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12 February 2018

The new age of great power politics

With China, India and Russia on the rise and Western confidence shaken, how should Britain navigate this new and dangerous world?

By John Bew

It was in 2004 that the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington – best known for his thesis about the coming “clash of civilisations” – coined the phrase “Davos man” to describe a “global superclass” of economic transnationals, many of whom convened at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland each January. These “dead souls”, who made their fortunes through the globalisation of the international economy, had “little need for national loyalty”, viewed state boundaries as “obstacles that thankfully are vanishing” and saw national governments as “residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”.

After the end of the Cold War, Davos man had every reason to think he was on the right side of history. He (or she) was likely to be a talented and successful individual, boasting skills for which there was a global demand. What concerned Huntington was the extent to which the Davos understanding of the world had captured the minds of many in the international political class, in a way that was incompatible with the worldviews of a large number of those whom they claimed to represent. This was particularly the case in the West, where elite faith in globalisation as the vehicle for domestic social progress and the soothing of tensions between great power rivals verged on the cultish. Away from Davos, most people still held on tenaciously to national or local identities that they felt were under threat. Thus began the malign creep of “unrepresentative democracy”, reflected in the growing divide between a cosmopolitan upper crust and the average voter, that would come back to bite before long. Even on home turf, the foundations of the “liberal international order” were not quite so strong as they seemed.

In 2016 – the year of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory – it was often said we were witnessing the beginnings of the end for Davos man, and the fraying of the liberal international order which was so central to his existence. No sooner had Brexit slapped him on one cheek than Trump delivered a forceful hook to his jaw. The magpie-like mind of Steve Bannon, before he fell from grace as the apostle of the Trumpian revolution, regurgitated an abridged version of Huntington’s script in his railing against the liberal international elite. The naked economic nationalism of the Trump presidential campaign and inauguration speech broke from decades of an American-led international consensus about the benefits of free trade.

Two of the nations that had evangelised most about the liberal international order, the United States and the United Kingdom, seemed to lose their faith in its durability (and perhaps even its desirability). Even many of those who continued to value the citadel that had been built after 1945 believed that it was time to raise the draw-bridge, fill the moat and man the ramparts. Citizens of nowhere – a phrase that Huntington adapted from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations before Theresa May’s speechwriters got their hands on it – had their notice served. Absent the US as its guarantor, what would this mean for the rules-based international system that was supposed to be the great offering of the post-Cold War Western Belle Époque?

At last year’s Davos meeting, in the teeth of Trump’s assault on many of these precious ideals, the globalist crown was momentarily placed atop the head of Xi Jinping of China. In his keynote address, the president quoted Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and rebuked the “America first” rhetoric emanating from across the Pacific. So it was left to the head of China’s Communist Party to make a spirited defence of the long-term benefits of economic globalisation in promoting harmony and prosperity across the world. This still left the position of “leader of the free world” vacant, given that Trump seemed to be breaking with decades of Western consensus, on issues from climate change to moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The title was first offered to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who demurred politely. She had not sought such responsibility and Germany had, in any case, much better things to spend its money on than the bottom-line Nato requirement for defence (2 per cent of GDP).

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Since then, with a general foreign policy malaise setting in among the other contenders, one could be forgiven for thinking that France’s Emmanuel Macron has been auditioning for the role by leading the way on climate change; developing a robust line on Russia; and getting out ahead on a range of issues from the Kurdish question, to the Gulf, and trade with China.

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Outside the West, to state the obvious, such manoeuvring seems rather less important. This year, Xi did not turn up at Davos, even if Chinese state media credited him for influencing the conference theme, “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”. Instead, he sent his right-hand man, the Harvard-educated economist Liu He, to represent him. Attendance figures tell a story about for whom Davos really matters. The country with by far the greatest presence was the United States, providing an astonishing 26.5 per cent of all delegates. Next came the UK, at 9 per cent, which was about the same number as India and China combined.

