Global (Dis)Order: A Bipolar+ World in the Making

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Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight 

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Winston Churchill, House of Commons, May 13, 1940.    

Introduction

Turbulences, chaos, a disorderly and fragmented world—with no leadership power—and numerous state and non-state actors exercising considerable influence on regional and global affairs. The world entered in a new geopolitical era, resembling to multipolarity in economics and an asymmetric bipolarity or a new Cold War between Russia and the West in terms of weaponization of cyber and artificial intelligence, featuring as well as an additional undeclared arms race between United States (U.S.) and China, and an active re-evaluation of major economies of security relationships with the U.S. (Jones, 2017) Call it a New Cold War, Ground-Zero Moment, or a New New World Order, the new geopolitics ended the era of cooperation and marked the beginning of a strategic competition across and within countries: traditional and hybrid means became new methods of warfare (Id., 2019). As Jones, director of the Brookings, put it: “We are applying 19th century statecraft in a world of 21st century weapons.” (2017) The world is seeing the emergence of two geopolitical orders: in the Middle East and North Africa and in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific. America is being challenged in two fronts: from an adversarial Russia, seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East, Eurasia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans through an aggressive pursuit of unilateral interests, and a transformed China, economically and militarily, willing, if necessary, to play out of international norms in search for regional and global domination. The world is witnessing a democratic recession, the rise of nation-states, and the waning of multilateralism and multinational organizations. Global freedom—is in decline, democracy and pluralism—under assault (Repucci, 2020). 

The liberal international order is encountering serious challenges, surfacing from social and economic trends or Russia and China’s worldview of the dominant model as inherently threatening to their internal integrity and political regimes (Jones, 2019), including as well as the West’s growing disinterest in international affairs, the European Union’s (EU) fragmentation, and the U.S. retreat from the diplomatic leadership role in conflict management and peace processes (Husain and Soufan, 2017). As a creator and guarantor of liberal internationalism, America has—since 1945—focused on building a rules-based system centered around liberal democracy, economics, interdependence, multilateralism, and political and military alliances as opposed to revisionist powers, namely Russia and China, struggling for spheres of influence and/or regional domination. Ultimately, the New World Order, terminating the Cold War bipolar system, created conditions for a unipolar world ruled by America as a hegemon. Nation-building, democracy-promotion, human rights and multilateralism became central to American foreign policy. For a short period! As soon as terrorists hit the U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, American leaders betrayed these ideals. War on Terror replaced communist threat, would-be democracies regressed toward authoritarianism, nation-states substituted multinational organizations. America deployed a political and military presence in the Middle East, which by the end of the decade became a new arena of geopolitical competition between regional and international actors, more specifically between U.S. and Russia, ending the best epoch of cooperation between the two—on war against terror—whilst signaling a new epoch—of confrontation. In the subsequent years, America and Russia would clash over a number of issues: missile defense and NATO enlargement, Kosovo independence (2008), Russia’s incursion in Georgia (2008), annexation of Crimea (2014), intervention in Syria (2015)—culminating with President Vladimir Putin’s direct orchestrated interference in the 2016-U.S. presidential election. 

Geopolitics is a field and discipline of foreign policy that implies the use of geography and natural environment of state to influence or determine the course of international politics, as well as to constrain the behavior of states in international relations (Gray and Sloan, 1999; Gray, 1988). As a mechanism of state, geopolitics is employed to distribute or exercise political power in the global stage, and to conduct foreign policy in pursuance of national interests in international affairs (Taylor, 1993). Geographic reconfiguration of state has played a major role in political decision-making (Sprout and Sprout, 1960). Not by compelling or determining the decision-making or changing the direction of foreign and domestic politics (Kristof, 1960), but by offering opportunities for policymakers to design strategies and objectives on foreign or internal politics so to achieve particular political objectives (Gray and Sloan, 1999). Historically, United States has used foreign policy as a tool to promote liberal norms and values worldwide. As opposed to Europeans’ politics of power, American leaders—from Wilson to Clinton—conceived geopolitics more as a teleological struggle for justice rather than a “permanent endeavor for contingent aims.” (James Traub, The Problem With Kissinger’s World Order, Foreign Policy, May 5, 2015) The twenty-first century politics, however, marks a departure from American longstanding approach. The U.S. foreign policy became more “militarized” or “overmilitarized.” President George W. Bush revolutionized it, choosing coercion and force as means for democracy deployment and for regime change through a unilateralist strategy out of global institutions (Daalder and Lindsay, 2003; Gerges, 2013). Barack Obama turned to liberal internationalism prioritizing global institutions and multilateral diplomacy in resolving the world’s most pressing issues and disputes (Skidmore, 2012). Donald Trump reversed to isolationism, embarking, according to Barry R. Posen, in an entirely new grand, inward-looking strategy of illiberal hegemony—the opposite of the U.S. traditional, grand strategy, known as liberal hegemony (The Rise Of Illiberal Hegemony Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2018). Viewing it as an “expensive distraction”—where the costs of American leadership substantially outweighed the benefits—Trump disrupted and unmade American foreign policy without offering a better alternative, rendering it worse, nearly impossible for his successor to repair. He deflected from nation-building, democracy promotion, human rights and multilateralism. Consequently, America lost its place as the leader of the free world, plummeting to 33rd place in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Index—from 28th in 2016, respectively to 25th, just ahead of Malta, on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Indicator, counted as a flawed democracy (J. Traub, The Free World’s Leader Isn’t Free Anymore, Foreign Policy, June 18, 2020). Michael Beckley points to “an illiberal American century,” warning for the end of the “liberal U.S. hegemony.” 

The retrenchment of America from the world business has meanwhile created more space for Russia and China to step in and fill the vacuum power. Two parallel geopolitical orders have been developing as a result: in the Middle East—with U.S., and Russia+, and in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific—with U.S. and China+. The world is transitioning to a bipolar+ (or multipolar) system with U.S. and China vying for global domination; it is heading toward a nuclear proliferated and a strategically unstable state due to the U.S. and Russia’s development of weapons of mass destruction; a more conflict-prone resulting from the rise of non-state actors and the increase of internal conflicts; and is threatened from global pandemics and climate change (Sokolsky and Rumer, 2020). Russia, China, North Korea and Iran will remain the biggest threats to liberal international order, the U.S. national security, and the whole world. This article overviews geopolitical orders and discourses, shortly the Cold War and New World Order, with an emphasis on the current geopolitical structure. It offers a theoretical framework on geopolitics and political geography and a distinction between American and European understanding of geopolitics, continues with discussions over the competition between U.S. and Russia in the Middle East, and U.S. and China in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific. A short narrative of U.S.-Russia relations is provided, including conclusion and policy recommendations. 

Geopolitics and Political Geography: Definitions   

Geopolitics entered the academic discourse in the early twentieth century; it was first used by Swedish political scientist, Rudolf Kjellén, who coined it as, “[This]—the science of governments (states) as geographical organisms—is incarnate in the land.” (Dugin, 2019) Kjellén’s conceptualization stemmed from Ratzel’s one on state as “an organism attached to the land.” (Dikshit, 1999: 19) Ratzel, universally accepted as the father of the modern political geography, sought to explain the physical space and natural growth of state in context of imperialism, developing his expansionism theory known as Lebensraum or living-space (Bassin, 1987: 477). Through Lebensraum, the German geographer contemplated state as an organism inconceivable from land—necessitated for its sustenance and development (Bassin, 1987). “[Every] new form of life needs space in order to come into existence, and yet more space to establish and pass on its characteristics.” (Id.) Externally, three essential geographical factors, governing the character and the growth of states, including territory of state, group of population, and natural growth of states or frontiers, based on Ratzel’s proposition, are determinant for state behavior in international relations (Dikshit, 1999: 21). Geopolitics is “avowedly state-centric in its premises” (Taylor, 1993); whence Ratzel’s work, which contributed to Germany’s expansionist course leading to the two great wars, as Bassin suggests, is to be understood within the context of late nineteenth-century European imperialism, and more specifically, in response to tensions between the nation state and empire (1987: 474). 

