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Flashpoints in Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen and Taiwan Point to a Global War in the Making

Globally, the geopolitical and geoeconomic cracks in a system of complex interdependence are evolving into schisms. The world appears to be heading towards another major war on a global scale over supply lines, alternative trade routes, control of the seas, and the Eurasian landmass.
File photo of a Ukrainian soldier. Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite winning the 2020 election on a platform of ending America’s “forever wars”, and withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021, Joseph Biden’s is a war presidency. And the United States remains a world power at the core of which is a foreign policy establishment wedded to its war machine.

That war mentality and machine is the bedrock of Washington’s strategy to sustain its primacy in global affairs, as its global positions come under increasing pressure from emerging middle-level powers, especially China and its allies. Thus, the region from West to South Asia is now in the grip of outright warfare and military conflict. But the new phase of military conflict also links with America’s proxy war in Ukraine, and stretches far into East Asia, principally Taiwan. We have therefore the emerging contours of global military conflict of potentially of catastrophic proportions.

But the global crisis of the US world system combines with the crisis of US power at home, as the world watches the unfolding of the 2024 presidential election campaign. On the home front, the US faces the prospect of a potentially violent conflict between a 91-times indicted and twice impeached Donald Trump, who promises a lawless dictatorship in which the president is above law, constitutional norms, and democratic accountability, and Biden.

The two candidates for control of the US war machine are vying with one another as to who is the more senile candidate, while serious commentators and analysts are asking whether the US is descending into civil war or widespread political violence. Is it any wonder that a peaceful transfer of power in January 2025 is in jeopardy?

Wars abroad, political violence at home: Empires usually decay from within but in the age of globalisation and digitisation, the repercussions and reverberations would be worldwide. In such conditions, fear becomes a major force to mobilise opinion behind warfare. But the post-1945 American century was born “scaring hell” out of the American people. And “permanent war for permanent peace” became the emblem of the topsy-turvy world of the US empire.

Israel-Gaza war spiralling

The most recent phase of the unfolding of international war and violence is fuelled largely by America’s constant and generous military, financial, and diplomatic support to Tel Aviv. Israel has built and consolidated an apartheid system at home, and a regime that indulges in what is increasingly viewed across the world (outside the core states of the liberal rules-based international order) as genocide with impunity in Gaza. Indeed, South Africa has taken the case to the International Court of Justice and received support from several other states. Israel is also launching military strikes against Lebanon and Syria and uses Sunni terrorists based in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan against Iran.

Israel and the United States are not alone in supporting radical groups in pursuance of their foreign and security policies. Iran supports or is partnered with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. But Tehran’s reach and range to mobilise military conflict on a global scale pales in comparison with American capability to provoke and sustain hostilities across geographies. Other states can launch wars; only the US empire can extract strategic mileage and commercial benefits from wars.

A bombed locality in Gaza. Photo: Ashfaq Amra/UNRWA

America’s war machine is ravenous, hence its readiness to participate in every big and small war stems from its need to justify its humongous annual military budget of over $800 billion. Its military-industrial complex needs to sell lethal products and carry out live trials of its newly designed weapons. But even these factors are trumped by the US foreign policy establishment’s irrational, but growing, insecurities due to the ensuing imperial ‘decline’ amid the rise of the Eurasian continent as a challenge to its sea power.

Land power versus sea power

The maritime world – dominated first by Britain’s Royal Navy that “ruled the waves” (and “waived the rules”), and latterly by US naval forces – fears being outflanked by the combined strength of Germany, Russia, and China forming an alliance across the Eurasian landmass. As in the past, so it is today: maritime powers resort to wars to break emerging connectivities, whether it was Germany’s vision of a Berlin-Baghdad railway before World War I, or any Sino-Russian-Iranian bloc across Eurasia.

Anglo-American maritime hegemony and power over the rhythms of global commerce are under stress. There is a growing clamour to re-negotiate and re-envision global order with the Eurasian region at its center, or at least more central than it has historically been. The patterns of competition, conflict, and cooperation are playing out with regard to connectivity, trade, supply routes, and resources in the wake of the revival of rail technology. The old Silk Road replaced by the lightning speed of the iron and steel of the high-speed freight train.

Geographically, Eurasia is the world’s most expansive region that forms a land bridge that borders Europe, the Asia-Pacific, West Asia, and South Asia. The Eurasian Land Bridge has the potential to undermine (or complement) existing seaborne supply lines by establishing a direct link between the Atlantic and Pacific. Maintaining a balance of power in Eurasia by splitting the continent while forming a consortium of major navies has been the mainstay of the strategy of maritime powers since World War 1. Prior to the start of the Great War, Britain entered into a naval alliance with America and the Triple Entente with Russia and France to keep Germany isolated. The US backed  Britain, the declining maritime power, rather thang Germany, the emerging continental power. The Anglo-Americans wanted to preserve the primacy of oceans in the conduct of global affairs. The strategy of isolating Germany and preventing the Russo-German alliance from dominating Eurasia continued in the Second World War.