In lieu of Xi, this year President Trump was invited to deliver the most eagerly awaited speech of the forum. He made much of strong figures on the stock market, which hit record highs in his first year in office. Employment is another strong suit for Trumponomics, with a reported two million jobs created. The broader story is more complicated. Many are predicting a stock market wobble in the coming months. Overall growth has slowed, remaining shy of Trump’s own target of 3 per cent, let alone the 4 per cent that some electoral strategists think is essential to give him a chance of re-election. The stock market wobble that some feared was on the horizon has now begun and it is unclear where or when it will end. Nonetheless, the apparent robustness of the American economy is a reminder, if one was needed, that capitalism can smell pungent and appear grossly deformed, while being apparently full of vigour at the same time.

There is an ugly reality about the emerging new world order but it is a reality that must be confronted, nonetheless. As president, Trump has proved to be even more ogreish than he appeared on the campaign trail, notwithstanding the mild softening of tone in the recent State of the Union address. So many taboos and conventions have been broken (he recently traduced Britain’s NHS) that it is far from inevitable that future aspirants for high office will try to raise the bar back up again, as opposed to muddying themselves in an effort to
squirm under it.

At the same time, however, Trump has also succeeded in trapping many of his most vocal critics in a pantomime of his own creation. In a seemingly interminable weekly cycle, he sets the bait with some new puerile fulmination and watches as the outrage against him flashes and then burns out. There is a whiff of the Stanford Prison Experiment in the entrapment of the liberal mind. The great moment of contrition that followed the US presidential election – when liberals recognised the full scale of alienation of many voters and promised to try to “understand” their exasperation with established centre-left screeds – is in danger of passing by, leaving little more than a few faint lines in the sand, to be washed away as the tide of the next election cycle begins to come in.


The current political atmosphere does not lend itself to cool-headed deliberations on the future. The Western self-confidence that was so prevalent at the end of the Cold War has been replaced by an intellectual virus of internalised angst. Some of the weakening of the Western model of progress is self-inflicted; much of it is the product of immovable historical forces such as the rising population and wealth of Asia. It is right to take stock of these changes. But the pendulum should not swing so far the other way – that we see every development through the lens of decay and decline, or simply interpret the world solely through our own travails. 

Twelve months after Trump’s inauguration, it is fair to ask a broader question: what, in material terms, has changed in global politics in the first year of his presidency? The answer is that the world does not revolve around Trump, but he does embody a profound shift in the atmosphere. There is a sharpening of elbows (and, in some cases, knives) in many of the world’s most powerful capitals, with implications for prosperity and security. An age of relative equipoise between the world’s major powers is ebbing away into an era in which inter-state competition will be more nakedly pursued.

There are three principal theatres of great power competition where these trends are most pronounced. The first is the growing superpower tensions between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region. Talk of “peaceful rise” (the humbler version of Chinese statecraft associated with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao) or “co-existence” (an ideal for Sino-American relations preferred by Henry Kissinger) is no longer de rigueur. Instead, we have heard much about the so-called Thucydides trap where a rising and an established power collide, often leading to war.

This dynamic affects the foreign policies of every other actor in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Nations such as the Philippines and even Australia – both long-term allies of the United States – are forced to ask themselves whether they might be living in a world in which China is pre-eminent within a few decades. While China combines pressure and charm to influence traditional American allies, the United States renames the region the “Indo-Pacific” and has made it a strategic priority to deepen its alliance with India, the area’s other major rising power, with which it had poor relations during
the Cold War. 

The second region increasingly defined by heightened great power conflict is the Middle East. With the United States in retreat from the region, others have sought to fill the void, notably Russia and Iran. Both have acted decisively to assert their influence in micro-conflicts and civil wars, from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Yemen.

In response to the opportunism of their enemies, other actors are trying to claw back some advantage. This category includes Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a bloody civil war in neighbouring Yemen, from where missiles have already been fired at its capital, Riyadh, and where it sees the hand of Iran.

