War always creates power vacuums — the West must fill them
War is hardly a game. Nevertheless, in trying to discern the true winner of a conflict, we should always look to the edge of the board.
If a power is present but not directly involved, then it is well-placed to benefit. Having not paid the price of war — or at least not the heaviest price — it has a head start when it comes to winning the peace.
A recent example is Iran after the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars that were meant to make the world safe for democracy strengthened the Ayatollahs instead. Prior to the invasions they were hemmed in by hostile governments in Baghdad and Kabul. But with the Saddam and Taliban 1.0 regimes obligingly removed by the Americans, Iranian influence was able to expand across the Middle East.
Another example is the aftermath of the Second World War. Obviously, the USA and USSR were both involved in the war itself. But, crucially, they were still present and potent when the total defeat of Germany, the humiliation of France and the bankruptcy of Britain created a power vacuum across Europe.
We also can see this effect in the aftermath of the First World War too. Though Germany was a defeated combatant, it was left standing with most of its territory intact. That’s in contrast to Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed altogether. Meanwhile a third empire, Russia, drew back and became the Soviet Union. That left a power vacuum in central and eastern Europe, which Germany, under Hitler, tried to take advantage of.
And thus we need to think about the vacuums being created by the Russia-Ukraine war. The most immediate is the one created by the collapse of European — and, especially, German — delusions. The idea that the EU could be an empire of soft power alone has been cruelly exposed. NATO — and the Atlanticism that was so recently written-off — is rushing in to fill the gap.
Then there are the vacuums on the other side. Even if Russia prevails in Ukraine and/or Putin holds on to power, the delusions of the Kremlin have also been exposed. The whole world can see that Russia is diplomatically isolated, militarily dysfunctional and on the brink of economic ruin.
So who will fill those gaps? The answer, of course, is China. As Marshall Auerback explains here, the trade war between the West and Russia will draw the latter ever-closer into China’s economic orbit. The same goes for the countries whose economies are deeply integrated with Russia’s. They will suffer collateral damage — and also turn to Beijing for help. This is especially true of the Central Asian republics, which are on China’s doorstep.
After the invasion of Iraq, the Americans were caught out by the rising power of Iran. But this time there can be no excuses. The opportunities for the expansion of Chinese influence are obvious. The United States of America must prepare itself to face the United States of Eurasia.