No World Order

Fear of a prospective Third World War is growing. Britain’s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps is not alone in claiming we have moved “from a post-war world to a pre-war world” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022:

North Korea is supplying missiles to Moscow; Iran is conducting hostilities through proxy forces and China is watching to see whether the West will stand by Kyiv after the election of an anti-Beijing candidate in Taiwan … In five years’ time we could be looking at multiple theatres involving Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Ask yourselves—looking at today’s conflicts across the world—is it more likely that the number grows, or reduces? I suspect we all know the answer—it’s likely to grow.

Why, we urgently need to know, is our world order increasingly without order? How did the liberal internationalists get it so wrong? One answer is to be found in the realist school of thought, most persuasively posited by John J. Mearsheimer, author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001, 2014). But that, for all its merits, is not the only explanation. There is also what American political scientist Henry R. Nau has called conservative internationalism. This stratagem, according to Nau, was reflected in the “peace through strength” policies of Harry Truman (1945 to 1953) and Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989). In short, the Free World was in peril and had no choice but to contain, and in the end defeat, its implacable foes.  

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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John Mearsheimer (above), not only a high-profile advocate of foreign policy realism but also a genuine academic heavyweight, summarised his worldview as follows: 

Above all else, I am an international relation theorist. More specifically, I am a realist, which means that I believe that the great powers dominate the international system and they constantly engage in security competitions with each other, which sometimes leads to war.

Mearsheimer’s branch of realism, categorised as “offensive realism”, asserts that international affairs are instinctively anarchical and that great (or at least regionally dominant) nation-states will inevitably use their superior power to secure ascendancy. Mearsheimer’s geopolitical formula provided him with the rationale to reject the delusions of liberal internationalism on the trajectory of the People’s Republic of China. Virtually every leading politician in the West—Bill Clinton, Paul Keating, Peter Costello, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Kevin Rudd, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron et al—assured us that the integration of Communist China into the international rules-based trading system (including the World Trade Organisation in December 2001) would be a “win-win”. Mearsheimer, to his credit, stridently disagreed.

The PRC, Mearsheimer forecast as far back as 2001, would inevitably come into conflict with America as it sought domination in the Indo-Pacific region to protect its growing economic interests. It was China’s inclusion in the American-created world order, transforming a backward economy into a global powerhouse, which gave Beijing both the capacity and the impetus to challenge the projection of US power in the region. Mearsheimer accurately predicted that smaller regional states such as Japan, India, South Korea, the Philippines and so on would, upon being threatened by China’s hegemonic tilt, turn to America to achieve a new equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. Twenty or more years later that’s exactly what is happening. Last year, for instance, saw the establishment of four new US bases in the northern Philippines as the PLA Navy continued to harass Filipino ships in the South China Sea.

Mearsheimer’s theory of “offensive realism” obviously contained more predictive capacity than the liberal internationalist school of thought, which in its myriad of guises dismissed the doyen of realism as something of a scaremonger. In an article for the Australian in November 2005, “The Rise of China Will Not Be Peaceful at All”, Mearsheimer expressed this decidedly unfashionable opinion:

In essence, the US is likely to behave towards China much the way it behaved towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War … The picture I have painted of what is likely to happen if China continues its rise is not a pretty one. I actually find it categorically depressing and wish that I could tell a more optimistic story about the future.

The liberal internationalists in Australia, meanwhile, were beginning to contemplate the “win-win” of a China-Australia Free Trade Deal.

Nevertheless, a key aspect of Mearsheimer’s 2005 critique of liberal internationalism is problematic. “China—whether it remains authoritarian or becomes democratic—is likely to try to dominate Asia the way the US dominates the Western hemisphere.” Here we see dogma at play, a worldview that regards ideology, morality and ethics as basically immaterial to the “nasty and dangerous business” of international politics when “an aspiring hegemon appears”. The tragedy of great power politics, contraire John Mearsheimer, is not that the West bet it all on China but that it bet on the goodwill of the Chinese Communist Party. The liberal internationalists were not wrong to think a “fifth modernisation” (democracy) in China might dramatically transform international politics for the better; their mistake, however, was to believe the totalitarian CCP would voluntarily relinquish power. We can agree with Mearsheimer that the damage is now done, which makes Taiwan the likely flashpoint for a prospective Pacific War. As Mearsheimer predicted almost twenty years ago:     

Finally, given Taiwan’s strategic importance for controlling the sea lanes in East Asia, it is hard to imagine the US, as well as Japan, allowing China to control that large island. In fact, Taiwan is likely to be an important player in the anti-China balancing coalition, which is sure to infuriate China and fuel the security competition between Beijing and Washington.

