The arrival of multipolarity and its impact on US-Russian relations – Valdai Club



A toxic combination of inertia, nostalgia, suspicion and mutual recriminations continues to define the Russian-American relationship, rather than a lucid appreciation of how much the world has changed, writes. Jacob L. Shapiro, founder and chief strategist of Perch Perspectives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in multiple ways. For geopolitics, however, the biggest side effect of the pandemic has been evident: the accelerating multipolar trend in international affairs. On the eve of the pandemic, it was still possible to imagine a different – however unlikely – scenario of the Trump presidency being a feverish American dream; that China and the United States would find a way to catch up after their long trade feud; that Humpty Dumpty – the anthropomorphized egg of the famous British nursery rhyme – could indeed be reconstructed.

Instead, the emergence of a truly multipolar world has moved from a fashionable prediction to a current reality. Multipolarity has arrived and will rule international political dynamics for a generation. No corner of the world will be spared by the transition to multipolarity. But it is in the borders between the great rising and falling powers – the “intermediate regions” as this analyst often calls them – that the effects will be most pronounced.

Multipolarity is by no means an unprecedented state of affairs. The decades leading up to World War I were an equally dynamic and perilous era, marked by ever-increasing economic integration even as regional political and military conflicts erupted in regions around the world. (The Russo-Japanese War – a fight between two rising powers on the Korean Peninsula and northern China – was typical of such intense battles for position.)

Relationships in truly multipolar eras are seldom zero-sum because they reflect truly complex systems. Unlike the US-Soviet Cold War, when two powers clashed for global supremacy, multipolar environments are exemplified by ever-changing webs of relationships. Pragmatism and short-term gains are often favored. Obviously, nations in multipolar environments have long-term strategic goals, but by definition no power can hope to defeat its enemies (or the inevitable coalition that would rise up against it if it grew too powerful). This often means that even if there is more “action”, the scope and effect of conflicts has a lower ceiling.

Ultimately, of course, multipolar environments often lead to cataclysmic conflicts, such as during the period from WWI to WWII. These systemic battles evolve when an actor in the global system believes he has the strength to be more ambitious – to project power beyond his sphere of influence. Before this breaking point, however, multipolar environments can be times of prosperity or even relative peace.

Consider, for example, the decades immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War. Perhaps there were no two countries more doomed to conflict than the British Empire and the recently unified Second Reich. And yet, even as tensions and hostilities between the two European heavyweights increased, economic integration and trade between them also increased. Global Anglo-German trade almost doubled between 1904 and 1912.

The level of economic integration and prosperity was so high that many analysts of the time believed conflict to be an impossibility. This was of course best illustrated by Norman Angell’s famous 1910 book The Great Illusion – but his point of view was not radical. It was a reflection of conventional wisdom.

It is also no coincidence that the last multipolar environment of the turn of the century and the current period were and are periods of Industrial Revolution. Preparations for World War I were marked by the switch from steam to electricity. As a result of this change, hydrocarbons became the lifeblood of the modern economy (and modern armies) – and a primary source of conflict in the wars that followed. Japan entered World War II in part because of the United States, which imposed an oil embargo on Japan on August 1, 1941. [See John Toland, “The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945,” New York: The Modern Library, 1970.Germany’s thirst for oil is also an underappreciated aspect of its World War II strategy. 

Today, the world is on the cusp of a fourth Industrial Revolution – a transition from the digital economy to the smart economy. This has been most recently reflected in US-China spat over 5G technology, and will increasingly encompass other sectors, such as space-based platforms, artificial intelligence, and a new class of strategically critical minerals and raw materials.

  No country enjoys self-sufficiency when it comes to the inputs needed to enjoy the benefits of Industry 4.0. Most of the world’s cobalt, for example, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chile and Peru are responsible for almost 40 percent of global copper production; Australia is the dominant global producer of lithium; South Africa is the dominant global producer of platinum. Perhaps most ironically, the US and Russia (along with the Saudis and Iranians) produce the most oil and gas. 


In other words: even as a global competition for power, influence, and critical resources occurs, the most important players are all still dependent on each other. Not only that, but there is one key difference between the last multipolar environment of the fin de siècle and the multipolar environment that has emerged today: the advent of nuclear weapons. A conflict like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 is less likely in the current environment because nuclear weapons have changed the cost-benefit analysis of going to war. It is simply not enough to be able to defeat an enemy with conventional arms: great powers backed into a corner have the ultimate geopolitical equalizer to deploy if faced with defeat, further decreasing the odds of direct conflict between great powers during this multipolar era.

