Instability and turmoil in the struggle among powers

Great powers prefer indirect conflict—through proxies—rather than frontal attacks, as it happened during the tragedies of the two World Wars. Today, the conflict is tripartite: United States, China, and Russia are in dispute over their respective domination quotas. Nothing new. The peculiarity of our time is the following: during past conflicts, proxy war produced great instability in zones of the periphery. Today, the instability and volatility are spread in the own core of central powers, in particular within what we used to call consolidated and advanced democracies. They are no longer so.

The geopolitical rebuilding and passage to a multipolar configuration have been well recognized as signs of the current transition. However, there is no consensus regarding the direction and goal of that transition. Almost all the observers and strategic analysts (I know better Western ones than Asians), agree on various important appreciations. First, they claim that American hegemony has given way to a tripartite competition between United States (in decline), China (emergent as an international power), and Russia (coming back and relatively belligerent). The dispute among these three major actors of current geopolitics is intense and visible in three fields: the political, economic, and military.

Western decline takes place in three fields. In the political field, there is a growing unrest with democratic (representation crisis) and republican institutions (balance among independent institutions). Symptoms are everywhere: crisis, fragmentation or disappearance of traditional parties, emergence of populist movements of diverse sign, new “mass rebellions,” and a tendency towards a plebiscitary democracy with authoritarian traits. We have entered the era of a no longer enlightened (quite the contrary) but rather “chosen” despotism. In Western countries these currents create volatility and instability and a significant loss of what is called “soft power.”

In the economic arena, the main struggle is for occupying the forefront in the application of artificial intelligence and in the creation of the material and educational infrastructure necessary for maintaining that vanguard[1]. Western advantage lies in innovative research; China´s advantage lies in the speed of the application of new technologies[2]. China benefits from its initial technological gap to leap forward without the ballast of outdated procedures that were of value for a bygone era, as it happens in the West. For example, the electronic payment that Chinese users employ is superior than the one used in the United States[3]. In the rearguard of this concurrency, we find Europe (increasingly divided), followed by Russia. On the other hand, United States global financial power is a double-edged sword, for the impressive concentration of assets, which are not true creation of value and that generate such inequality and marginality that produce popular reaction against capitalism, as some of its main managers and beneficiaries already seem to recognize[4].

In the military field, the physical and logistic superiority of United States is maintained but that same superiority has great application difficulties in scenarios where asymmetric war is what matters, being non-conventional (terrorism and subversion) as well as conventional (Chinese superiority in coastal war in its regional periphery, with some international projection). Russia has made considerable progress in the modernization of its military force but it is limited by its lesser dynamism and economic weight, but that is not the case in the area of conventional (cybernetic) and nonconventional (limited military intervention, underhanded in its periphery and other continents) asymmetric war.

In coming years, tension and strategic conflicts among these three great powers will increase, both for internal as well as for external causes. To avoid direct conflict, confrontation will be through third parties in weaker countries and regions and, thus, available for increasing intervention by foreign powers. This conflict with proxies (substitutes) is already expressed today in direct interventions for building bases, development of infrastructure, and indirectly through political intervention (especially in Oceania) and financial-economic dependence. Example: the United States proclaims (with its usual clumsiness) the resurrection of the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America, while China establishes tight economic links with various countries and “scientific-military” bases in others, and while Russia has no scruples in sending troops and security experts to the region. The African case is of great interest as there are large Chinese investments in infrastructure works and an increase in extraction of natural resources, while United States is specialized in military bases and security operations with which they will end up being only the guardians or “community police” of Chinese investments.

The following are just some examples of the investments made by main powers through substitutes in regional conflicts. The reader can review the following references:

Venezuela “Blackout Operation.” American intervention according to Russia

Syria: mutual accusations by United States and Russia. See:

Mutual accusations between United States and China for cybernetic attacks. See:

State of conflict through substitutes in Asia. See:

Chinese direct intervention in Australia. See:

Proxy conflict in Africa and its evolution. See:

In the case of Latin America, particularly Venezuela, internal political negotiation is becoming increasingly conditioned by the negotiation among foreign powers. It is likely that the Russian intervention in Venezuela is directed towards exchanging interferences—a type of quid pro quo (compensation) in the geopolitical board: free hands for United States in “its” hemisphere (Monroe Doctrine) in exchange of releasing or at least softening sanctions related with Russian periphery, especially Ukraine. Both in Ukraine and in Venezuela, areas for regional domination are being negotiated, disguised as significant processes of political “transition,” behind which massive economic interests (oil and commodities) are being negotiated. One can assume that similar tensions and negotiations are taking place between United States and China in the sea area of Southern China and, ultimately, in the Korean peninsula.