Mearsheimer also foresaw an eventual showdown between America and Russia, although on this front he blames the West not for being too obliging but for not being accommodating enough. In 2014, Mearsheimer wrote an article titled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” at the time of Russia’s intervention in Donbas and illegal annexation of Crimea:

Putin’s actions should be easy enough to comprehend. A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia.

The subtitle of Mearsheimer’s essay, “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin”, continues the theme of lambasting liberal internationalism, the default foreign policy position of the political class, diplomatic corps, professoriate, commentariat et al in the West throughout the post-Cold War era:

The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West … For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president—which he rightly labelled a “coup”—was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilise Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.

Some aspects of Mearsheimer’s realist critique ring true, especially his criticism of the liberal presumption that the end of the Cold War “fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new post-national order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe”. This was especially the case of Western Europe, not least Germany. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, back in 2005, appeared determined to surrender Germany’s future energy requirements to Moscow. After leaving office, he even went to work for Russian state-owned companies and shamelessly lobbied on behalf of Russian economic interests. Chancellor Angela Merkel, though critical of the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and unenamoured by Vladimir Putin’s condescending demeanour, nonetheless acquiesced with his plans for Nord Stream 2. Not until the very eve of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine did Chancellor Olaf Scholz freeze Germany’s participation in the $11 billion pipeline project. Back in 2019, as Vice Chancellor and Minister for Finance, Scholz had criticised the Trump administration for applying sanctions on companies involved with Nord Stream 2: “Such sanctions are a serious interference in the internal affairs of Germany and Europe and their sovereignty.” Despite the admonitions of the United States and also Central and Eastern Europe, Germany’s political class—Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike—held no fears about allowing their economy and society as a whole to become seriously beholden to Russia. Cross-political plans to retire Germany’s nuclear energy industry only increased the likelihood of future dependence on Moscow. It took the events of February 24, 2022, for Scholz to experience his Zeitenwende and grasp that the security and well-being of his country were “bound” to America and not Russia.

We might also recall the hubris of Barack Obama’s jibe at Mitt Romney’s contention during the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia remained a geopolitical adversary: “the 1980s are now calling and they want their foreign policy back”. Obama, during his first four years in the Oval Office, was placatory towards Moscow, beginning with Secretary of State Clinton’s 2009 mission to “reset” Russo-American relations after the Russo-Georgian War and, consequent to that, scrapping the Bush administration’s pledge to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with missile defence systems. Obama was even caught on camera promising Putin’s presidential stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev, that he could exhibit even “more flexibility” towards Russia after the November 2012 election. However, the subsequent war in Donbas, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and brutal intervention in the Syrian Civil War, not to mention the continual assassination of Putin’s opponents at home and abroad (that is, in the West), exhausted even Obama’s capacity for flexibility. Outmanoeuvred and humiliated by a bullying Putin, including his breaking an arms embargo to sell to Iran S-300 missiles, the Obama administration ended its final days expelling thirty-five Russian diplomats for unproven cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Candidate Clinton’s campaign headquarters. 

This quick study of the Obama years (2009 to 2017) suggests that Putin’s government—no less than Xi Jinping’s regime—was less the victim of American provocation than the beneficiary of Western weakness and naivety. For NATO to half-promise Georgia and Ukraine membership of the North Atlantic alliance at some indeterminate time in the future, as it did at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, was worse than outright rejection of admission. Bluntly put, Putin could feel vexed by the attitude of the North Atlantic Council but, at the same time, be encouraged to reclaim Russia’s self-proclaimed “special interests” in Georgia and Ukraine before the NATO drawbridge was raised.

As part of its quest to appease the Russian bear, and a further sign of Western equivocation, the Obama administration refused to provide Ukraine with lethal weaponry even after Putin and his proxies invaded the Donbas and later annexed Crimea—a mistake subsequently corrected by the Trump administration. Even CNN, in one of its infamous “fact checks”, had to acknowledge that Team Obama provided nothing more than a little money, some night-vision gear and counter-artillery radar for the defence of Ukraine, leaving it to the Trump administration to deliver “sniper rifles, rocket launchers and Javelin anti-tank missiles”.

American foreign policy during Donald Trump’s tenure (2017 to 2021) was nationalist but not isolationist (as argued in “Mike Pompeo’s Conservative Internationalism”, Quadrant, May 2023). He stood up to Russia when it counted. For instance, in the Battle of Khasham, February 2018, Trump unleashed hellfire on thousands of Wagner soldiers threatening a US base in Syria, prompting Putin and his Iranian partners to thereafter steer well clear of American assets in the region. Today, of course, everything has changed. Iran and its proxies target American positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq, while Yemen’s Houthis threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.

