“The Ukraine War and the World’s Dangerous and Changing Geopolitical Landscape” was written by Joseph Gerson to Mongolia’s Institute for Strategic Studies, in Ulan Bator on June 10, 2022
Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies Joseph Gerson – June 10, 2022
Thank you for this opportunity to meet with you. I expect that I will learn more from you that you from me.
I come from Massachusetts, one of the least violent and most cosmopolitan U.S. states. I have a friend in Vermont, another small and progressive state, where some believe their constitution allows for succession from the United States. Sometimes we joke about the possibility of Vermont succeeding. But my friend always ends the fun by asking me to imagine how insecure and threatened tiny and independent Vermont would be next to the American behemoth. I offer this as a way to intimate my appreciation for what it must be like to be sandwiched between China and Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine has triggered the most tumultuous and potentially dangerous transformation of the geopolitical disorder since the end of the Second World War and the imposition of the Cold War. This in an era defined by a Thucydides trap,: the inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers that has often climaxed in catastrophic wars. Such wars are avoidable as in the early years of the last century when hegemony was transferred from Britain to the United States. As tensions build between the U.S. and China, we must avoid the mistakes of 1914 and not sleepwalk into a World War. As was the case then, we are confronted by competition between rising and declining powers, arms races with new technologies, complex alliance systems, economic interdependence and competition, intense nationalisms, territorial disputes, and wild card actors. Two such actors are Vladimir Putin who has called into question the P-5’s statement that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and who has seriously undermined the integrity of negative security assurances. A second wild card is President Biden, whose repeated statements that the U.S. is prepared to defend Taiwan militarily have further exacerbated dangerous U.S.-Chinese tensions.
Yet unlike 1914, with nuclear, cyber, and AI weapons and the rise of autocracies, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock warns that humanity is 100 seconds from midnight. This at a moment when there is a near-complete absence of trust and cooperation between the great powers to address the existential nuclear, climate and pandemic crises. Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with the abrogations of, and withdrawals from, the ABM, INF, CFE, and Open Skies Treaties, the nuclear powers had plunged into unrestricted nuclear and high-tech arms races. With the deepening cleavage and fallout from the Ukraine War, hopes that a New START successor treaty can be negotiated before it expires, or that global warming can be limited to 1.5C degrees are tragically all but gone.
UKRAINE WAR’S IMPLICATIONS
The Ukraine war is having a determinative impact on the world’s geopolitical systems. Russia will be increasingly dependent on China, and their tacit alliance will be increasingly institutionalized as they are confronted by the power of the United States, NATO, and their global powers. With the European Union’s embargo on most Russian oil, India Saudi Arabia, other oil states will have increased leverage over oil prices and the power and influence that flows from that leverage. The British newspaper The Guardian reports that greater Russian-Chinese unity could bring pressure on Mongolia to better align its policies with theirs. At the same time, as seen in the abstentions in the General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is the possibility that a new non-aligned movement may emerge. Following Trump, Biden boasted that “America is back.” In the wake of the United States’ and NATO’s chaotic strategic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made it possible for Biden to fulfill his ambition of restoring U.S. primacy across Europe and beyond. NATO is now more united than it has been since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, with Finland and Sweden soon to join the alliance, its border with Russia is about to double in size.
During the Post-Cold War era, with its Out of Area Doctrine and its accumulation of “partner” nations, NATO became a global alliance. We see this in Japan’s maritime security, cyber and non-proliferation collaborations with NATO; in Japan’s, and in South Korea’s, and New Zealand’s military support for Ukraine; and Seoul’s recent membership in NATO’s cyber defense system. Germany, France, and Britain have all joined the U.S. and Japan in conducting maritime operations in the South China Sea. And later this month NATO will further institutionalize its NATO 2030 doctrine to contain and manage China’s rise, as well as to reinforce Russia’s deepening isolation.
The greatest unknowns as we go forward are the long-term ramifications of the Ukraine War, their implications for U.S.-China Relations, whether it will encourage nuclear weapons proliferation to countries like South Korea and Japan, and how industrialized nations will restructure their economies in the face of new realities of economic warfare.
