NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 50

The shifting global power dynamics

Since February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale attack on its neighboring Ukraine, to the surprising attacks by the Palestinian armed resistance group, Hamas, on Israel in early October 2023, and the massive response by Tel Aviv to the attacks, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, international power dynamics have undergone significant changes.

In the case of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Russia aimed to demonstrate its superpower status and discourage Ukraine, which was once part of the Soviet Union dominated by Russia, from moving closer to the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and posing a strategic threat to Moscow. Meanwhile, the United States has been attempting to expand NATO eastwards, including Ukraine, to assert its dominance alongside its allies in the world.

In the case of the Hamas attack on Israel, a non-state actor sought to challenge the existence of a state created in 1948, leading to a fierce Israeli response.

It is essential to understand that since the end of the Cold War, many major powers have shifted their foreign policies towards geo-economics, focusing on economic tools like trade, aid, and investment to achieve geopolitical objectives. This approach involves using economic means to influence the behavior and policies of other states, as well as using geopolitical tools such as war, diplomacy, and border management to attain economic goals, such as GDP growth and improving living conditions.

China is a prominent advocate of this geo-economic approach, exemplified by initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to economically integrate around 60 countries across the Afro-Eurasian landmass. China’s focus on geo-economics positions it as a significant global power and a potential center of influence in the world.

In contrast, Russia remains deeply involved in traditional geopolitics, possibly due to President Vladimir Putin’s long-standing leadership. Rather than prioritizing economic improvement, Moscow has been focused on expanding its territory, particularly by maintaining control over Crimea, which historically belongs to Ukraine. While Russia may have some geo-economic motives, its strategy is predominantly geostrategic.

Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world transitioned into a unipolar system with the United States as the dominant player in international politics. This dominance had both advantages and disadvantages. During this period, the most significant challenge to U.S. power came from non-state actors, particularly Muslim militant organizations like Al Qaeda. In response to the September 11, 2001, attack on American soil, the U.S. initiated the Global War on Terror against these organizations, primarily in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The Global War on Terror officially concluded after nearly two decades, as the U.S. was unable to defeat the Afghan Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and withdrew in August 2021. Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban had been ongoing for years, leading to a historic deal between the two sides in February 2020. Notably, the Afghan Taliban started as non-state actors but eventually established themselves as a state actor in Afghanistan through the use of force.

Significantly, the transformation of non-state Taliban militias into state actors provided sanctuaries, recruitment grounds, and launching platforms for non-state global militant organizations like Al Qaeda, as well as various Central Asian and South Asian militant and terrorist groups. Their activities precipitated the Global War on Terror. This underscores the danger posed by ruthless non-state actors, even when they evolve into state actors, to both regional and global stability. For example, the Islamic State, which emerged suddenly in 2014 and asserted control over large areas in Iraq and Syria, declaring it as an Islamic Caliphate, profoundly disrupted international peace and stability.

Notably, the American revolutionaries in the late 18th century, led by figures like George Washington, acted as armed militias. However, the difference between today’s non-state actors and those of the past is that the latter were often motivated by articulate intellectual movements. The American Revolution had its intellectual underpinnings in the founding fathers, while the French Revolution had intellectual leaders like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.

Regarding the threat posed by non-state militant organizations to U.S. power and dominance in the post-Cold War era, it has been both ideological (though inarticulate) and financial. Non-state actors, given their limited resources compared to state actors, could not present a substantial financial threat, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Consequently, the United States has largely been successful in countering the threat from non-state actors.

On the other hand, the international political landscape has been gradually shifting toward a new Cold War scenario, primarily due to China’s rise as a new global power center. China has also adopted soft economic expansionist policies, exemplified by President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through this initiative, as previously mentioned, China aims to economically integrate the Afro-Eurasian landmass, with Beijing at its core, to maximize its benefits. As a result, American global dominance is once again challenged, primarily by state actors, with China posing the most significant threat. The growing trade tensions between China and the United States, occasional confrontations in the South China Sea, and disputes over Taiwan and Hong Kong are symptomatic of this new Cold War.

In this global context, India, aspiring to be another power center, aligns itself with the United States because China, its neighbor, not only represents a strategic rival to Washington but also a potential economic adversary. Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, closely observes the situation and refrains from taking sides, seeking to maximize its gains from the rivalry between the United States and China. Small countries like Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey are aligning themselves with one side or the other based on their economic and security needs.

The global power dynamics have shifted significantly, with China emerging as a prominent power center, presenting both opportunities and challenges. In contrast, the United States, after an unsuccessful 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, has withdrawn from the country. Policymakers must tread cautiously to seize opportunities while safeguarding the nation from the repercussions of the situation.