2016 could well be remembered as the dawn of populism or the beginning of monumental shifts. In the apt words of Michael Sheen, “the dice are being rolled again”. But we should be wary about being hyperbolic about new trends. Great power politics will follow the same rules it always has done. New methods, weapons and tools might be utilised, but the old ones will still matter too.
Russia’s hacking of the American election, while still a dramatic intervention in America’s domestic affairs, and regime changes induced by foreign powers are nothing new. Even if Russia did rig the election, manipulating a few thousand votes in the key swing seats was only possible due to the extraordinary weakness of the American elite.
Russia may have helped give the American establishment the final push, but it was already precariously positioned on the cliff. Yet still, this domestic weakness is exceptional for a great power such as the United States. But Trump’s warmth to Russia is coupled with outright hostility to China and a rejection of Nixon’s rapprochement. Thus the ‘Trump Doctrine’ is a shift to focusing on the Pacific and China, not an outright retreat of American power.
Talk of American decline is over-hyped. It faces more challenges and its challengers have growing strength, but its military expenditure is gargantuan and its economy isn’t obviously in decline. Yes, the industries in the ‘rustbelt’ have long gone, but it is the home of Silicon Valley. If you want to innovate you’re more likely to be based in America than anywhere else.
“We should consider that those powers which dominate new industries normally come to be the most powerful.”
Germany led the ‘second industrial revolution’ of the late 19th century and America’s boom in consumer capitalism in the 1920s attracted migrants from across Europe. Modern America is not like those two examples, but neither is China or Russia.
Journalists, commentators and the public often get caught in the zeitgeist when it comes to predicting the future of great powers. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics China was the future dominating superpower. Prompted by the impressiveness of the games, which symbolised China’s economic rise, books on the ‘Asian Century’ filled the bookshelves of Waterstones. Now, since the Crimean crisis, we’re buried under a deluge of books on Russia writing about The New Tsar or the inner workings of the Kremlin and even War with Russia.
The public becomes easily obsessed by recent events and while panics like this are nothing new, modern media does make them more intense. Sometimes works like these show remarkable foresight: after the alarming victory of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, the book The Battle of Dorking depicted an invasion of Britain by a German-speaking power. At the same time, the ‘Great Game’ in Asia made it appear to the government that the next major war might well be with Russia. Russia is also the menacing foreign power in Conrad’s Secret Agent, published 30 years after Dorking and only 10 before Britain and Russia fought as allies. We should remember that events and intellectual fashions may well be remembered as anomalies by historians and political scientists in the future.
States and publics should be wary of techno-mania too. Cyberwarfare is just another tool in politics, another form of ‘covert action’ like the coups or secret guerrilla armies long used by security agencies. It exists alongside them but doesn’t exclude them: As Putin’s ‘little green men’ in Crimea showed, sometimes the old methods work just as well. Russia has proved adept at combining old and new weapons: at the same time as developing ‘hybrid warfare’ based on misinformation, it has leaned back on its nuclear arsenal, adjusting its doctrine so that it threatens to employ nuclear weapons on the battlefield if it ever loses a serious conventional battle against NATO. Yet the UK seems to be involved in damaging techno-mania: the Royal Navy might be getting its largest aircraft carrier ever but it will be useless without aircraft and escorts capable of protecting it.
Despite all this, there are some things we can say with reasonable certainty about the world of the future. Europe is the area we all need to watch right now; it is like Austria-Hungary before the First World War. The similarities do not stop with the fact it’s a multi-national union dominated by German speakers in a conflict with Russia. It is also paralysed by political divides, which are inflated by economic disparities and faces an existential threat from nationalism.
Like old Austria, as Europe faces the greatest security challenges of any of the great powers, it spends the least of its GDP on defence. Unable to cope with the anarchy in Syria and Libya and unable to mobilise enough resources to deal with the refugee crisis, while failing to deter Russia, Europe is reliant on its stronger ally the US just as Austria was on Germany before the First World War. And, like Austria, it’s elites could well miscalculate when faced with a crisis. Particularly against a Russia leader whose popularity depends on maintaining a strong, aggressive foreign policy stance. The natural instinct of the EU’s leaders is for a stronger, more centralised union to solve its polycrisis. For now, though, like Austria before it, Europe seems to be pulling itself apart
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