By George Monopatis
At the dusk of the 20th century Fukuyama spoke of “the end of history”, a highly idealistic statement, since humanity, the engine of history, is alive and kicking. Not only did history survive but it has redirected the world back to dangerous but not uncharted paths. The war in Ukraine and its consequences have created an uncontrollable vortex of news and speculations about the future of humanity and the world itself. With this in mind, we will discuss global issues such as whether the war in Ukraine was the fault of the US or Russia, Taiwan and the energy crisis in Europe. We will seek answers amidst this whirlwind of information in blueprints of antiquity, the ones of the Realist school of thought that guide us wisely through these contemporary enigmas. Realism is often misunderstood as a pessimistic harbinger of death and doom, to the point of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy when in essence it simply admits that nation-states simply act according to their national interest. Even if a state seems to devote itself to selfless cooperation, perhaps it does so because it is in its best interest.
The Realistic Patterns behind the war in Ukraine
We would like to start with a comment that at first, we did not think that Russia would invade Ukraine. In our opinion this was a move of high risk. Our gut feeling suggested that Putin would follow the same strategy that he used in Crimea in 2014 also in the region of Donbass. Yet his actions proved us wrong. Even though this ongoing war turns out to be a not so cost-effective course of plan for Russia, it still follows realistic patterns. In particular, US, NATO and Ukraine talks caused alarm to Russia as the latter perceived the possible enlargement of the alliance as a violation of its red lines. From a realistic point of view, the Kremlin could not simply allow NATO to come to its “front yard.” Moscow’s vital interests were threatened by this possible endeavour of NATO which was strongly backed by the US, especially after administration change in the Whitehouse. It is well understandable that the explanation behind the invasion can be described in a single word – interest – and more specifically national interest, which forced the Kremlin to proactively put an end to a future enlargement of NATO and consequently the further westernisation of Ukraine. It must be noted that while Pecunia et Bellum condemns the invasion and simply notes that realism has explanatory power in this case.
Is Europe’s surrealistic-unrealistic energy planning leading her to perpetual energy crises?
Unfortunately, the European Union has learned nothing from the lessons of 2014 and Russia’s strategy of shutting down gas pipelines during major crises. As a dire consequence the European administration has left the Union as defenceless prey in the hands of the Kremlin. Before the war, Europe met 40% of its gas needs in Russian imports1, which is why Europe will now face a difficult winter due to soaring energy prices, downgrading the living standards in multiple member-states. Behind these decisions lies the inability of some countries to make the most of the lessons of realism. Yes, Russian gas is cheap and plentiful for the majority of European countries and even more importantly for the powerhouse called Germany. However, you cannot simply accept giving a revisionist country that threatens the status quo in Europe from 2014 the capacity to deal huge blows to your economy when there are indeed emerging alternatives. Reasonable alternatives according to us would be a strong investment in the already existing cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, the countries mentioned can be trusted by the Union for the simple reason that their interests are aligned with the interests of European countries. To be more specific, Greece and Cyprus want to see the Union prosper, bearing in mind that they are members of the Union. As far as Israel is concerned, it has traditionally maintained strong ties with Western and European powers, so it is natural that it would want to maintain these relations, given that Israel is located in one of the most critical geopolitical regions. Finally, Egypt, under the administration of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who fought the radical Muslim Brotherhood, has good relations with European countries and for the moment Cairo can be seen as a reliable source of energy for the Union.
Still, the European Union is choosing to invest in a gas cooperation with Azerbaijan which will allow the transport of gas from Turkey and Georgia to Greece and then to the rest of Europe2. The European leadership believes this constitutes a beneficial partnership, with the most critical benefit being the move away from Russian gas. What’s the catch with that, however? First of all, the European Union will cooperate with Azerbaijan, which a year ago invaded a neighbouring country and even to this day is conducting military actions against Armenia3 in a similar way to Russia’s march in Ukraine. It seems as though decision-makers in Brussels tend to favour countries that can threaten and disrupt their energy route and economies in general. We are talking about Turkey, a country that in recent years has used migratory flows to destabilise countries of the Union such as Greece and to a greater extent the European Union itself. Despite that decision-makers in Europe have judged that this approach was the right one, though we strongly insist that it was a quite irrational one.
The Big Theatre of the World: Taiwan
Taiwan is a de facto self-proclaimed independent state in southeast Asia. The specific island is at the centre of everyone’s attention who has at least once heard of the term “Thucydides trap”. Interestingly, Alexandros Sainidis shared a story with me, according to which, two completely unrelated Taiwanese students (arts and mathematics) both perfectly knew what the “Thucydides trap” is. It is a matter of threat perception, akin to what “War on terror” is to the United States.
What is the Thucydides Trap?
In simple words, we describe a situation as Thucydidean when the number 2 state in terms of power or an emerging power threatens to overthrow the existing hegemon sitting on top of the international or regional system. What’s dangerous about that? We cannot know how the hegemon will respond to the challenge of his hegemony.
But how and in what way are Taiwan and Thucydides trap interconnected? Under Obama’s administration the pivot to Asia was implemented. This pivot was a major decision taken by USA as they decided to shift their focus from the Middle East to SouthEast Asia with China becoming their primary centre of attention4. Taiwan’s integration constitutes for China a great bet and target. The seizure of Taiwan will remove a great thorn from China’s side, a thorn that its removal will offer an important status and prestige boost for China and relieve the political system of China. On the other side, Washington had built a wall of deterrence around Taiwan, and Washington will do everything in its hand to keep this area out of the hand of Beijing. We see that Thucydides, the father of classical realism, offered the blueprint millennia ago.
Realism can explain clearly but not necessarily plainly, the contest that has been taking place for 10 years in SouthEast Asia5. We are not saying that this war is inevitable, and surely, we do not believe in an “inadvertent escalation” in the Sino American relations. However, USA observed correctly that China threatens its position in the international system. Hence Washington decided to tackle this rapid rise not through violence until this point but through the promise that it will use violence if China tries to break the deterrence. Furthermore, U.S strengthens this deterrence through diplomatic advancements even in Indochina, specifically Vietnam, and Philippines. Last but not least, the United States also launched the technological war with the most recent one, the “chip war,” trying to slow down the Chinese Tech companies that are heavily depended on American chips6. According to the aforementioned, USA follows a meticulous Grand Strategy in order to enforce a “no China policy” in the critical region of SouthEast Asia and particularly in Taiwan.
Grand Strategy: The use of all available means of a state, military, diplomatic and economic to fulfil long-term national objectives in the event of an imminent or potential conflict7.
On the other hand, China is a very prudent and cautious player that follows and respects realistic patterns. It is undoubtedly the regional hegemon both militarily and economically in the South East Asia, that bides time until chance enables Beijing to fulfil its long-term national objectives. In a more allegorical way, China is like a dragon living in a cave but the dragon is continuously growing to an extent that the cave cannot longer fit it inside. The dragon eagerly awaits to spawn its wings, fly and escape.
Security Dilemmas make the world go round
Before the War in Ukraine, was the atmosphere suggesting that world is turning into a more peaceful place? Realism yet again proved that even in the 21st century national interest shapes the behaviour of nations, and thus, it is quite neglectful to put aside its golden rule. With this in mind, nations did not disregard the capacity to use violence when their interests are threatened, with cases that prove this tendency all over the world: from Ukraine, Libya and Syria to Yemen and Myanmar8. In an international system shaped by anarchy, power and specifically military force, the latter will continue to play a major role for the simple reason that power ensures the survival of a state. In 2021 humanity broke another milestone; in particular the military world expenditure surpassed the two trillion dollars for the first time9. This milestone can be attributed to the phenomenon of the Security Dilemma.
Security Dilemmas are a vicious circle. When a state, through the reinforcement of its military capabilities and its international status, provokes neighbouring or antagonistic states to mirror the act and do the same. The dynamic is similar to a familiar picture from our childhood: whenever one of our friends bought a better toy than ours, this would push us to buy an even better one in turn. The Security dilemma is more compatible with structural than classical realism, also known as neorealism which is sub-categorised as either Offensive or Defensive Realism.
It is apparent that, all over the world, more and more countries are investing in their military. For instance the US spends $801 billion in military spending, which alerts China, which wants to narrow the gap. Therefore, China spends $293 billion (and keeps adding to the pile). India also wants to join the game, because historically it has been facing friction with Pakistan. However, Beijing also annoys Delhi, which is trailing behind the top two with $76.610 in spending.
Blueprint for the future
It seems very contradictory but historic experience proves that realism is not the harbinger of doom. Concepts such as interest, gains, control, geography, prestige contribute to finding explanation in the meanest, goriest and, otherwise, most irrational moves exhibited by nation-states. Understanding the source of the threat is a great start to preventing a conflict. Before the war in Ukraine, far too many had become “uninterested in war.” Nevertheless, in a Trotskyan fashion, the war has always been interested in them.11