Putin’s war in Ukraine, a war that likely would not have occurred had Trump been re-elected in 2020, has further loosened the cords that bound the post-Cold War order together. There have been any number of Gaza-Israeli conflicts since 2006, but the gruesome events of October 7, 2023, are of a more psychotic character, and almost certainly—if indirectly—a consequence of a Faustian pact between Moscow and Tehran. Again, it was the weakness of the West that emboldened the Islamic Republic of Iran to pursue its imperial ambitions in the form of the so-called “Shiite Crescent”—Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but additionally Yemen, Gaza and, of course, “Little Satan” in the form of Israel. All are in Tehran’s sights. Iran also has interests in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Venezuela, along with other parts of South America. It was not just the Obama administration, and the absurd appeasement of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, that has encouraged Tehran over the decades. Washington’s imprudent attempts to mollify or cut deals with the Iranian regime, as Michael Rubin outlines in Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (2014), goes all the way back to Jimmy Carter and includes Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair.

When Iran’s new revolutionary rulers proclaimed “Death to America! Death to Israel!” in 1979, they meant it. They still mean it. And this is where a conservative internationalist perspective diverges from both the realist and the liberal internationalist positions. Why? Because neither of those two schools of thought recognise the vital importance of ideology in international relations. The Obama–Biden administration could hand over as many billions of dollars as they liked to Tehran but the totalitarian theocrats who hijacked Iran in 1979 were never going to make peace with the Great Satan. To do so—as this cosmological designation of America suggests—would undermine the justification for their autocratic rule. Trump’s attempt to bring Kim Jong Un’s rogue state in from the cold was similarly destined to fail because the legitimacy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is predicated upon anti-Americanism. It is in the DNA of North Korea. What, for instance, would warrant its continued existence if it were to become pro-America in much the same way as South Korea? The disappearance of the German Democratic Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 serves as a case in point.                      

The same can be said about the People’s Republic of China and the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although the regime, out of fear of a war with the Soviet Union, was relieved to be brought in from the cold by Richard Nixon in 1972, and later saw the advantage of inclusion in the US-created international economic order, it has been playing the long game. After all, the legitimacy of its one-party rule hinges on what Bill Hayton, in The Invention of China (2020), has called “national-socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The CCP’s ideology is one in which the concepts of “China”, “the people”, “the government”, “the nation-state” and “the Party” are interwoven. It is a totalitarian creed based on racialist nationalism. The liberal internationalist idea that such a regime would indefinitely submit to the Pax Americana, not only in the Indo-Pacific region but anywhere, was always a delusion. The belligerent paranoia of CCP rule, one of the constants of China since the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949, guaranteed that the regime would never willingly stick to a playbook authored by the West. Mearsheimer’s claim that China and America were bound to clash whether the PRC remained “authoritarian” or became “democratic” is unlikely—if nothing else, a genuinely democratic China would not be intent on conquering a genuinely democratic Taiwan.

The post-Cold War rules-based international order, created and guaranteed largely by the United States, is now challenged by a consortium of empires, each constituent entity driven by its own monocratic ideology. This grouping of rogue states is held together not only by a shared hatred of the West but also a sense that the Pax Americana is in decline. Not surprisingly, then, political figures such as Estonia’s foreign minister, Margus Tsahkna, are now warning of the impending peril of a “new age of empires”. But Tsahkna’s solution to the problem is that we double down on liberal internationalism. For instance, he has spoken of reforming the United Nations to “better reflect our modern world” and prevent countries (presumably Russia and China) from vetoing investigations into cases of mass atrocities. In short, he is calling for the UN General Assembly to be given more power to counter the power of the permanent members of the Security Council to “trample” on the rights of nations and individuals supposedly protected by the UN charter. The only reform of the United Nations worth considering is its wholesale replacement by a United Democratic Nations.