We must emphasize that in all these regional conflicts through surrogate actors there are no intervention protocols, therefore, the likelihood of making a miscalculation increases as well as the propensity for using military force. When this occurs, conflict gets out of control. Every war is triggered because of a miscalculation. It is easier to initiate than to control a war, as attested by the interventions in the Middle East, that have resulted into endless wars and humanitarian crises of great proportions. The multipolar world is unstable, without perspectives or guarantees for equilibrium and at a great social cost. Ours is a world where the “nation busting” (destruction of the nation) tends to replace the “nation building” which was so much spoken about until recently. Ultimately, this mayhem deviates and squanders numerous efforts and material and human resources that should be used internationally in a concerted form to tackle planetary challenges ever more urgent[5]. The tragedy of the commons takes on an ever larger dimension.

The “tragedy of the commons” is a collective action paradox well studied and even mathematically modeled. Its first formulation was in the form of a parable that initially appeared in an 1833 brochure made by mathematician William Foster. The parable referred to a group of shepherds that used the same area under pasture. One shepherd thought he could add another sheep to the ones that already cropped in those common pastures, as the impact of just one animal could barely affect the recovery capacity of the soil. The other shepherds, individually, also thought that they could gain one more sheep without deteriorating the pastures. However, the sum of the imperceptible degradation caused by each animal ruined the pastures, and, thus, both the animals and the shepherds died out of hunger..  

In modern society, the “commons” are the public goods, accessible for all the members, including those who have not contributed to their production or conservation. That is, they are indivisible goods. We are talking about the air we breathe, clean water, vegetable species, energy sources or fishery resources. In geopolitics, we talk about collective security as a public good. This public good can be provided or guaranteed in various ways, some more attractive than others. Since 1945 until recently, United States guaranteed collective security of western countries (half the planet) through multilateral organizations—economic as well as military—that they themselves controlled. The same happened with Soviet Union within its control area (the Warsaw Pact). Between the two superpowers, the so-called détente assured a moderate level of global security. The price was paid by periphery regions within the disputed zones. Today, the situation has changed. United States has confirmed in words and actions that they are no longer willing to provide such public good. On the other hand, China, in full expansion, is willing to create a zone of “co-prosperity” and security in its favor in the middle of the planet. However, so far China is unable to interest United States in a similar or better collaboration than the one it provided de facto with USSR during the Cold War.

Today, in addition to United States withdrawal from the provision of global public goods, an unsettling variable appears, the instability of Trump’s regime. Indeed, Washington administration has emptied almost all the institutions of a serious and rational leadership. Its representatives at foreign policy, military strategy, and economic collaboration organizations are currently puppet like characters that only seem to be obeying whims from an outlandish and overbearing executive. He, in turn, seems to be listening merely to bellicose ideologists, such as Mr. Bolton, whose strategic background in Iraq’s invasion is well-known, and whose disastrous results are also well-known.

At a glance, we could think that United States under Trump’s regime can destroy treaties and abuse resources of collective security without noticing important effects (something like a cardboard attitude without consequences). However, in reality the risk of an uncontrolled war today is larger than it was in last decades. A serious international crisis suffices for this shortcoming to produce tragic consequences.

In geopolitical affairs, public goods that are at risk in the struggle among powers have a common denominator: the sustainability of life on Earth. The environment is at its worst situation now, more than at any other moment in human history, and what dominates the offer of public goods are counterproductive attitudes. It is all due to human activity although it is not too late to fix the problem. But human activity today is, on the side of leaderships, dominated by short term views and bellicose irresponsibility and, on the side of the masses, by constant distraction.

[1] . A good analysis can be found in Kai-Fu Lee recent book AI Superpowers.  China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

[2] . According to Thorstein Veblen´s old thesis, powers that arrive late have advantages over pioneer powers. The reason is simple: they are not tied to an old institutional fabric and to the interests created by the old innovation.

[3] . A very good summary of these advantages can be read in the article: Martin Wolff, “China wrestles the US in the AI arms race,” Financial Times, 17 April 2019, p.9.

[4] . See James Galbraith’s article in Project Syndicate:

[5] . See United Nations report on biodiversity crisis at

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