Playtime Is Over: Russia Just Killed the "Rules-Based" International Order and the U.S. Must Adapt Immediately
On Thursday, February 24th, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, hitting the country from three sides with a barrage of cruise missiles, cyber attacks and air strikes, followed swiftly by tanks rolling into Ukrainian territory to seize major population centers and decapitate the country’s government.
In response, the United States and its allies announced a few sanctions.
U.S. President Joe Biden held a press conference where he took several, awkward minutes to explain how “strong” and “severe” his newly authorized sanctions would be, yet judging by the tenor of all the reporters who then harangued him on whether or not the sanctions would do anything, nobody was buying it. Fox News’s Peter Doocy crystalized their skepticism when he asked, “You’re confident that these ‘devastating sanctions’ are going to be as devastating as Russian missiles, bullets and tanks?”
Next up was the White House press briefing, where Jen Psaki introduced Deputy National Security Advisor, Daleep Singh. Singh is an urbane and likable guy with impressive credentials, including a masters degree in international economics from MIT. And yet, when he made the statement below, I knew right away that this was the soundbite historians would look back on and say, “My God, they were so foolish, they didn’t see it coming!” Here is what Singh said:
“Ultimately, the goal of our sanctions is to make this a strategic failure for Russia. Let’s define a little bit what that means. Strategic success in the 21st century is not about a physical land grab of territory—that’s what Putin has done. In this century, power, strategic power, is increasingly measured and exercised by economic strength, by technological sophistication, and your ‘story’—who you are, what your values are, can you attract ideas and talent and goodwill, and on each of those measures, this will be a failure for Russia.”
That statement is one of the few that can override my intrinsic frustration with American politics and replace it with genuine sadness. Because if I’m right, then all of us—especially the Daleep Singhs of the world—are in for a serious wake-up call.
So, what is it that I might be right about? Obviously, the title of this article offers a clue. But what I see on the horizon is far worse than merely a breakdown of the “rules-based” international order. What I see is total chaos. And in a world of chaos, all idealism about a country’s “story” gets lit on fire and thrown out the window. The Arthurian ethos that “right makes might” becomes a hideously naïve and laughable notion as it gets trampled under a war elephant. So brace yourself as I try, albeit imperfectly, to make my case.
Let’s start with a theory offered by geopolitical analyst, Peter Zeihan. In Zeihan’s view, the world before World War II was one of sequestered empires that conducted trade internally, but excluded their rivals. In other words, if a European power like France required a resource from beyond its boarders, it had to possess the military capacity to project power abroad, take what it needed, and then protect its cargo on the voyage home. Zeihan says that this system came to an end following the Second World War. In its place, the United States established a world of “free trade,” where it used its navy to patrol the world’s oceans and provide unfettered access to everywhere for everyone—provided that they ally themselves with the U.S. against the Soviet Union. Zeihan likes to say that the U.S. “bribed up an alliance” to win the Cold War, and it worked. The problem, he says, is that the Cold War ended thirty years ago, and the world of free trade has been coasting on fumes ever since. Now, the world’s demography, (e.g. aging populations) no longer supports the underlying economics of globalization. Thus, in Zeihan’s view, the world is about to revert to its pre-WWII days of sequestered empires. He is also fond of explaining that most of the world’s countries, including China, are in deep trouble and facing collapse. The “comforting” part, which he adds to his American audiences, is that the U.S.—geographically isolated and possessing abundant resources—is going to fare significantly better than everyone else. So, if you’re an American, don’t worry. At least, not too much.
But there is one issue that Zeihan, and virtually every other geopolitical analyst I’ve ever studied, neglects, and that is the effect of nuclear weapons. Nukes change everything. I cannot stress that enough. Everything we think we know about war, peace and diplomacy from the past six thousand years of human history no longer applies. We are in uncharted territory, and a single misstep could spell the apocalypse. All it takes is one hundred nuclear bombs detonating simultaneously anywhere on the planet to create a nuclear winter. So for example, if India and Pakistan ever decide to trade nukes, that’s the end of the world for everyone, even on the opposite side of the globe.
Military planners know this, and devise their strategies accordingly. (Thank God.) But here is the catch: If Zeihan is correct and countries like Russia and China are facing collapse, then they will have no choice but to assume their nuclear arsenals make them untouchable. Therefore, they can use their conventional militaries to seize territory, threaten concessions from their neighbors and sow division amongst their adversaries—a process which is already well underway in the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that NATO needs to return to its 1997 borders. That means that the West’s entire eastern flank, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, would all come under Putin’s thumb. If he succeeds in splitting the E.U., and by extension NATO, through the leveraging of Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas, then all of the countries mentioned above—with the possible exception of Poland—would become easy targets for military domination. And no one, not even the U.S., would dare attack the Russians directly for fear of a nuclear reprisal.
