For a few years after the end of the cold war, the USA was the only super-state in a unipolar world. But the resurrection of Russia and the rise of China means that this is no longer so. Now America is hell-bent on reasserting its global hegemony before China is ready to stake its claim as a super-power.
The Cold War was a geopolitical, ideological and economic struggle between the only two world superpowers, the USA and the USSR, and their respective allies, the Western and Eastern Blocs. Both sides strived to prevent the other from spreading its economic and political systems around the globe.
The Cold War began in 1947 at the end of the Second World War. It lasted for nearly 45 years, ending in December 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, making the USA the sole country with a global reach … the global hegemon.
During that time, the two nuclear super-powers never fought each other directly. Instead they encouraged and supported smaller states in their respective blocs to fight each other. Millions of lives were lost in these proxy wars between the two super-powers.
The collapse of the USSR began with a growing unrest in the Soviet Union’s constituent republics that developed into ceaseless political and legislative conflicts with Moscow. During 1989 / 1990, the Berlin Wall fell, borders reopened, and free elections ousted Communist regimes throughout eastern Europe. In late 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved into its component republics. The Cold War came to an end.
The political, economic and social impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall weakened the already unstable government of East Germany. Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, 11 months after the Wall fell, following negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev the last leader of the Soviet Union.
The Reunification of Germany
The big question during these negotiations was whether a reunited Germany would remain a member of NATO or leave that alliance. And, if a united Germany did remain a member of NATO, would it expand to include other east European countries that were in the course of freeing themselves from Soviet rule?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in April 1949 by the USA and west European states in order to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union and to prevent a revival of German militarism. West Germany was included as a member of NATO.
The Alliance wanted a reunited Germany to continue to be a part of NATO, with NATO’s border extended to the eastern edge of what was then east Germany, and this worried Soviet officials and security experts. During the negotiations in 1990 and 1991 that ended with the USSR allowing east and west Germany to reunite, the Soviet negotiators were subjected to a veritable deluge of assurances by Western leaders concerning Soviet security, all insisting that the alliance’s eastern boundary would not extend beyond the Eastern border of the reunited country.
These assurances are evidenced by contemporaneous memos, telephone transcripts and other Soviet, American, British, French and German documents that can be found in the National Security Archive at George Washington University. At a meeting on 9 February 1990, for example, US Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev that NATO would not ‘expand on inch eastward’.
That promise was first broken in the time of US President Bill Clinton (POTUS from 20 January 1993 to 20 January 2001) during his second term.
NATO’s expansion eastwards
Bill Clinton suggested that NATO should expand eastwards, but France and Germany demurred on the grounds that this would antagonise Russia. But, as the only super-power around, the USA had its way.
The timeline of NATO’s comprehensive push to the east was as follows:
1999 – the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO
2004 – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovenia joined
2008 – NATO announced that Georgia and Ukraine would join someday (which was viewed by Russia as a direct threat to its security)
2008 – August: Russia invaded Georgia and took over two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite this clear warning, NATO never publicly abandoned its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance.
2009 – Albania and Croatia joined NATO
2017 – Montenegro joined
2020 – North Macedonia joined NATO
The Russian Federation (the successor to the USSR) began protesting as soon as NATO’s borders started to move eastwards across what was then Russia’s strategic depth towards the Federation’s western border. But the recent collapse of its political institutions meant that Russia was too weak to do anything to prevent it from happening. It watched furiously as the USA consolidated its power as the global hegemon by bringing more states into its military alliance in Europe and kitting them out with nuclear tipped missiles.
The rise of China
In 1978, when China opened up and reformed its economy, it was a poor, economically backward state. Since then, its GDP has grown at an average of over nine percent a year and has risen 40-fold. Today China has a GDP of US$17.73 trillion, second only to the USA with a GDP of $23.32.
This means that life for the average Chinese person is better than for the citizens of most countries, including those in the West. Current economic, demographic and geopolitical trends suggest that China is on its way to becoming a new super-power.
The country has the largest financial reserves, a large trade surplus and, based on purchasing power parity, the largest economy in the world. Its navy has the greatest number of ships of any country though that navy lacks the highly sophisticated armaments of the USA battle fleets. Its military is modernising and expanding rapidly. The country is working aggressively to forging a Sinocentric Asia. It is clear that its eyes are firmly set on becoming the world’s #1.
The threat posed by China
America is well aware of the threat to its hegemony that a surging China poses. It is actively preparing to meet that threat in a variety of ways. Indeed, since the Obama presidency, the USA has been pursuing a policy of containing China.
This policy is gaining such traction that in 2021 China’s deputy foreign minister complained that ‘a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign is being waged to bring China down’. Showing that it is serious, the USA has carried out its largest naval and missile expansion since WWII, imposed extremely aggressive tariffs on Chinese goods and very tight restrictions on foreign investment. It is trying to destroy Huawei and other Chinese firms using technology-related sanctions.
