We are returning to a world of great-power rivalry

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Bakı, 19 oktyabr 2016 –

The first foreign policy priority of the next American president will be to work out how to avoid direct conflict with China or Russia. Both countries, in different ways, now challenge US dominance. War between the great powers is once again a possibility. For better or worse, we are returning to a world of great power balance.

China’s economy is now, in purchasing power terms, comparable to America’s. Its military has invested in the means to counter US power and is exercising it in the East and South China Seas. President Xi Jinping has cast aside Deng Xiaoping’s ''hide and bide'' strategy and demands weight and influence commensurate with China’s power. In doing so, he is rubbing up against the US and its east Asian allies.

Since 2000, Russia has put the proceeds of a high oil price into military modernisation. Economically, it is not a great power. But it has a full spectrum of military capability to ensure its own security and rebuild a sphere of influence beyond its borders. Russia has gained from being assertive, in Ukraine and Syria and in the cyber domain, whetting President Vladimir Putin’s appetite for challenging America. The ''post-truth world'' in the west – exemplified by Donald Trump’s casual way with the facts in the US presidential campaign – is also a gift to Russia’s formidable propaganda machine.

The US unipolar era lasted less than 25 years, its end hastened by overambitious wars and the financial crisis of 2007-08. America remains by far the most powerful country, with unrivalled technology and corporate power but it no longer has global hegemony. The west’s economic dominance has declined sharply – the Group of Seven leading nations used to contribute 70 per cent of global gross domestic product; it is now down to 47 per cent and falling.

Nor does the western democratic model have the same appeal. Power concentrated in charismatic individuals rather than in institutions, as we see in Turkey, Russia and India, is proving more compelling for many.

Russia would like to return to a world of spheres of influence, with three great powers forming a global security directorate, while China wants a two-power world. Beijing is prepared to have Moscow as a junior partner but not as an equal. The Chinese leadership does not want confrontation with the US but finds it hard to see a way to a co-operative great power relationship.

America, meanwhile, wants to preserve its dominance and not to have to adjust to the new power distribution. It has tried ''resets'' with Russia, and has worked hard at an economic relationship with China. But the result has been a see-saw between warmer engagement followed by frostiness and sanctions. There is no hard-nosed strategic framework that governs Washington’s relations with either Moscow or Beijing.

An approach is needed that puts global stability first. Strong defence is essential. Washington’s defence investments were diverted for too long by the demands of the ''war on terror''; they have only recently focused on the need to match Russia and China. That does not mean a return to cold war-style hostility. The 19th-century Concert of Europe, in which six powers preserved an equilibrium that lasted nearly 100 years, might be a better parallel.

What that requires is acceptance of each other’s systems of government, however much we may dislike them, and clear limits to hostile action to which all adhere. Cyber is a crucial theatre, where rules have to be agreed so that we do not threaten to bring down each other’s power grids or banking systems.

Co-operative solutions to regional problems would be more achievable if the great powers were not directly undermining one another. For example, North Korea will soon be able to threaten the mainland US with nuclear weapons. An enduring solution requires a change of regime in Pyongyang and the removal of its nuclear arsenal. The US can either use force to achieve that unilaterally and risk conflict with China, or it could seek to remove the threat in ways that Beijing can accept.

One great asset the US enjoys is a network of alliances. This needs more careful nurturing. The US and Europe spend too much time on an economic rivalry that damages both. A US partnership with India is also achievable as the latter’s interests are more closely aligned with the west’s than Russia’s or China’s.

Putting great power relations first will be unwelcome to many. Some will see it as an accommodation with unacceptable behaviour by undemocratic regimes but we have to treat the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. We cannot afford to stumble into a military conflict between the great powers.

The writer is chairman of Macro Advisory Partners and a former chief of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service

The Financial Times

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