Geopolitical Fault Lines in a World of Sovereign States and a Few Great Powers

J. W. AssociateAnti-imperialism, Blog, Cold War, Cuba, International law, Militarism, Nuclear weapons, Russia, U.S. media, U.S. politics, United Nations

by Richard Falk

We are pleased to crosspost an excerpt of this piece from JWE Board Member and International Jurist Richard Falk’s blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century.

The Ukraine War is illustrative. There is no doubt that Russia violated the core prohibition of international law and the UN Charter prohibiting non-defensive recourse to international force when it launched its February 2022 attack on Ukraine. Also, the evidence is overwhelming that the United States irresponsibly and multiply provoked Russia by a series of interferences with the internal politics of Ukraine in the eight years preceding the invasion. Such provocations were expressive of Washington’s post-Cold War orientation of acting internationally as the one and only sovereign state with a geopolitical prerogative that permitted the pursuit of strategic interests without respect for geographical proximity and the restraints of international law, including the sanctity of the international boundaries of sovereign states. It is this post-Cold War circumstance that led the United States to become the first extra-territorial ‘global state,’ filling the temporary geopolitical vacuum of the 1990s with its delusion that such a condition could be permanently maintained. It is this factor that gave the Ukraine War such a high profile from its inception and prolonged its resolution. The made the direct challenge posed by Russia and the implicit one by relating to Taiwan so disquieting, given U.S. hegemonic worldview.

The launch of the Ukraine War became the occasion of a geopolitical war of position in which at stake were the relative alignments of the U.S., Russia, and China, and, contrary to public protestations in the West to contrary, second tier stakes involved effort to uphold the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Expressed differently, the to be or not to be question is whether global security remains a traditional preoccupation of several governments managing a multipolar or bipolar world order. The alternative is to act as if this arrangement has been replaced by an existential shift to unipolarity in the aftermath of the 1991 Soviet implosion. In effect, the U.S sought to implement what amounted to a  ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for the world.

This geopolitical proxy war in Ukraine is about the aftermath of the Cold War configurations of authority with regard to global peace and security.  As such, it is about the alignment of the Great Powers in the world for which there are no established guidelines, accompanied by a refusal of political actors with a traditional geopolitical status, namely China and Russia, to leave the global management of power to the United States. As recently as early April 2023 the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the UN Security Council articulated a Russian awareness of the strategic issues at stake when he rejected a ‘unipolar world order by one hegemon’ and proposed a ‘new world order’ along multipolar lines based on principles that needed to be established by agreements reached through the diplomatic efforts of China, U.S. and Russia.

After World War II

Despite the devastating world wars of the 20th century and the widespread fear in 1945 of a future war fought with weapons on mass destruction, the more internationalist approaches to global governance proved insufficient. The ambition of substituting international law as implemented by the UN for a continued reliance on the managerial skills and responsible self-restraint of dominant states turned out to be almost irrelevant to the overriding objective of avoiding World War III. The UN was established in an atmosphere of hope and fear, but also within limits set by state-centrism and geopolitical discretionary habits, giving rise quickly to tensions that extinguished, or at least, greatly limited hopes of transcending dangerous Great Power rivalries of the past. This failure of internationalism led to Cold War bipolarity with its complex ideological, military, territorial, and political dimensions of intense conflict. And yet World War III was avoided, despite close calls and good luck, in the ensuing 45 years after the end of World War II.

It is my contention that this fear of a resumption of major warfare never materialized because principal geopolitical fault lines had been established and respected between the West and the USSR by diplomatic agreements reached at Yalta, Moscow, and Potsdam in the last years of World War II producing a series of prudent political compromises resulting in dividing countries, and even cities and regions between East and West orientations. By far the most important arrangement of this character involved the agreed division of Europe, with special attention accorded Germany, and Berlin. These fault lines were also respected due to an understanding that breeching them could quickly escalate into a mutually disastrous war fought with nuclear weapons, and a reinforcing informal, yet robust, tabu about crossing the nuclear threshold by threatened or actual use of weaponry of mass destruction. To be sure, the credibility of the fault lines was backed up by opposed military capabilities that were at the ready in the event of any serious violation.

The close calls during the Cold War decades occurred when perceptions in Washington or Moscow put the relevant fault lines under challenge, by intention or misunderstanding, perhaps most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Although dumb luck played a role in avoiding the confrontation, as Martin Sherwin convincingly demonstrating in his masterful Gambling with Armageddon (2020) so did the realization of leaders in Moscow and Washington that there were dangerous ambiguities in the formulation of the fault lines. For the Soviet Union, U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in its Turkish neighbor was treated as equivalent its decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba, especially given the real threat of a U.S. or U.S. backed intervention being directed at Castro’s Marxist government. For the United States this Soviet challenge was interpreted as an unacceptable encroachment on a vital Caribbean sphere of influence close to the U.S. homeland, purporting also to discourage any American future efforts to replace the Castro government by a regime-changing intervention. 

To avoid victory/defeat scenarios in this encounter led the Soviets to abandon the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba and the U.S. to remove discreetly nuclear weapons from Turkey rationalizing the initiative by arguing that they were headed for ‘retirement’ in any event. In other words, a more or less reciprocal backdown from postures of menacing confrontation was achieved largely resulting from the direct communications between the respective leaders in the midst of the crisis. Respecting spheres of influence, thanks to crucial agreements reached by the wartime diplomacy in 1944-45, the U.S. enjoyed a free hand in Western Europe and the Soviets in Eastern Europe, as well as the subdivision of Germany and the sub-sub division of Berlin. It was this recognition of and respect for such traditional spheres of influence that likely prevented World War III, especially in discouraging the kind of coercive responses by NATO countries to the crude and brutal Soviet interventions in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968) even in the face of conservative and militarist pressures to do so.

The two most prolonged wars during the Cold War were in Korea and Vietnam where neither side had major strategic interests, nuclear deployments, nor were geopolitical alignments significantly engaged. This runs contrary to Antony Blinken’s contention in the ‘rule-governed’ world that the U.S. respects, but its rivals supposedly do not. Blinken has publicly insisted that spheres of influence were thrown into the dustbin of history as of the end of World War II. The nature of what is Blinken’s source of rule governance, other than the foreign policy of the United States, has never been officially disclosed. What we know is that it is something currently presented by the highest U.S. foreign policy official as something radically different than either international law and the multipolar framing of world politics by Russia and China, countries which obviously give weight and legitimacy to their regional prerogatives and traditional spheres of influence. Perhaps, the spirit of the rule-governed world that Blinken believes has become the ‘new world order’ is best captured by the phrase ‘pax Americana.’  This label is more transparent of intent and effect than is the abstraction of ‘unipolarity.’

Continue reading here.