Soldiers of the German Wehrmacht tearing down the border crossing into Poland, 1 September 1939. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Hans Sönnke/Public Domain.

With postwar Germany under America’s thumb, Anglo-American strategy focused on splitting China and the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Britain wooed Beijing and, on the other hand, America applied pressure to it, in the 1950s. This carrot-and-stick policy changed in the late 1960s when America chased China unabashedly, culminating in the formal Sino-Soviet split.

Anglo-American encouragement to Ukraine to take on Russia’s war machine, however, has only served to further cement Sino-US strategic relations. The current US strategy under Biden differs from that of President Trump’s– which despite the latter’s crazy rhetoric, followed the more traditional divide-and-rule strategy by cosying up to Russia while applying extreme pressure on China.

Halford Mackinder’s geopolitics lives

Consequently, Biden’s strategy has merely served to further cement Sino-Russian cooperation, and has been instrumental in reinvigorating the Eurasian dream by exploiting the latest developments in railroad technology. They are now practically realising British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder’s prediction, in 1904, that the inner area of Eurasia, impenetrable by sea power, would become the “Pivot Area” of world politics. Mackinder’s prediction about the relative decline of maritime power due to the superiority of rail over ships in terms of speed and penetration is no longer far-fetched.

Look at the numbers.

Only 17 freight trains ran from China to Europe in 2011. Today more than 60,000 trains cumulatively ply the Eurasian landmass and its maritime margins. Current advances in rail technology and online trade trends that demand reduced delivery time  are indicative of the growing salience of transcontinental rail connectivity in conduct of international trade.

Eurasian landmass connectivity – railway corridor passing through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus – impacts the overall economic effects of American naval capabilities to cut off Chinese trade and supply routes at Malacca straits.  The Chinese answer to its “Malacca Dilemma” – the threat of a naval blockade of vital Chinese sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean – has been the carving out of alternative trade routes to the West, all the way to Europe. However, the Chinese alternative trade routes are dependent on Russian cooperation. The China-Europe Freight Train (CEFT) is heavily dependent on Russia  “as both the most important terminus and through-corridor accounting for 37% of all CEFTs through 2021, leading Germany at 24.3% and Poland at 23.4%.”

America did not tolerate Sino-Soviet unity in the Cold War, and it will not do so now. The war in Europe has disrupted the development of these connectivity projects due to sanctions imposed on Russia, thereby adversely impacting China’s long-term interests in the Eurasian region.

However, many companies operating rail freight between China and the EU are avoiding transit through Russia, resulting in greater use of the Middle Corridor (the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route)—from Southeast Asia and China through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—as an alternative route, causing longer journeys and increased costs. The West is likely to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia until, of course, the latter is economically and militarily exhausted and willing to reassess its look-east policy and relationship with China. This looks a long way off, and promises continuation of the “forever wars” dispensation.

Similarly, in the recent Pakistan-Iran conflict, what has come to light is the involvement of Balochistan, with the Gwadar port located close to the Gulf of Oman, an important link in the new silk road envisaged by China. Damascus—the traditional terminus node of the ancient Silk Road—is also embroiled in a conflict situation and is a pariah state in the western geopolitical equation. In 2022, there were clashes on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border. In the beginning of 2022, Kazakistan witnessed violent protests against President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s rule. The Armenia-Azerbaijan hostilities over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh republic provide America with an opportunity to meddle in Central Asia to put pressure on the China-Russia alliance.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany’s plans to build the Berlin-Baghdad rail link became one of the most important reasons for World War I, as they threatened the British-controlled sea lanes of communication passing through the Suez Canal. It was seen as part of an inter-imperial assault on the British empire.

At home, the major colonial powers faced growing political discontent, economic inequality, mass immiseration, and the emergence of powerful trade union, worker, and socialist movements against capitalism and empire. A world war resulted.

At the dawn of the 21 century, we live in a world best described by a crisis – whether called “poly”, “perma”, or organic. At home in so many countries across the world, we see popular resistance to elite rule, crises of legitimacy and authority, increasing political polarisation and violence, the politics of right-wing racist, and communal divide and rule.

Globally, the geopolitical and geoeconomic cracks in a system of complex interdependence are evolving into schisms. The struggle for hegemony and empire is increasingly breaking out into violence. The world appears to be heading towards another major war on a global scale over supply lines, alternative trade routes, control of the seas, and the Eurasian landmass. Flashpoints from Ukraine to Gaza to Yemen to Taiwan – disciplinary military confrontations for containment on the borders of Eurasia and its core powers.

Dr Atul Bhardwaj is an honorary research fellow in the department of international politics at City, University of London. He is the author of India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order (Routledge, 2018)

Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century. He is currently writing a book on the history, politics, and powers of the US Foreign Policy Establishment. 

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