to contain China, America announced the creation of a tri-lateral partnership – Australia, UK, and USA – called AUKUS, much to the annoyance of not just China but also France, a NATO ally.
Can USA Hold the Fort?
It is quite apparent that America has the biggest challenge from China; it is facing, not only some tough choices, but is also running out of ideas. As it prepares for another Cold War, this time with China, America has to decide on how to handle problems that erupt in the world – from the war in Ethiopia to the instability in South America that is sending a continuous influx of migrants to its Southern border. However, it is the steady intensification of its disagreements with Russia, Iran, and China that are going to test its mettle.
Sanctions against Russia and Iran have not had the desired effects to deter either nation. Russia has taken more military steps towards Ukraine, while moving into a Chinese embrace, strengthening its partnership. As far Iran is concerned, the country has a hard-liner President, who is willing to test America through the now-on-now-off talks to revive the stalled nuclear agreement. A first move by America to lift the economic sanctions would definitely be taken as a sign of weakness, yet it does want to resurrect the agreement, or else, even without a nuclear weapon, Iran would attain a de-facto nuclear status, which would alter the security calculus in the Middle East.
The world sees America as a tired and weary superpower, with many of its policy-advisers advocating restraint in foreign policy. The liberal world order that it built, with its allies, after 1945, is crumbling, and not the least because of dithering and varied actions by successive presidents. President Obama threatened Syria on the use of chemical weapons, yet did not take any action against it; President Trump favoured dictators, walked out of treaties, humiliated allies, and sought to dismantle international institutions; President Biden, after his election victory, announced “America is back”, and then initiated a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with hardly a consultation with its allies. Many nations watching American actions, have little nostalgia for the post-1945 world order, and are eager for alternatives. They are looking towards China, while America is looking inward.
This, however, does not translate into America facing any immediate threat to its superpower status. Its geographical location gives it the advantage of seamless access to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and definite borders with its neighbours. Militarily, economically, and technologically, it continues to be more powerful than all its allies and adversaries, although China seems to be catching up. Yet, there is a certain deterioration in its abilities to mould geopolitical issues in faraway locations; Afghanistan was the latest, and surely not the last. It is this perceived weariness that has been taken advantage of by America’s rivals to challenge it openly to disrupt the ‘rule-based world order’.
If Not America, Then Who
The most obvious question that then arises, if not America, then who? And the most obvious answer that immediately springs to one’s mind is, who else but China. There are many who believe that China and Russia are great powers, but they are still weaker than America, even if they join hands, and hence, cannot pose any major challenge in any meaningful way.
The rise of China has changed the scenario to quite an extent, even altering the international geopolitical architecture to suit its interests. If China’s economic growth had continued in double-digits, as it was at the turn of the century, America could have faced peer competition. China’s growth, however, has been dwindling, especially in the follow-on of the pandemic. Had China grown as per predictions, it would have transformed into an enormously powerful country.
If, and only if, China does manage to grow, will it be a tranquil rise? The pattern does not show it to be so. China has already displayed its aspirations to dominate the Eastern hemisphere, just as America does in the West. America has also started its attempts to contain China’s ambitious forays to achieving regional hegemony. Almost all of China’s neighbours have joined America to contain Chinese power, resulting in an intense security situation, with a huge potential for war. But war will not happen!
Contemporary China realises that its military forces are still weaker than those of America; the global balance of power is stacked against it. Among other advantages that America enjoys is of many allies around the world, while China has virtually none. A future world order is, hence, definitely going to be as per America’s dictates, rather than China’s, even though China (read Xi Jinping), considers itself to be in same league as America. In the longer term, however, the world, that one would see in the future, would be where China is less constrained than it is today.
China considers itself to be a great power. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system; so is the case with China too. On ground, this means that the State would first like to establish regional hegemony, while ensuring no other power makes an attempt to counter it. All such countries have a strong military capability, which as any other material asset, can be counted and assessed. It is the intention, which evolves in the mind of the leader, that cannot be seen or measured, until it translates into action. As is the case with China!
America worked hard to achieve its status of a regional hegemon in the Western hemisphere, and has also been known as a ‘global hegemon’, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It can, therefore be expected to work equally hard to keep any other power from controlling Europe, the Eastern hemisphere, or make efforts to enter the Western hemisphere. It was successful in keeping Soviet Union out of Western Europe, right to the end of the Cold War. Will it succeed to keep China at bay?
Time will tell!
–The writer is an IAF veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda