U.S. Air Force soldiers stand around an F16.

U.S. Air Force soldiers prepare an F16 fighter jet during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises dubbed Cope Thunder at Clark Air Base on May 09, 2023 in Mabalacat, Pampanga province, Philippines amid heightened tensions in the region.

(Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

What Comes After Pax Americana?

War in the new multipolar disorder can be prevented by our social movements’ pressure from below and by political and national leaders with the courage to press for common security diplomacy.

What we, our children, and future generations need and deserve is clear: Freedom from the threat of war. A sustainable environment. And our nations’ resources should be devoted to ensuring food and housing security and facilitating lives that can be lived with dignity.

It is the pursuit of power and privilege, and the maintenance of structural inequality, that are the greatest obstacles to the common security we need and deserve. As we learned from the Korean Democracy movement, and in the U.S. from the civil rights, women’s, and nuclear disarmament campaigns, freedom, justice, peace, and environmental sustainability will not be delivered to us by our governments. They can only be achieved with pressure from below, by our movements and courageous individuals.

Our struggles take place within national and international political, economic, and social contexts. Today, with escalating military tensions in and around the Korean Peninsula, with the geopolitical tectonic changes stemming from the emergence of a multipolar disorder to replace declining U.S. regional and global hegemony, and with the failure of our elites to courageously confront and reverse the existential threats to humanity of nuclear annihilation and the climate emergency, we face a host of obstacles to creating a common security.

Despite its inherently brutal recipe for maintaining U.S. global full spectrum dominance, there is some truth in the U.S. NationalSecurity Strategy where it reads: “The post-Cold War era is definitely over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.”

Our situation has historic origins: Korean history, including Japanese colonialism and Korea’s Cold War Division; the industrial, scientific, and intellectual revolutions; U.S. Manifest Destiny and the exceptionalist ideologies of its now 125-year-old overseas empire; the century and a half of Chinese humiliation and its rise to again become a major world power; the end of the post-Cold War era, and the inherent uncertainties of the 21st century multipolar disorder.

Despite its inherently brutal recipe for maintaining U.S. global full spectrum dominance, there is some truth in the U.S. NationalSecurity Strategy where it reads: “The post-Cold War era is definitely over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” Fiona Hill put it differently.: The Ukraine War, she wrote, is making “the passing of the Pax Americana apparent to everyone.”

In fact, not everyone has this awareness. Many U.S. policymakers and most of the U.S. general public have yet to acknowledge this reality. The belief that “America is the indispensable nation” continues to guide U.S. policymakers and the country, fueling outdated policies and provocative and dangerous actions including seeking to strategically defeat Russia via the Ukraine War, repeatedly sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, and initiating trade wars.

The U.S. is not alone in refusing to adjust to the new multipolar disorder. Russian President Vladimir Putin models himself in the tradition of Peter the Great. China seeks to establish neocolonial regional hegemony in East Asia and the West Pacific and refuses to renegotiate the terms of loans which look to bankrupt some of its ostensible partners. Unjust Cold War power relations in Korea and across the planet leave humanity in or on the brink of catastrophic wars, nuclear and climate Armageddon, hunger, and poverty.

The intensifying U.S.-China military confrontations and their economic, technological, and diplomatic competition are a classic replay of the inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers that historically have often climaxed in catastrophic wars. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it, we are sleepwalking into an avoidable war. It can be prevented by our social movements’ pressure from below and by political and national leaders with the courage to press for common security diplomacy.

While the Ukraine War is at the center of world attention, it is about more than Ukraine. It’s not simply a criminal Russian war of aggression, which it is. It also reflects the birthing of the dangerously uncertain multipolar era.

Given Russian-Chinese strategic interdependence, as well as Chinese dependence on U.S. technology and the U.S. and European markets, China has much to lose as well as to gain in the Ukraine War. With Beijing’s economic and limited diplomatic support of the Kremlin, China’s leadership seeks to ensure that Washington and NATO continue to face a Russian military potential in Europe in order to limit the threatening U.S. miliary buildup on China’s periphery. Simultaneously, Beijing’s 12 point “Position on Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” its warnings against Russian use of nuclear weapons, its Global Security Initiative, and its facilitation of the Iran-Saudi agreement mean that China’s partnership with Moscow is not unlimited. And Xi’s “peace diplomacy” is challenging Washington’s role as the ultimate diplomatic arbiter.

Even as the U.S. dispatches warships to the Taiwan Strait, flies nuclear capable bombers across South Korea, reinforces is military alliances, expands its military presence across Asia and the Pacific, and undermines the One China doctrine, Washington’s near-term priority is to inflict a strategic defeat on Moscow.

This relates to China. In Asia, Europe, and the Global South, the Biden Administration is working to salvage and reinforce the four-generation old Bretton Woods and NATO systems to resist what it perceives to be Russia’s immediate, and China’s longer-term, threats to the so-called “rules based” order. Yes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s menacing naval forces in Philippine and Vietnamese waters, and its refusal to respect the International Court of Arbitration’s decision on South China/West Philippine Sea sovereignty are gross violations of the “the rules based order.” But they are not the only ones. Recall the U.S. invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; the Reagan Administration’s refusal to participate in the International Court of Justice; and Washington’s continuing support for Israeli apartheid.

The Biden Administration’s Security Strategy’s primary commitments are clear: contain and “out compete” China while “constraining Russia.” This updates former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and former President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies, while insisting that the U.S. maintain its “unmatched” military war fighting capabilities. President Joe Biden crowed that “the U.S. is back,” and his military buildup and U.S. military operations across the so-called Indo-Pacific and Europe are all designed to enforce that boast.

The Security Strategy gives the “China threat” pride of place. China is seen as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” China’s facilitation of the Iran-Saudi deal appears to prove this point. The Strategy also explains that Chinese military expansion and modernization is the “pacing threat” driving U.S. military planning, operations, and, I would add, spending. Technological primacy is described as determinative for military and economic power, and the Strategy commits to offset China’s economic challenge.

This is not unrelated to the tensions in Korea and to the ongoing danger that the armistice will not hold. Geography plays a major role in a nation’s destiny. Korea was once a major empire, but for the last two centuries Koreans have been caught in the geopolitical vortex of U.S.-Chinese-Russian-Japanese tensions. Even as Beijing has no love for the regime in Pyongyang, it has supported the Kim dynasty because historically Korea has served as the military gateway to Manchuria. And even as South Korea is China’s fourth largest trading partner, when it looks across the West Sea it is confronted by U.S. first-strike related THAAD missiles and Washington’s nuclear armed Seventh Fleet.

South Korea has played critical roles maintaining U.S. East-Asian and Pacific military dominance. For Washington, the Republic of Korea (ROK) is its sixth greatest trading partner and an important source of technology. And, for 75 years, Washington has seen Korea as a geopolitical dagger that could potentially threaten the United States’ most important Asian ally, Japan. This helps to explain the drawing of the line on the 38th parallel, the Pentagon’s neocolonial troop deployments and bases across the ROK, continuing control of the ROK military, and Biden’s efforts to enforce an unhappy marriage between Seoul and Tokyo and those nations’ deepening engagements with NATO.

Returning to the Security Strategy, it does acknowledge U.S.-Chinese economic interdependence, which explains Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin’s recent trip to Beijing. That said, the Strategy provides for a two-part containment strategy: massive investments to revitalize the U.S. economy and technological innovation as the foundation of U.S. power, and a deepening alignment with U.S. allies and partners. The first commitment was addressed with a $560-billion boost for the U.S. economy and by a $52-billion subsidy to the U.S. semiconductor and high-tech industry.

Biden’s cohort understand that the U.S. cannot enforce its hegemony unilaterally. Thus they give priority to integrating their allies’ military, economic, and technological power to resist China’s challenge. They have consolidated the QUAD military alliance with Japan, Australia, and India. The nuclear AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain has been negotiated and is being implemented. South Korea and Japan are encouraged to build a tripartite alliance. The second Marcos dictatorship has reembraced the U.S. military alliance. And NATO’s new strategic concept names containing China as an alliance priority. May’s G7 commitment to contain China, and the Indo-Pacific Framework for Prosperity provide glue to hold it all together.

