The post-1945 Pax Americana appears more vulnerable than ever before, and its main rivals are eager to exploit its apparent weaknesses in the face of new violent conflicts. Insofar as there still is an international community, its willingness to maintain the status quo appears to have diminished markedly.
When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in a speech to parliament on February 27, 2022, described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “Zeitenwende” (turning point), the risk of the war spreading was already apparent. But did he anticipate that we would be witnessing a chain of regional wars, or that tensions between great powers would begin to ratchet up almost daily? Sadly, that is where we are today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war of aggression was merely the first domino. Now, Hamas has launched a brutal terrorist attack on Israel from Gaza, killing 1,400 Israelis – most of them civilians – and abducting more than 200 others. How could such a deadly blow be struck against the Middle East’s strongest military and intelligence power? Can a terrorist organization like Hamas have accomplished such a feat on its own?
Consider the precision of the attack, and all the planning that went into it. Clearly, the goal was not simply to stage a blood-soaked display of ruthless brutality against Israeli civilians, including grandmothers and infants. More than that, it was intended to reactivate Jewish trauma by reprising the atrocities of the Shoah – the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish people. The message for Jews is that they should never feel safe, even with Israel’s military superiority. Of course, Hamas is not alone in promoting this goal. So, again, we must ask if there was a state behind the attack. For obvious reasons, suspicions have fallen on Iran.
Whatever the case, the October 7 attack has left the entire Middle East on the brink of a major war. With Israel’s very existence at stake, the United States and Europe have inevitably been drawn in. But so, too, have others, with China (a major importer of Iranian hydrocarbons) reportedly deploying warships to the region.1
For its part, Israel has little choice but to retaliate militarily to restore deterrence, even though this war will cost many more civilian lives and deepen the hatred between the two sides. Those who planned the October 7 operation undoubtedly banked on this outcome – which again suggests that Hamas did not act alone.
A striking parallel between the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza is that both involve a fight for the very survival of an existing nation-state. But equally important, both confirm that we are witnessing the emergence of a new world order. While the West is standing firmly with Israel, authoritarian powers such as Russia and China are opportunistically taking the other side, as is much of the Global South, owing to its own traumatic memories of colonization.
The West cannot simply accept this us-against-the-rest dynamic, which became all too apparent with Putin’s attack on Ukraine. In the long run, such geopolitical polarization will leave everyone worse off. But reversing the tide will require heroic diplomatic efforts. As an essential part of the new world order, the Global South demands recognition and a seat at the table.
In addition to the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, there is also the growing threat of military conflict in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, which would directly involve two superpowers: the US and China. Against this backdrop, wars like the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh risk being forgotten.
Historically, efforts to shift the global balance of power, or to revise and impose a new international order, have never happened without violence. That makes major powers’ increasingly aggressive tone toward each other all the more worrying.
The post-1945 world of Pax Americana appears more vulnerable than ever before. Rather than waiting to see if it will eventually unravel on its own, its main challengers are eager to exploit its apparent weaknesses. Insofar as there still is an international community, its willingness to maintain the status quo seems to have diminished markedly.
It is difficult not to think of 1914, when events took on a life of their own and precipitated world war. Honor and ambition are taking precedence over reason, which is once again the slave of religious and nationalist passions. In today’s turmoil, we are getting a glimpse of a world without order. Those who ridicule US President Joe Biden for his age should consider what would happen if this latest Middle East crisis were unfolding without such prudent and experienced leadership in the White House. The world would be a more uncertain and dangerous place than it already is.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.