ACCORDING to just concluded Munich Security Conference, the defence related budget of the big powers and other countries witnessed a rise of 4.2% in 2019 as compared to what it was in 2018. There has been a persistent rise in defence spending during the last ten years which is a cause of alarm. If one believes the major strands of thinking in the capitals of the world’s great powers, the world is entering a new era of great power competition. Although some Western analysts warned of a comeback of authoritarian great powers as the most significant challenge for the West and the liberal world order more than a decade ago, this scenario has only recently become commonplace among policymakers and observers in Washington, replacing terrorism as the key security concern that has shaped US strategy for almost two decades.
Now, the core assumption of the most recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy of the United States is: “we are heading into an era of sustained big power competition for which the West, collectively, is under prepared.” US strategic documents have singled out China and Russia as the two most important challengers, and many key administration officials have emphasized this threat perception in public speeches. In his resignation letter to President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated his core concerns: “It is clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbours, America and our allies.” Having concluded that previous US policy underestimated the challenge posed by these authoritarian great powers, the Trump Administration has decided to adopt a more confrontational posture and approach them from a position of strength.
Since Trump took office, US-China relations have arguably “deteriorated further and faster than at any point since the establishment of official ties in 1979.” But the sense that China has defied US expectations and become “the most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history” is now widely shared in Washington. In a landmark speech in October, Vice President Mike Pence spelled out the rationale behind the clear shift in US strategy toward China: “America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military.” Pence accused Beijing not only of “meddling in America’s democracy,” but of attempting “to erode America’s military advantage on land, at sea, in the air and in space.” He made clear that the United States would oppose Chinese assertiveness: “We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.” Many read Pence’s speech as the announcement of a new cold war. For sure, the Trump Administration argued in its National Security Strategy: “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict. But critics fear that the hostility will be the unavoidable consequence of a mindset shaped by competition. At the very least, the Trump Administration seems willing to accept that the result could be a cold war.
While China is certainly the more important long-term challenge for the United States, Russia is the more immediate security concern. In contrast to China, Moscow’s long term prospects as a geopolitical challenger to the United States do not look very promising. Its economy has suffered from a volatile currency, a drop in oil prices, and the sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States as a response to Russia’s actions against Ukraine. 2018 was the fifth year in a row that came with decreasing disposable personal incomes. Against this background, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have significantly declined. At the same time, the Russian government has aggressively used its limited but significant leverage as a disruptive force and scored some impressive short-term victories in recent years, taking the rest of the world by surprise in Ukraine and Syria. Other recent examples of Moscow’s increasing assertiveness under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, who was re-elected for a fourth term in May 2018, are an escalation of hostile cyber activities, attempts to interfere in democratic elections in various countries, or the most recent confrontation in the Kerch Strait. One may interpret Russian actions as an attempt to demonstrate that it is still more powerful than the West believes and that it will remain an indispensable power whose interests cannot be neglected. Putin’s Advisor, Vladislav Surkov recently noted in a remark, “war is a means of communication.” As another Russia expert Bobo Lo puts it: “Policymakers in Moscow condemn the ‘demonization’ of Russia, yet revel in the knowledge that it is back on the world stage, disliked by some but ignored by none. Given the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, the coming months may decide the fate of crucial arms control treaties. As nuclear experts warn: “After almost three decades of steady arms reductions between the two largest nuclear powers, both states shifted direction in 2019 and now find themselves in a renewed arms race.”
For some years now, the Russian government has invested in new military capabilities, including a new ground-launched cruise missile that, according to the United States and its NATO allies, violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In response, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the treaty, meaning that both the US and Russia would again be allowed to produce and deploy ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles, reviving fears of a new Euro missile crisis. For the Kremlin, this is a comfortable situation: while the Trump Administration is blamed for reneging on the treaty, Moscow seems to speculate that NATO would be unable to reach consensus on deploying new US missiles (that would still need to be developed) in Europe, putting Russia at an advantage: “an arms race in intermediate-range missiles may begin in Europe, but it will be one-sided: only Russia will be racing.”
Another element which limited dangerous competition between Russia and the United States is likewise imperilled: it appears unlikely that they can extend the New START Treaty covering strategic nuclear weapons beyond 2021, when it is set to expire. As some observers have argued, the remaining arms control treaties, still following a bipolar logic, are unravelling, while there is not yet a new multilateral framework for arms control that would be fit for the emerging international system, which is “more complex, less predictable, and potentially more dangerous.” Although President Trump has hinted at the possibility that he, along with President Xi and President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race, he and his counterparts are currently building up their arsenals.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.