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The new world disorder

A new binary of opposing powers has emerged, with the forces of chaos ranged against the West.

By Robert D Kaplan

Forget multipolarity. A worldwide, ­bipolar military conflict has begun. It will unfold in stages, feature hot war in certain places for extended periods of time, and cold war in other places and times. It will be the organising principle of geopolitics for years to come. It is not a “clash of civilisations” as the late Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington put it in the early 1990s, but it is a clash: a clash of broad value systems that, while emerging out of national cultures and age-old traditions, are essentially modern and postmodern in their origins.

It is a bipolar struggle that combines the global war on terrorism with great-power conflict. Rather than the latter supplanting the former – as the conventional wisdom had observed – following the end of America’s post-9/11 Middle East wars and Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two dramas now run together. One side of this bipolar world features gangster states such as Russia and North Korea; totalitarian states such as China and, again, North Korea; a revolutionary and ­terrorist state such as clerical Iran, with all of its proxies in the Middle East; and a movement that is at once age-old, industrial and post-industrial: anti-Semitism. These enemies of the West are more formidable and nihilistic than the old Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s China.

The Soviet leaders, who, because they had survived both Stalin’s purges and then the Second World War, were generally risk-averse in their actions. When they weren’t, they paid a price. Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba in late 1962, leading to a crisis with Washington in which he ultimately had to back down, and was ousted from the Soviet leadership two years later. Leonid Brezhnev’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan accelerated the collapse of the Soviet system altogether.

As for Mao, with all of his atrocities against his own people in the 1950s through to the early 1970s, he could be a rational actor in foreign affairs. The current crop of villains constitute a more unstable human element than what the West faced during the Cold War, when the rigid Marxist-Leninist ideology of our adversaries often made their thinking more predictable.

Brothers in arms: a placard protesting deliveries of Iranian drones to Russia shows Vladimir Putin and Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Kyiv, 2022. Photo by Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

These new villains are all interlocked. Russia, through its Wagner mercenary group, threatens to send an air-defence system to help Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, fight Israel on the Israel-Lebanese border. Russia’s new military alliance with Iran, established in recent months, which garners materiel and drones for Moscow in its war against Ukraine, makes President Vladimir Putin a de facto ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, against Israel. North Korea is also sending arms to Moscow, which it uses in its war on Ukraine, even as China backs Russia and benefits from the distraction of Hamas’s attack on Israel. This is how the Ukraine and Gaza wars are connected.

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In all of this, we in the West should be careful how we label our own side. It is not the world of democracies, not only because something such as anti-Semitism has, as it has always done, rooted itself inside democracies, but because our own side also includes conservative and reactionary autocracies in the Arabian Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere – all of which stand for the regional status quo and oppose regime changes throughout the region.

In fact, this is a bipolar struggle between status quo powers and movements who want to topple the existing post-Cold War order, whether by territorial acquisition such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or like China’s possible attempt in the future to integrate Taiwan, or by the eradication of an entire people – the goal of Iran’s coalition regarding Israel. Order versus disorder. That is what this still-emerging world conflict is finally about.

[See also: This Christmas, it is hard to watch as our ancestral lands fragment]

During the Second World War, the Nazis and Japanese fascists attempted to replace a relatively orderly world, one mostly defined by the post-First World War peace treaties, with revolutionary mass murder, military conquest and extremism. The West’s Cold War adversaries were cautious by comparison. We are, therefore, in a new geopolitical age which, its great differences notwithstanding – contrasting with industrial slaughter on battlefields, the Holocaust and collapsing empires – is somewhat more reminiscent of the violent upheaval between 1939 and 1945 than the relatively pacific interregnum that followed.

In geopolitical terms, the struggle is also between the Eurasian Heartland powers of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, and the Rimland powers that are essentially maritime, with some variations, such as the US, Europe, the Indo-Pacific, Israel and the conservative Sunni Arab powers from the Gulf to the Red Sea and Mediterranean. These are geographical distinctions about which I wrote in my book, The Revenge of Geography (2012).

Yet, given how technology has compressed geography, creating through digital media a global platform for performance politics, the new bipolar confrontation is better understood as a war of ideas with geopolitical and military ramifications.

The Heartland and Rimland divisions are just too abstract to capture the ways in which global order is becoming disordered. Anti-Semitism does capture it, since in its latest iteration it has been ignited by the war between Israel and Hamas and has since spiked throughout the West, as well as in the Russian empire and China. Witness the pogrom-like riot in the Russian republic of Dagestan in late October in response to the arrival of a flight from Israel, and the attacks on Jews on Chinese social media helped by Beijing’s pro-Palestine position.

Anti-Semitism has deep historical associations. The term evokes hatred of Jews in medieval Europe, pogroms against Jews in Russia’s Pale of Settlement before and around the turn of the 20th century, and culminates in the Nazi Holocaust. The Holocaust, in particular, has given anti-Semitism an industrial-age aura, with converging railway tracks as a signature of both the industrial age and of trains transporting Jews to death camps.