Since its appearance in 1899, geopolitics’ notion has significantly evolved, taking various meanings and interpretations, yet, there is no definition that would be acceptable for both academics and politicians. Kristof found it difficult to clarify and draw a distinction between political geography and geopolitics (1960: 20-36). Other scholars do not see any underlying difference, either in method or field of study, between geopolitics and political geography (Id.). Hartshorne rejects the term entirely, Pearcy associates it with politics—used by state as a mechanism to pursue its national interests in international relations, whilst for Spykman, geopolitics is a field of foreign policy that applies geography for the attainment of certain political ends (Alexander, 1961: 408). In America, meanwhile, political geography, which studies political aspect of geographic phenomena, and geopolitics, which focuses on geographical aspect of political phenomena, as Kristof observed, have no difference. “In America, political geography and geopolitics merge.” (1960: 36-37) Noting that since 1935, political geography has moved from studying the influence of geography on politics and the outcome of political action and organization on geography, to influence of politics on geography and how politics affects regional balance and social justice on the spatial context (Dikshit, 1999: 10-11). In the absence of a definition therefore, geopolitics is attached multiple meanings: a study of political phenomena in their spatial relationships and in their relationships with, dependence upon and influence, on geographical and cultural factors (Kristof, 1960); a theory of spatial relationships and historical causation that emphasizes the relevance of geography in the contemporary and future politics, while combining historical knowledge with sophisticated capacity for theorizing (Gray and Sloan, 1999); a distribution of state’s political power across the world, and a technique of conducting foreign policy in pursuance of national interests in international affairs (Taylor, 1993); and a theater where states seek to gain control over less modern regions and their resources, and race with other major states in a worldwide pursuit of global primacy (Güney and Gökcan, 2010). 

Besides lacking a definition, there is, also, a fundamental difference between American and European understanding of geopolitics, and between them and Russia and the rest of the world, featuring a conflict between international norms and values and geography. The conventional academic thinking suggests a correlation between geographical configuration of international politics (location, resources, territory and demographics) and foreign policy conduct, whereas traditional geopolitics links the term with idealism, ideology, and human will (O’Tuathail and Agnew, 1992: 191). Mackinder, the founder of heartland theory, viewed geography and natural environment of state as an important factor to the history and politics of international affairs, and the reason behind competition and wars of the great powers from Columbian age to the modern era (Gray and Sloan, 1999; Gray, 1988). The heartland of Eurasia—Africa, as Mackinder believed, had the potential to rule the world given its contiguity of territory, unmatched natural resources, and the possibility of sustaining demographic superiority, pointing to Russia as being the pivot state or the core of heartland (Gray, 1988). The same perspective provided Ratzel—whose work associates with German geopolitics—which is contradictory to American viewpoint of geopolitics. The rhetoric of American foreign policy—from Wilson to Clinton, according to Kissinger, was to deny the European meaning of geopolitics as the politics of power, denouncing the very idea as a European perversion (Howard, 1994: 133). In his recent book, World Order, former Secretary of State, in James Traub’s review, reinforces his argument that American leaders—since Wilson—have envisioned foreign policy as a teleological struggle for justice rather than a “permanent endeavor for contingent aims.” (Id., May 5, 2015) Hence, American geopolitics, as Kissinger formulated, is a synonym of global equilibrium and permanent national interests in the world balance of power, a method of analysis to combat American liberal policies of idealism, and a means to presenting an alternative to conservative policies of an ideological anti-Communism approach (Gray and Sloan, 1999: 1). In his earlier Diplomacy, though, Kissinger justified the British nineteenth century rule, arguing that the European practice was not an aberration, but the norm for the conduct of international relations in any era. As for Russians, he treated them not as criminals but as adults with legitimate interests of their own (Howard, 1994: 133-137). Same as Kissinger, Cohen views geopolitics not as an instrument of conquest and dominance of state interests, but as one for promoting and managing equilibrium amongst great powers for the interest of the entire world (Mellon, 2004). 

Overview of Geopolitical Orders: Cold War and New World Order

The twentieth century, beginning with the end of the Columbian era and British succession of Balance of Power, identified two geopolitical orders: Cold War and New World Order (Taylor, 1993: 33). The Cold War system, characterized with a conflict between two incompatible civilizations—United States and Soviet Union (USSR), applied ideology as a mechanism to define a new epoch for the world (Id., 34). Cold War featured a quarrel between two antagonistic worlds: freedom and liberal democracy, and international pacts and multilateralism promoted by Americans, and communism and socialism represented by Soviets (Ikenberry, 2014: 81). Interestingly, its “powerful and pervasive political ideology” was premised upon an extraordinary double irony which denied both geographical difference and its own self-constituting politics at the same time (O’Tuathail and Dalby, 2002: 1). Traditionally, the U.S. foreign policy has focused on building a far-flung system of multilateral institutions, alliances, trade agreements and political and military partnerships through strengthening international norms and rules contrary to great-power spoilers and revisionists, Russia and China, struggling for spheres of influence or regional domination and territorial grabs (Ikenberry, 2014: 81). As Kennan argued in the Sources of Soviet Conduct, the core differences and antagonism between Americans and Soviets rest in ideologies, capitalism and socialism—two antagonistic value systems mutually exclusive (Foreign Affairs, 1987). Socialism that defines Soviet power, Kennan continued, had profound implications to Russia’s behavior and political personality from which derived many disturbing phenomena, secretiveness, lack of frankness, duplicity, wary suspiciousness and basic unfriendliness of purpose. “These phenomena are there to stay, for the foreseeable future.” (Id.) Woefully, this portrayal is actual to this day. The annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, according to Robert D. Kaplan, proves that—unlike the West—Russia and the rest of the world still think in terms of geography (deserts, mountains, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water) instead of economics, interdependence, and universal values (Geopolitics and the New World Order, TIME, March 20, 2014). Referring to Kerry’s statement, formerly Secretary of State, that, “It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century,” Kaplan restates that, “19th century” lives on and always will (Id.). 

The dissolution of the Soviet Union, thought to mark the “end of the history” following the triumph of liberal democracy over communism, terminated the bipolar international system predominated by U.S. and USSR, paving the way for a unipolar world governed by America. It, too, heralded the beginning of a New World Order (Güney and Gökcan, 2010). Introduced by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 (and continued by Clinton and Bush Junior administrations), the New World Order offered an opportunity for a “historic period of cooperation,” a new era, freer from threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace (U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Republic of Korea, 1991). Without fully articulating norms, goals, and methods of accomplishing them, President Bush, as Joseph, S. Nye Jr., argues, proposed “new ways of working with other nations,” envisaging a world where states would be cooperating to peacefully settling disputes, be solidarizing against aggression, be engaged in reducing and controlling arsenals, and be committed in treating all people in a just way (What New World Order? Foreign Affairs, Spring, 1992). As the New World Order shifted the focus toward international and regional organizations, the United Nations (UN) and NATO, the latter opened discussions pro and cons of enlargement and organizing peacekeeping operations in the Balkans; nation-building, democracy-promotion, and human rights became keywords of American foreign policy (Applebaum, 2004: 2-3). 