The war has become something of a quagmire, although at enormous cost Moscow has expanded its territorial control in Donbass and conquered the land bridge to Crimea. Ukraine is fighting to keep Russia from taking all of Donetsk & Luhansk and to block a Russian advance toward Odessa. Ukraine, Russia, the U.S., and NATO are committed to a long war, with some talking in terms of August and September as possible turning points. President Zelensky speaks in terms of status quo ante, ousting Russia from Donbass, while Russia is making moves to integrate and possibly annex its 2014 and 2022 conquests. Meanwhile, changing and ambiguous U.S. goals increase the dangers of the war. After committing to defend Ukraine, President Biden and General Austin have stated the U.S. seeks to seriously weaken Russia. The U.S. ambassador to NATO has called for Moscow’s strategic defeat. And Biden expressed his hope that Putin will be ousted by the Russian people.
Russian and U.S. nuclear doctrine make this a particularly dangerous moment. Early on, some described the war as a possible Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. The danger that Russia would resort to using nuclear weapons appears to be low, but it is not zero. Russian nuclear doctrine calls for the use of nuclear weapons when the Russian state is in jeopardy. Were this to become the extended Afghan-like war that threatens to bleed Russian resources and power, as Biden and Zelensky hope or, now much less likely, were Russian forces to find themselves on the verge of being militarily ousted from the Donbass, in desperation Putin could launch one or more tactical nuclear weapons to terrorize Kyiv into suing for peace on Moscow’s terms. As terrifying as that would be, it could become much worse. The Pentagon’s fact sheet tells us that its Nuclear Posture Review mandates possible use of nuclear weapons when its vital interests and those of its allies and partners are threatened. The launch of a Russian tactical weapons could thus trigger a nuclear exchange and the possibility of nuclear winter.
The imperative is to win a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. In addition, the war’s devastation of Ukraine, it is having disastrous effects on Russia and laying the foundations for a new Cold War in which Moscow’s conventional military weakness will lead it to compensate with still greater investments in new nuclear weapons. More immediately, the bans on the export of 40% of the world’s grain and critically important fertilizers are causing food insecurity, threatening famine in much of the global south, as well as inflation in the industrialized world.
The Ukraine-Russian negotiating process has now totally collapsed. At some point it will have to be revived. A three tiered framework has been suggested by Russian, Ukrainian, European, U.S. and Chinese figures. It calls for creation of a six-nation contact to support and assist Russian-Ukrainian negotiations; European security talks involving all European and OSCE states, as well as China and India; and U.S.-Russian strategic stability and risk reduction talks. Who has the power to bring the policymakers to the table to broker the necessary dirty deal that establishes new national boundaries and guarantees Ukrainian sovereignty and neutrality? My colleague from Germany, Reiner Braun, suggests that some combination of Pope Frances, Secretary General Guterres, Presidents Xi Jinping and Macron, and others will need to use their combined influence to bring the war to an end. And, with President Zelensky insisting that Ukraine will not surrender an inch of its pre-2014 territory, the U.S. may have to twist some Ukrainian arms to stop the killing and to prevent still greater catastrophe.
In addition to the possibility that Ukrainian losses will open the way to concessions, we should not assume that Western unity will indefinitely endure. Eastern European and Baltic nations are committed to a decisive victory over Russia. But in Western Europe there are growing concerns about energy supplies and the dangers of escalation. In the United States, with inflation hemorrhaging support for President Biden, with growing numbers of Republicans saying that the U.S. is doing too much for Ukraine, and with progressive Democrats in Congress growing restless, we could see some major policy changes as we approach November’s and the 2024 Presidential elections.
Looking beyond the war, in a recent Track II discussion that focused on the possibilities of establishing post war strategic stability, senior U.S., Russian, and European figures engaged in a “competition among pessimists.” The absence of mutual trust, plus the technical difficulties of negotiating credible nuclear, cyber, AI, and other high-tech weapons agreements have us all hurtling into a tumultuous future without guardrails.
