The current World Order is at a tipping point, and no one knows which way it will go
A short history of how we got here and what could happen next
It is 12 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and already it’s becoming apparent that we’re witnessing one of the most significant events in world history in the last 80 years. Since the end of the Second World War, the world’s two remaining great superpowers had, on the surface, kept relations from boiling over; teetering on the edge of peace upheld by the threat of terrifying nuclear destruction. But on Thursday, February 24th 2022, the illusion of world harmony shattered when President Putin ordered the Russian army to begin its “special military operation” in Ukraine. History turned a very sudden sharp corner.
Things look quite different to the last time the World Order last saw such a profound and overt disruption. There are no longer two superpowers but arguably four, and their responses to what’s happening in Ukraine will likely define the World Order for the next 80 years and beyond.
Part 1: How we reached the current World Order
What happened last time?
In the mid to late 1930s in Germany a man named Adolf Hitler, and his National Socialist Party, dramatically and violently rose to power. They were built on an ideology that the German people had been oppressed by reparations following the First World War, they had been humiliated by the victorious powers through the Treaty of Versailles and it was time for Germany to rightfully rise again to become the great world power that it was destined to be.
Initially, the other major European nations of Britain and France did everything that they could to avoid war and an upsetting of the balance of power on the continent. They turned a blind eye to Hitler’s absorption of Austria in March 1938, and later that year were happy to sacrifice Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland at the Munich Conference to appease Herr Hitler.
But all this did was embolden Hitler and fuel his appetite for further conquest for lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe. Poland fell first, dragging the European powers, and eventually the US, into a long and destructive war.
In parallel in the Pacific, Emperor Hirohito’s Japan made a push for supremacy against its historic enemy China. This military expedition forced it on a resource grab south through the Philippines, Indochina, and Indonesia and on a collision course with the USA. Japan’s Sunday morning pre-emptive bombing of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour triggered fury in the American people, and the conflict became a true world war.
The countries threatened by the German Reich and Imperial Japanese were able to set aside their ideological differences and formed a hasty coalition to defeat the common enemy. The Soviet Union, USA, UK, and France defeated Germany in Europe before the Soviets swiftly entered the war in the Pacific just in time for the USA to drop two nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The New World Order
The fascist tyranny of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been defeated. The world had just seen its bloodiest war with ~45 million dead but arguably more significant was the emergence and live use of nuclear weapons. There was a collective realisation amongst the victorious powers that measures would need to be put in place to prevent such a catastrophe again.
The United Nations was formed in October 1945, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the failed League of Nations project (which itself was set up after the First World War by the victorious Allied powers to prevent another global conflict). The UN set up a permanent security council made up of the five powers that contributed to the defeat of the Axis: the United States, UK, France, Russia and China. Each would retain the ability to veto proposed UN resolutions. Even though it looked to be set up fairly, the UN was clearly a Western-leaning body with its HQ set up in the beating heart of capitalism — New York City.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
The Second World War had brought together great superpowers with ideological differences against a common enemy in Germany and Japan. But if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, when the enemy is gone are they still my friend? According to history, no. Even though the world war against the fascists was over, the war between autocratic communism and liberal democratic capitalism which would determine the European future was just beginning.
In Europe, the victorious Allied powers partitioned Germany and vied for soft power through economic support measures like the Marshall plan which pumped in $13.2bn ($135bn in today’s money) to rebuild Europe in America’s image. The Soviets never released their grip on Eastern Europe following their advance into Germany, instead establishing a series of satellite states through the Warsaw Pact.
In Asia, China’s civil war between the Nationalists and Communists resurged following Japan’s demise. The USA funnelled weapons to the Nationalists in its first anti-Communist proxy war, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong were victorious, forcing the nationalist government to retreat to the island of Taiwan off the coast of mainland China. Mao solidified his rule over Communist China from several disparate states, marking the birth of another superpower that would take 60 years before it started flexing its muscles on the world stage.
Proxy wars and the emergence of a fourth superpower
The USA and Soviet Union would spar throughout the second half of the 20th century through a series of proxy wars, state-sponsored coups and strategic missile placements but would manage to refrain from direct military conflict in the period known as the Cold War. Wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan would indirectly put the interests of the Soviet Union and the USA against each other.