The New World Order ideals did not live longer, however. A unipolar world led by freedom and democracy did not happen; the would-be-liberal democracies progressively regressed toward authoritarianism and illiberal values (Goldhammer, 2016); Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism replaced the communist threat (Güney and Gökcan, 2010). As terrorists attacked the U.S. homeland in September 2001, Bush Junior launched a new kind of war—War Against Terror. The world reversed to the old ways of conducting foreign policy, choosing bilateralism and trilateralism over multilateralism. America would no longer seek help from UN and EU but from United Kingdom, France, and Germany. New partnerships, albeit non-traditional, came into surface, too, like the one between U.S., India, and Pakistan, whereas the outdated institutions, the State Department’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation, received greater attention (Applebaum, 2004: 7-11). The 9/11 attacks reshaped the American geopolitical code—in relation to the Middle East in particular—a code which, according to Güney and Gökcan, “was no longer the ideological war waged against the communist world, but the war on terrorism. 9/11 led to a redefinition of enemies and friends, as revealed in the 2002 Bush Doctrine.” (2010: 26) As well as announced a New New World Order—a continuation of Senior Bush’s New World Order, inaugurating a new strategic era—a new stage in the world history and the discourse-in-the-making (Lazar and Lazar, 2001: 223). America positioned its forces in the Middle East—soon to become a new geopolitical zone—starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The truth of the matter is that, President Bush, based on Applebaum’s analysis, had, prior to 9/11, begun to prepare the national and international public for a long debate on missile defense, already thinking on fighting terrorism, and suddenly War on Terror, provided him with both—a practical and a philosophical guide on foreign policy—that America had not seen since 1989 (2004: 5). Yet, Bush’s War on Terror, same as the Cold War world order, appeased American idealism—fighting against evil—as well as appealed to American realism (Id., 9).  

Redefining American Foreign Policy: From Unilateralism to Internationalism to Isolationism     

The twenty-first century American foreign policy has radically transformed. President Bush revolutionized it, launching a unilateralist approach instead of relying in international institutions and law: preemption replaced tested strategies of deterrence and containment, regime change leaded negotiations with outsiders. America became the “SUV of nations.” (Daalder and Lindsay, 2003) Bush opted coercion to promote democracy and nation-building, embracing an ideology of “proselytizing about democracy and the liberal deployment of force in world politics,” especially in relation to the Middle East (Gerges, 2013). There are those who think, though, that Bush’s goals of sustaining democratic peace resonate with the most traditional themes in the U.S. history: Jefferson’s vision of an “empire of liberty,” Wilson’s missive that “the world must be safe for democracy,” Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, and Kennedy’s rhetoric to “oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of democracy.” (Melvyn P. Lefler, Think Again Bush’s Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, October 23, 2009) Although, Bush has merits for bringing Russia onboard in the fight against terror, supplying America with information on Afghanistan (Stent, 2020), he had done more harm than good to America, Middle East, and the world in general. The invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of its institutions, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and millions of refugees and internally displaced, the destabilization and the deepening of sectarianism across the Middle East, the derailment of the Arab Spring and proxy wars in the region, and most importantly, the resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—are some consequences of his action (Gerges, 2015). American foreign policy never recovered from war on terror: a reckoning with the disastrous legacy of 9/11 is, thus, imperative to explore the consequences of U.S. antiterrorism policy since 9/11, as well as to heal America’s spirit (Matthew Duss, U.S. Foreign Policy Never Recovered From The War On Terror, Foreign Affairs, October 22, 2020).   

Sharply departing from Bush’s “reckless overexpansion” and “belligerent unilateralism” (Gideon Rose, What Obama Gets Right, Foreign Affairs), Obama promised a “new chapter of America engagement”—giving primacy to international institutions and multilateral diplomacy in settling the world’s most pressing issues and challenges (Skidmore, 2012). An ideological liberal with conservative temperament, the 44th President’s philosophy rested in liberal internationalism: he appreciated liberal international order the U.S. has nurtured and preserved for seven decades (Id., Rose). Certainly, Bush left the world worse than it was: his successor inherited two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and a global economic crisis, and along the road, he encountered the Arab Spring and Syria and Iraq’s conflicts. And ISIS. And, Russia. Obama effortlessly worked to fix American diplomacy, leaving behind an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape: Iran Nuclear Deal, Paris Climate Agreement, combating Ebola in West Africa, and restoring relations with Cuba—account for his greatest achievements (Id.). Albeit he sealed a deal with Iran by painstakingly building an international coalition in the UN Security Council (UNSC), overall, Obama’s policy toward the Middle East is deemed a failure. Through patient diplomacy and reluctance to act, Obama chose to stay out of domestic processes: he preserved the structural-institutional continuity policy on Israel and Palestine cases, as well as Afghanistan, and avoided any intervention or greater entanglement in Syria (Byman, 2018; Gerges, 2013; Jones, 2018). By pursuing a centrist-realist approach, Obama, as Gerges criticizes, favored the maintenance of status-quo in the Middle East over the real change or transformational foreign policy—consistent with the dominant U.S. foreign policy orientation. “In fact, it appears that Washington has changed Obama far more than he has changed Washington […]. More than in any other region in the world, presidential policy is hampered by institutional, bureaucratic, and domestic politics.” (2013) In relation to Russia, meanwhile, Obama managed to forge a good relationship with his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, cooperating on arms control, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues, and tried to “reset” relations with Russia’s Putin—gridlocked due to a number of subjects: missile defense and NATO enlargement, Kosovo (2008), Georgia (2008), and Crimea (2014)—unsuccessfully. Overall, his presidency is criticized for demonstrating a weak and underwhelming response to Russian aggression, and for consistently underestimating the challenge posed by Putin regime under the belief that Russia did not constitute a threat to the U.S. national security (Haddad and Poliakova, 2018).

Trump entered the scene with the promise to destroy Obama legacy: renouncing Iran Nuclear Deal and Paris Climate Agreement. Committing to overhaul American foreign policy, he turned to isolationism—a reminiscence of America’s pre-World War II diplomacy, putting the United States’ security interests first. Through his America First theme, Trump abandoned the rules-based order of multilateralism and strategic alliances along with nation-building, democracy promotion, and human rights (Id., Posen, 2018). Accordingly, he withdrew from international agreements, and threatened to retreat from NATO, demanding Europeans to pay in exchange for defense; he lowered or threatened to evacuate American forces from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, including South Korea and Japan or force them increase payments; he redefined America’s allies and enemies, scorning the first and admiring the latter, while sanctioning both foes and friends alike; he refused to publicly criticize, and seek accountability from Putin about Russia’s intrusion in the-2016 U.S. presidential election, adamantly saying “there was no collusion” whereas questioning the U.S. intelligence’s findings; he rejected to demand from Russia and China the cessation of a possible interference in the 2020 election; and on and on it goes. Still, Trump’s policy toward Russia has, according to Daniel P. Vajdich, “been drastically more assertive than his predecessor:” he authorized lethal military aid to Ukraine; sanctioned Russia oligarchs and officials and expanded the sanctions list; targeted Russia with sanctions over North Korea, Iran, and Ukraine; and more than tripled defense initiatives to deter Russian aggression in Europe (Trump’s Russia Policy is Better Than Obama’s Was, Foreign Policy, April 13, 2018). Viewing policies from a “heterodox” perspective and every relationship as “transactional” in nature, Beckley, nevertheless, justifies Trump’s transactional approach as being the norm not an exemption for the most part of the U.S. history (Id., 2020). Trump’s Doctrine of putting American security interests first and the administration’s self-seeking approach to foreign policy, if repeated, as Kori Schake warns, will push other powers to forge new alliances that will keep the U.S. out. In a Trump II administration, America would withdraw forces from Europe, South Korea and Japan, helping shape a new world order, and by writing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq off, and leaving Syria to Assad, it would make more room for Russia and Iran to achieve their geopolitical ambitions (The Post-American Order, Foreign Affairs, October 21, 2020).      

New World Order: Bipolar + in Weaponry, Multipolar in Economics

The world entered in a new geopolitical order—multipolar in economics, and (asymmetric) bipolar regarding weaponization of cyber and artificial intelligence or a new Cold War between Russia and the West, encompassing as well as an additional undeclared arms race between U.S. and China, and an active re-evaluation of major economies of security relationships with the U.S. (Jones, 2017; 2019) The new geopolitics is characterized with a competition and confrontation between great powers instead of cooperation and harmonization: the revisionists, Russia and China, turned to traditional and hybrid means of warfare (political interference, political warfare, cyber-attacks and proxy wars) to achieve their goals—weakening or undermining the liberal international order they view as “ultimately a threat to their internal integrity and the survival of their regimes.” (Id., 2019) America and Western democracies representing liberal and market democracy—are the main target.

