The Geopolitical Rules You Didn’t Know About Are Under Siege

In the post–Cold War era, geopolitics can sometimes seem like the Wild West. But despite all appearances, an order governs there. Or rather it has. Throughout modern history, most countries have accepted a few simple rules to ward off total chaos: laws and conventions around land, sea and the air. These rules are not sexy — maritime law isn’t exactly known to quicken the pulse — but they’re as vital to the international order as a score is to an orchestra.

But now, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, one of the most worrisome trends is that the “rules” we take for granted on land and sea and in the air are for the first time since then under simultaneous challenge on three continents. The challenges come from Russia, China and a host of non-state actors in the Middle East, which collectively are breaking internationally sanctioned “rules” of normal conduct — and thus adding another element of instability to today’s very chaotic world.

Russian Incursions

For all Vladimir Putin’s strong-arm tactics, we’d be remiss not to admit that he has restored a measure of stability to his country. When Putin came to power in 1999, Mother Russia was in a sorry state. After the Soviet flag came down in 1991, the chaos and corruption that accompanied the rapid shift to a private economy and a new government led to such turmoil and hardship that then-President Boris Yeltsin apologized to the Russian people in his last address. Putin restored a measure of stability by tightening his grip on power and raking in profits from Russia’s strong position in the international energy market.

But now Putin’s overriding goal is to broaden Russia’s sphere of influence and restore its global clout — conventions be damned.

The surest sign was Russia’s forceful seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent incursions into Ukraine. Russia flouted a whole series of agreements that form the foundation of European security. They include treaty pledges taken by Russia and 56 other countries to consider borders “inviolable”; the Russia–U.K.–U.S. agreement not to use force against the territory or independence of Ukraine after it gave up nuclear weapons in 1991; the 1997 bilateral friendship treaty in which Russia and Ukraine agreed to respect each other’s borders; and a host of U.N. agreements against such violations.

China: Seeking to Dominate Air and Sea

Back in 1991, China was transitioning to a more open economy and was still reeling from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It was beginning to modernize its military. It was stunned by and “went to school on” the astonishing technical prowess the U.S. showed in 1990’s Operation Desert Storm, reversing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Since then? China has raced ahead with military modernization, undergone extraordinary economic growth and taken bold steps to define and protect an expanding sphere of influence in Asia.

The upshot: China in the South and East China Seas is disregarding international consensus on maritime and aviation freedoms. Under international law, states can claim territorial waters only 12 miles from shore. China flouts that rule by building artificial islands atop coral reefs 500 miles from the Chinese mainland and interpreting its construction to claim 90 percent of the South China Sea; never mind the claims of at least five other nations, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Meanwhile, in the East China Sea, China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone, telling nations they need Beijing’s permission to fly through. Both seas are vital to Asian and U.S. commerce and security.

The Islamic State vs. the Nation-State

The post–Cold War transformation in the Middle East was at least as messy as it was in Russia. Back in 1991, the region was, with the exception of democratic Israel, ruled by stable monarchies and dictatorships. But poverty, sectarian strife and hostility to oppression — turbocharged by growing social media power — produced the Arab Spring in 2011. Then came the breakdown of order documented in daily headlines today, from Sunni-Shia tensions to Bashar al-Assad’s besieged dictatorship.

But at the core of most of these problems is one thing: the Islamic State’s violent disregard for national boundaries, basic human rights and cultural heritage. We see this in its rampage across Iraq, its exploitation of Syria’s civil war, its forceful imposition of harsh Shariah law on populations, as well as in its destruction of irreplaceable historical sites.

Defending the Rules

Many countries expect the United States to be the chief enforcer of the “rules” — with the U.S. Navy on the high seas and some combination of U.S. diplomacy and military strength elsewhere. Which is exactly why all this turmoil has put U.S. leadership on the line.

In Europe, the U.S. and allies have punched back with tough economic sanctions against Russia, a new NATO rapid reaction force, and more NATO troops and equipment in Eastern and Central Europe. In Asia, the U.S. sailed a destroyer last month through the waters claimed by China to assert freedom of navigation. And in the Middle East, the first small deployment of U.S. special operations forces and renewed diplomacy in Vienna signal a new activism, one that contrasts with previous U.S. hesitation to get more involved in the Syrian dispute.

Such actions can be only a beginning, because the challenges are likely to keep coming. With almost assured re-election, Putin is likely to be pursuing his vision aggressively until at least 2024. China under President Xi Jinping, probably in office until at least 2023, will keep trying to lock in an Asian sphere of influence and reduce U.S. influence. And stabilizing the Middle East will take years of persistent, and probably frustrating, international effort.

Unlike during the Cold War, the enemy now is not a singular competing ideology but rather a struggle over the rules governing international conduct and over global leadership. We already live in a violent era, and unless these broader issues are settled, the chances of further conflict, if only by miscalculation, will keep growing.

It may not be a new Cold War, as many now suggest, but we are probably in for what President Kennedy called back in that era a “long twilight struggle.”

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