Why a Great Power Conflict is More Likely than You Think
The Pax Neoliberica is ending and great power competition is returning.
The immediate post-Cold War period had commentators herald the start of a new age where “history was at an end” and where the global triumph of liberal democracy as the final form of human government was inevitable. These claims were mistaken. Not only has great power competition returned, but the risk of conflict has increased significantly over the past few years. This is because of psychological exhaustion from the Covid-19 pandemic, poor American and Western leadership, and a window of opportunity that the West’s enemies may view as one which requires them to act on with haste.
Disclaimer: The Polybius report uses Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase an item through these links, I earn a small comission. This comes at no further expense to you.
While China’s aims in Taiwain and Russia’s in Ukraine hog considerable media attention, the possibility of war almost never crosses the mind of the average American. We are so used to this period of peace that we would be forgiven for thinking that the outbreak of a new war is as impossible as the sun rising in the west. At best, we view war as an activity on the margins, practiced by the 1% of Americans in the military in faraway lands, with little consequence to everyday life at home.
Under the sway of the Pax Americana, one might have been blissfully mistaken in thinking that the nations of the world had finally come to obey an iconic passage in Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, where he mused on the future of mankind:
123 Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
124 From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
125 Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
126 With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;
127 Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
128 In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
129 There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
130 And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
It is appropriate to bring up 19th century letters in this discussion, because it too, was a time of peace, prosperity, and optimism. It is also a warning for us. Our record of “long peace” is actually shorter than the post-Napoleonic peace of the 19th century. Yes, there were more frequent and more violent interruptions during that period, as seen in the Crimean War and the Wars of Italian and German Unification, but these interruptions were brief in time, and limited in scope. They were more akin to the Korean War from 1950-53 than World War II. No general, widespread conflict involving all of the great powers of the day took place between the defeat of Napoleon and World War I.
Like now, the 19th century was a period of globalization, and economic integration. Some accounts of the time postulated that this economic integration, and the tremendous cost involved in fighting modern wars, would make conflict ruinously expensive if it were carried out for too long, or indeed, if it came at all. Consider 1910’s The Great Illusion by Norman Angell:
Angell even won the 1911 Nobel Peace Prize for his work!
And yet, the guns of August 1914 quickly shattered those great illusions. Great power strife was not only possible, but could last a long time, and with more destruction than ever imagined. The 19th century’s characteristic optimism vanished by 1918. Radical ideologies, nihilism, the destruction of faith, and a yearning for the hedonistic pleasure of the 1920s took their place.
That optimism has still not yet truly recovered, although it came close at the end of the last century, during the 1990s, when optimism that history was at an end abounded.
Yet, the 1990s proved not to be the end of history, where the “the battle-flags were furl'd” and agreement reached that liberal democracy was the best and final form of human government. Rather, it proved a historical anomaly, a transition point from one period of competition to another.
This transition came thanks in no small part to misguided policy on the part of the post-Cold War American ruling class, which empowered the Chinese economy, and depleted the United States military in wasteful Middle Eastern adventures in the name of spreading democracy to stop terrorism. The effort proved nothing more than an imperial overreach. Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban in August 2021, after 20 years of costly international investment, was the final mockery of President George W. Bush’s Wilsonian fever dream.
As 2020 made so very clear, the Pax Americana is crumbling. The world is returning to the historical norm, which is a multipolarity of powerful states and civilizations competing for advantage in an anarchical international system.
There is always an inherent danger in this. When the dominant power in the international system begins to show signs of weakness, opportunistic powers will usually take advantage. This may also relate to the so-called Thucydides Trap, where the dominant power feels threatened by a rising power, and so is pressured to fight to protect its security.
These are, however, more abstract reasons as to the threat of renewed great power conflict. Why, in the early days of 2022, is the risk of a great power conflict elevated compared to the recent past?
To answer that, we first need to look at the changing balance of power, which poses a chronic risk of conflict. Only then can we look at the reasons why an elevated risk of war exists on an acute level in 2022.
Chronic Risk: The Changing Material Balance of Power
When it comes to the physical balance of power, the scales are still tipped in favor of the United States, though not to the extent they once were.