“We are seeing two additional military zones of that competition: We are seeing a return to the militarized proxy warfare in the Middle East with the U.S., Russia, Iran and other actors backing proxies by providing weapons, money, training, intelligence to fight essentially on their behalf inside the civil wars […]. The second settled but more consequential thing that we are seeing is over development and infrastructure spending […]. All this is seeing an end of an era of cooperation and the beginning of a new era of strategic competition.” (Bruce Jones, Watch: What Today’s Geopolitical Competition Means For Democracy, The Brookings, 2019). 

The world is gravitating around three geostrategic regions: Middle East, Eurasia, and Indo-Pacific. Momentarily, Middle East remains one of the main hotspots involving six primary actors, U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey, each having distinct strategic objectives. Jones explains geopolitical objectives of each as following: “Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to balance each other. Israel seeks to counter both Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions […] and shares with Saudi Arabia the strategic objective of containing Iran […]. Turkey has a dual Islamic-nationalist strategy, and is increasingly involved in regional affairs. Russia seeks to protect state sovereignty and gain influence at the expense of the United States.” (Feltman et al., 2019) Eurasia will remain the center of gravity and the main “confrontation zone” between U.S., Russia, and China (Güney and Gökcan, 2010). Southeast Asia, a crucially important route, meanwhile, will determine the structure of international politics and will likely be the next U.S. detour after Middle East (Kitchen, 2012: 6). 

The liberal international order, created and maintained by the U.S. since 1945, is going under serious threats. On the one hand, challenges emerging from economic and social trends or Russia’s strategy driven by a zero-sum worldview, and more specifically, Putin’s view of the existing order as inherently threatening to his political regime (Jones, 2020: 2); on the other, those related to West’s ongoing identity crisis and political dysfunctionality and its growing disinterest in international affairs, the EU fragmentation and its redefinition of relationships with other states/regions, and the U.S. retreat from diplomatic leadership role in conflict management and peace processes and its revisioning of foreign policy relative to the world (Husain and Soufan, 2017). RAND singles out three possible risks the liberal internationalism and the U.S. national interests in particular, will be facing with: 1) some leading states that see many components of the order as designed to constrain their power and perpetuate the American hegemony; 2) volatility from failed states or economic crises; and 3) shifting domestic politics in an era of slow growth and growing inequality (Mazarr et al., 2016). Besides, the world is experiencing a democratic recession and an ending of the third wave of democratic expansion. “Democracy,” according to Jones, “is challenged at the core of the West. In United States, in Europe, democracies are facing major challenges of delivery, legitimacy, and of self-confidence, but globally, democracy is a mixed picture.” (2019) “Democracy is in retreat”—from long-standing democracies like United States to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, Freedom House alarms (2019). The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) goes even further alluding to the “death of democracy” due to the onslaught of multilateralism, extreme inequality as a result of state capture, persistent corruption, identity politics and intolerance and societal polarization (2020). Global freedom is in decline, too, marking its 14th consecutive year (Repucci, 2020). The United States is no longer the leader of the free world (Id., Traub, June 18, 2020). The following sections looks onto the current geopolitical orders: U.S. and Russia+ in the Middle East, and U.S. and China+ in the Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific regions.

U.S. – Russia + in the Middle East: A New Cold War

The Middle East has been in the American orbit since the end of the Cold War (Güney and Gökcan, 2010). 9/11 attacks however hastened the dynamics of events, changing the geopolitical order landscape in general, and the equilibrium of forces in the Middle East in particular (Mazarr et al., 2016). America shifted the focus toward the Middle East and Eurasia, positioning its military forces in the oil heartland and along critical sea routes. It, also, replaced the fight against communism and ideologies with the war on terror (Güney and Gökcan, 2010: 25). The U.S. engagement in respective regions came in response to possible threats against its interests posed by China, India, and other Asian countries, heavily relying in the Middle Eastern suppliers and not supporters of American policies (Id.). Heretofore, China has played a peripheric role but with premises to grow its influence in the future, both economically and diplomatically: China is the largest consumer of oil and has begun to invest in instruments that can over time build its influence (Jones, 2018: 7). Russia, on the other side, re-emerged by mid-2000, after decades absence, playing a determinant role in shaping a new geopolitical structure, provoking as well as recurring tensions with the U.S. and its allies (Popescu and Secrieru, 2018). For the most part, America has sustained control over the Middle East, tying with key states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, as well as Israel and Turkey (Byman, 2018). With Obama in the office, though, things turned differently. The President shifted the focus from the region by substantially reducing the military presence, reformulating the American strategic interests and relationships with troubled-countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, whilst circumventing any intervention or greater entanglement in Syria (Byman, 2018; Jones, 2018). Trump followed the path, lowering or threatening to withdraw from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—substituting the U.S. contingent with a multinational observation force in Syria and lowering it “to zero” in Afghanistan (Bolton, 2020: 384-386). The President is clear: he does not want another “long-term U.S. military engagement” in the Middle East, or in any other region, Michael Pompeo, Secretary of State, writes in Confronting Iran: The Trump Administration’s Strategy (Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2018).     

The diminishing of American influence and presence in the Middle East—with the exception of a sustained but not consistent focus on Iran, plus stepping back from diplomatic leadership role in peace processes and conflict management, have altogether created a new geopolitical constellation in the region (Feltman et al., 2019). As Jones weights, “American strategy in the region is confused, at best. The U.S. diplomatic engagement to push for a regional economic and military framework that […] limits Iran’s reach might still deliver results, but it would require the U.S. to convince its putative partners in the region that it has a staying power.” (Id.) For Krasna, the America’s Middle East strategy is largely selective—sidelined toward Egypt and Iraq and over-focused on Iran and Palestine, leaving the Arab leadership to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (2016). Even relative to Iran—designated as a threat to the U.S. national security and a state sponsor to terrorism—Washington is largely divided. Under a maximum pressure sanctions policy, Trump formally withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, pressuring Teheran into negotiating a deal more favorable to the U.S.; he re-imposed sanctions and ordered the killing of the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in early 2020, and placed additional sanctions in the banking sector, more recently. On the contrary, Biden, the Democrat’s presidential candidate, has promised to dramatically change the course, starting by returning the Obama deal signed with Iran in 2015 (Foreign Affairs, September 30, 2020). The overall goal of maximum pressure campaign, comprising 17 rounds of Iran-related sanctions and targeting 147 Iran-related individuals and entities, as Pompeo explains, is to choke Iran’s revenues off, particularly those of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), utilized to fund violence through militia groups across the region as well as to support its agents around the world. “The goal of these aggressive sanctions is to force the Iranian regime to make a choice: whether to cease or persist in the policies that triggered the measures in the first place.” (Id., Pompeo, November/December, 2018) Apparently, Iran did not get the message. Instead of conceding to Washington’s demands, Teheran, based on Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar’s analysis, has resumed some of its previously suspended nuclear-related activities, continued its missile program, and deepened regional influence, signaling that it is going to drive Washington into a harder bargain (No Matter Who Is U.S. President, Iran Will Drive A Harder Bargain Than Before, Foreign Affairs, October 20, 2020). 

Iran behavior—not a surprise whatsoever. Teheran has long been challenging U.S. interests in the region by arming Yemeni’s Houthi rebels, Shiite militia in Iraq, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, expanding assistance to the Taliban, and through its creature—Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has been critical for the survival of Assad regime in Syria (Bolton, 2020: 384). Hereupon, the strategy of withdrawal from Middle East, particularly from Afghanistan, as Bolton, a formerly Trump’s National Security Adviser, cautions, could be detrimental for U.S. national interests, posing an unacceptable risk to American people: for al-Qaeda and ISIS might eventually reorganize—and using the vacuum power—attack United States at any time (Id., 388-390). To be clear: withdrawal would risk another 9/11 style attack! Pompeo apprised President Trump (Woodward, 2020: 116). Any departure from Afghanistan could be achieved only under a conditioned-based approach incorporating the creation of a modified mission to support counterterrorism capabilities in parallel with three objectives: 1) being fully capable to preventing the resurgence of terrorism, al-Qaeda and ISIS; 2) remaining vigilant against the nuclear danger from Iran and Pakistan; and 3) having adequate means of verification (Bolton, 2020). The U.S. engagement in the Middle East is critical not only to preserving peace and stability in the region but also to deterring Iran. Syria best exemplifies what Iran is capable of doing, and when it finds allies like Russia and Turkey. Failure to effectively act in ending the conflict in Syria along with the ongoing competition and Iran’s regional ambitions, as Husain and Soufan suggest, have politicized and internationalized regional grievances, opening new opportunities for Russia (even China) to step in and fill the partial vacuum (2017).  

