The geopolitical confrontation between China and the West and Peace logic
by Karin Kulow and Jurgen Scheffran
The main issue is monopolarity or multipolarity. And this also raises the question of geopolitical hegemony. In other words, whether Western interests will remain supreme and Western value systems will therefore be of universal significance?
The geopolitical confrontation between China and the alliance of the West
by Karin Kulow
[This article posted on 11/21/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.isw-muenchen.de/2022/11/die-geopolitische-konfrontation-zwischen-china-und-dem-buendnis-des-westens/.]
With the nonviolent collapse of the Eastern bloc, which saw itself as a real socialist bloc, and the concomitant dissolution of its Warsaw Military Treaty alliance, it was clear to the United States and the entire West that they had emerged as the victors from the contest of antagonistically opposed social systems that had decisively shaped the international order since the end of World War II. Buoyed by this victory pose, then U.S. President George Bush senior, in an unctuous speech to both chambers of the U.S. Congress in the fall of 1990, immediately proclaimed the beginning of a new era; “an era in which the peoples of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony,… in which the strong respect the rights of the weak.” For US political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the implosion of the USSR and the anti-Western bloc system it led even marked the end of history. And the strategic concepts presented by U.S. neoconservative think tanks henceforth defined the 21st century as that of the United States – namely, as so-called Pax Americana.
However, instead of also dissolving as a military alliance – like its erstwhile eastern counterpart – U.S.-led NATO was now given the task of enforcing this Pax Americana. Initially, NATO’s focus was on the need to fight Islamist terrorism – as a substitute, so to speak, for the lost image of the enemy. With the new strategy adopted at its summit meeting in Madrid at the end of June 2022, however, it is unabashedly heading for a confrontation with China. Both economically and militarily; by extending NATO’s sphere of influence to the Indo-Pacific. Precisely because China, which is rising militarily and economically, represents the greatest challenge from the U.S. point of view. The war against Ukraine, which Russia launched on February 24, 2022, in violation of international law, serves as a welcome justification for this. Like this New NATO Strategy, the G7 summit decisions in Elmau, Germany, are guided by the desire to assert the U.S., and thus the West, as the bulwark of a rule-based international order and the defense of such explicitly Western values as democracy and the rule of law.
Extract from isw-report 130 “China and its role in a multipolar world order”. Order here!
However, as the past three decades have shown, the Pax Americana sought by the West is encountering increasingly serious resistance. The main issue is monopolarity or multipolarity. And this also raises the question of geopolitical hegemony. In other words, whether Western interests will remain supreme and Western value systems will therefore be of universal significance? Or to what extent the emerging and developing countries, which together represent the majority of the world’s population, as is well known, are in a position to no longer be primarily the object of international events? That is, above all, to function as subjects, in that they have an equal say in shaping the world order as well as existing international institutions. As absurd as it may seem on the Western side, more than a few analysts even see the Russian war in Ukraine as a geopolitical “game changer” that could usher in the end of the United States’ hegemonic status. This is also the view of Sebastian Hellmann, a China expert at the University of Trier, who sees this war as a geo-economic turning point.
The global strategic claim of the USA
Guided by the awareness that it had achieved a historic victory with the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1990, there is no question that the U.S. should have the sole hegemonic role in the world. Not only all of its presidents, regardless of their political persuasion, have left no doubt about this, even if their reasons differed somewhat. Former President George W. Bush, for example, came up with the clear neoconservative paradigm – stability through hegemony. He said that the world would be better off if the USA, as the only remaining hegemonic superpower, ensured global order. And thus, at the same time, he had also clarified how the new era proclaimed by his father and predecessor in the presidency should actually be shaped. While former President Barack Obama sought to justify this claim to hegemony with the exceptional position that the United States now occupies. Or, as the current U.S. President Joe Biden put it with the slogan issued for his presidency: “America is back and ready to lead the world! (America is back and ready to lead the world) manifests. The U.S. Congress also internalizes this leadership claim in various ways. For example, in the report presented by the US Congressional Research Service in January 2021, according to which the exercise of “global leadership”, i.e. hegemony in the world; the “defense and promotion of the liberal international order”; the “defense of freedom, democracy and human rights” as well as the prevention of the “emergence of regional hegemonic powers in Eurasia” should apply as foreign policy principles.
Whether the U.S. wants to admit it or not. But this claim to global strategic leadership is already proving to be extremely questionable in various respects:
It is based on the erroneous assumption that the U.S. view of the world and the NATO and G7 decisions inspired by it, which according to Joe Biden’s order of “democracies versus autocracies” amount to a confrontational division in international affairs, are shared in the same way everywhere on the globe. All the more so since the attempt is being made to suggest that the USA alone, like the West as a whole, is on the right side of history. That it is they who defend the good against the evil – at the moment still primarily in the shape of Russia, but already with a clear finger pointing toward China. That, in principle, it is pretended that the previous Western supremacy and the associated colonialist and neocolonialist relations of exploitation in the countries of the global South are perceived as a pure blessing. As if sanctions imposed by the West against unpopular states were not seen by the affected populations as a kind of economic warfare that primarily affects the weakest members of society, but instead as a proven means of non-violent politics.
Strictly speaking, it is also undemocratic in that it is based on the presumptuous principle of the “right of the strongest. Namely, those factors that justify the exceptional position of the U.S., including such as decisive and superior military clout, powerful economy, top technological capacities, political alliances and, last but not least, the so-called soft power, are to be used primarily to give priority to its own interests worldwide. Until then, in violation of international law, to instigate several regime-change wars in the Near and Middle East region or to wage a war in European Kosovo in violation of international law. But these are now either to be forgotten or even to be considered legitimate. As necessary wars for the establishment of the international reorganization under US aegis. How else could it be explained that for all the human and material destruction associated with these wars, which continues to have an effect to this day, no sanction has ever been imposed by the West, nor have any responsible politicians ever been called to account. All the more so as the whole double standard of the West is exposed again and again in all this.
By coupling this claim to hegemony with the use of the democracy versus autocracy battle cry against China to steer a dangerous course of confrontation, it contributes, nolens volens, significantly to the destabilization of the international situation. As much as Russia’s irresponsible war in Ukraine plays into the hands of the U.S., it is more than negligent to try to instrumentalize it in order to simultaneously weaken China as its declared main rival in shaping the future world order. For example, when the intelligence chiefs of the U.S. FBI and the British MI5 jointly appear before the press at the beginning of July 2022 to present the Chinese government as the greatest long-term threat to the economic and national security interests of the West, this is almost playing with fire. The accusations made against China in the context of this are already outrageous because they reveal the entire arrogance of the West’s striving for power. Above all, China is accused of wanting to replace the United States as the world’s leading power and of wanting to draw countries that have been associated with the West onto its side. The fact that states previously associated with the West are also interested in close relations with China as an emerging economic power obviously does not fit into the Western world view. Not to mention the fact that such accusations against China should actually be addressed to China itself, which is why various concerned US voices are being heard in this regard. These are those who warn against driving Russia even closer to China’s side by weakening its position even further. For example, scholars from the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. In their view, the U.S. strategy should not be based solely on its reasserting leadership and protecting democracy, because China and Russia are linked not only by the same worldview but also by the complementarity of their resources and capabilities. Or the admonition of such an experienced ex-politician as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in an interview with the Bloomberg information portal from late July 2022. For all his understanding of wanting to prevent China’s hegemony, this should nevertheless not be attempted with endless confrontations. Rather, he said, the geopolitics of today require “Nixonian flexibility” to defuse existing conflicts between the United States and China, as well as between Russia and the rest of Europe.
Out of sheer fear that further transformations in geoeconomics as well as geopolitics will take place to one’s own disadvantage, the question of hegemony is declared to be the question of fate at the international level. The monopolarity sought by the U.S. and its transatlantic allies obviously sees itself challenged by the international structure, which is clearly moving in the direction of multipolarity. This, however, offers the states of the global South in particular visible opportunities to recalibrate their political and economic relations accordingly. As a result, the countries of the global South no longer feel compelled to subordinate themselves to U.S. claims to dominance in every case, but are able to take their own interests into account first and foremost. And these, in turn, are already structurally and almost globally linked in many ways with China – as well as with Russia. The global shift of power in the direction of Asia is obviously already an irreversible objective reality. If there is currently a lot of talk in the West about being on the right side of history, the declared U.S. striving to reverse this multipolarization process that has already begun could also be interpreted as an attempt to turn back the wheel of history.
Author, Arabist and Islamic scholar
Future-oriented science instead of geopolitics
Peace Logic Perspectives on the Ukraine War
by Jürgen Scheffran
[This article posted on 12/1/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://wissenschaft-und-frieden.de/artikel/zukunftsorientierte-wissenschaft-statt-geopolitik/.]
It is indisputable that Russia is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine in violation of international law. The question is how to counter it. Geopolitics seems to be the tool of the hour, while a peace-logical response is largely ignored. But geopolitical strategies foster rivalries and endanger the future of the planet. A future-oriented peace science is therefore needed – more than ever.
On October 16, 1914, after the German declaration of war on Russia and France, almost the entire faculty of German universities and technical colleges supported the war. They followed the so-called Manifesto of the 93 “To the Cultural World!” which justified the defense struggle: “From the German side, the utmost has been done to avert it. […] Those who have the least right to act as defenders of European civilization are those who ally themselves with Russians and Serbs.
The mood at the time ranged from shock at the overwhelming threat to enthusiasm at the national unity that had finally been achieved. While there were initially massive protests and anti-war demonstrations, the SPD leadership did a U-turn at the start of the war and agreed to war credits in a “truce” with the Kaisertreuen in the Reichstag.
Alone against the war
But not everyone bowed to the war effort. Albert Einstein was alarmed by the patriotic mood of almost all his fellow scientists, and felt lonely as an intellectual and pacifist. In the summer of 1914, together with two other colleagues, he signed the “Appeal to the Europeans” written by Georg Friedrich Nicolai, which was not published due to lack of further support. Farsightedly, it said, “The struggle that rages today will probably produce no victor; it will probably leave only the vanquished.” They expected that “all European relations conditions would fall into an unstable […] state.” That the authors were right soon became apparent. The daily routine of war made life difficult for many, mass unemployment, food prices rose and poverty increased. Scientists died at the front or contributed their expertise to the war.
Just as the catastrophic end of the First World War was foreseeable, so was the path to it. Some scholars and intellectuals who observed the socio-economic, industrial, and military logics of the times foresaw the great systemic confrontations. For example, Ivan (Jan) von Bloch, a Polish-Russian industrialist who was a friend of Bertha von Suttner, described the coming great war in his six-volume work of 1898 (Scheffran 2014). For this he was nominated for the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, shortly before he died. The example of British meteorologist Lewis Frye Richardson also shows the relevance of sober science. Richardson used a model after World War I to study how armament dynamics had built up, which later prompted him to issue warnings about World War II (Scheffran 2020).
The Present of the Past
Barely a hundred years after World War I, a German government again finds itself embroiled in a war to shift borders by force of arms. A German chancellor of the SPD calls for a change of era and mobilizes war credits for rearmament and arms deliveries to a hot war that must not be lost. The public mood fluctuates between horror at the threat and enthusiasm for a hitherto unachieved unity of Europe. Geopolitical considerations dominate the public debate, leaving little room for dissenting opinions. The economy threatens to collapse into a deep crisis, the populations of all warring parties have to pay for the war, suffer from sanctions and high food prices. The struggle leaves only the defeated.
In view of such associations, it can be objected that the historical situation today is completely different from that of a hundred years ago and that similarities can be explained by general war logics. Germany has learned from the lost world wars and the won Cold War, has become more civil, does not wage war itself, but stands by the attacked side, legitimized by a democratically elected parliament. Today it is no longer about “fatherlands” but about a feminist foreign policy.
However, the question may be asked whether the choice of means does not put all this at risk. By using military means, Russia and Ukraine, and the West providing the toughest sanctions and heavy weapons, all parties are escalating the conflict and prolonging it with growing damage. They undermine lessons of history, revive geopolitical power struggles with cold and hot wars, lay the groundwork for new violent conflicts, consume enormous resources, obstruct negotiated solutions, marginalize civil society, peace forces, and dissenters. What is suppressed is the question of how this came about, how mutual disregard and threats contributed to it.
Back to the future
In addition to the past, the future, about which supposedly nothing can be said, is also blanked out. As with the world wars, the dangers of today’s world situation have been described before – including by the author of this article, summarized in an article four months before the war began (Scheffran 2021). In it, it is shown, among other things, that after Putin took office, there were warnings of a new Cold War (2000), the Iraq war and other wars of the West prepared the way for it (2003), complex crises and conflicts endangered international security (2008), an unstable world situation as in the First World War was possible (2009), connections between climate change, flight and conflicts emerged (2012) or multiple crises developed in the globalized world (2016). The conclusion: “The situation is reminiscent of the upheavals of a hundred years ago, with World War I, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and fascism leading to World War II” (Scheffran 2021, p. 218).
Statements about the future are often dismissed as know-it-alls in politics, and preference is given to “safe” disaster science over “unsafe” prevention science, which is only called to the front when things are already burning. In order to look into the future in a scientifically permissible way, however, no prophecies are needed; it is sufficient to recognize development directions, path dependencies or red lines, the interaction of which exceeds critical limits. These observations are also not deterministic insofar as the systems under consideration are made and steered by people and can be changed by political decisions. This presupposes that the truth can be spoken publicly. In the “free West” this should be self-evident without being personally discredited, even when it comes to categories of “good” and “evil.” With the resurgence of geopolitics in politics and the media, however, independent peace science is coming under pressure.
Return of geopolitics
At the beginning of the 20th century, the theory of “geopolitics” developed in the wake of the colonialist tradition of geography emanating from Europe, which could be instrumentalized for power politics.1 While geopolitics was discredited in Germany for a long time due to its personal and ideological entanglement with National Socialism, it regained importance after German reunification. With the Ukraine war, the influence of geopolitical think tanks is increasing. Geopolitical argumentation on the part of the new old system rivals is recognizable. Putin’s neo-imperial aspirations tie back to Russia’s colonial expansion (example Crimean War 1853-1856) and the founding of the Soviet Union based on it. Conversely, the Eurasian landmass aroused desires in the West, from Napoleon’s conquest of Moscow to U.S. geopolitics in the Cold War and after. Still and again, the book by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Grand Chessboard” (1997), is used as a central argument today. In it, he articulated the goal of U.S. geostrategy that there should be no challenger controlling the Eurasian landmass and challenging U.S. dominance.
These goals can in turn be used by Putin to denounce threats to Russian security interests by the West. After initially courting Russian recognition in the West and engaging in partnership and trade, the continued deterioration of relations dashed all hopes. NATO’s roughly 16-fold military superiority, NATO and EU eastward enlargements, Western military interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the buildup of European missile defense, and the denunciation of arms control treaties motivated Russian threatening and violent actions in the post-Soviet space.
This also applies to the war against Ukraine and its antecedents. When Russia’s military threats on the border with Ukraine failed to lead to negotiations in early 2022, Putin launched the attack on Ukraine. Support for separatists, territorial gains in Ukraine, and “punishment” for its westward orientation are possible motives for the invasion, which also serves as leverage to show Western impotence to the world. For this, he is willing to pay a high price, which has not deterred him from his reckless plan any more than Western superiority has. With the onset of the war, such rationalizing explanations of Russian behavior were relegated to the corner of the “Putinversteher,” while Putinologists trumped each other with speculations about who understood Putin best. They vacillated between the strategic genius, the irrational demon, and the ruthless dictator – explanations whose scientific foundations are questionable.
If Europe and Russia weaken each other and the European peace order lies in ruins, this need not contradict U.S. interests; on the contrary. In the short term, it strengthens the unconditional unity of the West and NATO under U.S. leadership, cements Russia’s separation from Germany and Europe, allows profits from fracking gas, the mobilization of the arms machine, provokes the ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy as in the Cold War, and opens up domestic political advantages in upcoming elections. Although some see the key to managing the Ukraine war in Washington, it remains unclear whether and when this key will be used.
Finally, this war and its aftermath can also be seen as a preparation and test case for the confrontation with China, currently the real challenger and antagonist of U.S. hegemony. Thus, the conflict with Russia could foster conditions for the coming war with China (NATO members’ willingness to mobilize, U.S. claim to leadership, militarized rhetoric, and response to developments in China).
Bloc Confrontation and Global South
With the Ukraine war, the Global South is increasingly playing a role as a geopolitical actor. Although the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against Russia’s war of aggression on March 2, 2022, with a majority of 141 states, the 35 abstentions (including China and India) and five votes against (Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Eritrea) showed significant differences. Some states expressed understanding for the Russian position, did not support the Western coalition, and are willing to join a counter-coalition of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) states. They see opportunities to bring their interests to bear in a bloc confrontation – as they did during the Cold War.
Because of colonial experiences, a “Global West” is viewed critically; it is accused of Eurocentrism, double standards and injustice in asserting its interests, if necessary by force and against the rules. Thus, the West appears as a “villain” (von Weizsäcker 2022) that wants to impose its value-based model of liberal democracy on others, for which it itself took centuries, partly at the expense of the colonies. The geostrategic chess games envisaged by Brzezinski (1997) and others touch not only the interests of Russia and China, but also of Central Asia, India, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which do not count themselves among the Western democracies.
If Putin succeeds in creating a new division in the world (“The West and the rest”), this would be a success for him that extends beyond the Ukraine war and his regime. If the West was initially intoxicated by the new unity, since the G7 summit in June 2022 the realization of the world’s disunity seems to have reached the leading nations of a Western-oriented world order, especially since the parallel BRICS counter-summit did not come by chance. Now the Western world order must show what it can offer to fellow competitors. If weapons and sanctions destabilize the West and the world and polarize societies, they can become counterproductive. The corresponding populist movements are waiting for their chance to use this weakness in their favor, and not only in Western democracies.
Armament is not a turning point
For years, arms spending has been on the rise worldwide. The “turn of the times” proclaimed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz is forcing this rearmament in order to maintain the existing world order by force. However, this is not a turn of the times – it is a way back, especially since this was already prepared before 2022 (see, for example, Bunde et al. 2020).
More suitable for a true turn of times are three megatrends: the socio-ecological transformation, the influence of the Global South, and the role of social media and civil society (Scheffran 2021, p. 222): “The aforementioned trends have the potential to turn times, as after the French Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century or with the First World War at the beginning of the 20th century.”
For such a turning point in time, we need a resilient energy supply and sustainable climate protection within planetary boundaries, which also serve to secure peace and show ways to a viable and livable world (“viable world”) in the common house of the Earth. The coexistence and cohabitation of different world orders to address these problems is more promising than further geopolitical power struggles that put not only the West at risk, but also the planet. Peace science must therefore advocate for a peace-logical transformation – even and especially in times of dominant geopolitics.
1) For the history and tradition of geopolitical world (explanation) images and war logics, see W&F 1/2013 “Geopolitics”.