But anti-Semitism can be post-industrial, too, with new associations and forms of communication, even when wrapped around an old territorial dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, as when Hamas terrorists used GoPro cameras to record their slaughter of Jewish men, women, children and the elderly on 7 October. That was nihilism, violent Jew hatred, postmodern performance politics and Iranian grand strategy all at once.

Israel stands at the heart of this global geopolitical war. That is because Israel, it seems, won’t waver. Israel is not the Biden administration giving the Ukrainians just enough aid and weaponry to wear down the Russians, but not enough to win outright. It is not China’s President Xi Jinping, biding his time about if and when to make a dramatic move to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence. It is not even Iran that probably seeks all the benefits of being a threshold nuclear power without actually using a bomb.

Israel, however much its national-unity government may be divided behind the scenes, and however much its population may be divided about the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is absolutely united about the need to eventually destroy Hamas.

The destruction of Hamas, which probably lies many weeks and months in the future, will have unpredictable aftershocks. The ferocity of the air and ground war in a crowded, urban environment, over an extended period of time, will anger populations in the streets of Cairo, Baghdad, Amman, and other places. This will have second-order effects on conservative Arab regimes that privately hope for Hamas’s destruction, but must proclaim the opposite in public. The visit of Iran’s president to Saudi Arabia on 11 November manifests a surface, momentary unity only.

If given enough weeks of intense warfare in Gaza, with Hamas’s destruction a possibility, Iran may feel it has no choice but to unleash Hezbollah in the north of Israel. Ultimately, the shadow war between Israel and Iran – which includes Israel’s industrial sabotage of Iranian nuclear materiel and its suspected assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists – may ignite into a full-scale conflict.

[See also: The new authoritarian personality]

I advance this theory mainly because the very intimacy and horror of 7 October, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed in such gruesome circumstances, may have shifted Israeli calculations about Iran in a more decisive direction towards eventual military action.

Over time, as Israel comes close to defeating Hamas, as the Middle East rocks as a consequence, as the Iranian regime becomes more desperate and the war in Ukraine continues to weaken the Russian empire as a whole, our momentary darkness may dissipate. For our enemies are in perilous condition.

For example, the Ukraine war may just be a curtain-raiser for ugly unrest elsewhere across Russia, where Siberian republics such as Buryatia and Tuva have provided troops for Ukraine, and have died in proportionally much greater numbers than ethnic Russians from places such as Moscow. The Russian empire, as this stalemate in Ukraine grinds on, may sooner or later start to crumble.

As for Iran, clerical rule there rests on a narrow base of support. Iran has been likened to a country of 88 million South Koreans ruled by a clique of North Koreans. Last year there were significant anti-government demonstrations, calling for the downfall of the ayatollahs. Yet they were not the first: 2009, 2017, 2018 and 2019 saw large anti-regime uprisings.

There is a long way from protests to true political upheaval. But it was nationwide demonstrations that toppled the Shah’s regime in 1979. We have to be able to imagine a post-revolutionary system in Iran, or at least the kind of instability that starts to immobilise the existing power structure. An event from outside, such as a successful Israeli or Israeli-American attack on Iranian nuclear and missile facilities, may help do just that.

We are now in a world where one crisis prompts a chain reaction with another, and leads eventually to dynamic change in geopolitics. This is sometimes called a “polycrisis”. But that term doesn’t quite suggest the rumbling military instability that is starting to take place. Of course, this has periodically been the case in history, but now – because of communications technology in all of its manifestations – the pace of events has accelerated.

The Second World War actually began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, though it didn’t begin in earnest until the German attack on Poland in 1939. It was a process that eventually lasted 14 years. War is not a continuous battle. It can start and stop, and then start again. The Israel-Gaza war will end with a Middle East transformed, which will then have subsequent, often violent repercussions. As for Russia, battlefield stalemates do come to an end, and when that happens Russia will find itself weaker in the Caucasus, Central Asia and points further east than it has been in decades.

Looming behind all of this is the US-China conflict over Taiwan, which if it ever becomes violent could unravel financial markets and supply chains all at once, to say nothing of its specific high-end military effects. Russia and Iran are in terminal decline, even as China’s economic waning can lead to more disruptive nationalism. The United States has its own domestic problems. Only in the sense of the great powers being in decline, albeit at different rates, can we talk of a fundamentally unstable, multipolar world that has nothing to do with the deceptive order implied by the United Nations, the G20 or the Global South. For the foreseeable future, geopolitics will essentially be bipolar, and frighteningly so.

Robert D Kaplan is an author and foreign correspondent. His latest book is “The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China” (Random House)

[See also: When is an empire not an empire?]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special