“The West’s growing disinterest in international affairs, as well as its political dysfunctionality, means that it may no longer be considered a reliable guarantor of stability by allies in the Muslim world. This could prompt such allies to shift their attention elsewhere, including toward Russia or China. […] Ankara has moved closer to Moscow, and the relationship is likely deepening in 2017. […] Russia has emerged as the leading global player in the Syrian conflict, and a resolution without Russian cooperation is unlikely.” (Ed Husain and Ali Soufan, Religion, Conflict, and Geopolitics in 2017, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2017).

In fact, using the void left by the U.S. retrenchment, Moscow stepped in as a savior, allying with, and supporting the Assad regime, strengthening ties with, and selling advanced weapons to Turkey against Syrian Kurds, and collaborating with Iran. Of course, ideology was determinant, for “ideologically,” as Byman writes, “Russia also fits in well with the Middle East. Putin, an autocrat himself, is comfortable with dictators and resents what he perceives as the U.S. democracy promotion—a position that dictators in the Middle East also share.” (2018) Trump followed a similar strategy, mostly leading from behind, leaving Syria on its own, and avoiding to help Israel contain Iran’s encroachments (Indyk, 2018). “But Trump,” as this author suggests, “has already a Middle East strategy […]. He will embrace America’s Middle Eastern partners, autocrats, and democrats alike, and sell them all the arms they can afford.” For example, instead of engaging to achieve a political settlement and ending the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Trump helped Saudi Arabia by providing military and intelligence service. “And who benefits in the meantime? Iran, of course.” (Id.) No doubt that Arab Spring, as Delacoura underlines, has altered the ideology in the Middle East, the sect and power politics, but it is the calculations and national interests of the “main players” that have shaped the landscape in the region, often referred to as a New Cold War (Aras and Yorulmaziar, 2017).

The Middle East became an area of interest for Russia starting in the mid-2000—following decades of absentee. Three moments were crucial for its dramatic re-emergence: President Putin’s visit in the region through 2005 and 2007, the Arab Spring in 2010 and its consequences, and Russia’s deployment of the first major combat in 2015 (Popescu and Secrieru, 2018: 5). It was the decline of American engagement, though, that put Russia on the spotlight (Id.). Moscow’s involvement in the Middle East development has been dictated by numerous factors, economic, diplomatic, as well as military. Economically, the region enabled Russia to strengthen its producers’ presence in international oil and gas markets as well as in arms manufacturer. Diplomatically, it allowed Moscow to cultivate deeper involvement in regional issues, establishing relationships with legitimate forces, at the same time engaging states in economic deals from investments to arms sales to stabilizing oil prices (Kozhanov, 2018: 1). Russia tied with a wide array of partners, collaborating with Iran and Turkey on Syria, coordinating with Israel on Syria, Yemen, and Israeli-Arab peace process, as well as to deter Iran, and cooperating with Saudi Arabia to negotiate oil prices (Wasser, 2019). “Russia has become an appealing partner to Middle Eastern states—ostensibly stepping in to fill a perceived power vacuum left by retrenched U.S. leadership.” (Id.) Militarily, Russia intervention in 2015 was a pivotal moment: Moscow reasserted itself as a major and important player in the Middle East politics—without whom no settlement could be achieved (Rumer, 2019). The military intervention in Syria not only rescued its key regional client but also helped Russia resume the level of regional influence—a step forward in reclaiming great global power status (Wasser, 2019). Yet, Russia, as Sladden et al. argue, does not have a clear ends-driven regional strategy, applying a generalized, functional strategy. Its approach is short-term, transactional, resource-driven and opportunity-dependent. “When resources and opportunities to advance Russia’s interests are scarce, transactions decrease. When resources and opportunities are flush, they accelerate. Russian foreign policy is guided by near-term pragmatism—others might say opportunism—and not by long-term plans or regional designs.” (2017) 

United States – Russia Relations: A History of Confrontation 

Currently, the U.S. relations with Russia are at the lowest point (Stent, 2020), the worst since the end of the Cold War (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2019). The confrontation is believed to have started in 2012 when Putin allegedly declared that Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, stood behind demonstrators in Russia protesting his return to power; it continued with Russia’s annexation of Crimea (from Ukraine) in 2014 and the launch of an ongoing war in Donbas region; and deteriorated further following Russia’s support for Syria’s Assad—and later—Venezuela’s Maduro regimes. It was Moscow’s interference in the 2016-U.S. presidential election, however, directly organized from Putin, that marked a dramatic turn in American-Russian relations (Bolton, 2020; Stent, 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2020). Historically a “mixture of cooperation and competition”—with the best cooperation recorded after 9/11 attacks and during Obama and Medvedev Presidencies (2008—2012)—today the U.S.—Russia relations are largely adversarial (Stent, 2020). The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) lists Russia on the top threats to America’s national security and its democratic institutions, followed by China, North Korea, and Iran (2018). The strategy, as Pifer argues, correctly describes Russia’s adversarial approach toward the United States and the West in general, and provides appropriate recommendations (2018). The NSS, too, recognizes Russian efforts as “all about geopolitics:” the Putinist system’s permanent and self-justifying struggle for international dominance (Mitchell, 2018). 

Following the Soviet Union collapse, Washington adopted a bipartisan strategy, enabling Russia to integrate into the European and global institutions, simultaneously, deepening bilateral partnership in security issues, while also promoting foreign investment and trade cooperation (U.S. State of Department, 2020). In spite of that, Russia chose a different course—opting for an aggressive pursuit of its unilateral interests, consequently committing acts of aggression against Georgia and Ukraine that led to the suspension of bilateral political and military relations, and subsequent sanctions (Id.). Russia, as the U.S. Department of State asserts, struggles to position itself as a great power competitor to America, and using hybrid tools of warfare, it seeks to undermine international norms and West’s core institutions as well as to weaken the faith in democratic and free-market system (2020). The prevailing narrative is that Russia aspires to restore its place in international relations, returning control over the used-to-be-spheres of influence-in the post-Soviet states by preventing them from joining NATO and the EU—a demand sought to be acknowledged by American and European counterparts (refused by Washington effectively) (Stent, 2020; U.S. State of Department, 2020). Consider Ukraine and Georgia, for example. Arguably, the real reason behind Crimea is competition between West and Russia for geopolitical and civilization expansion: West seeks to move toward former Soviet republics, Russia to undo some of the 1991 results and impose a particular notion of Russian identity beyond its national borders (Kuzio and D’anieri, 2018). By annexing Crimea, Russia intends to reassert its hegemonic power threatened by the spread of pro-democracy forces (Color Revolutions) and the enlargement of NATO and EU with former soviet states (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2017). 

Russian leaders have, since Yeltsin, lamented the loss, indignity, and humiliation they suffered from the defeat in the Cold War (Burns, 2019). Hence, reaffirmation of Russia’s great-power status and the acceptance of its special influence over former Soviet republics—with no encroachment by NATO beyond the Baltics—have, according to Burns, been some of Russian leaders’ requests from Clinton to Bush’s administration as conditions for partnership with America. “But this kind of transaction was never in the cards […]. The Bush administration had no desire—and saw no reason—to trade anything for a Russian partnership against alQaeda.” (Id.) Obama, as former U.S. ambassador to Russia unveils, looked for the possibilities to “reset” the relationship, but Putin was clear: He demanded America out of Russia’s domestic and regional affairs. “You Americans need to listen more. […] You can’t have everything your way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms,” Burns reveals the message he received from Putin in 2005, and kept hearing it again and again (Id.). Trump has made efforts to resume high-level talks, temporarily suspended, meeting Putin five times, according to the New York Times (Peter Baker, January 15, 2019), and speaking privately to him at least 19 times, based on the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor report (October 4, 2019)—without success. 