Turkey has also begun a military campaign in Syria against the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the Kurdish-Syrian group that has been emboldened by being the West’s most useful ally in the fight against Islamic State. Russia claims that Nato-supplied weapons have been used to attack Turkish troops. An estimated 90 per cent of Turks believe that the United States is encouraging Kurdish separatism in Turkey itself.

Third, and not least, major concerns about the security and stability of Europe have reached a level not seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Just as America sought to downgrade the importance of Europe as a strategic theatre, as it turned towards Asia-Pacific, so a resurgent Russia recognised the opportunity to press home its advantage in Europe. Increasingly, Moscow has exerted its weight in unconventional ways. This includes a concerted effort to pollute the Western democratic process and to master the “grey zones” on its traditional frontiers. This has been trailed effectively in Ukraine with maskirovka – tactics that include the use of proxies, masking, camouflage, deception and decoy operations, stopping short of open war. There is also evidence of growing interference in the Baltic states through hacking and concerted misinformation campaigns to stress-test Nato defences.


In some respects, the fundamental challenge facing Trump is very similar to that articulated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The current administration must rebalance America’s diplomatic and military priorities without leaving itself at a significant disadvantage as soon as it turns its head elsewhere.  

As such, the negativity towards Nato has been gradually toned down, even if Trump remains unmistakably grudging about the disproportionate burden placed upon America for European defence (much as his predecessors have been). Equally important, the “blob” (as the US foreign policy establishment has now become known) remains firmly resistant to Trump’s radicalism on America’s carefully constructed alliance system.

Last June, the US House of Representatives endorsed by an overwhelming margin (423 to 4 votes) a bipartisan resolution reaffirming the commitment of the United States to Nato’s Article 5, the collective defence clause that holds that an attack on one member is an attack on all. In September, the Senate also approved the sending of lethal aid to Ukraine – new defence contracts have already been signed off the back of this – which indicated an escalation of the counter-campaign against Russia there. In real terms, the US army has actually increased its footprint and investment in Europe over the last year, across the Nato frontier.

Another European fear about Trump has also yet to be realised. Much alarm was caused by his condemnation of the 2015 nuclear agreement reached between the P5+1 and the Iranian regime. Thus far, the deal remains in place. In late January, secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that he would send a delegation of state department officials to Europe to see if the terms could be improved. Without question, North Korea remains the challenge most likely to see the Trump era defined by war. The costs of a military intervention against the regime remain prohibitive on many levels, but there is growing evidence that the American national security machine (specifically the National Security Council) is seriously considering the idea of a “bloody nose” or “limited strike”.

And yet, at this juncture, when everything is stripped down to the bare bones, even some of Trump’s most forthright critics concede that he has been less of a disaster for the world than was initially feared. Notable among them is Eliot Cohen, a former Bush administration official who has been at the forefront of resistance to Trump within the Republican foreign policy establishment. In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Cohen suggests that Trump was lucky in 2017, in that he faced no major unexpected shocks for which his generals did not have a ready-made answer.

By this reasoning, says Cohen, we should not fall into the trap of thinking the president is wiser than he seems, or is playing out an astute strategy learned from the world of business. The so-called adults in the room (such as secretary of defence James Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster) were able to soften some of the jagged edges. The fall from grace of Steve Bannon deflated the more exaggerated goals of the “anti-globalist” agenda. Overall, however, Cohen suggests there was no evidence that Trump himself had matured into the role, or developed a more refined understanding of a complex world. The “reassuringly non-apocalyptic foreign policy” of year one was a “product of good fortune, not restraint”.


During his presidential campaign, one of Trump’s favourite mantras was that it was time for America to “start winning again”. This rather inchoate notion referred to a range of matters, from trade to foreign policy, in which he felt that the United States had lost its competitive advantage. As crude as the message was, it spoke to a growing status anxiety in the American psyche, which is spread much more widely than Trump’s narrow base. On both left and right, there have been countless laments about the “state of the nation” in recent years. Complaints about foreign policy failures are just one feature of this collective wail.

