LONDON – Much of modern geopolitics seems to be following the plot from Game of Thrones, with many countries under so much political and economic stress that their only hope is that their rivals collapse before they do. So their governments cling to power while exploiting rivals’ internal weaknesses.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is the prime example. His recent campaigns in Syria and Ukraine may look like the actions of a geopolitical buccaneer. But the root of his adventurism is domestic weakness. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, was in large part an attempt to provide Putin’s regime with renewed legitimacy following a winter of discontent, during which demonstrators took to the streets to protest his return to the presidency.
Rival powers – most notably the United States and the European Union – have introduced sanctions in the hope of widening cracks in the Russian elite, exploiting the fact that Putin has not diversified his economy away from oil and gas. Putin, in turn, is hoping that Russia’s economy stays afloat long enough for Ukraine to collapse. To hasten that process, the Kremlin has left no lever of destabilization unpulled: It has launched military incursions, manipulated Ukraine’s politics, used energy blackmail, and engaged in information warfare.
Putin believes that the EU suffers from the same flaws as the former Soviet Union, regarding it as a utopian, multinational project that will crumble under the weight of its contradictions.
Here, too, the Kremlin has done its best to help the process along, by supporting far-right parties throughout the EU. Putin seems to be hoping that if the United Kingdom votes for “Brexit” and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is elected President of France, the EU will lose its ability to maintain the sanctions.
He hasn’t stopped with Europe. After Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane near its border with Syria in November, Putin adopted a series of measures designed to destabilize Turkey from within.
He imposed economic sanctions, spread rumors of corruption in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle, invited the leader of a Kurdish party to Moscow, and allegedly sent arms to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The political scientist Ivan Krastev believes that “Putin seems to have dug in for a long-term policy of sapping Turkey’s economy and undermining Erdoğan politically.”
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and Iran’s theocracy are in a race for survival.
The Iranian economy is a wreck after years of international sanctions, and the government has not yet managed to take advantage of the nuclear deal it struck with the US to rebuild it. But it has managed to rally public support by posing as a leader of the world’s Shia Muslims and undermining Saudi Arabia in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.
Predicting the collapse of the House of Saud has become a mainstay of Middle East commentary. But Saudi Arabia is betting that it can keep oil prices low enough for long enough to destabilize Iran and put the US shale-energy industry out of business. The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, has said that he will not cut production even if prices hit $20 a barrel. “If the price falls, it falls,” he said. “Others will be harmed greatly before we feel any pain.”
Farther east, the Chinese juggernaut is beginning to stumble. The analyst Minxin Pei speculates that the Chinese Communist Party’s rule may be about to come to an end. “Growth is slowing,” he writes. “The party is in disarray, because the rules it has established to limit internecine political warfare have collapsed…. Middle-class acquiescence is beginning to erode because of environmental degradation, poor services, inequality, and corruption.”
China’s rulers, for their part, are betting that they can survive a sharp economic slowdown and that the country will outgrow the US, changing the balance of power in Asia. One reason for President Xi Jinping’s optimism is the dire state of US politics. For years, Congress has been gridlocked on domestic reforms, and now the world is contemplating the consequences of a victory by Donald Trump in November’s presidential election.
Chinese nationalists hope that the decline of America’s relative power in East Asia will cause it to pull back, as it has from other regions, including the Middle East and Europe.
An article published last month in China’s People’s Daily speculated that a Trump administration would snub key Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea, allowing China to become the dominant military power in the Pacific. Even if Hillary Clinton wins the election, they think that the American public has lost its appetite for internationalism and that the country will turn its back on free trade and foreign intervention.
Trying to undercut a rival – even at the risk of harming oneself – is a familiar tactic in the world of business, where firms engage in price wars, hoping their competitors will go bust first and exit the industry. But it has been less common in geopolitics.
In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached the end of socioeconomic development. Liberal democracy, he concluded, was the “last man,” the end point of this development. He could not have been more wrong. Today, the world’s great powers are no longer claiming to be the last man; all they can do is hope to be the last man standing.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2016