Managing relations with Russia will be a long game. Changing the trajectory will be difficult: Russians do not accept American primacy and want to accelerate the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world; they reject democracy promotion as a cover for regime change. Americans wants to sustain the primacy in a unipolar world; they continue with democracy promotion in and around Russia’s borders; and reject spheres of influence (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2019). Improving will take time, but, eventually Washington and Moscow will reengage, even if disagreeing most of the time, pursuing a less confrontational approach (Sokolsky and Rumer, 2020). Both Russia and America are responsible for the deterioration of the relationship: Russia bears a major share with its disruptive and often rogue actions, U.S. for refusing to accept Russia for what it is, chasing the same unrealistic policies it did for three decades, such as democracy promotion and NATO expansion in and around Russia—both representing a threat to Russia’s domestic stability and security (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2019). In a forthcoming bipolar+ world—with U.S. and China battling to dominate the world—and numerous state-and-nonstate-actors exercising considerable influence in international relations, U.S. and Russia, according to Sokolsky and Rumer, have no option other than to cooperate. “Mutual accommodation, therefore, will be difficult. The U.S. foreign policy community views Russia as a hostile actor, and this view is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future […]. Likewise, Moscow’s foreign policy sees the United States as an aggressive, unilateral, hostile actor and a threat to Russia’s domestic stability and claim to a prominent position on the world stage.” (2020) The U.S. from its part, is prepared to restore relationships and cooperating with, only if Russia is willing to be a responsible, constructive global actor, starting with a cessation to interfere in democratic processes (U.S. State Department, 2019).

U.S. – China in South Asia and Indo-Pacific: A War Like No Other

The geopolitical constellation not only has changed in the Middle East and North Africa but also in the South Asia and Indo-Pacific. The new geopolitical order, comprising U.S., China, North Korea, India and Pakistan, is determined by three factors: China’s economic and military rise and its efforts to expand commercial and diplomatic influence throughout Eurasia; India’s rise and its endeavors to work with South and Southeast Asia; and U.S. attempts to recalibrate its grand strategy addressing new power dynamics across the arc of Asia from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). This new balance of power could be both a source of conflict and of hope for greater cooperation among regional powers and between them and the U.S., too (Id.). Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan from Eurasia Group are pessimistic, though. Divergences and the current tensions between U.S. and China, they say, will lead to a “more explicit clash over national security issues, influence, and values:” both parties will use economic means to achieve political goals on the global scene (2020). Similarly, Stromseth (2019) and Bolton (2020) predict a new confrontation—accelerated as a result of novel coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. suspicious that China delayed, fabricated, and distorted information on the virus Sars-Cov-2, contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 disease globally. America’s economic and geopolitical relations with China, will, according to Bolton, determine the shape of international relations in the twenty-first century: China is competing for global dominance, even though President Xi Jinping denied his country is racing to dominate the world, replacing the U.S. or posing a risk of international conflict, while assuring that China respects U.S. sovereignty and interests in Asia (2020: 263-273). By contrast, Flint and Xiaotong do not see any immediate threat as Beijing has not—at the moment—shown any intentions to become a hegemonic power, dramatically reorganizing global politics and economics or geopolitical structure, nor to disrupt norms and rules of capitalist world economy (2019: 296-297). Rather China, as these authors hold, seeks to maintain its global political and economic structure that would ensure its domestic stability and its maximalization of economic growth (Id., 296). 

Presently, China is concentrated on economic and security issues (Goldhammer, 2016). Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific are centerpiece of its foreign policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). Economically, Beijing has made strides to increase its influence and assertiveness by struggling with Europeans for control of global market on digital machine tools (Germany) and becoming a major investor in the nuclear power plant (Britain) (Goldhammer, 2016). In addition, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-continent and multi-ocean infrastructure project underpinning economic goals and increased diplomatic presence and overseas security commitments, China has significantly improved its position taking advantage from the current global economic growth and the decline of U.S. hegemonic position (Id.). Incepted in 2013 and referred to as the New Silk Road, the BRI is one of the most ambitious infrastructural plans ever conceived by China that would stretch from East Asia to Europe, simultaneoulsy, it is an unsettling enterprise for U.S., which has struggled to offer a competing vision to prevent China’s economic and political influence globally (Chatzky and McBride, 2020). Further, the U.S.—China race in Southeast Asia, is, according to Stromseth, fueled by Trump’s administration Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP): the strategy takes aim to China’s regional hegemony of spheres of influence, criticizing Beijing for leveraging predatory economics to coerce other nations choose between free and repressive visions of world order in the Indo-Pacific, respectively choose between China or the United States (2019). The problem, as Goldhammer maintains, is that China—utilizing economic strength—is willing to protect its chain supply even by defying, if necessary, the established international norms like in case of the controversies over islands that stand athwart the important shipping routes in the South China Sea (2016). (In an imaginary situation, the military installations on the Spratlys island, a disputed archipelago in South China Sea, which based on Secretary Mattis’ standpoint, were part of China bigger plan, would mean: Shanghai would replace New York City as the center of world finance by 2030. Taiwan would be reincorporated as part of China. And the only way for China to do that would be with intimidation or force). (Woodward, 2020: 121). Bolton provides a long list of China’s violations of international rules, successfully pursuing a mercantilist policy in a supposedly free-trade body: China stole intellectual property, forced technology transfers from, and discriminated against, foreign investors and businesses, engaged in corrupt practices and debt diplomacy through investments (the BRI) and continued to manage its domestic economy in statist, authoritarian way (2020: 264-265). “America was target of these structural aspect of China’s policy as well as Europe, Japan and virtually all industrial democracies.” Moreover, China sought politico-military benefits from its economic activity by using privately owned companies—otherwise tools of China’s military and intelligence service, as well as engaged in aggressive cyber warfare that targeted foreign private investors (Id., 265). This means that China must be deterred!

On the security level, Beijing has made substantial changes by increasing the military presence in the South China Sea, developing weapons that might be challenging for the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific, constructing the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and increasing foreign direct investment worldwide (Flint and Xiaotong, 2019: 295-296). Furthermore, China has expanded its military capacities, creating one of the world’s top offensive cyber warfare programs, building a blue-water navy for the first time in five hundred years, enhancing its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, developing anti-satellite weapons to blind U.S. space-based sensors, designing anti-access and area-denial weapons to push the American navy back from Asia’s coast, and so forth (Bolton, 2020: 265). As Bolton warns, “Watching China transformation over the years, I saw all this as deeply threatening to U.S. strategic interests, and to our friends and allies globally.” (Id.) The Chinese’s growing economic strength combined with military capabilities and political influence, respectively its expansion of military footprint in the western Pacific, according to Ambassador Roy, may soon end the American rule in the region and start a new war between the two (2016: 3). 

“To quote from a recent RAND study: […] this would be a war in which the United States would be challenged in the air, on (and under) the water, in space, and across the electromagnetic spectrum. The U.S. forces would be hard-pressed from the start, and they would probably not enjoy sanctuary in regional bases. Also, unlike recent wars, the U.S. military could well sustain significant air and naval losses.” (J. Stapleton Roy, The Changing of Geopolitics of East Asia, Yale Law School, 2016).

Moreover, China, as Bremmer alerts, is moving the world toward a global tech war; it announced a strategy to dominate the world of 5G technology, seeing it as the highway to its geopolitical supremacy—global tech war (Trump’s Biggest Foreign Policy Win So Far, TIME, July 20, 2020). Oh, and one last reminder: the Chinese economy, unlike that of U.S., successfully recovered from the coronavirus pandemic crisis, recording, based on the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, a 4.9 percent rise in economic growth during the July—September 2020 quarter compared to the same months last year (Keith Bradsher, New York Times, October 20, 2020).

