From two to three: two types of cold war

Regarding how the tripartite conflict between USA, Russia, and China fosters geopolitical disorder in the rest of the planet. The conflict between two is very different from a conflict between three. The latter stimulates the periodic change of alliances and promotes the intervention of other powers that though smaller are capable of destabilizing relations even further.

The first Cold War, between United States and Soviet Union, was a dyadic relation of enmity (the wedding between two people is, on the contrary, a dyadic relationship of strong union, with much more intensity in terms of love as well as of jealousy and eventually also of hate). In this Cold War, the possibility of mutual destruction lead to a tense coexistence, without frontal confrontation and with displacement of violence towards other less powerful countries.

The introduction of a third power radically changes the situation. Currently, we are experiencing the rising of a triadic Cold War between USA, Russia, and China.

What is the difference between a dyad and a triad? To answer this question, it is worth referring to the great German sociologist George Simmel[1]. The relationship between three—either in terms of friendship or enmity—dilutes the intensity of a dyad and, at the same time, increases the number of alliances and possible combinations, with higher volatility for the whole. The great structural change takes place in the path of turning from two to three, and the later increase in the number of actors does not alter the importance of the initial leap (for example, the eventual addition of India to the club of great powers). It is a purely formal attribute that is applied from time to time either to interpersonal relationships as to the geopolitical equilibrium or disequilibrium between powers. Yesterday, the good relations between USA and China left Russia out. Today, the rapprochement between Russia and China leaves USA out. Minor powers increase instability. Iran is close to Russia and the latter frustrates the American strategy in Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Israel unite to stop Iran and use Yemen as a surrogate battle field. Turkey buys weapons from Russia while it remains within NATO and uses the European Union as hostage. Latin America gets closer to Europe, despite that both Mercosur and European Union are weakened, the latter because of several wedges skillfully introduced by Russia and China separately. Great Britain separates from Europe to fall into a tighter though abusive relation with USA. Instead of a new world order, we are in front of a kaleidoscope of mobile links and multiple conflicts. The once undisputable dominance of the American power today faces new challenges it does not know how to handle.

In a triad, it is difficult to maintain an equidistant equilibrium between the three poles. There is always the possibility of an alliance of two against the third, and these alliances tend to change from one moment to the next. As a result, international order is fragile and volatile. Already during the first cold war, President Nixon played the “Chinese card” with his trip to the Celestial Empire and the establishment of relations between the two countries. Among other objectives, this incipient alliance put a wedge between Russia and the Popular Republic of Mao Zedong. It was an outline of triadic relation that eventually flourished in the future. Today, with the novelty of a Chinese power, there is greater distance and increased hostility between United States and China. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin now plays the “Chinese card” to increase his power and isolate the Americans. It is a triadic game, symmetric and inverse to the old Nixon’s move. In my opinion, it is an undesirable consequence of Mr. Trump’s clumsy foreign policy, with consequences that will go beyond his confusing administration.

The new American rage against China (an extremely exaggerated alleged threat) is not Trump’s and his party’s prerogative (the once Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, today unrecognizable), but rather it is also spread among democrats that are pray of the new jingoism. This new consensus against China, together with contradictory attitudes regarding Russia, does not bode well for a possible international order. On top of that, in Western countries there is a great disconnection between the internal political dynamic and the geopolitical dynamic. Populisms that prevail today in several countries contribute nothing to the stability of an international order. This leads to a strategic impasse of alarming dimensions. Internal dissent in these societies[2], external dissent in old allies, and disaggregation of blocks, obscure all coherent strategic vision.

If a war were to break out, it is probable that the next one would be carried out by a volatile coalition against Iran. It will lead to a new error in the perception of “strategic depth” by United States (that is: an initial victory, followed by an endless stagnation). It will lead to a nuclear arms race in Middle East, with atomic bombs in the hands of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even Arab Emirates. Russia will take advantage of the situation to win positions in its periphery and (falsely) act as mediator in a conflict with Iran, while China will grant Russia a passive support in the rearguard. USA European allies will be conspicuously absent. England, once out of the European Union, will be of little importance. In the Far East, tension between China and countries of its periphery such as Vietnam will continue, but Korea will remain as the larger problem. China is on the verge of recovering dominance over its marine periphery at the expense of American power on the Pacific. Trump’s pseudo diplomacy will not reduce an inch North Korea’s nuclear program, and that will make Japan change its pacifist tessitura and prepare for the worst, even with atomic bombs if it is deemed necessary.

In this triangular relation, what opportunities and obstacles are presented to other less powerful countries? Could they establish new blocks to influence the triadic conflict, for example, as mediators, arbitrators, or other ways for external players?[3] Or, on the contrary, will they end up fragmented, at the mercy of the interests and cravings of the three main powers; or in the worst-case scenario, will they become the field for violence or pawns in a board where main powers will confront indirectly but in a disastrous way for these societies?

Which strategies should different countries in Africa, Europe, America, Asia, and Oceania address not to become fuel to the flames in hegemonic struggles? Could they act with astuteness and independence or will they be mere test stands for larger conflicts?[4] Will they become independent from a hegemonic power to fall into the sphere of influence of another power? Finally, and taking as an example the civil war in Somalia, will some of the medium-size powers fall for getting indirectly into the fight themselves, supporting different factions in other countries torn by internal conflicts?[5] In summary: the tripartite conflict between USA, Russia, and China fosters geopolitical disorder in the rest of the planet.

Given this disorder, there still are some glimpses of sane and rational geopolitical initiatives, but they are conditioned by the internal political situation of participating countries. The promise of an accord between the blocks of Mercosur and European Union faces obstacles hard to overcome, among them, the internal volatility of different countries and the upsurge of a national-populism reluctant to any general policy that might be positive and in the long run. The proliferation of nationalisms does not lead to a new international order: it is a false sentiment based on an oxymoron (an “international nationalist”?). Populism, of any sign, is efficient when in opposition but inefficient for any serious strategic projection in the long run. I greatly fear that the rebuilding of a true global order might only be possible, as in the past, in a future process of reconstruction that will start after a great war.

[1] . The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated, edited, with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff,  Glencoe: The Free Press, 1958, pp.136-36, 145-169.

[2] . We could state that plebiscitary democracy in the West fosters authoritarian nationalism and leads to international conflicts.

[3] . There are some countries specialized in this positive role of mediator, such as Norway.

[4] . The situation is not new. The most tragic historic case of “test stand” was the destruction of Guernica by aviation army of fascist powers on the eve of WWII.

[5] . In Somalia, United Arab Emirates, on the one side, and Qatar, on the other, supported enemy factions, while the unfortunate country was torn apart.

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