Like glaciers melting after ages of stability, the global political system is undergoing great change. Alliances are loosened or reinforced, old enmities are revived and the whole system of global governance is being tested. It is impossible to predict where this will lead.
On Thursday, there was a major May Day rally by workers in Moscow’s Red Square – the first since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the banners did not express the demands and wishes of Russian workers, instead they praised President Vladimir Putin for his dynamic intervention in Ukraine’s domestic affairs and for the annexation of Crimea. On May 9, a major military parade in Red Square will commemorate the day in which the Allies defeated Nazi Germany. The revival of this Soviet tradition was Putin’s project. More recently, Russia adopted laws which make it easier to annex parts of countries that were in the Soviet Union; they also allow citizens of such territories to gain Russian citizenship. It is clear that Russia is on an irredentist march.
Putin is unfazed by the economic sanctions announced by the United States and the European Union, and it is clear that he will continue to challenge the US. It cannot be a coincidence that on Thursday China’s Defense Ministry announced a joint naval excercise with Russia in the East China Sea later this month. On his recent visit to the area, US President Barack Obama made clear his country’s support for Japan in its dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islets which Japan controls. Russia, on its part, is involved in a dispute with Japan over a group of islands that the Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II. This is likely to draw the US even further into the area.
On Russia’s “western front,” the United States and NATO have said they will support Ukraine if it is attacked, and that the alliance’s members will stand together if any of them is threatened. On the “eastern front,” Russia has taken a clear stand in support of China.
This flurry of action on the international chessboard assumes greater importance because the US and the EU appear to be in a weak position: even as they are obliged to use threats to force Russia to back down, it is clear hey are in no mood for war; at the same time, they are losing ground in the most critical area – the economy. On Wednesday, the World Bank published a study measuring the real output of countries. On the basis of 2011 figures, it concluded that China’s economy may overtake that of the US before the end of 2014. Also, India is in third place, leapfrogging over Japan and Germany. Sooner rather than later, the American and European dominance of the global system of governance will become untenable. How this issue changes the system – or destroys it – will determine the fate of the world and each country.