Ukraine, Taiwan… behind the theaters of clashes, “the return of competition between great powers”

Invasion of Ukraine, tensions between China and the United States around Taiwan, friction between Turkey and Greece over control of the Aegean Sea… the theaters of confrontation and escalation between powers seem to be multiplying these last month. To this list can be added that of countries consumed for many years by ever-reignited interstate conflicts, Iraq on the brink of civil war, Afghanistan which has fallen back into the hands of the Taliban, the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the Tigray region in Ethiopia…. Or Syria, where the civil war has killed nearly 500,000 people in ten years according to a count by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. For Elie Tenenbaum, director of the Center for Security Studies at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri), the resurgence of tensions on a global scale is symptomatic of a geopolitical recomposition in a world where the hegemony to which claimed the United States, and more broadly Westerners, after the Cold War is no longer self-evident. Questioned by Public Senate, this specialist in defense issues and military history evokes “the return of competition between great powers” and its consequences on other States, for some already undermined by old regional conflicts.

Can we speak of a renewed tension in the world or is it a magnifying glass effect, insofar as defense concerns have taken center stage in the West since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine ?

“International relations evolve, observe cycles. That of the post-Cold War ends. For about thirty years, the United States was the dominant power, resulting in a mostly asymmetrical conflictuality. The wars – at least those likely to involve Westerners – were mainly linked to fragile states marked by political instability or the threat of groups resorting to terrorism or guerrilla warfare, but there were no longer any real conflicts. between great powers. However, since the beginning of the 2000s, we have been witnessing, under the effect of globalization, a phenomenon of economic and technological catch-up. China, in particular, has multiplied its GDP by ten in twenty years. This economic catch-up inevitably translates geopolitically into a return to power competition. States that have felt frustrated, even humiliated by a Western-dominated world order aspire to revise this status quo. In addition to China, we think of Russia or even Iran or North Korea.

We often tend to characterize the various clashes that marked the Cold War as the opposition between two blocs, two ideologies. Can we apply a similar reading grid to the new geopolitical tensions, with on the one hand a Western pole trying to maintain its hegemony, and on the other a Moscow-Beijing axis in search of a superpower?

Even if China and the United States appear as two dominant actors, the strictly binary vision is of course too schematic and many actors – state or not – play on a certain geopolitical fluidity. [variabilité des alliances, ndlr]. Moreover, it would be a mistake to analyze too schematically the bipolarity of the time of the Cold War: in spite of a greater formalization of the ‘blocs’ on the ideological, political, economic and military levels, there was a lot of margins and gray areas already at the time. This geopolitical fluidity is even stronger today, which does not prevent the polarizing effect of the powers.

Will the countries that are not directly affected by these new clashes have to prepare to suffer the consequences?

The return of power competition translates into a paralysis of the conflict resolution mechanisms stemming from the liberal institutional order put in place after the Second World War. It suffices to observe what is happening in the UN Security Council, regularly hampered by Russian or Chinese vetoes. From the moment these mechanisms no longer work, we see a regression towards more concrete security guarantees. We rearm, we forge new military alliances… This is the case of Western Europe, which had disinvested on these issues, hoping to receive the dividends of peace while many countries in the world have been remilitarized for several years. . On this point, the situation in Germany is emblematic.

» Read our article: How the war in Ukraine pushed Germany into a military and strategic reversal

The role of nuclear deterrence also seems to have evolved. A guarantee of peace since the end of the Second World War and the crisis in Cuba due to the risk of mutual destruction, nuclear weapons have once again become an escalating factor in recent years. We remember the exchanges between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, more recently the threats made by Vladimir Putin to Westerners at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The nuclear weapon is a major strategic fact which burst into international relations in 1945. From a weapon of military domination, it gradually changed, from 1950, into a weapon of deterrence under the effect of its diffusion. The great powers acquire one after the other nuclear weapons, but also fear the destruction in return in the event of an escalation. After the end of the Cold War, insofar as the United States no longer had serious competitors, the issue of deterrence became less visible. Most of the challenges related to asymmetric threats bypassing the mechanics of nuclear deterrence. The challenge of the last thirty years was therefore less that of deterrence than of proliferation, with undemocratic States, with sometimes fragile institutions, seeking to equip themselves with nuclear weapons. Now, the return of strategic competition between powers logically refocuses the nuclear issue around deterrence strategies, sometimes with worrying catch-up effects. On the side of China, for example, the American services note a significant increase in the stock of nuclear weapons, estimated at several hundred in the years to come.

There are conflicts that we do not talk about or talk about very little: in Yemen, in Ethiopia for example. The war in Syria continues but is no longer really in the news. Is it because these conflicts, and their geopolitical impact, now appear secondary to new threats?

Let us first recall that the majority of conflicts in the world are not interstate, but intrastate, and this since 1945 and even before. Regional confrontations, civil wars can get bogged down, their virulence diminish over the years, which does not mean that they are nearing their end. In Syria, for example, the death toll has fallen from more than 50,000 in 2017 to less than 6,000 in 2021, which attests to a reduction in the virulence and lethality of the conflict even if the latter persists on the political level. We also note that conflicts that appear to be peripheral on the geopolitical level find themselves contaminated by the competition between the great powers. The conflict with the Houthis in Yemen, which has existed for more than twenty years, has taken on a more geopolitical tinge, reflecting from 2014 the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict in the Sahel, which originated in the fight against the jihadist insurgency, has taken on a new color in recent months due to the rivalry between France and Russia. We must not be misled by the “geopolitical mask” superimposed on a conflict whose origins are social and political.

There was a lot of talk last winter about the risk of a global runaway around Ukraine. Is it still relevant after six months of war? Do you currently see other areas of tension that present a significant risk of conflagration?

Escalation around Ukraine remains possible, especially if a belligerent makes a miscalculation thinking that it can extend certain actions beyond the theater of operations without reaction from the adversary or the international community – for example if Russia sought to prevent arms deliveries to Ukraine by striking into the territory of a NATO country. However, this is not the most probable, and as long as the Ukrainian battlefield remains so consumer for Russia, Moscow will hardly be able to afford to open other fronts, on the strictly military level all month long. But in a broader sense of security, the entire eastern European flank remains an important area of ​​tension where Western power is rubbing shoulders with a Russia which is trying to reconstitute a form of glacis, in particular on the side of Belarus and the Caucasus. . In the Middle East, the confrontation between the Iranian axis and an Israeli-Sunni axis could deteriorate and take the form of local conflicts or even a regional conflict. Finally, in Asia-Pacific, the tensions induced by Beijing all along the ‘first chain of islands’ are a source of strong tension: if the question of Taiwan attracted media attention this summer, it is in fact an area which extends from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea in Southeast Asia, passing through the Senkaku Islands (south of Japan). »

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Ukraine, Taiwan… behind the theaters of clashes, “the return of competition between great powers”


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