That is good news for the great powers in question. It is exceedingly bad news for the powers caught in between. History has all sorts of pithy names for the ways in which multipolar geopolitical competition in the 19th century was primarily a series of proxy conflicts – “The Great Game,” “The Scramble for Africa,” etc. 

 ] A new round of similar conflicts is already here. Think about the developments that have taken place since the serious start of the pandemic in March 2020: the 2020 Nargorno-Karabakh war, the rise of an Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique, the continued deterioration of governance in the region of Sahel in North Africa, the recent Kyrgyzstan – The spat on the border of Tajikistan and the proliferation of anti-government protest movements in Latin America, particularly in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and perhaps now in Colombia.

These conflicts are all linked. On the one hand, they were born out of clearly local concerns. As the American saying goes: “All politics are local”.

But they are also symptoms of the competitive pressures that build up within a multipolar geopolitical system. The world is not sinking into a second cold war between the United States and China. Rather, a multi-faceted competition featuring the European Union, Turkey, India, Russia, Japan, Australia, Brazil and others has replaced the Pax Americana. It is a shift that will be most pronounced in the regions located between these powers. The most important of these regions are Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia – areas of conflict where the balance of power of the future must be decided.

Of course, these are not the only regions “between” the competition of the great powers. Eastern Europe remains a key buffer zone between Russia and the US-European alliance. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Kiev to demonstrate the importance the United States places on its relationship with Ukraine and, more importantly, on Kiev’s independence from from Russia.

Russia, however, knows that American support is more rhetorical and symbolic than practical in the case of Ukraine. The United States is finally ending its wars in the Muslim world and has firmly focused its attention on Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. In strictly geopolitical terms, the conflict in Ukraine is an unwanted distraction for Washington. Maintaining the status quo is the priority.

For Russia, of course, the status quo borders on the unacceptable. Ukraine is not a distant region in between – from Moscow’s point of view, it is a culturally and historically inalienable part of the Russian nation – and a strategically crucial buffer zone between Russia and the West. Even so, Russia’s “Ukrainian problem” doesn’t really have much to do with the United States anymore. Russia sees itself as a Eurasian power, but Moscow is a European city. U.S. policies have brought Russia and China closer together than ever before in history, but if Russia only looks east, it will transition from a regional power to a Chinese vassal state in the blink of an eye. That is why Russia’s relations with Europe, and in particular with the European Union, are much more important for Ukraine and Russia’s future than its relations with the United States.

The pandemic has accelerated multipolarity – but it has also accelerated the deepening of a more coherent and strategic European Union. Of course, 27 constantly bickering member states will always make Russia seem ineffective and dissonant. In many ways, the EU is the opposite of the Russian state. But it is no longer the European Union of 2008. External threats have covered internal conflicts and the EU is playing a more powerful and geopolitically defined role, worthy of the world’s second-largest economy.

]Ultimately, the main motivation for US grand strategy is to prevent the emergence of a true Eurasian hegemon. Ukraine’s future will thus be defined much more by EU-Russia relations than by the melodramatic and theatrical political drama currently unfolding between Russia and the United States.

Ironically, the United States and Russia share something in common in this brave new world. Both must get used to being less powerful, that is, less able to impose their will on other countries. The United States can no longer be everything and be everything for everyone at the same time. It must learn to prioritize how and where it commits its resources (and as recent history has shown, the United States is a slow learner.) For the foreseeable future, the United States will primarily focus on the Indo-Pacific. – and not on the borders of Eastern Europe. . Russia, for its part, is no longer “a continental empire with a historic global mission”, but a regional power which is fighting “tooth and nail for its place in the world”. In this regard, Russia is also learning slowly. The United States and Russia remain formidable military powers, but in a multipolar world, political, technological, ideological might, and perhaps even cyberpower, matter more than brute force.

Sadly, a toxic combination of inertia, nostalgia, suspicion, and mutual recriminations continues to define Russian-American relations, rather than a lucid appreciation of how much the world has changed – and how much both would benefit from less. self. – a just United States and a less irredentist Russia. Instead, it looks like the United States and Russia are destined to compete in the middle regions of the world for years to come. There, Washington and Moscow might be surprised to discover the presence of no less formidable, ambitious and flexible powers – powers indifferent to a return to unipolar or bipolar conflict, but rather to ensuring their security and overloading their prosperity in a new age. multipolar.


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