China is not standing still. It has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal and may be aiming for nuclear parity with the U.S. China’s navy is larger than the U.S. 7th fleet and is the leading edge of Beijing’s effort to enforce its imperial nine-dash line. It has repeatedly sent its warplanes across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. And its space and cyber weapons challenge those of the U.S. No wonder that some Southeast Asian and Pacific Nations are hedging their bets and support U.S. militarism, even as they increase their economic dependence on China.

Taiwan is the hinge and most dangerous potential flash point of this geopolitical stew. Despite hysteria in Washington, Beijing has no intention of invading Taiwan in the near term unless Taipei recklessly opts for de jure independence or in the case of unexpected military accident or incident, But bipartisan Congressional madness is driving the U.S. toward increased confrontation and Kevin Rudd’s “avoidable war.”

For China, reunification of what it perceives to be a strategically vital and rogue province, first severed in 1895 by Japan and serving as a U.S. protectorate since 1949, is a national priority, the final prize to overcome the century and a half of humiliation. For the U.S. and its allies, Taiwan is a geostrategic resource essential to bottle up China’s Navy within the inner island chain, and a democratic society not to be sacrificed.

The U.S. is not an innocent party. Beginning with Trump and accelerated by Biden, the U.S. has sought to bring Taiwan fully into the U.S. sphere, undermining the One China Policy which it ostensibly supports. That policy has been the foundation for U.S.-Chinese relations and Northeast Asian stability since “normal” U.S.-Chinese relations were reestablished in 1979. But, to give Biden his due, Huang Kwei-Bo, a senior policy figure for the KMT in Taiwan, reports that Biden has kept an obedient DPP government in line, preventing pro-independence actions that could spark a catastrophic war.

China’s almost daily military operations targeted against Taiwan have multiplied since former U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reckless visit to Taiwan and with her successor’s meeting with Taiwan’s president. If an accident or miscalculation that could escalate are to be prevented, the U.S. and China must signal their willingness to deescalate tensions by reducing their provocative military operations near Taiwan.

There are other potential triggers for a catastrophic regional war. Tensions have been intensifying with Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal and its powerful delivery systems, and the renewed and massive ROK-U.S.-Japanese military exercises designed to demonstrate the ability to destroy North Korea and topple the Kim dynasty. I agree with Francis Daehoon Lee and others South Korean peace movement leaders that, even as we mark the Armistice Agreement’s anniversary and call for a peace treaty, that we must focus on war prevention in Korea. All parties to the tensions have nuclear or conventional first strike doctrines; the fear is that we are approaching an extremely dangerous tipping point.

Militarized Japanese-Chinese competition for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, competition for control of South China Sea resources and sea lanes, and certainly accidents or miscalculations could trigger a catastrophic military conflict. It is worth noting that Japan is preparing for possible conflict by doubling its military budget. Tokyo is already the world’s sixth biggest military spender, has an advanced navy, is purchasing cruise missiles from the U.S., and its military has long asserted its right to possess tactical nuclear weapons. And successive U.S. presidents have affirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty requires the U.S. to come to Japan’s aid in case of an attack.

With the U.S. and China involved in the Ukraine War, albeit differently, and facing the likelihood that it will be a long war that increases the possibilities of horizontal (geographic) and vertical (nuclear) escalation, it is imperative to press for a ceasefire and negotiations. But the greatest danger lies in an avoidable U.S., China, and regional war, and a failure of Beijing and Washington to cooperate to reverse the existential climate emergency. We must all do what we can to take humanity’s foot off the accelerator of what U.N. Secretary General AntónioGuterres describes as “a highway to climate hell.”

China has the right to peacefully rise, but peacefully means with non-coercive policies toward its neighbors and respect for human rights. Korean voices urging security and trade policies independent from both Washington’s and Beijing’s confrontational approach can play critically important mediating roles. We can all learn and build on the 1982 Common Security Report which warned that no nation can unilaterally ensure its security, and that security can only be created with, and not against, a nation’s rivals. It served as the paradigm for the INF Treaty which ended the Cold War before the fall of the Berlin Wall and for the early post-Cold War security architecture. The paradigm rests on an ancient truth: “Security cannot be obtained unilaterally. Economically, politically, culturally, or importantly militarily—we live in an interdependent world and no nation can achieve security at the expense of another.”

This article is based on a talk prepared for the “Commons: Peace and Security For All” conference held in Seoul, South Korea.

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