China’s Ambitions: Global, Designed to Intimidate   

Russia’s and China’s behavior in the world politics is a normal act aimed at furthering their own interests, as well as to enhance their positions within the system—but not to replace it (Ikenberry, 2014: 89). Even if they pretend to change, build their own orders or even take full responsibility for the current one, Russia and China, as Ikenberry suggests, do not have grand visions of an alternative global economic or political order. “For them, international relations are mainly about the search for commerce and resources, the protection of their sovereignty, and, where possible, regional domination.” (Id., 90) Similar thoughts offer Agnew, too. He does not consider China as a power that would provide a totally alternative scripting to the world politics but as one that could give a contribution to the pluralization—away from the recent hegemony of neoliberalism associated with the post-1970s U.S. global role (2010: 570). Bolton (2020), Chhabra (2019), and Gordon and Steinberg (2020) think the opposite. For Chhabra, China poses a threat for democracy and liberal values globally, and in particular, for the U.S. global order, the political identity of America and its democratic partners (2019).

“Beijing’s ‘flexible’ authoritarianism abroad, digital tools of surveillance and control, unique brand of authoritarian capitalism, and ‘weaponization’ of interdependence may in fact render China a more formidable threat to democracy and liberal values than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. China’s growth and determined illiberalism mean that open societies around the world must prepare for the current era of democratic stagnation to continue, or even worsen.” (Tarun Chhabra, The China Challenge, Democracy, And U.S. Grand Strategy, The Brookings, 2019)

The underlying cause of U.S.—China conflict lies on their ideologies and systems. Currently engaged in a “trade war,” the problem of U.S. with China, as Bolton explains, is not a “trade dispute” as many refer to it, but a “conflict of systems” and values. “The ‘structural issues’ with China are not trade tactics but a fundamentally different approach to organizing economic life.” (2020, 272) The calculations of American leaders that China, as it grows economically, would become more liberal, first economically and then politically, resembling more the United States, have been all the way wrong and the greatest failure of U.S. foreign policy since the 1930s, according to Robert C. O’Brien. In his analysis at the Foreign Affairs, O’Brien singles out China’s ideology, the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to expand far beyond Chines borders, as the main threat to democracy and the United States (How China Threatens American Democracy, October 21, 2010). In short: the convergence theory, as former Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, argues, did not work in China case. “China grew economically without democratizing. Instead, its government became more ideological and repressive, with military ambitions that are not just regional and defensive, but global and designed to intimidate […]. Let’s face it: Xi has killed the notion of convergence.” (How to Confront An Advancing Threat From China, Foreign Affairs, July 18, 2020) Nadia Schadlow offers a more realistic view: China had no intention of converging with the West. The Chinese Communist Party never intended to play by the West’s rules; it was determined to control markets rather than open them. It was a win-win.” (The End Of American Illusion: Trump And The World As It Is, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2020)   

All in all, the Indo-Pacific region is threatening the future stability not merely in Asia but around the globe by a modernized India, a North Korea in pursuit of nuclear weapons, and an aggressive and uncooperative China. As Auslin put it, “Whether through economic pressure, political and military intimidation, espionage, or propaganda, Beijing is actively trying to reshape the world to fit its interests, picking and choosing which Western norms it adopts and which it ignores […]. The ‘new China rules’ […] are the greatest strategic challenge of the next generation.” (2020) H.R. McMaster, former Trump’s National Security Adviser, cautions as below: “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor […]. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance.” (Woodward, 2020) Agnew challenges these assumptions, suggesting that China is either just another power in a long succession of great powers, rising to the top of global hierarchy, or a completely new phenomenon with respect to its singular history associated with imperial past, communist rejection of world capitalism, and cultural particularity (2010: 570). China’s growth, he follows, is rather shaped by a contradictory amalgam of Western-style nationalism and a traditional totalistic conception of world order, which is reactive to, and dependent on current world politics (Id.). To prevent a collision between U.S. and China, Chhabra proposes a grand strategy, comprising the embrace—from America and its allies—of China challenge, as well as advancing democracy and liberal values across the world (2019). 

…add North Korea to the equation

The U.S. and China relations moved between cooperation and confrontation—with best cooperation documented during the 2008 economic crisis, starting to become more contentious and risk undermining in the last decade (Schell and Shirk, 2017). Today the U.S. relations with China are at the crossroads. Leaders in Beijing are acting more assertively in Asia, more mercantilist in their economic strategies, and more authoritarian in their domestic politics, while at the same time the long-time tenets of U.S. policy are being reexamined in Washington (Id.). The relationship with China took a downward spiral during the Trump tenure. President has disrupted a longstanding bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy toward China he views as “overly timid and insufficiently robust in responding to its excesses.” (Dollar, Haas, and Bader, 2019) Trump has demonstrated an “attitude without strategy,” adopting an increasingly zero-sum, unilateralist, protectionist, and nativist America first approach, increasing sanctions and placing tariffs—unclear if they aim to change China behavior in specific areas of concern, “decouple” the American economy from China’s through supply chain diversification, or to obstruct China’s rise (Id.). Confronting China threat, as Philip, H. Gordon and James Steinberg propose, requires a serious strategy not bellicose rhetoric or a flip-flopping policy as Trump has shown, by publicly flattering Xi and his leadership, especially in managing the coronavirus crisis, just to roll out most recently, portraying China as an implacable and determined totalitarian enemy—whose goal is to destroy American way of life and impose a Marxist-Leninist ideology in the world (Trump’s Flip-Flops On China Are A Danger To National Security, Foreign Policy, July 29, 2020). 

The situation could escalate adding North Korea to the equation. In the State of the Union address in January 2002, Bush designated North Korea (and Iran and Iraq) as the Axis of Evil—rogue states that harbored, financed, and aided terrorists. When moving from the office, Obama left a letter on the Trump’s desk, warning North Korea be the biggest threat for the U.S., and the most dangerous problem for the incoming administration (Gerald F. Seib, Jay Solomon, and Carol E. Lee, The Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2016). Departing from Obama’s strategic patience approach marked without a noticeable success (Hyun, 2017), Trump endorsed a strategic accountability policy, encompassing economic, rhetorical, military, diplomatic pressure, and if necessary covert action, aimed at “final and fully verified denuclearization” of Korean Peninsula (Pompeo, Id., Foreign Affairs, 2018: Woodward, 2020). {…} “final’ and ‘fully verified’ are centerpieces on which we will not compromise,” ensures Pompeo (Id). But—without any success—despite Trump’s penchant for Chairman Kim. Impatient to reach a “historic deal” that would serve his personal and political victory, eventually helping his reelection, Trump commenced three summits with Kim—marking a precedent in American foreign policy. The diplomatic courtship between Trump and Kim through 2018—2019 contains 27 letters, all florid and grandiloquent, as described by Woodward, tracing how the two forged a personal and emotional relationship (2020: 105). Perhaps, this explains why Trump refused to publicly condemn North’s series of missiles launched in 2017 and 2019, including the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in July 2017, capable of reaching the United States’ shores (Id., 76). “Two past years,” as Fuchs and Lee argue, “are considered as a waste of time in relation to North Korea, regardless Trump’s attempt to change the American foreign policy toward the nuclear power […].” (2020) While these authors propose America to make a substantive offer by relieving sanctions so to bring North Korea back to the table, for Uri Friedman, time is running out for U.S. to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power (The Atlantic, December 19, 2019). Bolton considers that Trump’s policy on North is reversing to American foreign policy held for 25 years. Pessimistic that Kim is serious in changing the course, he says that—by playing with Trump’s character and feelings—Kim actually played America that North is willing to change, which won’t (2020). And he has a strong reason to behave so: Kim now has his “mighty sword”—the powerful ICBM that could carry a nuclear war with United States (Woodward, 2020: 92). In fact, Trump has praised himself for averting a “nuclear war” with North by meeting with Kim. As he told Woodward, Kim anticipated such a war with United States. 

“Did he tell you that?” Woodward asked. 

“Ah, yes, he did,” Trump answered. 

“He did?” Woodward followed up. 

“He was totally prepared to go,” Trump replied. “And he expected to go. But we met.” 

The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, overseeing 17 U.S. intelligence services, confirmed Trump’s assertion. “We all knew we were on the road to conflict.” Kim, too, told then the CIA Director, Pompeo, the same thing in their first meeting, “that he was ready to go to war.” “We were very close.” (Id., 76) After the meeting with Kim on June 12, 2018, in Singapore, Trump tweeted: “There is No Longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea […]. Obama said North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer—sleep well tonight.” (Id., 107)             

Conclusion: Cohabitating and Cooperating in a Bipolar+ World

As earlier as 1994, Kissinger imagined a “third new world order,” a multipolar world, believing that America would still be able to impose its pluralist-democratic ideology, and accordingly, learn to function as one power in a complex system “that it can neither escape nor dominate.” (Howard, 1994) It took three decades to see that world materializing. This is an irreversible process. What America should do is accept the new equilibrium of forces, the multipolar geopolitical constellation, and try to fit in. Yet, America should run the world, starting by reestablishing its position as the leader of the free world and guarantor of international peace and security, at the same time, considering the possibility of delegating power to regional actors. Additionally, U.S. should improve its standing in the world, currently low, by redefining its foreign policy in relation to the world and regions, as well as strengthening and promoting liberal norms and values around the world. America, as Richard Fontaine proposes, should continue to encourage democracy abroad despite Trump’s disdain for it, and no matter the fact that democracy is threatened and is dysfunctional at home (America Must Promote Democracy Despite Trump’s Disdain For It, Foreign Policy, October 13, 2020). Democracy, nation-building, human rights and multilateralism should continue to be the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Certainly, nurturing democracy by providing incentives, taking into considerations context-specifics and local opportunities, and through leading from behind—not the other way around. Peacebuilding and state-building should be nationally-owned and nationally-led. America should opt for a hybrid approach—accept what others have to offer instead of imposing its system and values. Further, U.S. should recuperate and strengthen relationships with its allies, the European Union, NATO, Great Britain, and Canada, and cooperate on the world’s most pressing issues. Moreover, it should retake the leadership role in preventing mass atrocities and large-scale human rights violations as well as protecting lives of people when their government fail, is unable, unwilling, or is involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity itself. Such action should be convened only under the UN Security Council authorization or following an endorsement of 50+states. Most importantly, Washington should be reengaged in conflict management and peace processes, sustain its military presence in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan), including South Korea, Japan, and Europe, and ultimately, act to effectively resolve the conflict in Syria. Lastly, America should reassess its foreign policy in relation to Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.  

U.S.—Russia: Throughout the Cold War, America had been applying a doctrine of containment toward Russia. And, ultimately, it worked, Kissinger recalled (Howard, 1994). Would it now, if applied? Currently engaged in a New Cold War, America—Russia relations are the worst since the Cold War. Managing relationship with Moscow will be a long game requiring tactful diplomacy, maneuvering in the gray area between war and peace, building leverage, exploring common ground where America can find it and pushing back firmly and persistently where it can’t (Burns, 2019). Fixing it requires from Washington to change its policy on strategic stability, NATO expansion, and sanctions (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2019). The challenge is finding an acceptable balance between cooperation and competition, and compartmentalizing the relationship in a more effective way so to fight on the common global threats and crisis (Stent, 2020). One thing is clear: high-level dialogue with Moscow should be resumed, and simultaneously, Washington has to make several key adjustments: 

  • prioritize U.S. interests vis-à-vis Russia and focus on the essentials—the nuclear relationship and strategic stability 
  • leave Russia’s internal affairs for Russians to untangle
  • halt NATO’s eastward expansion and refocusing on the alliance’s core mission of collective defense
  • be clear with Ukraine and Georgia that they should not base their foreign policies on the assumption that they will join NATO, but sustain robust programs of security cooperation with them
  • and rethink the sanctions policy toward Russia and use them with restraint (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2019). 

To restrain Russia’s revisionist behavior and expansionism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, on the other hand, U.S. should restore the balance of power through economic sanctions and offensive measures that would expose Kremlin-implicated corruption, and along with Europe, use pressure and an openness approach to cooperate on certain issues of common interests (Aleksashenko et al., 2020). Resuming the high-level dialogue is important to avoid inadvertent military escalation in spheres of influence, and to improve bilateral relations if Moscow reconsiders revanchism (Id.). 

U.S.—China: Kissinger was skillful in bringing the Chinese into play as independent actor in the international system (Howard, 1994). China is in the system now but in violation of international norms and rules—failing to converge. U.S.—China relationship, which oscillated between cooperation and competition, regressed to a trade war during Trump Presidency. It is mandatory thus for new administration to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of U.S.—China policy along with six most immediate priorities: 

  • work with China to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile program 
  • reaffirm U.S. commitments to Asia
  • deploy effective tools to address the lack of reciprocity in U.S. trade and investment relations with China 
  • intensify efforts to encourage a principled, rules-based approach to the management and settlement of Asia-Pacific maritime disputes
  • respond to Chinese civil society policies that harm U.S. organizations, companies, individuals, and the broader relationship 
  • sustain and broaden U.S.—China collaboration on global climate change (Schell and Shirk, 2017).

For U.S. to remain a Pacific power, it necessitates to accept China challenge, recognize some level of cooperation and engage with other regional nations on their own terms and based on a positive economic and political agenda. Further, Washington should accelerate and operationalize plans to coordinate with longstanding partners for fostering a sustainable economic growth—not to confront China’s BRI project—but to develop a compelling alternative and then reengage China from a position of strength (Stromseth, 2019). 

U.S.—North Korea: America and U.S. were “very close to a nuclear war” in 2020. To reduce the risk of a nuclear war, the overarching priority should be taking “diplomacy more seriously.” Then, rethinking a North Korea policy, pursuing a peace-based approach, formally declaring an end to the Korean War, and reaching a peace agreement. A second Trump administration should: 1) reassess options and adjust negotiating positions; 2) set achievable goals; 3) transition to an action-for-action approach with incremental benchmarks; 4) and have the flexibility to manage setbacks. A Biden administration should: 1) proactively reach out to North Korea; 2) restart negotiations using the Singapore Declaration; 3) maintain the suspension of military exercises in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests; 4) and coordinate with allies, particularly South Korea, while attempting to bring China on board (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2020).  On denuclearization, North Korea should provide a true declaration and accounting of all nuclear sites and fissile material—and an agreement on full verification. Negotiations must produce a clear timeline for the ultimate goal: disablement and dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities. America, from its part, should provide clarity on security guarantees for North; seriously commit to normalizing relations by agreeing to an “end-of-war” statement and opening liaison offices in respective capitals; declaring that Washington does not have “hostile intent” and will begin normalization, a peace treaty is equally needed as a security guarantee; committing that by improving relations with North does not mean degrading its regional alliances; ensuring that denuclearization should be accompanied by economic measures and humanitarian assistance; and any sanctions relief should be based on complete dismantlement of the nuclear weapons and facilities (Ambassador Joseph Yun, United States Institute of Peace, 2018).

U.S.—Iran: The U.S. relations with Iran have reached their worst condition in decades. Playing on Iraq Playbook, Washington risked another war in the region. But in Iran’s case, waging a war would not have worked, for the geopolitical landscape currently does not favor another American war in the Middle East—contrary to 2003. Realizing this, America backed off. For. Now. The existing strategy of maximum pressure did not make any fundamental change or surrender of the Iranian government. The strategy does not work with Iran; therefore, negotiations should be open (Soori, 2019). And along with them, Iran should end support for regional military groups and terrorists and disarm them, withdraw forces from Syria, and stop threatening Israel. For negotiations to be effective, they should be real negotiations not just handshaking. Both parties should make a few modifications in policies: limiting certain aspects of sanctions and the use of more favorable words by the U.S. would be very helpful in gaining trust from Iran, and avoiding the talk about the regime change in Iran—which is an unrealistic idea (Id.). And, of course, reversing the Nuclear Deal, if Biden is elected President of the United States.   

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ENDNOTES

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