Meanwhile, China’s Great Leap Forward led to a famine that killed 30 million and a huge step backwards. In Europe, the Western European nations laid the foundations for a powerful political and economic bloc in 1949 with the formation of the Council of Europe, the precursor of the European Union and what would over time become a fourth superpower.
The 1990s and victory for Liberal Democracy
The Soviet Union dissolved abruptly in 1991 after a series of irrecoverable policy failures. The Chernobyl disaster exposed the Soviets’ technological inferiority compared to the USA, its venture in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 exposed its lack of military prowess and when Gorbachev gave an inch to freedom of speech with his Glasnost policy, the populations of the Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact states took a mile with the rise of democratic movements like Solidarity in Poland which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Soviet Union was undone, largely from the inside through its own failures but handheld along the way by the USA.
The USA had won the Cold War, and its combined influence and coordination with the growing European bloc was quick to capitalise on the power vacuum in Eastern Europe through rapid EU and NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact, and then Soviet, states. The world settled into a post-Cold War phase of Western dominance where the US, the EU and NATO could essentially do what it wanted, illustrated by NATO’s unchallenged bombing campaign in former Yugoslavia in 1999 (it’s worth noting that not all EU / NATO member states were supportive of this, with Germany initially strongly against joining the intervention).
The Soviet Union, and Russia with it, looked defeated. China was an economic sleeping giant that seemed happy to provide cheap manufacturing to the world. The era of superpower face-offs seemed over. Liberal democracy had prevailed.
The West’s distraction
On September 11th 2001, two passenger airliners flew into the Twin Towers in New York City. A third hit the Pentagon in Washington DC and a fourth believed to be bound for the Capitol Building was brought down by the passengers in a field in Pennsylvania. The world’s largest superpower had been struck at the core of its three leading pillars — its economy, military and nearly its government.
President George Bush had to be seen to do something in response. He led the USA and NATO on a crusade to combat the new threat of Islamist terrorism with the full backing of Congress and the Senate. But the West got complacent, with Bush drawing down troops in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 to start a new war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein in 2003, which ultimately laid the foundations for the formation of the Islamic State.
The US and its allies would be bogged down in Afghanistan for 20 years but focussing there still appeared to be the right thing to do. This was liberal democracy’s new war front, not the superpower stand-offs of the second half of the 20th century, right? Wrong.
Part 2: The re-emergence of authoritarianism
The West fell asleep at the wheel. Authoritarianism hadn’t gone away, it just didn’t seem like a threat anymore.
The Russian evolution
While the West was galivanting around the Middle East, Russia was rebuilding under Putin. He oversaw a strategic reorganisation of Russia’s economy, removing a lot of the old Communist apparatus which had miserably failed and replacing it with a pseudo-capitalist system. In this system, a disproportionate amount of ownership was consolidated amongst his closest friends the oligarchs, allowing Putin to retain a large amount of control over the country’s economic functions.
In parallel, Putin took the Russian military through a huge modernisation program to transform it from the Soviet-era Red Army into a truly modern fighting force. Luckily for him, the West gave him the perfect training ground for this new force to practice in. In the mid-2010s Northern Syria was a messy battleground pitching US-backed Kurds against Islamic State against Syrian Democratic Forces against the Syrian government. Russia got involved at the request of Putin’s good friend Bashar al-Assad. Why else would Russia launch ship-borne cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea into Aleppo if not to practice using new weapons systems?
The rise of Xi Jinping
While Putin was tightening his grip on Russia, Xi Jinping was rising through the ranks of the CCP to eventually be elected as President of China in 2013. When Xi came to power, China’s constitution decreed a 10-year maximum presidential term. One of his first moves was to controversially remove this clause from the constitution, essentially giving him an indefinite tenure that was originally set to expire in 2022. He also managed to add his political theory into the constitution, something that hadn’t been done since the rule of the CCP’s founding father Mao Zedong. The teaching of Xi’s political theory is now mandated in schools across the country, solidifying his stature and ideology in the malleable minds of children to ensure his ideas won’t die with him.
Similar to Putin, Xi took China on a military evolution, replacing its leadership with his own people, hugely investing in naval and nuclear capabilities and starting to openly flex his muscles with increasingly bullish naval moves in the South China Sea and air sorties into Taiwan’s airspace. He has been testing the West’s ability to respond.
On home soil Xi has overridden Hong Kong’s one-country-two-systems principles that had existed since the end of Britain’s lease on the territory in 1998. Hong Kong was an embarrassing thorn in the Chinese leader’s side, representing a last bastion of Western colonial supremacy. Despite the valiant efforts of protestors throughout 2019, Xi had time on his side and simply waited until he could install his own government and then begin the crackdown. Some of the protest’s leaders are now facing trials in mainland China, judged behind closed doors with little chance of successfully challenging the allegations against them. Xi has wiped them off the map.
Less overtly, the genocide of the Uighur population in Xinjiang has gone completely unpunished, despite evidence of actual concentration camps in operation. Harsh words have been said in the UN but China’s veto power in the security council has meant that nothing has changed. The West has been powerless to do anything in response.
Make America Great Again
The months building up to and immediately following November 2020’s US Presidential election saw the beacon of liberal democracy come perilously close to a rapid slide into authoritarianism. Trump pedalled lies of voter fraud in mail-in ballots on the campaign trail, giving him the ammunition to declare victory whichever way the election swung. Either he would win by a landslide (no half measures with the Donald) or the Democrats would have cheated. In his mind, there was not even a sliver of doubt that he might lose.
So, when he did, cogs kicked into motion whereby his closest allies refused to concede victory and instead did everything they could prevent the transition of power. Whether it was sending Republican-aligned electors to sign the college votes (overturning individual states to swing the whole election to Trump), pressuring Mike Pence to not ratify the electoral college ballots or through simple mobs demanding re-counts outside polling stations, they tried it all.
This culminated with a well-coordinated assault on the Capitol building on January 6th which didn’t go to plan for the insurrectionists. More and more details emerge daily from the committee investigating what happened that day, but it is becoming clearer that Trump was directly involved in its planning, and members of the Oathkeepers and Proud Boys looked to use the cover of the protest to create violence, forcibly prevent US lawmakers from carrying out their constitutional duties and give President Trump justification to declare martial law and refuse to hand over power.
The US has lawmakers who stand by the oaths that they swore to the constitution, and enough people who stand by the democratic processes in place to narrowly prevent a complete obstruction of democracy and a continuation of Trump’s reign against the will of the people. There can be little doubt that if Trump had have stayed in power, there would have been a purge of these lawmakers followed by constitutional reforms (pushed through by an unwaveringly loyal Republican Congress and Senate) to extend Trump’s presidency and disable any challenge to Republican domination for years to come. The scary thing for the US is that this fight is not over, as Republican lawmakers have been working in the background to change electoral voting districts to favour them in the next election. We’re yet to see what this means in the 2022 midterms or 2024 Presidential election, but Trump hasn’t given up yet.
The internal undoing of the West
It has been 77 years since the end of the Second World War, and the generation that fought for freedom is sadly dwindling. Those that were born into and have only ever known European peace have lost sight of why institutions like the UN and EU came to be in the first place. They don’t know the struggle that others went through to encourage international cooperation off the back of international destruction.
While countries in Eastern Europe fresh off the back of Communism have been scrambling to join the EU, the UK’s complacency, ignorance, and arrogance left it to think that it would be better off on its own. The result of the Brexit referendum stemmed from a lack of education on the origins of the EU, and the UK leaving that body has contributed to a net weakening of European resolve and unity.
Meanwhile Trump’s rallying cry of America First isolated Europe as he attempted to decouple America’s unbreakable history with the continent. The American nation was founded by Europeans, and the challenges on both continents are innately shared. President Macron of France realised this, declaring NATO ‘brain dead’ in late 2019. He argued that Europe could no longer rely on American support and had to take its destiny into its own hands. Trump ended up isolating himself, but the latter years of the 2010s showed that the West was no longer on the same page. It was time for them to be challenged once again.