Furthermore, the international rules-based system is fundamentally weak. It has too many moving parts that operate in too delicate a balance to survive genuine turmoil. The E.U. provides a good example. It is an organization that was designed to share prosperity, but not hardship. The same could be said for many of the economic ties that bind the world today. Peter Zeihan, in a recent lecture, gave an example of this fragility with regard to global agriculture. He notes that there are three types of fertilizer: nitrogen-based, phosphate-based, and potash-based. China was the world’s largest exporter of phosphates until it recently outlawed their exportation due to domestic food instability. Nitrogen-based fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, but recent spikes in global energy prices have made its production increasingly expensive. That leaves potash. But its second and third largest producers are Russia and Belarus. Needless to say, the war in Ukraine could spark a global shortage of potash as well. Many poorer countries, especially in Africa, depend on industrial inputs like fertilizer to produce sufficient crop yields to feed their populations. If those farmers could no longer afford fertilizer, widespread famine and instability could result. The point is, the global supply chain for fertilizer is only one of countless supply chains that the world depends on, all of which will get obliterated as globalization falls apart.
This is where the chaos comes in. Nuclear powers like China and Russia will not simply go quietly into the night. Starving populations in Africa and the Middle East will not meekly accept their fate. Major energy producers like Saudi Arabia will not stand idle as their energy exports are disrupted and their coffers run dry. All of these countries and their populations will do something. What that “something” is, no one knows, but it will likely be very desperate and very violent.
Every country with the means to do so will institute a crash program for developing nuclear weapons, as these will be the only guarantor of national sovereignty and a shield against invasion. (Would Russia have invaded Ukraine if Kiev controlled a thousand nukes? Not a chance.) So in the end, the world will revert to a Hobbesian landscape of “every man for himself,” and nuclear proliferation will skyrocket.
As for the United States, isolationism will not be an option. The threat of nuclear weapons—no matter who is using them or where—will continue to pose an existential security threat, leaving America no choice but to engage. Therefore, expect to see a lot of “pre-emptive” U.S. military strikes in the coming years. And since I’ve already veered into wild speculation at this point, I might as well crank it up a notch and go out with a bang.
In the movie Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character is famous for saying, “Life finds a way.” I always liked that quote. Yet as I got older and more cynical, I amended it to, “Darkness finds a way.” No matter what you do to keep the dark side of humanity at bay, whether it’s drafting a national constitution to safeguard against tyranny, or creating a “rules-based” international order to safeguard against war, darkness finds a way.
Thus, in a world where competing empires can’t fight each other directly, new ways to fight will be invented. Cyber attacks will shoot through the roof, sparking infrastructure and energy disruptions, while starvation tactics become the norm. And if Russian, American and Chinese military forces can’t meet each other on the battlefield, they will hire others to do it for them. Think about it. The U.S. could hire a private military company (PMC) that’s registered offshore and recruits from an international talent pool, and then send it to fight other mercenaries hired by China. That might seem absurd, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, especially if both countries are desperate enough to fight each other without committing mutual suicide. Ultimately, this could lead to an explosion in both the size and capabilities of PMCs worldwide, thereby making every “cyberpunk” novel seem eerily prophetic. (Read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson for a good example.)
The point is, the world is on the brink of tremendous change. Countries that face this reality will enjoy a significant advantage in the years to come. But one way or another, the old world is over. The “genteel” days where power is defined by secretly moving money around in offshore bank accounts while spreading rumors about your enemies are over, and the days where bloodthirsty barbarians ransack your village with battleaxes are just beginning.
Undoubtedly, the world’s more affluent populations will find this to be quite a shock. And I have little doubt that most of them would dismiss an article like this as pure bullshit. I understand where they’re coming from, and you know what? They might be right. I can’t predict the future, and I’ve certainly been wrong before. Who hasn’t?
But ask yourself this question: If someone like Daleep Singh is right, and power in the 21st century is only measured by economic strength, technological sophistication and your “story”—what good is any of that when Russia is rolling tanks through your capital? How much does the latest iPhone help you when someone is pressing a gun to your head? I would argue, not much.
I would also add that I take zero pleasure in writing this. So, in case you suspect that I’m secretly a “prepper,” eagerly awaiting the apocalypse so I can finally put my guns and survivalist training to use, think again. I’m a lazy, overweight writer who grew up in the suburbs. I don’t own a gun, and I wouldn’t last five minutes in a war. So believe me, nothing would make me happier than if I were wrong about everything I’ve just written.
But despite that, I’m pretty sure I’m not. Time will tell. And unfortunately for all of us, it will tell sooner rather than later.
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