The United States has by far the more formidable network of alliances. China, the principal rising power, also lags far behind in submarine technology, a disparity which has only grown with the advent of the “AUKUS” submarine deal of 2021. This agreement, which Beijing howled loudly about, is crucial to power projection in the region, as submarines are as yet immune to China’s formidable anti-access/area denial missile network. This ensures that the United States and its allies still have reliable platforms which can deliver military force throughout the Chinese interior.
Further away from mainland China, the picture is even less rosy. China’s current aircraft carriers are not up to par with their American counterparts, lacking catapults. China does plan to create two more (one is near completion), with catapults. However, it is questionable (in the short term at least) if these will even have aircraft to operate with. Furthermore, China has no real experience with a blue water navy. In fact, it has not been a formidable sea power since the days of Zheng He.
On land, the situation is not much better. China has the world’s largest army, but, like its navy, it is not up to American standards. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army has not seen real combat in over 40 years. Its last major operation was a 1979 debacle in Vietnam.
To put it simply, China is still militarily contained within the first island chain, though its defensive missile network there makes American operations in that area increasingly dangerous.
This is not to underestimate China. The gap is closing. Its military power will continue to increase, and it may be ahead of the United States in hypersonic missile technology. Russia is almost certainly ahead. At the moment, however, the material balance of power still favors the United States.
Meanwhile, the other major military force, Russia, is of far less consideration, despite its overall lead in hypersonic missile technology.
Unlike China, Russia does not threaten to change the present international order on a unilateral basis. In other words, it does not threaten to become the ruling power or hegemon, unlike in the First Cold War. Russia’s power will continue to decline over time. It remains an influential regional power in Eastern Europe and to a lesser extent, the Middle East, but its ability to project power far beyond its borders is limited.
Nevertheless, American policymakers wouldn’t be wise to become arrogant. Washington’s own supremacy has eroded. America cannot project power in all theaters at once to the same extent that it used to. Although China and Russia cannot have a viable long-term alliance, both powers seek to further undermine American hegemony, and will sometimes work in concert to do so.
The reality is that America will increasingly need to concentrate forces in Asia to counter a growing China. With Europe continually refusing to invest in its own security, Russia will have a wider window to exert what power it can in its immediate neighborhood, though its aspirations to regional hegemony remain farfetched.
The simultaneous pressure by Russia toward Ukraine and China toward Taiwan is not random. It is a preview of the future. In a theoretical two-front attack on both Taiwan and Ukraine, it is likely that America will have to prioritize one or the other, even now. Taiwan will almost certainly be prioritized.
Therefore erosion of America’s relative material power poses a sustained, lower-level risk of causing a new conflict, as competitors seek to take advantage. However, American morale is decaying far more rapidly, and this adds much greater risk on top of the baseline.
Acute Risk #1: Weak Morale
In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter. - Napoleon
This quote accurately sums up the strategic situation.
The Chinese Communist Party probably did not unleash the Sars-CoV-2 virus intentionally, but once it was out, Xi Jinping quickly saw the opportunity to weaponize it. This weaponization came not in the material factor (the virus is not severe enough to be an effective biological weapon), but in the morale and information department.
Chinese videos of hazmat-suited men walking the streets of Wuhan with disinfectant in January 2020 came with the purpose of scaring the world into believing a new Spanish Flu was at hand. When the Chinese regime locked Wuhan down, it set a narrative in motion: China knew the best way to control the spread of the virus, which was super dangerous.
Foolish Western elites then made the mistake of taking China’s information for the truth. Chinese advisors heavily influenced Italy’s decision to lock down in March 2020, and the dominoes fell from there. At the same time, Chinese social media trolls were also active in fighting for the lockdown narrative. One of their notable targets was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was a lockdown skeptic at the time. He would later be converted into a lockdown hardliner. Many others would follow.
Thus, China, through disinformation that it “suppressed” the virus through the Wuhan lockdown, and its connections to Western elites and institutions like Imperial College, turned ahistorical lockdowns, and their other associated “mitigation” measures like masks and vaccine passports, into accepted “science.”
The “mitigations” failed, but they succeeded in frightening Western populations and dividing an already divided and polarized society.
Chinese leaders have long considered Western civilization decadent and in decline. One passage penned by Jiang Shi-gong, a Chinese political philosopher at Peking University Law School and quoted in The Spectator, sums up this belief:
The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony, which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.