US & CHINA
China is the rising power that Washington perceives as the peer power that challenges its primacy in the Indo-Pacific and potentially globally. In his recent China policy speech, Secretary of State Blinken paternalistically warned that China is undermining the global order that made its transformation possible. This is the disorder imposed and negotiated to provide advantages for the world’s post World War II hegemon when China was impoverished and weak. We should not be surprised that China, in the tradition of other rising powers, is pursuing what it perceives to be its national interests, sometimes, as in the case of its South China Sea nine-dash line, with little regard for the rights and interests of others. That is how the U.S. established and enforced the Monroe Doctrine and what Zbigniew Brzezinski called its “toeholds” on the eastern, southern, and western “toeholds” of Eurasia.
There is continuity between Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policy priorities. Even as the U.S. has devoted massive resources to resisting Russian expansion, it has concentrated on its number 1 priority: maintaining its Indo-Pacific hegemony. The 2018 National Defense Strategy defined U.S. long term strategy as competition with other great powers, with China named as the Pentagon’s “pacing” challenge. The goal: maintaining the U.S. competitive advantage and ensuring U.S. miliary capabilities to be able to defeat China in a war. This is an all government strategy, including increases in funding for advanced and nuclear weapons, massive investments in high-tech, and the recently announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to better engage nations that are anxious about Washington’s military first policies. The Trump and Biden National Defense Strategies led to the creation of the QUAD and the AUKUS alliance, which they hope will serve as foundations for a future Asian NATO to contain China.
Note that on the eve of the Ukraine war, when President Biden was warning that Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment, Secretary of State Blinken was dispatched to Indonesia to reaffirm U.S. commitments to its regional primacy. While Blinken was in Indonesia, the administration released its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Strategy is rooted in the region being “the world’s gravity” with “more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries.” It warned that the U.S. is “determined to strengthen our long-term position and commitment to the Indo-Pacific” by shaping the “strategic environment” in which China and, to a lesser degree, North Korea operate. To reinforce these commitments, last month President Biden hosted the ASEAN heads of state and traveled to Asia for meetings with his South Korean, Japanese, and Australian allies, for a QUAD summit and to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. And, in response to China establishing a security relationship with the Solomon Islands, a senior U.S. official communicated the warning that the U.S. “would have to ‘respond’ if the Solomon Islands allows China to establish a military base there.” So much for the United States respect for sovereign rights.
The Chinese government is hardly a benign and innocent power – witness its actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and its miliary provocations in the Taiwan Strait. But this in no way justifies the Biden Administration’s assault on the One China policy, long the foundation for U.S.-Chinese relations. The U.S. is ratcheting up tensions and increasing the possibilities that miscalculations could trigger a calamitous war.
Building on Trump era initiatives designed to begin replacing the “strategic ambiguity” doctrine, Biden has been crystalizing a new commitment to “strategic clarity.” The Washington establishment is determined to bring Taiwan fully into the U.S. sphere to reinforce China’s containment. Taiwan’s pseudo ambassador was invited to the Biden inauguration, and U.S. warships and warplanes were repeatedly dispatched to the Taiwan Strait. Biden has repeated ill-considered declarations of U.S. military support for Taiwan and has massively increased arms sales to Taiwan. And, like waving a red flag in front of the proverbial bull, the State Department removed from its official Taiwan Fact Sheet the statements that the U.S. “does not support independence” for Taiwan and the reference to the U.S.-PRC joint communique, including U.S. recognition of “the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China” and that “Taiwan is part of China”.
While not as explicit as President Biden, Japan’s leaders have signaled that in the case of a war for Taiwan, Tokyo’s self-defense forces would join the fight. And, with both China and North Korean in mind, in violation of Japan’s peace constitution, and with U.S. encouragement, Japanese leaders are moving to double their military spending and to develop conventional first strike capabilities.
Thus, we should not be surprised by the PLA’s repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace and territorial waters. The provocative displays of force by each side increase the danger that an incident or accident, like the downing of a Chinese fighter jet in 2001, could spark an escalation that, given nationalist pressures on all sides, may not be able to be contained. We must also worry that Biden’s military assurances will tempt Taiwanese independence forces to cross Beijing’s Red lines.
