Since the end of the last major world war some seven decades ago, international peace has been preserved by the threat of the nuclear bomb. Because of its unique and unilateral ability to devastate the world, the bomb fundamentally changed the realities of international politics. However, its impact on global stability faded as more countries developed similar destructive capabilities.
American monopoly of nuclear weapons lasted less than a decade. Their fear-inspiring role diminished by the mid-1950s, but in reality the US was still sufficiently credible to defy the Soviet imposition in the late 1940s of a ground blockade designed to compel a US withdrawal from Berlin; while in the early 1960s, the US succeeded in inducing the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba.
However, the ultimate resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was less a one-sided victory, and more a combination of threats and of politically face-saving compromises between the two superpowers. Not only did the US have to publicly pledge never to invade Cuba, it also secretly agreed to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
In effect, two decades or so after the introduction of such weapons into international affairs, America had to take Soviet concerns increasingly into account, in a context in which nuclear weapons did contribute to the preservation of peace even as they signalled their potential parity in the waging of war. In any case, the semi-exclusive possession of nuclear weapons during the early phases of the Cold War by only two major powers gave them the special status of uniquely shared global responsibility in which both understood the other and neither was inclined to produce a confrontation that could generate a mutual catastrophe.
In more recent times, global stability was jeopardized by persistent contests of will involving major powers ― but again not warranting the use of nuclear weapons. As America’s nuclear strategic monopoly faded, the US sought to create advantages elsewhere, notably in the peaceful cooperation between the US and communist China under Deng Xiaoping. By the 1980s, the two powers were informally even collaborating in making the Russian invasion of Afghanistan increasingly costly and futile, but at no point threatening to slide into a nuclear war.
By the end of that decade and in the early 21st century, the basic divisions of global power were fundamentally being changed. America and Russia were still the principal rivals, but China, armed with a more modest number of its own nuclear weapons, was looming increasingly large on the Far East’s horizon. Consequently, the three principal shareholders of global power are less inclined to resort to nuclear provocations, but caution and collaboration must prevail between the US, China and Russia.
Russia’s Post-Soviet Challenges
For Russia, the regional situation has become increasingly difficult. Former non-Russian members of the Soviet Union are now openly asserting their own national independence and refusing to participate in any structure evocative of the deceased Soviet Union. The Central Asian republics have become determined to translate their initially nominal independence into genuine statehood.
In the meantime, China’s strategic penetration of Central Asia in order to gain direct commercial access to Europe is prompting a significant reduction of Russia’s economic domination of the eastern portion of the former USSR.
Currently, China’s relationship with Russia seems to offer Beijing a more attractive short-term alternative, though both sides have historical grievances that make each suspect the intentions of the other. This is why the ambitious Chinese initiative of OBOR (One Belt, One Road) in Central Asia has produced some uneasiness in Moscow.
The scale of this contrast could provoke geopolitical problems between China and Russia in the near future. In the longer run still for Russia, the most ominous of all may be the spreading hope among some Chinese military leaders that China will eventually regain the huge spaces of the far eastern Siberian areas. The unpopulated extremities of Asia could thus become the long-run focus of China’s vision of its geopolitical restoration.
The US Must Not Treat China as an Enemy
It needs to be acknowledged that America’s policy towards China has become more ambiguous and lacking in a shared strategic vision that was so characteristic a decade or two ago of the increasingly cordial relationship between Washington and Beijing.
The US must be wary of the great danger that China and Russia could form a strategic alliance, generated in part by their own internal, political and ideological momentum, and in part by the poorly-thought-out US policies. The US should not act towards China as if it were already an enemy; it should not favour India as America’s principal ally in Asia. This would almost guarantee a closer connection between China and Russia. Nothing is more dangerous to the US than such a close connection.
Not surprisingly, the US’ role in the politically-awakened Eurasia is becoming increasingly defensive. The US is residually present in the region – in the US-controlled Pacific Islands – thereby demonstrating America’s stake in Eurasian security. The US is openly committed to defend both Japan and South Korea. But that commitment depends on strategic caution as well as determination.
The United States has to be ready to defend west-central Europe as well. It has to be ready to react militarily despite, and perhaps even because of, international doubts regarding America’s determination and willingness to act, if need be, on its own. In Europe, it is, therefore, essential that America conveys unambiguously to the Kremlin that it will not be passive, that it is not planning major political or military counter threats in order to ostracize Russia but that Russia must know that there would be a massive blockade of Russia’s maritime access to the West, if Russian forces were used to occupy the capital of Latvia or to storm Tallinn, the capital of now-independent Estonia.
A strong US reaction would drastically limit Russia’s ability to engage in profitable international trade, and it would provide the needed time for the injection of much larger American and some west European forces, assisted also in Central Europe by the aroused local allies of the US.
In the meantime, an appealing longer-range programme for China’s rise could thus involve the gradual infiltration and settlement by Chinese labourers of the huge but empty northeast Eurasia. The current officially-demarcated Chinese-Russian boundaries are already being overwhelmed by a steady influx of manpower while Asia’s empty northeast has not experienced serious attempts to promote major Russian settlements.
Looming Instability in Northeast Asia
All of that cumulatively suggests that during the next several decades, current northeast Asian territorial arrangements may become geopolitically unstable, occasionally even explosive, and eventually precipitating also a more enduring redefinition of the critical lines of division on the huge Eurasian continent. Obviously, America will be only a distant observer, though probably prudently expanding its bilateral ties with both Japan and South Korea. More immediately, the security problem posed by North Korea will also require enhanced security cooperation between the US, China and, hopefully, a more Europe-oriented Russia.
A prolonged period of relative stability and the absence of a major war could gradually have a cumulative political impact on North Korean domestic evolution, pointing perhaps to some broader accommodation based on guarantees from North Korea’s immediate and more powerful neighbours.
The US, China and Russia Stabilizing the Mideast
Last, but by no means least, the ongoing civil wars in the Middle East, fuelled by religious hatreds; potential nuclear conflicts possibly unleashed by the extremists in Iran; not to mention geopolitical ambitions of an inflamed nationalistic wave in Turkey; each contain the possibility of a major regional eruption. The ideal geopolitical response is a US-Russia-China trilateral connection.
As regional uncertainties intensify, with potentially destructive consequences for all three of the major nuclear powers, it is time to think of what might have been and still could be. In that context, China needs to rethink how it can afford to evade responsibility for what happens in its neighbourhood. Could that threaten Chinese interests and push China in an excessively tight military link with Russia, which then could generate the threat of a joint stand against the United States?
Or will Russia’s global standing be more respected if the result is a world in which the three most militarily powerful states i.e. US, China and Russia, cooperate more closely on issues pertaining to the Middle East in the immediate, and in the longer range in the Eastern Pacific regions in which Chinese ambitions for the moment are dormant but could easily be awakened?
Climate Change Will Impact Geopolitics
All of the above is likely to be complicated by the probability that severe weather problems on a global scale will intensify political problems. Global warming is already beginning to impact more ominously, signalling prospects of extensive meltdowns and the resulting threats to some existing habitations. Cumulatively, that could generate greater public anxiety than strategic insecurity is now a fact of life on a scale unknown heretofore to the now increasingly vulnerable humanity.
Regional cooperation will thus require shared wisdom and political will to work together despite conflicts and the continued presence of nuclear weaponry, always potentially devastating but even after seventy years still unlikely to result in a one-sided political victory.
This article has been adapted from a speech Brzezinski delivered at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo Norway in December 2016.