There is little reason to believe, as Mearsheimer does, that the Ukraine war is all the fault of the West on account of NATO’s eastward expansion. Consider Finland and Sweden’s desperation to join NATO: this was not a function of US imperialism or a CIA plot but the attempt by Helsinki and Stockholm to find sanctuary from Russian imperialism behind the ramparts of the West’s primary defence pact. For Mearsheimer to make the case that the Ukraine war is a defensive war on the part of the Kremlin requires swallowing in entirety Russian propaganda, starting with the Maidan protest movement and the Revolution of Dignity. The period 2013-14 was a genuinely heroic (and bloody) episode in the history of the Ukrainian people; for Mearsheimer—and obviously Putin—to dismiss these genuinely revolutionary events as nothing more than a US-instigated coup is risible. Even if the Ukrainian people do want their freedom from the Kremlin, added Mearsheimer in his 2014 article, that is just too bad. Geopolitical reality demands Ukraine remain a part of Russia’s sphere of influence to assuage Putin’s “security fears”. Maybe the 120 million people who constitute “Europe in-between” (Zwischeneuropa) should abandon their newly won independence from Russia and once again become a part of Muscovy’s “buffer zone”. Perhaps only then will Vladimir Putin have no more territorial demands in Europe and there will be “peace for our time”.

Bluntly put, there was never any chance of accommodating Putin’s grandiloquent ambitions. Instead, the West should have blocked his adventures in imperialism from the outset. The failure to deter Comrade Tsar, infected by irredentist fantasies and the need to buttress his corrupt regime, has left us embroiled in an evolving military conflict in eastern and southern Ukraine. The same pattern is playing out in the Red Sea with the Houthis, Iran’s regional proxies, and their attacks on international shipping. Alexander Stark, writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, is not wrong to argue that bombing the Houthis, radical Islamic terrorists who now control 80 per cent of Yemen’s population, will only further legitimise them at home and abroad as “a heroic resistance movement”. However, Stark’s remedy for safeguarding “global commerce”, eschewing “retaliatory strikes” in favour of “a diplomatic approach”, has already been tried. The Biden administration took the Houthis off its terrorist list in 2021 but to no avail. Today the organisation is again proscribed but it is all too late and just another sign of American equivocation. If the US was operating a Truman-like foreign policy of “peace through strength”, the Houthis—and here we can add Russia and Iran—would not be challenging the rules-based international order so brazenly. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, they would not dare disturb the universe.

The same could be said about Beijing’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric about Taiwan. Not satisfied with crushing Hong Kong, in blatant disregard of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration which guaranteed the territory’s autonomy until 2047, Xi Jinping announced on New Year’s Eve that the Taiwanese would be absorbed by the PRC irrespective of the outcome of the island’s January 13 elections: “China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The reality, of course, is that Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC and so reunified is something of a misnomer—annexed would be closer to the mark. Since the end of the Second World War (though, pointedly, not before), the Chinese Communist Party has set its sights on conquering Taiwan. It would have succeeded as early as 1949 had not the PLA lost the Battle of Kuningtou. In the aftermath of North Korea invading South Korea in 1950, Truman decided “the neutralisation of the Straits of Taiwan” was in the best interests of America; he ordered the US Seventh Fleet there to underline his point. Beijing was deterred from attempting an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.

Throughout the 1950s, Beijing started various cross-strait “crises”, along with initiating innumerable skirmishes in the air, but for the main part the peace of the world was not threatened by a Battle for Taiwan. Besides, Mao’s endless war on his own population, in the form of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), exhausted the miliary capability of the PLA. Things began to change when Nixon and Kissinger decided to bring Beijing in from the cold in 1971 and even more so when China was invited into America’s rules-based international order. Thereafter, the PRC not only modernised its economy on the back of Western finance but also invested heavily in the PLA Navy and Rocket Forces. Xi Jinping’s determination to annex Taiwan, contraire Mearsheimer, has as much to do with his own imperialist ideology (national socialism with Chinese characteristics) and the preservation of his totalitarian regime. The likelihood of a future Battle for Taiwan is only increased by Washington’s official policy of “strategic ambiguity”, the refusal to categorically assert it would defend Taiwan in the case of invasion. How different is this from the strategic ambiguity the West exhibited towards Putin’s Russia over the years, not least on the very eve of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine? And why, exactly, did the Biden administration remove the Houthis from the US terrorist list when its violent credo was (and remains), “Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory to Islam!”

The peace of the world, as Grant Shapps asserts, is now being challenged on any number of fronts. A collection of irredentist states, all of them ruled by anti-democratic regimes, have found common cause, a kind of negative cohesion, in their hatred and contempt for the West and America in particular. To what degree they are colluding with each other is hard to quantify. Nevertheless, North Korea’s provision of ammunition to both Russia and Hamas, Russia’s cynical response to the January 13 democratic elections in Taiwan, China’s economic support for Russia and silence on Hamas’s October 7 pogrom in Israel and Russia’s use of Shahed-136 kamikaze drones against Ukraine suggests the Free World is now confronted by a consortium of empires.

