As Donald Trump learns the ropes of the presidency, a dangerous world of three boiling regional caldrons awaits. This is the first in a series of columns on our dangerous world: one on regions, another on the challenge of Russia, one that focuses on the multiple threats from the Middle East, and the final one addressing the rise of China and provocations from the dark shadowland of North Korea. To set the stage, we address today’s dangerous world of regions.
To put it simply, and paraphrase the Feb. 1 testimony to Congress of John McLaughlin, a former CIA official: The post-World War II international order made by the United States is being unmade. It was made up of a global bipolar strategic standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, a rivalry held in check by their mutual horror of the vast arsenal of nuclear weapons they both possessed. There were regional conflicts aplenty — like in Korea, Vietnam, and the Iran-Iraq War — but the two nuclear superpowers did not confront each other directly, for fear of triggering a war of devastation neither could survive. The one time they did, in the Cuban Missiles Crisis in October, 1962, the world came so close to a nuclear holocaust that the two powers redoubled their efforts to keep clear of each other.
Indeed, crises of one kind or another became the hallmark of a Cold War that lasted from 1947 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. But these crises were diffused by a diplomacy simplified by the political calculations of just two major powers, rather than being undermined by the complexities of previous multipolar global systems. Thus, in the words of Harvard political scientist Sam Huntington, the Cold War had several Third World Wars, but never erupted into the flames of a World War III.
Sadly, that geopolitical stability is no more. It is ironic that shortly after the end of the Cold War, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer warned that we would soon become nostalgic for this stability because the international system was descending to the multipolar world from 1648 to 1945 that “bred one disastrous conflict after another.” Today, these disastrous conflicts, so far, are regional ones, but without the bipolar international system to keep them in check. This lack opens up the dangerous possibility that regional conflicts begun locally can draw in larger powers into direct confrontations that may well trigger a real World War III. We are endangered by three such regional triggers.
The first comes from a much diminished, though still nuclear-armed, Russia that has emerged from the former Soviet Union with a newfound passion to reclaim its “proper” role on the world stage. Moscow’s call for a post-Western world is a direct challenge to Washington and its European allies by striving to create a wedge between the U.S. and the alliances that tie Europe and North America into an Atlantic community. To drive this wedge deeper, Russia has swallowed up Crimea, is supporting a crippling civil war in the Ukraine and is in the process of pushing the U.S. out of Syria. At some point, the U.S. must either take up the Russians on their dares or risk leaving Israel, and even our European allies, in the lurch.
Overflowing from this lurch, the second trigger arises from the multilevel series of “one disastrous conflict after another” in the Middle East that are too numerous to list here. The meta-conflict in this troubled region is a struggle within the religion of Islam over its response to Western modernization, whether the accommodation of moderates or the rejection of radicals. The avoidance of a major war — from terrorists, to mass Sunni/Shia slaughters, to even a regional nuclear one — depends on a moderate victory. For America, this is a dangerous challenge to take up, but an even more dangerous one to ignore.
Finally, China’s 35-year economic rise has now morphed into a military bid for regional hegemony that aims to displace the United States from any security role in Asia. The prospect of such dominance strikes fear among Washington’s allies of Japan and South Korea and friends in Southeast Asia, as well as India. Meanwhile, the rogue regime of North Korea is on the cusp of posing a direct nuclear threat to the American homeland.
McLaughlin concluded his testimony with the warning that: “We are witnessing a diffusion of power among nations,” but the United States will remain the most influential power in the international system. Thus, he contends, no problem can be solved without it.