In addition, the USA has upped its alliances with other countries in south-east Asia, such as Japan and Singapore (which has become a significant military partner). Countries around the South China Sea (SCS) are taking their cues from America. The Philippines has stopped courting China and is reiterating its claims in the SCS and increasing its naval and air patrols. Vietnam, too, is sourcing advanced armaments for use on land, sea and air.
The USA’s efforts to contain China are not confined to East Asia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an Indo-Pacific partnership that includes Australia, India and Japan is designed to contain China’s rise, as is AUKUS, an alliance between the USA, UK and Australia under which Australia will receive nuclear-powered submarines.
Many of the countries involved in these efforts to contain China rely on trade with Beijing so getting a wholehearted commitment from them is tough work. But the USA is trying hard.
The recent slowdown in China’s growth, if it continues, means that the Chinese Communist Party is looking at economic stagnation as America attempts to encircle and disrupt its trade. This in turn will mean that its efforts to become a super-power will be thwarted. The ensuing frustration could easily result in a military response from China giving the USA the opportunity to knock it out of the running for hegemon in east Asia.
The USA recognises this risk and has begun deliberately provoking China with, for example, visits to Taiwan (which China views as a breakaway province) by prominent American politicians and other actions designed to goad China.
But, in order to free itself up in order to respond to a military event by China, the US first needed to deplete Russian military and economic resources and so knock it out of the super-power league.
It all began with the good old-fashioned technique of bait and bleed.
The American proxy war against Russia in Ukraine
The USA America baited the Russian Federation into invading Ukraine and now both Russia and Ukraine are bleeding heavily.
Firstly, NATO expanded eastwards, eating up Russia’s strategic depth. Then NATO announced that Ukraine would be joining NATO (along with Georgia). The Federation viewed this as an existential threat in the same way as the USA viewed the installation of nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba in 1962 by the USSR as a vital threat to its existence (the Cuban missile crisis).
A CIA instigated coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014 ousted Viktor Yanukovich, a democratically elected but Russian-leaning president. The presidential elections that followed were won by Petro Poroshenko who was pro-Western. The Minsk agreements were also signed in that year.
The first Minsk agreement broke down rapidly, but Minsk II was then signed. Among other things under Minsk II, Kiev was supposed to enter into a dialogue on self-government for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions which were revolting against the central government. But Kiev failed to carry out its side of the agreement.
In mid-2022 both Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and others stated separately that the Minsk agreement was signed in order to buy time to train Ukraine’s armed forces up to NATO standards. As can be seen from how the Ukraine armed forces are performing against the Russians that training was very effective.
In March 2022, less than one month after Russia’s invasion, Turkey brokered a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine agreed that it would not join NATO and that it would become a neutral country. Russia would also retain Crimea which it had annexed in 2014.
The agreement between the two countries was about to be signed when the USA nixed it. Uncle Sam promised Ukraine everything it would need, the arms, ammunition and training to beat Russia and regain all its territory including Crimea. Zelensky went for it.
Since then, the USA has been providing Ukraine with more and more advanced and highly sophisticated weaponry and the training needed to use them effectively. The Ukrainian forces are now, for all intents and purposes, de facto members of NATO.
Indeed, one might say that Uncle Sam is doing everything possible to bleed Russia except pull the triggers and provide the bodies. That is the job of the poor suffering Ukrainians.
Will America’s regain its spot as the sole global hegemon?
It’s hard to say. But it seems unlikely.
The bait and bleed strategy certainly worked and is working in Ukraine. Sucked in by being given no option other than the one it took in the face of American intransigence in refusing to discuss, let alone negotiate, Russia’s security concerns, the Russian Federation is losing soldiers and treasure at an alarming rate as it attempts to reduce Ukraine to a rump state by destroying its infrastructure.
America’s strategy includes the imposition of ruinous economic sanctions on Russia. As stated by US Secretary of State Lloyd Austin in April 2022, one of the USA’s goals is to weaken Russia so much that it cannot again undertake the sort of operations it is carrying out in Ukraine and will lack the economic capability to replenish the equipment and forces that it has lost in Ukraine; in other words, to destroy Russia militarily and economically and thus knock it out of the ranks of the super-powers.
This American strategy ignores the fact that Russia is a nuclear power but that’s a discussion for another time.
But will a bait and bleed strategy work against China? It’s hard to say. Recent goings on by America in Taiwan suggest that the Americans are giving it a try.
But it is not just Russia and China who are seeking to prevent America regaining the position as global hegemon it once enjoyed a few short years ago; other states are beginning to push back against the USA’s hegemonic designs. In fact, most state in the Global South voted to condemned Russia’s invasion in the General Assembly of the United Nations but virtually none of them (except for South Korea and Japan) have joined in the Western led economic sanctions against Russia.
These non-sanctioning countries include powers such as Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Turkey (itself a member of NATO), Pakistan, the UAE, Hungary (a member of the EU) and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Unlike Europeans, they don’t want to bear the economic costs and disruptions in diplomatic relationships that sanctions impose on the country enforcing sanctions. BTW the list should also include Israel which has not imposed sanctions on Russia.
With more than half the world ganging up against America, including major powers with nuclear capabilities, it is unlikely that America will ever once again be the only global hegemon in unipolar world.