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Despite major conflicts, no international crises of the magnitude of 9/11 (or, on another level, the collapse of Lehman Brothers) have occurred in recent years. Nevertheless, geopolitical tensions have been on the rise since Trump took office.
According to president’s relatively simplistic worldview, the liberal order designed by Washington, which took the form of globalization and neoliberalism after the US victory in the Cold War, disproportionately benefited competitors and rivals, who obtained all of the advantages without having to pay a price. Trump’squestioning of international institutions such as NATO, his disregard for multilateral agreements, such as the one signed by the United States and the European Union with Iran, and more generally, the subordination of diplomacy to the objective of reducing trade imbalances, is undermining the United States’ relationship with its Western allies, particularly with the EU.
The continuing deterioration of unresolved pre-existing conflicts, such as the reactionary civil war in Syria, has multiplied the risk of accidents with catastrophic consequences. The most obvious and dangerous is the risk of a military incident between the United States and North Korea, which would immediately involve South Korea and nuclear powers such as Russia and China, although the prospect of a summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un has relieved tensions in the short term.
There are two structural processes that ultimately undermine the stability of the postwar/post-Cold War order and,to some extent, explain Trump’s rise: one is the sharp decline in US hegemony, and the other is the emergence of China as a “strategic competitor” of the United States and (to a lesser extent and with more contradictions) the activity of other regional powers, such as Russia.
What divides the Washington establishment is not so much the diagnosis of the problems faced by the US in its continued world domination, but the strategy forreversing this decline – all of which have been failing for about 15 years.
Bush’s War on Terror began as a punitive action with support from imperialist allies after the 9/11 attacks. However, the neocon experiment led to a major military adventures aimed at states which posed little threat (like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) or nebulous, non-state actors (such as the Al Qaeda network). Obama tried to organize the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and to engage a “multilateral” policy to de-escalate major conflicts that were not essential to national interests. This pivot aimed to focus on containing the advance of China, which is the most significant strategic problem for US imperialism, while managing to keep a rein on Germany in its dispute with Russia. Nevertheless, Obama failed and the US ended up in a new war in the Middle East against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In general terms, Trump expresses the will of a sector of the ruling class and the US state apparatus to reverse both the Obama and Bush strategies through a reactionary nationalist program and the recentralization of military power. This can be summed up in the slogan “America First,” which functions as a catch-all signifier that allows the most diverse “nationalist” interpretations, although not all of them are transformed into state policies.
The Trump administration started off with an erratic foreign policy, with no clear strategic direction except for its proposal to abandon hostility towards Putin’s Russia, a goal which eventually failed. The new defense strategy seems to indicate that Trump has shifted – at least on paper – toward the traditional “realism” of the Pentagon. The new focus is national interest and sovereignty; alliances are secondary to these ends.
The new national security and defense strategy defines the conflict among world powers as the main US priority, thus pushing the war on terrorism into the background. According to these documents, drafted by the military sector of the administration, the main threat to US security are the so-called “revisionist powers,” i.e., China and Russia, followed by two rogue states, North Korea and Iran, and, lastly, Islamic terrorism.
The term “revisionists” indicates that China and Russia are not powerful enough to challenge the entire post-Cold War order, but they seek to limit Washington’s reach and influence in their closest and most vital areas of influence, i.e. Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine or the South China Sea, where they can exert power without provoking an all-out war, and thus contribute to the weakening of US hegemony.
Based on the elementary maxim that weakness invites challenge, this new strategy aims to strengthen US military power to increase its capacity as a deterrent. In particular, the strategy requires a considerable increase in military spending to modernize the US’s conventional arsenal and, above all, to expand its nuclear arsenal.
Preparing for a major interstate conflict, after decades of waging an asymmetrical war against mostly non-state actors, is undoubtedly the most significant shift under the Trump administration.
But this strategic turn by the United States should be understood within its context. Although it is not a direct response, it should be interpreted in relation to the resolutions issued by the 19th Communist Party of China Congress of last October, in which President Xi Jinping announced the start of a “new era” that should culminate in the transformation of China into a global superpower by 2050, under the firm leadership of the CPC. It thus aims to unify the nation behind the party and its leader in the face of increasingly intense contradictions.
