Risk of superpower conflict highest in memory
At a gathering of business leaders in London a few days ago, John Sawers, a career British diplomat and former head of the MI6 intelligence service, delivered a sober warning: for the first time in living memory, there is a realistic prospect of a superpower conflict.
His declaration came as the Western missile strike at Russia’s friends in Syria was imminent. But that confrontation is only a small part of the troubling equation he described.
The US, a mature power, simultaneously confronts an aggrieved and newly assertive Russia as well as an aggressive rising power in China. This is the backdrop for not only the standoff in Syria but also rising trade tensions with China.
This is a more dangerous brew than is commonly realised. The world has now moved beyond the days of both a tense yet wellregulated US-Soviet rivalry and a period of clear American dominance, and into a new period with different risks and fewer wellunderstood rules of the road.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is intent on expanding Chinese economic influence across Asia and beyond, establishing a new military presence in the South China Sea and cementing his own personal and unquestioned power at home. All told, he “has taken China in a very different direction,” Sawers told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council.
Meantime, Russian President Vladimir Putin, similarly established as an unchallenged leader indefinitely, believes Russia has been the target of sustained efforts by the West to reduce its global role. He sees “a kind of straightline effort across administrations to keep down his power,” William Burns, the former deputy secretary of state and one-time US ambassador to Russia, told the conference.
So Putin isn’t just propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad but protecting his influence in Ukraine and interfering with internal politics in the West, just as he thinks the West interfered in political affairs around the edges of Russia. Oh, and he seems to have just asserted his right to poison an unfriendly defector in Britain.
In response, the US and its Western allies have united to impose swift penalties for the poisoning, impose harsh new sanctions on Putin’s oligarch friends and, now, strike Russia’s Syrian ally. If you were the Russian leader, Sawers noted, “you would probably see this as a concerted assault on Russian interests.” Moscow has denied carrying out the attack.
Meantime, Burns added, the traditional arms-control infrastructure, which long provided stabilising ballast for relations between Washington and Moscow, “is crumbling”.
This hardly means a clash is either imminent or inevitable, of course.
Amid it all, Washington still seeks to work with Russia and China to contain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. But it does mean the situation calls for clear strategic thinking in the West, and dexterous diplomacy from Washington.
Yet it isn’t clear the Trump administration, with a new secretary of state awaiting Senate confirmation, an understaffed and demoralised diplomatic corps and a newly arrived national security adviser, is entirely prepared for the moment. “I’m afraid this present American administration is not geared up for subtle diplomacy,” Sawers said dryly.
What Donald Trump has sought to do, though, is to insulate his personal relationships with Xi and Putin from the rising tensions with their countries.
For their part, the Chinese and Russian leaders seem to be trying to do the same. And that certainly provides a kind of safety buffer.
The risk is that the forces that have been unleashed could prove too great to be contained by personal relationships.
Still, trade tension is merely one sign of growing financial competition between the world’s two most powerful economies — a competition that could well grow as Trump and Xi pursue contradic- tory approaches to the new global economy.
Trump’s decision to consider reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact he long belittled seems to reflect a fear his Americafirst approach was merely clearing the way for growing Chinese influence. Meantime, hints of renewed American support for Taiwanese independence, heard occasionally from congress and the White House, could prove a serious flashpoint with Beijing.
Putin seems eager to both demonstrate Russian power and settle old scores. Put it all together, and the risks of great-power conflict “are now non-negligible,” Sawers said, in a classic bit of British understatement.
A boy makes his way along the damaged streets of Douma, which international inspectors were due to visit today