The West, then, is now faced with the challenge of how to deal with a world order that is without order. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, we have two choices. The first is some modern-day version of conciliation. In this situation, America and the West in general could withdraw their support for Kyiv—as Mearsheimer advises—and allow Putin to allay (for the moment, at least) his security fears. The West, in the name of world peace, might also leave Xi Jinping to achieve his “historical” mission to take Taiwan. And, while we are at it, maybe the West should encourage the Zionist entity to abolish itself and thereby pacify Tehran. And what about Seoul submitting to the historical demands of Pyongyang? This would, surely, open the way to reunification on the Korean peninsula. Peace for our time, as Neville Chamberlain was wont to say.

All such scenarios, from the perspective of Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, or Winston Churchill for that matter, are simply instances of Appeasement 101. The political instinct of these legendary Cold Warriors, which we have here termed conservative internationalism, insists that Washington’s “support for democracies against authoritarian threats” is in America’s—and the West’s—own interests. There is the bonus that the Cold War, with its emphasis on containment rather than appeasement or open hostility, prevented the onset of a Third World War. Perhaps, given our “pre-world war” era, it is past time for us to revisit the Truman Doctrine.      

Daryl McCann, a frequent contributor, has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com. He wrote on “The Fall and Rise of Poland” in the November issue and on “The Meaning of October 7” in December.


8 thoughts on “No World Order

  • john mac says:

    Would like too say that all these conflicts are quite predictable , as there has never not been war , but the only war that counts is the one within the West. They are , to quote Rumsfeld , “Known knowns” , visible black hats , yet our hats are becoming increasingly grey . I care less what two vodka soaked countries are doing to each other than what we’ve done to ourselves . A multicultural military cannot , cannot function against a committed monoculture . Does anyone actually think that those military recruits we are wooing actually wish to fight , potentially against their own former countries ? Or that the lgbtq recruits have patriotism running through their veins ? All evidence to the contrary , and even the young western men of today are historically illiterate and show little sign of being up fo4r a fight . Nope , the feminisation of of our society is in full swing , even as they still rail against the “Patriarchy” or the mythical “Gender pay gap” and “domestic violence” which is a really just a trojan horse to keep men off balance and shameful . The globalist push is ahead of schedule and our traditional armies are no longer , which is their goal , no resolve , so the war will heat up within our unsecured borders and tribalism and inter-racial skirmishes is what our future beholds .

    • Jack Brown says:

      True. Lee Kuan Yu was a realist and as the PM of a multi cultural political entity pronounced that in such a society people don’t vote idealogically as they might do in a monocultural society but by religion, language and race, and only then by ideology.

    • exuberan says:

      I would agree with John Mac but worry not so much about the front line fighters but those leading them. As for the young blokes from the bush, at least they know what a gun is. Their city cousins might end up doing what a large number of young urban Russian men did, get the hell out of there lest they be conscripted.

  • Bron says:

    John Mac
    My ancestors came from a country that loves vodka and freedom. So get stuffed.
    Domestic violence is a scourge in Australia, nothing to do with feminism.
    You underestimate the youth of Australia. Young men, particularly from the bush, will fight for their families and for their country.
    Try a little positivity in your life.

  • Sindri says:

    Thank you Daryl. Mearsheimer’s fundamental weakness is to mix up cause and justification. Putin has made his intentions clear from the start, ever since he preposterously characterised the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the geostrategic catastrophe of our time”. Since then he and his lackeys have indeed railed darkly against the eastward expansion of NATO. Now Mearsheimer says “I told you so”, as if Putin’s (alleged) anxieties about NATO were the justification and not merely the cause of the invasion, without ever considering the former question. Or if he does consider it, it’s merely to brush off the wishes of a nation of 140m people as irrelevant.
    In any event, Putin isn’t concerned about an invasion by NATO, and never has been. Read his rambling 5,000 word essay about how Ukraine has no right to an independent existence, probably written by Alexandr Dugin or another of Putin’s pet ultra-nationalist crackpots. It barely mentions NATO. Putin thinks that NATO are a bunch of pantywaists.

  • Peter C Arnold says:

    Mearsheimer, also an antisemite.
    Dr Peter Arnold, OAM, Sydney

  • rosross says:

    Mearsheimer also said, it is dangerous to be an enemy of the US but even more dangerous to be a friend. American allies either do exactly as they are told, as we know, he has stated, or they are punished. Hardly a friendship, more of a dictatorship.

    Mearsheimer is a generally balanced voice although he does sometimes get things wrong. He did not think Russia would invade Ukraine but then perhaps he did not think the American/Nato push for war would be as powerful as it has been, leaving Russia no choice after various attempts to avoid war were rebuffed by Washington.

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