Such periods of introspection are part of the superpower experience. American soul-searching bears some comparison to Britain in the early 20th century when concerns about the future of the empire, and its ability to stay ahead of rising powers (Germany, Japan and the United States) and old rivals (such as Russia and France) began to set in. The “two power standard”, by which the Royal Navy was required to be equal in size to the two largest competitors combined, was unsustainable in the face of these pressures.

The perceived need to revive Britain’s competitive edge infected almost every act of social policy at home (on education and social care) while also encouraging a search for stronger diplomatic alliances, a reshaping of the armed forces, and new ideas on trade (such as a turn to protectionism and a break with decades of free trade orthodoxy).

It may well turn out that Trump is not only a blunt tool but a self-defeating one as America attempts to regain its lead in the great power contest. What matters, however, is that the starting gun on a new era of competition has been fired. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that the jostling for material and military advantage is already well under way and playing out in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and even closer to home.

Sharper minds than Trump’s have been wrestling with this new dispensation. The headline themes of the new US national security strategy, published before Christmas, were “principled realism” and a new emphasis on “competitive engagement” to recalibrate America’s place in the world. There was more emphasis on the connection between America’s economic interests and its security than there has been in the recent past, when it was presumed that the market would take care of itself.

This was followed in January by the new national defence strategy, which came from the Pentagon rather than the White House and was therefore not so tied to the figure of Trump. This declared that America was “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding”. In a break with the focus on terrorism and insurgent groups that has prevailed since 9/11, it is now asserted that “inter-state strategic competition” is the main challenge to the United States and its allies. China was singled out as a “strategic competitor” – using “predatory economics” to intimidate its neighbours, while the elevated threat levels posed by Russia, North Korea and Iran were also highlighted.


New strategies can only do so much by themselves, however. Nothing that emanates from the Western world can possibly match the scale and ambition of China’s “One Belt and One Road” initiative, announced by Xi Jinping in 2013. This huge infrastructure, investment and development programme aims to create a new land-based “Silk Road” across the Eurasian landmass and a maritime equivalent from south-east Asia through to the Mediterranean. While the merits and the related costs of the project are still debated, it is nothing if not a Chinese grand strategy to secure interests and decisive influence across a vast geographical expanse. Any response that hopes to wish away these huge geopolitical changes, or somehow roll them back, is doomed to failure. Likewise, if the West simply seeks to hold on to a fading version of the rules-based international order, without recognising the extent of the contest for its terms, it will be left holding an increasingly devalued cheque.

In essence, the defining question facing most Western states (and multi-state institutions such as the EU) is how to preserve their economic health and security in a world in which the odds are no longer stacked in their favour. This is why Britain needs to get its head out of the all-consuming business of Brexit if it is to give itself a chance of thriving in this changing world.

The first and most obvious response is to find a place for oneself in the new economic ecosystems emerging in Asia and seek a share of the wealth they are likely to generate. Alongside this, however, it must be understood that there are more than natural market forces in operation. Indeed, for all the talk about the growing transnational influence of major multinational companies – particularly the giants of tech – initiatives such as China’s new “Silk Road” underscore the fact that ultimate power still resides within the nation state.

“By definition, these roads can only be shared,” warned President Macron, on his mission to China at the start of 2018. “If they are roads, they cannot be one-way.”  For the same reason, despite talk of a “golden age” of Sino-British relations, Theresa May was also cautious about being seen to endorse the initiative during her most recent visit to Beijing.

Yet it seems inescapable that a hard-nosed assessment of economic interests is likely to be given more prominence, at the forefront of diplomacy and defence strategy, in the coming years. There is a danger that this may come at the expense of the emphasis on human rights that Western nations have sought (not always successfully and certainly not consistently) to insert into their foreign policies. One of the clues to the expansion of Chinese influence in south-east Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa, is that it is free of the type of legal and political constraints that often come with Western investment.

