Great wars have important consequences on the domestic and international politics of the combatant nations. The 1971 war between India and Pakistan, for example, not only liberated Bangladesh but also changed the balance of power between Delhi and Islamabad. In Pakistan, this produced a major effort – in the form of the 1973 constitution – to democratize a military-dominated nation.
However, none of these results survived the 1970s; in Pakistan, the military made a decisive comeback when General Zia-ul-Haq seized power from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and executed him in 1979. Zia also accelerated the country’s nuclear weapons program Pakistan which neutralized India’s conventional superiority and restored the balance of power. in the subcontinent. He also leveraged nuclear impunity to institutionalize a strategy of cross-border terrorism against India.
Wars between great powers are much larger. The Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the 19th century, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War in the 20th century left a lasting mark on the international system.
The Napoleonic Wars raised the prospect of radical internal transformation in Europe, but Napoleon’s defeat helped conservative forces restore the old order. But it also produced the Concert of Europe which limited local conflicts and supported a regional balance of power for a century.
World War I saw the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, created new nations in Europe, and strengthened nationalism in the non-Western world. World War II saw the defeat of fascism and the rise of the United States and the USSR. The decline in European power helped accelerate the decolonization of the Global South. The Cold War ended with the defeat of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union and paved the political way for economic globalization.
Could Russia’s war against Ukraine turn into a world war and produce fundamental changes in the international system? The specter of a “third world war” has certainly begun to enter the discourse. Russian Vladimir Putin has signaled that the use of nuclear weapons is not out of the question. US President Joe Biden has said he will defend every inch of NATO territory, even if it involves World War III.
At the same time, Biden said the United States would not fight Russia in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron has said Europe is “not at war” with Russia. Moscow, however, sees America and Europe as major players in its war against Ukraine, given the military assistance they have provided to the resistance and the unprecedented Western sanctions against Russia.
Over the weekend, Russia began bombing the western part of Ukraine which borders NATO. Its targets include bases and installations that help coordinate Western military assistance to the resistance. Unless there is a quick diplomatic breakthrough, the conflict between Russia and the West is likely to escalate in the coming days. Whether we are already in a Third World War or not, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is triggering major geopolitical shifts across the world. At least five trends emerge. All of them may not last, but they help gauge the current geopolitical flux.
The first is the new dynamism of the great power triangle between the United States, Russia and China. Last June, Biden met with Putin to explore the possibility of a reasonable relationship with Moscow. Biden hoped to distance Russia from China and focus all American energies on the Indo-Pacific. But Putin chose to align himself with China and confront the United States and Europe with an impossible set of demands, including a sphere of influence in central Europe and the transformation of Ukraine into a protectorate of Moscow. As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, Washington reached out to China — to hold back Russia before the invasion — and warned against Moscow’s support after the aggression. China’s public articulation has pointed to “rock-solid” support for Moscow, but it is under pressure to balance its “boundless” Russian alliance with its deep economic interdependence with the United States and the world. ‘Europe. Be that as it may, the current crisis has revealed America’s pole position in the great strategic triangle.
Second, the primacy of the United States among the great powers was reinforced by the restoration of strategic unity within the West. If President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were fooled by their own propaganda of “American decline and Western disarray,” they might be surprised by the rapid rapprochement with the West. While many transatlantic differences remain over the nature and extent of sanctions against Russia, the crisis has revealed the enduring sources of Western unity.
Third, American discipline of Europe, especially Germany, where illusions of normative soft power and faith in commercialism had blinded the continent to the geopolitical challenges presented by Russia and China. Europe’s belief that it can get rich on the Russian and Chinese markets while expecting Washington to do all the heavy lifting on security is no longer tenable. The German rearmament decision announced the day after the Russian aggression marks a definitive geopolitical turning point in Europe.
Fourth, nowhere is the EU’s Russian dilemma more visible than in the area of energy where Europe is deeply tied to Russian imports of oil, natural gas and coal. The EU pays Moscow $110 billion a year for these imports. That the EU cannot increase Russian revenues as Moscow wages war on Europe begins to dawn in European chancelleries. While ramping up pressure on Europe to drastically reduce energy imports from Russia, Washington is reaching out to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran to fill the vacuum created by the planned supply blockade. Russian energy. With the American mind focused on Russia, no oil state is a political pariah for the Biden administration anymore. In matters of war, ‘values’ necessarily give way to ‘interests’.
Finally, Asia is beginning to adapt quickly to the new American confrontation with Russia and China. Tokyo, which actively courted a hard-to-get Moscow for more than a decade, has returned to a hawkish line. Sensing the dangers of a Sino-Russian axis and fearing that Europe would distract America’s attention, Japan is rethinking its nuclear abstinence.
Meanwhile, developments in Europe reinforce Tokyo’s resolve to bolster its conventional military capabilities and deepen the alliance with the United States. South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol wants to strengthen ties with the United States and explore potential cooperation with the Quad – the forum that unites America, Australia, India and Japan . By convening a quick virtual Quad summit earlier this month, Washington signaled that there would be no dilution of its commitment to the Indo-Pacific. As ASEAN remains torn between the United States and China, many in the region are realizing the dangers of betting that Beijing’s rise is irreversible and Western decline is terminal.
The first major great-power conflict of the 21st century presented India with multiple challenges, including its long-standing reliance on Russian military supplies. But this pivotal moment in world politics is also an opportunity for Delhi to increase its weight in the shifting global balance. More immediately, the crisis in Ukraine demands that Delhi put itself on a war footing towards rapid modernization and expansion of its national defense industrial base which is so essential to maintaining India’s strategic autonomy.
This column first appeared in the print edition of March 15, 2022 under the title “The Great Geopolitical Reset”. The author is Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and International Affairs Editor for The Indian Express.