Returning to the Thucydides Trap paradigm, former Australian Prime Minister and China scholar Kevin Rudd argues that U.S. and Chinese core national interests and values are in direct conflict. With all sides, now including NATO and QUAD, conducting provocative military operations, there is the risk of unintentionally triggering great power conflict. There are those in Washington, especially in the Republican Party and sectors of the Pentagon, who believe that war with China is inevitable, and that the U.S. should strike first while it has military overmatch. At the same time, Rudd argues that Xi Jinping sees himself as a man of history who desires to change maps and to establish the equivalent of a Monroe Doctrine-like sphere of influence to reinforce China’s security. Rudd notes that Xi’s tolerance for risk is greater than that of any Chinese leader since Mao. He argues that Xi believes that China will have the military power needed to prevail over the United States in Taiwan, and thus the inner island chain, by 2027.
The combination of Taiwan’s geostrategic value as the hinge of U.S. East Asian and western Pacific power and influence and U.S. military commitments to defend Taiwan from mainland China make the island today’s geopolitical center of the struggle for world power. Unlike Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, a domino effect would apply. Were the U.S. to fail to defend Taiwan it would call into question U.S. commitments to its alliances in Asia, the Pacific, and across Europe and thus its global primacy.
There is at least one additional uncertainty to consider: Who will be in power in Washington, D.C.? Describing the current political situation in the United States, the internationally esteemed linguist, scholar, and critic Noam Chomsky recently wrote “It’s quite incredible what’s going on….I’ve never experienced such utter irrationality and conformism.” Democrats have become a war party unable to stanch debilitating inflation. With our constitutional bias toward minority and conservative rule, right-wing extremists, and the corruptions of our electoral systems, authoritarian, America-First white supremacists could well gain control of Congress after November’s election and win the presidency in 2024. That said, there will be one constant: continued military, economic, technological campaigns to contain and manage China’s rise.
I am the last person who should be making policy recommendations to Mongolians. So, let me just share a few ideas. The first relates to Mongolia’s nuclear weapons free zone status, an important achievement that reinforces Mongolia’s independence and which can contribute to reducing the risk of nuclear war. Located as you are between China and Russia, not so distant from Korea, and your diplomatic relations with the United States, Mongolia is in a unique position to serve as a diplomatic bridge and facilitator for resumption of great power nuclear arms control and strategic stability negotiations. Similarly, it can encourage renewed negotiations for demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula, which over time could lead to the creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone.
Next, building on the Palme Commission’s 1982 Common Security Report which taught that security cannot be created against a nation’s rival but only with it, and which paved the way for the INF Treaty and the end of the Cold War, the International Peace Bureau, and the International Trade Union Confederation recently issued Common Security 2022. While imperfect, its principles and recommendations include revitalization of the global architecture for peace and renewed nuclear arms control and disarmament which will be possible after the Ukraine War and provide a roadmap away from the existential threats confronting humanity. In a webinar to launch the Report, Anu Chenoy of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum pointed to the emergence of a possible third force in this period of blockification: the nations which abstained from the U.N. General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition to pursuing Common Security initiatives among themselves, she suggested that creation of a new non-aligned movement could encourage Common Security diplomacy among the greater powers. I encourage you to engage with the Report’s analysis and recommendations and to find ways to introduce them into popular and diplomatic discourse.
Finally, even as Kevin Rudd warns that U.S. and Chinese core national interests and values are in direct conflict, he believes that a catastrophic war between these clashing empires can be averted. Among his recommendations are enhancing the two powers’ strategic predictability and resuming a military-to-military dialog. Perhaps more important, he advises that they should be encouraged to cooperate in “defined areas where they have shared global and national interests”. These could include the climate, nuclear arms control, global financial stability, and vaccine distribution to the developing world, and they could build the relationships that are essential to avoiding armed conflict.
In conclusion, these are extremely tumultuous and dangerous times. We are threatened by war, nuclear annihilation, climate chaos, pandemics, and devastating economic and social inequalities. It is also true that these are crises created by humans, and we have the resources and solutions to resolve each of them. What has been lacking is the popular and political will. We must find the ways to generate that will.
Thank you for your attention.