Part 3: The Tipping Point
Putin’s speech on February 22nd 2022 brought to the surface his deep-seated belief that Russia was humiliated following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting Ukrainian independence. There were strong echoes of Hitler’s speeches in Putin’s monologue, where the Fuhrer would passionately describe the humiliation of Germany following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.
Putin had been plotting for years, and the time had come to pull the trigger. Russian soldiers entered Ukraine from the North, East and South on February 24th 2022 in a flagrant violation of the sovereign nation’s borders and the UN Charter:
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
12 days in and Putin has managed to prove that the world order created by the West has some serious flaws. Russia’s seat on the UN security council has given it the power to veto any attempted resolution before and during the conflict, and even condemnation in an emergency session of the UN General Assembly has done absolutely nothing on the ground. He’s holding his finger on the trigger of a nuclear gun aimed at the West’s head, threatening consequences never seen in history if anyone tries to get in the way of what Russia is doing.
Despite repeated calls from President Zelenskyy for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, the fear of escalation is enough to paralyse the West from getting involved, giving Russia freedom of the skies and relative freedom on the ground against a staunch Ukrainian resistance. President Biden has repeatedly said that US troops will not fight in Ukraine. No one wants to be the leader of any nation that was responsible for triggering a nuclear war and the end of civilisation.
The West’s answer
The West’s response has come in two main forms. Firstly, sending weapons to Ukraine which have been remarkably effective. These weapons won’t win the war, but they have helped to stall Russia’s advance to the point where a quick victory is now of the question, drawing its army ever deeper into a more protracted, messy conflict where they will have to deal with an insurgency a la Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Secondly, implementing sanctions on Russia to isolate them from world industry and financial services. The problem with these sanctions is that Russia has been prepared for this (they have been sanctioned since they occupied Crimea in 2014). The goal is to ratchet the pressure up on Putin by making life hard for his close friends the oligarchs and for the general population who may rise up in response.
The hope is that combining the two policies of weapons provision and sanctions will win the war for the West, drawing out the conflict beyond Russia’s planned timelines and crippling their economy to bring about downfall from the inside. But the West is nervous to push too far, as pushing Putin further away only pushes him closer to Xi.
China has already announced that it won’t be imposing sanctions but instead will do the opposite by buying up surplus wheat and approving the construction of a new trans-Siberian gas pipeline to pick up the slack of gas that the West is no longer going to import. These plans may numb the extent of the effect that the West collectively can have on Russia’s economy and buy Putin enough time to keep going in Ukraine.
The Tipping Point
If the two superpowers of Russia and China can demonstrate that they can survive despite everything that the West is willing to throw at them, we have reached a tipping point in world history. The West is no longer dominant but successfully challenged by alternative systems of government that willingly resort to violence and oppression to achieve their goals, fixated on the past as justification for future conflict.
Perceived Russian success in Ukraine might be the sign that Xi needs to give him the confidence to move in on Taiwan. And as history has shown, whether through Hitler, Napoleon, Caesar or Alexander the Great, dictators with a taste for conquest don’t tend to stop where they initially think they will. Their newly occupied lands need buffers for protection, which leads to further expansion, war and suffering.
The success of the authoritarian regimes would mark the decline and end of liberal democracy, a devaluation of the UN and everything that has been built over the last 75 years to promote peace, stability, and prosperity on the world stage. A New World Order would emerge, dominated by dictators and oppression of freedom.
But if the West can make Putin fail, it will be a clear demonstration that the current World Order is working. It is already on the front foot by denying Putin a lightning victory in Ukraine, dragging him into an expensive war in lives and money that may prove to be his downfall if popular opinion swings at home. Xi may have realised that a quick victory in Taiwan will probably not be as easy as first imagined. Seeing the unified response from the West and the isolation of Russia may be enough to make him have second thoughts.
Failure in Ukraine for Putin would only serve to strengthen NATO, the EU and force a re-examination of the UN’s ability to prevent anything like this from happening again. It would likely lead to the creation of a representative regime in Moscow that would promote democratic values of equality and freedom of expression around the world. Further expansion of democracy in Russia would mark the death knell for an authoritarian China and a profound shift in the direction of humanity.
History doesn’t reside in books. We’re living in it. And what happens in the next year will define the next 80 and beyond.