The shifting world order is a more realistic prospect after the Russian invasion of Ukraine than in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008 which destabilized the neoliberal globalization model and weakened the US as the unipolar hegemonic power. Although the convergence of long-term structural decline in the US as a core economy and simultaneous Chinese ascendancy has been largely a factor of the capitalist system, geopolitical factors have played a catalytic role in molding the evolving world order. Like all powers in decline, the US has increasingly confined itself to strengthening the defense sector and overseas military interference which has been among the reasons for the decline. The latest conflict between Russia and the West, with Ukraine as the target, did not cause, but hastened global balance of power shift from the Trans-Atlantic core to Asia with China as the emerging hegemonic power.
In response to NATO’s eastward expansion and containment policy as though the Cold War never ended, Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Because of a combination of reasons related to the regional balance of power, Russia’s invasion was hardly unexpected, as many analysts around the world had predicted long before the US government was disclosing intelligence of an imminent ground attack in a subtle way of provoking Moscow. Besides Russia’s revival from the shock of official USSR disintegration in 1991, Moscow’s attack on Ukraine was motivated by the US-NATO quest to integrate as many former republics as possible in an unrelenting revival of the Cold War minus the Communist threat, thereby exposing the motives of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.
Combined with the long-standing “regime-change” goals as an integral part of Pax Americana, the US-NATO encirclement and containment policy, and sanctions as a form of economic warfare signaled that Russia’s choices were either to adopt a docile policy like Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) or hold the line in neighboring Ukraine through diplomatic or military efforts. The convergence of all these factors and US global economic decline amid China’s rapid rise in the world stage convinced the Kremlin that it was time to strike militarily. Like all imperial systems which become very aggressive to the point of calculated recklessness on the road toward decline, the US has been in an analogous position, largely because of the evolving capitalist system into the neoliberal phase since the 1980s but also because of military expansionist policies. Although US global geopolitical and economic alliances have sustained it in the superpower role much longer than if it were not operating in an integrated global economy under the patron-client model, the signs of decline have been evident for several decades.
Using the nuclear deterrent, Russian President Vladimir Putin knew that Western economic sanctions would be temporary and would backfire to induce world inflationary economic and destabilizing geopolitical pressures. Putting aside the vacuous rhetoric from every government unleashing its own PR campaign with little resemblance to reality on the ground or future prospects for a diplomatic solution to the war, the Russian invasion exposed the geopolitical imperial interests which take precedence over neoliberal globalization hastening the shift in the balance of power.
Media and political speculation about winners and losers aside, the entire world has been destabilized by this war, with serious economic dislocation for Russia and a likely recession amid rising inflation for much of the world. Assuming that IMF’s GDP global growth predictions of 5.5% growth for China and closer to 1-1.5% for the US in 2022 turn out as stated, China will reaffirm its existing role as the world’s stabilizing force against the Atlantic alliance which has encouraged unrelenting military action while readily admitting that there is no possible route to a military victory for Ukraine, shortly of NATO intervention which implies nuclear war.
Like all wars, this too has been a tragedy for innocent civilians and it has exposed how geopolitics influences the course of capitalism and global balance of power, along with living standards especially for the working class suffering the brunt of the economic consequences. Undermining the global neoliberal model and inadvertently strengthening national economic policies, which the US has been pursuing selectively under presidents Obama, Trump and Biden, as a means of reasserting America’s core status in the world economy amid China’s ascendancy, the Russian invasion and Western reaction have dealt another blow to US-driven neoliberal globalization.
Exposing the myth of the EU’s endeavors towards greater autonomy and refraining from militarist adventures beyond the EU borders, the Russian war reaffirmed the lingering Cold War tentacles of the trans-Atlantic military-industrial complex as a vehicle of global hegemony. Given the nature of neoliberal capitalism intertwined with militarism, and considering the global drive toward renewable energy, the shifting EU reliance of US energy is highly unlikely to last as long as long as the strategic alliance which governments have used as leverage to gain market share and influence the global balance of power.
George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” proclamation in 1991 implied a unipolar world in which the US had no superpower rival and was free to behave as the sole hegemonic world actor. In reality, there was a multipolar world economic order, but a unipolar military one on its last leg. The unipolar military order implied a responsibility to manage its role and set limits on one’s own powers. Henry Kissinger learned this lesson while studying the post-Napoleonic diplomacy of Austrian architect of the Congress of Vienna Prince Klemens von Metternich (H. Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822). Blinded by the same imperialistic opportunism that led Europe to WWI, the Western European powers led by the US fell into the trap of filling the power gap that the disintegration of the USSR created, despite the fact that from 1990 to 2022, China’s economic ascendancy had altered the world balance of power.
Besides China slowly eroding Bush’s proclamation of 1991, the Russian war in Ukraine demonstrated the shifting global power center from the Trans-Atlantic alliance to Asia. Operating under early Cold War assumptions when the US was at the zenith of its power, the US opted for a two-front containment policy – Russia and China – spreading itself very thinly and demonstrating the desperation to retain the former glory of Pax Americana. Knowing that Keynesian militarism within the neoliberal model has meant continued weakening of the middle class and workers and fomenting sociopolitical polarization, while risking alienating many countries that see far more benefits through Chinese economic integration, the US political, and corporate elites refused to deviate from a strategy riddled with inherent contradictions.
In many respects, Russia and the US-EU rivals have inadvertently strengthened China’s global role by weakening and discrediting each other while altering the global balance of power. Regardless of Western rhetoric about Beijing’s pro-Russia role as counterproductive and despite the US threat of “secondary sanctions” against Asian countries, China will continue to consolidate its role as the undisputed international economic and diplomatic stabilizing force of the 21st century and determine the world balance of power.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.