The current world empire is “the world empire established by England and the United States.” In other words it is a version of global order which originates from Huntington’s Western civilization in general, and the Anglosphere in particular. Yet, Jian believes that this model is fraying under the weight of its own internal inconsistencies thanks to:
Three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy…ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism.’
America and the wider world’s response to the virus will have only reinforced this belief among the Chinese leadership. Willingly and gleefully, American and other Western elites destroyed their own economies (if not their stock markets) and immiserated their already immiserated working populations. They also sowed chaos, discord, and the worst social unrest in half a century. Even more ominously, they proved that they care not a wit for the “human rights” they supposedly champion. By implementing a biomedical security state that more resembles China than their own cultural and political heritage, they betrayed their own attitudes about their constituents. They have put their duplicity and incompetence in plain view, becoming increasingly desperate to cling on to power, further enraging the populations of their nations.
As a result, America, and Western civilization more broadly is, to quote Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: “poorer, weaker, and more humiliated” than at any other time in living memory.
These are ripe conditions for bold, militaristic moves, for Chinese competitors to make their model “the heart of world empire,” according to Jian.
It is at least questionable that a divided America with low-morale can adequately respond in force to a Chinese move on Taiwan or other targets, especially when accounting for the “tyranny of distance.” How would an already distrusted American leadership class be able to sell a fight for far-off Taiwan to an already war-weary, covid-weary, demoralized, and divided population?
Sun-Tzu, whose influence on Chinese military strategy remains as strong as ever, anticipated the present situation perfectly:
A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.
Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy - this is the art of retaining self-possession.
To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the enemy is famished - this is the art of husbanding one’s strength (Sun Tzu, VIII.29-31).
And on the necessity of a union between sovereign and populace, Sun Tzu said:
The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.
These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.
The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by danger (Sun Tzu, I.3-5).
The sovereign imbued with the Moral Law will prevail. It is one of the seven considerations where Sun Tzu said he could forecast victory or defeat (Sun Tzu I. 12-14).
Do these passages not sum up the present weakness of America and Western civilization?
This is why I count the hysterical Covid-19 response as the most successful feat of information warfare ever recorded. Without firing a physical shot, China destabilized the one nation still capable of preventing its return to what its leadership sees as its traditional status, that of the “Middle Kingdom,” the center of the world. Its success in this made Xi Jinping’s goal of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power, far more attainable. The recapture of Taiwan is central to this “Chinese Dream,” by virtue of national prestige, its advanced computer chip industry, and its strategic position at the center of the First Island Chain.
Though an amphibious attack would still come at great risk, there is now a window of opportunity that did not exist in 2019, with a morally weak America and a leadership lacking in the “Moral Law.”
Russia’s calculations, involving its own neighborhood and its attempts to reestablish the Soviet borders, are likely similar.
This brings me to the second big item as to why we are at greater risk of a renewed great power conflict in the year 2022.
Acute Risk #2: Weak Leadership
That the Biden administration lacks the “Moral Law” is an understatement. A year in, it is overwhelmingly clear that this administration is completely, utterly, and unequivocally incompetent. In matters foreign and domestic, from the Oval Office to the lowest level staffer, this administration is a disaster. Everyone knows it, too.
Vladimir Putin’s comments about Biden’s health anticipated his buildup in Ukraine. He signaled that this was a man he clearly had no respect for or fear of. Recently, he followed up on this signal by threatening to send Russian troops to Cuba and Venezuela, in direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine. He may or may not wind up doing this, but that he would even suggest it reveals his calculations about the current balance of power.
Xi Jinping has been characteristically less overt, but his increasingly provocative moves don’t suggest much respect for the Biden administration.
These attitudes have only been heightened by the disastrous execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal in the summer of 2021. Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban in the span of a few weeks, after over 20 years of investment, not only exposed decades-long lies from Washington, but revealed the ineptitude of the present administration.
Early in 2021, Vladimir Putin mobilized against Ukraine, but stood down. The current mobilization, beginning in late 2021, is far more robust. Meanwhile, China has expanded its grey-zone operations against Taiwan, repeatedly breaking records in the number and intensity of intrusions into its air defense identification zone.
Biden has not only lost the respect of enemies under his watch. America’s alliances are also straining, contradicting his campaign claims that he was a foreign policy expert that would fix Donald Trump’s supposed failures in this area.