In keeping with the change of mood, the message from the Trump administration is that “aid” and “trade” are going to be weaponised more effectively in pursuit of the national interest. On the first, warnings have already been delivered to both Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority that continued funding from the US treasury depends upon showing greater amenability to American demands.

On the second, the administration is already seeking to counteract what it sees as “predatory trade policies” on intellectual property, tariffs and dumping. What is most feared – and some are predicting for 2018 – is a trade war between the US and China. Thus far, however, the retaliatory campaign has focused on key American allies. Recent targets have included the Canadian-owned wing of Boeing, and Samsung and LG washing machines from South Korea.


How to understand Britain’s role in this changing world? It remains in the UK’s fundamental national interest to see the preservation of a rules-based international order in which major conflict is avoided and trade flows freely. However, this requires more than clinging on forlornly to a crumbling status quo. It is not that great power competition ever went away following the end of the Cold War. It is more accurate to say that there was a clear hierarchy of power and authority, tilted decisively in favour of America and its allies, which is now being corroded. Some adjustment of posture is required.

Nor should it be assumed that the challenge of ensuring future prosperity and security rests simply on the outcome of Brexit negotiations alone. Whitehall is in the grip of a fierce battle about defence spending that is arguably far more important to Britain’s long-term standing in the world then cabinet squabbles over the customs union. A large “black hole” has emerged in the coffers, estimated at between £20bn and £30bn, prompting the Treasury to attempt to rein in what it sees as spiralling defence costs.

The military hierarchy has been stirred to action. On 22 January, General Nick Carter, the chief of the general staff, gave a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in which he warned about the growing threat from Russia, in particular: “The risk we run in not defining this clearly, and acting accordingly, is that rather like a chronic contagious disease it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained – and we’ll be the losers of this competition.” Within elements of the British national security stablishment, the trend in recent years has been to focus on the mitigation of risk – on cybersecurity, counterterrorism and the protection of critical national infrastructure. However, the durability of this narrower conception of national security is now grinding up against the type of great power competition being seen in the theatres of the world that matter most to British interests.

Stopping the enemy at the gates is not enough. While the focus on Russia is justified, there is a danger that such headlines blur the broader picture. As Carter went on to elaborate in his speech, Russian revanchism was just part of the story. “We now live in a much more competitive, multi-polar world and the complex nature of the global system has created the conditions in which states are able to compete in new ways, short of what we would have defined as ‘war’ in the past,” he said, referring to the American national defence strategy rolled out by James Mattis a few days earlier.

It was only in the post-Cold War era, when Britain’s foremost ally emerged triumphant and seemingly unrivalled, that national defence spending dropped from an average of 3 per cent of GDP. In a world where Britain will have more difficulty in keeping its voice heard, it is time to revisit this question. When May made a point of stressing Britain’s role in European defence at the outset of the Brexit negotiations, it was widely condemned as a crude tactic. In other parts of the world, it is regarded as less uncouth to talk about such ugly realities. In Asia, in particular, where Western nations are now clambering for advantage, the relationship between trade and security is seen more explicitly in terms of a quid pro quo. As the UK government has sought to lay the ground for enhanced post-Brexit trading relations “East of Suez” – with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others – these conversations have all been tied to closer collaboration on security and defence.

The impetus behind “global Britain”, the current rallying call at the Foreign Office, is to make it clear that the UK is not going to pull up the drawbridge and turn in on itself after Brexit. It is also a recognition that trade remains the lifeblood of national prosperity and that new markets must be found to balance against those (such as the single market) that might have higher bars for entry than in the past.

Yet, if “global Britain” is to be more than rhetoric, it will also depend on how the UK navigates an international system in which soft consensus – predicated on overwhelming Western power – is giving way to fiercer competition. This may require more hard choices and risk-taking than we have grown used to in recent times, along with the recognition that the rules-based international order is not a permanent gift from God, but a product of historical contingency.

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry