This new Cold War is in real danger of turning hot
Presidents and Prime Ministers do not drop everything for impromptu visits to War Zones unless the world is in trouble. Not long after President Biden’s return from Israel, his State Department issued a global threat alert to all Americans - anywhere abroad ‘to exercise extreme caution.’
It’s a powerful indictment of just how fragile our world has become. The outbreak of war in the Middle East is yet another red light on the ever busy ‘Global Order dashboard’ underscoring how tested the West’s bandwidth has become in containing an ever-deteriorating global threat picture.
Prepare for more. Autocrats will have calculated that there’s been no better time, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, to seriously advance their belligerent agendas. Indeed, after three decades of relative peace (and growing complacency) we must finally acknowledge how increasingly unstable our world has become.
We face serious shifts in geo-political, economic, and military centres of gravity eastwards, growing authoritarianism and the formation of new alliances - pursuing a very competing interpretation of our global order. Our arrogant assumption, after thousands of years of war, that we’d crafted a utopian version of liberal democratic global governance after the end of the Cold War led us to believe the concept of state tyranny was finally contained – if not defeated.
But, as we saw on 7th October, Western power can't prevent humans stooping to grotesque levels to further their agenda. For years now despots and dictators, already abusing their domestic constitutions to retain power, began appreciating the absence of serious pushback (beyond general condemnation) when they expanded their influence beyond their borders.
Russia secured chunks of Georgia and China dozens of islands before Ukraine was invaded. More subtly both President’s Xi and Putin have lured Africa and Asia into their net. Putin with Wagner mercenaries; Xi through debt traps. 20 years of coercive power resulting in gradual democratic decline across the world.
For our epoch it is China whose technological, economic, and military dominance will soon challenge America’s. It's mission? To dismantle the current liberal world order. This has already led us into a new Cold War about which we are still in denial. Russia’s adventurism in Eastern Europe and Iran’s proxy influence over Hamas (and other terrorist operations) could be manageable in isolation but these pieces of the threat picture are linked by a bigger one: China.
And its China’s wider rejection of Western standards, as well as support for Russian and Iranian expansionism that is spurring our world to splinter into two competing spheres of geo-political interest: the traditional overture to a world stumbling to war. With precious little visionary leadership, many non-aligned countries, now grouped as the Global South, remain unwilling to take sides - though dozens are effectively silenced by signing up to China’s One Belt One Road programme.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes, Kissinger said. Looking back, there is a pattern that our current, dramatic events fit into. Historically, we've often categorised epoch-based power-shifts seared by global wars and the peace that follows. These chapters have been hallmarked by major international treaties written by the victors, the rules of which would last a few generations before the power base and alliances changed, conflict would ensue leading to a reset to establish a new set of rules once again under new victors.
The 1648 Westphalia Treaty concluded the thirty years war and established the principle of the sovereignty of nations that’s still recognised today. 1713 saw the Treaty of Utrecht which established the balance of power. The Vienna Congress in 1815, after the tumultuous Napoleonic Wars, established a conference system to try to guarantee that new balance of power across Europe. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after the Great War reinforced this by creating the League of Nations. Yalta and Bretton Woods finished the job by birthing institutions like the UN and IMF.
Once again, the great cogs that turn the mighty geo-political kaleidoscope are beginning to rotate again with no clear indication where they will stop. Today's world is volatile, further complicated by a general retreat from globalisation, military proliferation, the growing challenges of climate change and the distraction of domestic politics.
It is imperative to recognize the gravity of our current situation. The number of people living in democracies has plummeted from 3.9 billion in 2017 to 2 billion today. Around 70 percent of the world's population now live under autocratic rule.
Without swift, collective action, we risk descending into chaos and wider conflict - echoing the failures of the 1930's. Just as then, our enemies challenged us one by one - Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy Abyssinia, and Germany Austria - but we turned a blind eye. With Russia in Ukraine, Iran in Gaza, China must be calculating there’s no better time than now to make a move on Taiwan.
The penny must now drop; our rules-based order requires urgent repair, and we are overdue a significant upgrade to our defence posture. Not just for our own security but to add authority to our statecraft. As a nation that offers leadership and convening power it's time to wake up and step forward, with collective solutions, to put these red lights on the Global Order dashboard out.
You can find my article here: This new Cold War is in real danger of turning hot (telegraph.co.uk)