As a result of events in Afghanistan, Biden now has the dubious distinction of being a United States President held in contempt by the British Parliament, losing the confidence of America’s closest ally. His government has also demonstrated its inability to prevent European allies from agreeing to an investment agreement with China. The agreement only met defeat in the European Parliament because of Chinese sanctions on members of that body who were critical of the communist regime, and for that regime’s human rights abuses. American influence had nothing to do with it. With the Biden administration’s limiting of American energy and its lifting of sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic, Germany and the rest of Europe will become even more dependent on Russian natural gas, as they shut down their nuclear reactors and phase out coal, giving America even less leverage.
Relations with India came under stress in April 2021 with its covid surge and American vaccine withholding. Japan, meanwhile, long weary of China’s growing military power, has lost confidence in Biden. It is now redoubling its efforts at offensive rearmament.
The previous section brought up the concept of the “Moral Law” on the American home front. Appropriately, this section asks the question internationally. Can this administration rally the American people and the world? Will an already weary public be prepared for war, especially with THIS "leadership?"
The answer is far more in doubt than in the past. Xi and his allies have likely calculated accordingly.
Acute Risk #3: Scarcity of Time
Though China’s power rises, it is still far from certain that Xi Jinping’s ambition of seeing it emerge as the dominant world power in 2049 will be fulfilled. China has several ticking time bombs. Ironically, 2049 is about the date when these time bombs are likeliest to go off.
In the first place, China has enormous demographic problems in both age, and sex. Its working-age population peaked in 2017. Its total population may have already peaked and will start declining long before 2049. Due to the legacy of the one child policy, it suffers from a tremendous sex imbalance, with up to 30 million men not being able to find wives. Among destabilizing influences in society, these sex imbalances are often the worst. This is why the demand for foreign women is skyrocketing and the country is becoming a haven for human traffickers.
There is no easy way out of this predicament for the Chinese regime.
The Chinese economy is also not all it’s cracked up to be. Evergrande is only the tip of the iceberg in China’s underlying economic challenges. We are all by this point aware of China’s ghost cities and empty shopping malls. Much of the Chinese economy is based on fraudulent statistics. China’s debt overhang is enormous and its GDP per capita far below the West.
Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s recent crackdown on many of China’s tech billionaires could prove a long-term detriment to its prospects in the tech war, which some commentators believed it had to that point been winning. The increasing presence of Communist Party officials in supposedly private companies is likely to produce similar results. Politicized economies do not fare well.
China also faces problems of a more fundamental nature. The country, at present, is becoming increasingly dependent on food imports from the United States. This trend will likely continue, given the demographic problems pointed out above. China’s rural labor force is shrinking. Meanwhile, China’s ghost cities have reduced the availability of arable farm land. China’s water resources are also disappearing. The Yangtze River, which 460 million people depend on and which powers over a third of China’s GDP, is losing water at a rate of 0.8 inches every five years. Over 1,000 lakes along the river’s course have dried up as well. Beijing and other wealthy northern cities depend on the river for water.
Though China claims that it can feed itself, Xi Jinping hinted at the problem when he lambasted Chinese citizens for wasting food.
China is likely to continue buying foreign farm land (including in the United States) to attempt to solve this problem, but there is no guarantee of success in such a strategy, and it provides foreign nations with significant leverage over China’s security.
Historically, food and water insecurity are prime causes for war. If Xi or his successors believe they must annex land (or vital sea lanes) to make China food secure, the risk of conflict obviously grows.
A look at World War I also informs us of the risks. One of the reasons that Germany decided to give Austria-Hungary its infamous “blank check” in 1914 was because Berlin’s war planners feared a Russian Empire which was rebounding from its defeat by Japan a decade before. Russia grew in industrial power and railroad capability over that decade, to the point that the Germans thought that Russia would be too strong to defeat by 1917. So, the logic went, if fight they must, they should fight in 1914, rather than three years later.
It is true that China’s military, and particularly its navy, should get more capable over time. China’s improvement in missile and satellite technology would also be a countervailing force, affording Beijing’s war planners more opportunity to wait. However, the economic and demographic problems will also creep up as the military balance improves, leaving China with less room to dictate terms. Further, if the economy slows significantly, the possibility grows that some Chinese leaders will see Taiwan’s capture as necessary to further justify Communist Party rule, to convince the Chinese populace that it has not lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”
Are these considerations something that war planners in Washington are preparing for, or are they more concerned with enforcing uniformity and wokeness in the United States military?