This strategy implies a paradigmatic break with the cautious geopolitical approach of Deng Xiaoping, which determined the course taken by the Chinese state since 1990 but is no longer consistent with China’s needs. The Bonapartist shift that has granted even more power to the CPC and Xi Jinping is an indication that the ruling bureaucracy is preparing to confront its domestic and foreign contradictions.
In recent years, China’s imperialist tendencies have deepened, resulting in a more aggressive investment policy that has come to be coupled with geopolitical objectives (as in Africa), although the weight of its financial capital is limited. The CPC’s regime has also begun to increase its promotion of techno-military development, an area in which its imperialist competitors have a clear advantage. These are the factors behind its ambitious infrastructure project referred to as the New Silk Road, although it still faces serious obstacles to its completion and could turn out to be less significant than expected. They also explain its less friendly policies, such as collecting on loans to insolvent countries with assets of strategic value, as it recently did with Sri Lanka’s most important port. It has also increased its investments and businesses in Latin America, which is considered by the United States as its backyard, and in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe.
In short, China is not currently disputing the global leadership of the United States, which will continue to be the main imperialist power in the coming years. China’s per capita GDP is still very low: one seventh of the United States, still behind Russia and almost at the same level as Mexico. On a military level, although China is modernizing its armed forces, the disparity continues to be overwhelming, even in the technological sphere. Furthermore, due to the particularities of capitalist restoration, neither China nor Russia have yet seen the consolidation of a capitalist class, and the role of the state continues to prevail in both countries. However, China is too big, too self-sufficient and too well-financed to succumb to direct economic pressure by the US or a group of imperialist powers. The tensions in the current relationship between the US and China emerge from, on the one hand, the difficulties China faces in freeing itself from the constraints imposed by its attempts to extend imperialist domination on a world scale; and, on the other hand, the difficulties faced by the US in attempting to subjugate the Chinese state, which has grown significantly stronger since it suffered the brutal imperialist oppression of the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. This fraught relationship of codependency lies at the heart of the the neoliberal, globalizing consensus, which is running out of steam.
Objectively speaking, the gap between the two has narrowed. In 2000, the United States accounted for 31% of the global economy and China for 4%. Today, the United States’ share is 24% and China’s share is 15%. It is on the basis of these facts that protectionist sectors and Pentagon hawks exaggerate the technological threats and claim that China will catch up with the US in a few years, all to justify an offensive policy with defensive arguments. They demand, for example, the deregulation of the Chinese financial sector or that the Chinese government withdraw the clause that requires US companies to form joint ventures and “share” technology to enter the Chinese market. Another argument made for this hard line is the failure of friendly policies in subduing the CPC bureaucracy, based on the empty hope that the market and China’s entry into the WTO would result in a pro-imperialist bourgeois democracy and a domestic market with no restrictions on foreign capital. This has shown that a “peaceful route” to China’s imperialist development is impossible.
In this framework, the long-term hypothesis of a looming conflict between world powers has resulted in a renewed arms race involving not only the United States, China and Russia, but also Japan and the main powers of the EU.
It would be a mistake to confuse strategic positioning with immediate policy. A war between world powers is not imminent, but the fact that the prospect of such a war is being discussed as part of US state policy has an impact on current events: It increases the likelihood of the escalation of regional conflicts in which various powers are already competing, such as the crisis with North Korea and the civil war in Syria.
Hypotheses of Looming Conflicts
The main risk of a military incident lies in the possibility of emerging dilemmas in which the United States will have to choose between different bad options, as previously analyzed. It cannot accept North Korea becoming a nuclear state, which it already is, because this would expose the erosion of US disciplinary capacity. And, in principle, a military attack would not only unleash a possible nuclear war, but likewise be unilateral, as the US does not have the support of US allies in the region. South Korea is opposed to such an attack because it would be the first battlefield in such a war, and has opted for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Japan is also opposed to an attack.
The situation seems to have shifted since the two Koreas established negotiations as the primary means to resolve the conflict, resulting in the proposal of a summit between Kim and Trump to be held in May. This shift in the situation does not eliminate the profound contradictions that have made the conflict difficult to resolve. The ultimate US demand for “denuclearization” would imply the unilateral disarmament of Pyongyang, while for the North Korean regime it would mean the removal of sophisticated weaponry from South Korea. Both in turn are already claiming victory: Trump alleges that the sanctions regime, which China ultimately joined, forced Kim to accept the terms of a negotiation, while Kim believes that his demonstrations of North Korea’s advances in missile technology will allow the country to enter the select club of nuclear-armed states. It is not clear if the summit will take place and what the results would be. In the meantime, this is still a high-risk conflict given the accumulation of military resources and interests at stake.
The most immediate result of the escalation of the civil war is the decision by the United States and other world powers to prevent the conflict from ending under the control of Russia and Iran, which Turkey had opportunistically joined. Despite its contradictions, this outcome strengthened the regional reach of the Iranian regime (and its allies like Hezbollah) and allowed Russia to practically single-handedly claim victory over ISIS and maintain a position in the Middle East. The “Russian-Iranian pax” was inadmissible to the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the short term, they have been successful and the “peace” conference convened by Putin ended in failure.
The risks of a conflict with international repercussions are increasing. War planes from at least half a dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, Turkey and Israel, fly over this small territory daily. Meanwhile, groups armed by rival powers clash on the ground. The novelty is that, given the concrete possibility of the conflict escalating, these powers no longer only act through proxies, but are deploying their own troops within Syria. This includes the United States, which has about 2,000 troops on the ground, most of them military advisers, who are getting increasingly close to direct involvement in battles with Iranian-sponsored militias.
The Trump administration is attempting to improve the US’s position with a last-minute intervention. However, this pragmatic policy is not part of a coherent strategy, but is driven by the negative objective of containing both the Iranian advance and Russia’s global reach.
Trump’s decision to turn the Kurdish militias into a kind of permanent border force of about 30,000 troops caused Turkey (a NATO member) to escalate the conflict in order to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish enclave on its borders—thus opening a new battle front in Afrin in the Rojava region, fighting against an ally of the United States.
The civil war in Syria has significant programmatic consequences. From our point of view, the democratic uprising against Assad, which was part of the Arab Spring process, has long since turned into a completely reactionary civil war, creating a catastrophic situation for the civilian population, whether it be the people trying to flee to mostly European countries as refugees and ending up in refugee camps or dying in the Mediterranean, or those who have not been able to flee and are the target of bombings by the regime and various factions in the conflict. A sector of the left, including IS (Socialists Left), maintains that there is an ongoing “democratic revolution” against Assad’s dictatorial regime and supports the “rebel camp” regardless of its class nature and its strategy. We maintain a principled position by repudiating Assad’s dictatorial regime, opposing all imperialist interference and interventions by foreign powers like Russia and supporting the democratic right of the Kurdish people to national self-determination (although not the policy of its nationalist leadership, whose strategy has led it to establish an alliance with the United States and a tacit agreement with the Assad regime).
Trump has changed the US policy strategy in the Middle East, particularly regarding Iran. While Obama negotiated the nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime along with the EU and aimed to establish a certain balance between regional powers, Trump opted to strengthen traditional alliances and establish a kind of Sunni front against Iran, led by Saudi Arabia, to which Israel adheres.
Although Trump did not withdraw from the nuclear agreement, he devalued it by refusing to certify compliance with the commitments undertaken by the Ayatollah regime. This position has exacerbated the intra-Islamic conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, which has resulted in a confrontation between groups led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. This “cold” war tends to break out into heated conflicts like the civil war in Yemen or Syria.
There is pressure especially from Israel for the United States to greenlight a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Washington has refused to do so for now, due to the very high cost of a conflict with Iran, and is wagering on a “regime change” that would result from the contradictions within Iranian society and its regime. This is why Trump hailed the demonstrations at the beginning of the year. However, the social process in Iran is more profound, as shown by the social sectors involved, and can hardly be directed toward the kind of “color revolution” that the United States promoted in Ukraine and other countries.