Acute Risk: #4 Biden’s Own Weakness
So far, we have discussed the calculations of rising rivals, eager to assert themselves in the face of crumbling American hegemony. The current President of the United States, crumbling physically and mentally before our eyes, is a perfect example of this situation.
With his breaking of his campaign promise to “shut down the virus” and restore normalcy, his unpopular agenda, and his lack of a natural voting base, it is not surprising that his approval rating is likely in the 30s. Week after week, the Biden presidency seems to be taking another loss. Already, many Democrats (over 50% according to some polls) don’t want him to run again. His disapproval among independents, Hispanics, and college-educated whites in particular is devastating to a reelection bid if he doesn’t get in gear quickly. His status among the American people is low, his authority disappearing. Worse, he has few prospects of a potential rebound. The one thing he can do - encourage the end of post-vaccine covid restrictions and the biomedical security state - is the one thing his administration steadfastly refuses to do. Beyond that, he has simply lost the confidence and respect of the American people.
In such a weak position, the chance of his acting rashly in an attempt to preserve his honor, and to look, “tough,” grows. This is especially so against Vladimir Putin, who is still a locus of the Democratic base’s neuroses, following the Trump-Russia collusion hoax.
“Wag the dog” is of old fare and I don’t believe it will be in play as a political tactic. The American people are simply too war weary and divided for it to be of much use.
What the Biden administration will not tolerate, however, is a further erosion of their already tenuous hold on respect, and perceptions of competence.
As such, the chance for miscalculation and rashness grows. If Xi, or more particularly Putin - who the Democratic base has special loathing for - were to make further moves in Ukraine or elsewhere, the Biden administration may feel greater pressure to act, escalating tensions out of otherwise benign situations, or miscalculating and making rash moves of their own, in an attempt to preserve whatever veneer of competence they still have left. The loss of face on the international stage is bad enough and historically a prime cause for war, but a government embattled on the home front only faces that much more pressure to make sure it does not happen.
Given all of these factors, it is possible that Xi Jinping will calculate that the United States and the West will not attempt to stop him with military force, and will impose economic sanctions only. These would admittedly be severe, but with China’s still-strong leverage over crucial supplies, there is more room to fight back against them. Russia is much more vulnerable in this area, although with Europe’s insistence on making itself more energy-dependent on Russia due to misguided climate policies, it too, is in a more vulnerable state than in the past.
Will Xi Jinping care or not? With history on his mind and significant leverage at the moment, he may not. He may conclude that it’s now or never and that China will never get another chance like this again. Vladimir Putin, with less leverage, will likely be more circumspect. Xi’s own decisions will influence Putin’s calculation of his window of opportunity greatly.
Will renewed great power conflict happen in the next few years? I do not believe so. It is far from inevitable. Nevertheless, the risk has increased significantly since 2019. We see again what Sun Tzu meant when he said that true excellence could be found in subduing the enemy without fighting. That has to a large extent happened.
What does America need now? In the first place, new leadership as quickly as possible. In the longer-term, America should embark on a new preparedness movement, similar to the movement Theodore Roosevelt led in 1915-16, which sought to strengthen the United States military, and provide civilians with military training, who would then act as reserves. This would do much to reimbue the martial virtues in a population that desperately needs them. In the long run, both of these things would do much to restore American morale.
Finally, America and its allies must use every possible option to reshore crucial supply chains, punish corporations that empower the Chinese economy, confiscate vital Chinese assets in their own countries (especially farmland), cut the Chinese Communist Party out of emerging technological networks (so that they cannot become monopolists in the area, as is their goal), and strengthen military and economic bonds in a “Quad-Plus” or “D10” framework. All of this will be necessary to strengthen containment and deterrence.
This will require energetic new leadership and years of bipartisan commitment. We have seen some steps in this direction, but it is far from clear if this will occur in the time frame needed. Nevertheless, it must be done, if the threat of war is to recede. America and the entire free world must realize that we are in a new Cold War environment, a new state of great power competition, and that the post-Cold War party is over. History continues.