Wars raging in Ukraine and Israel are only the beginning of violent consequences from the crumbling post-World War II order.
In both conflicts splintering Europe and the Middle East, aggrieved inheritors of negotiated territorial disputes reject their predecessors’ endorsements and with them respect for treaties that have largely kept the peace in the Western world for decades.
The wars taking thousands of lives every month are also encouraging other rapacious autocrats to consider aggression to take desired territories, like China’s vow to “reunify” with the rebellious province of democratically ruled Taiwan that has been a refuge for Chinese opponents of communism since the 1949 defeat of the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang.
On the other side of the planet in Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro held a referendum last month asking his countrymen whether two thirds of neighboring Guyana’s territory should become a new Venezuelan state. That question calling for de facto annexation of the resource-rich Essequibo region won Venezuelan voters’ approval by 96%.
Violence and intimidation among world powers has soared most perilously on the high seas. An increasingly aggressive China has engaged in hazardous naval confrontations with U.S. warships in the South China Sea.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have been firing on commercial cargo vessels transiting the Red Sea. That has diverted many of the 100,000 container ships sailings the world’s trade routes. Iran on Thursday seized an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, retaliation for what Iran’s Tasnim News Agency said was U.S. confiscation of the same ship and its oil cargo last year. The United States and its allies retaliated Friday with airstrikes on Houthi rebel sites in Yemen, spurring massive protests in the Yemeni capital of Sana and fears of widening the war in the Middle East.
The Black Sea has become a second battleground between Kyiv and Moscow as Ukrainian forces have sunk or disabled some of Russia’s most formidable warships. That has prompted the Kremlin to retaliate with mining and bombing of Ukraine’s grain-exporting ports, denying income for Kyiv from vital provision of the main staple to poor countries.
In the North and Baltic seas, pipelines and undersea cables have been blown up by unidentified saboteurs to halt energy delivery and communication.
Aerial provocations have also soared in recent years between Russian and NATO fighter jets patrolling the Baltic, North and Mediterranean seas and Chinese and U.S. aircraft over the disputed waters of the Asian Pacific.
Dangerous taunts on land, in the air and at sea were hallmarks of the superpower rivalry of the Cold War. In their post-bipolar world iteration, they have proliferated and diversified to draw in the aggressive powers of Iran, China and North Korea.
Putin condemns the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century.” The division of territory recognizing the national boundaries of all 15 Soviet republics was signed off on by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the Belovezha Accords.
Putin persists in his campaign to recover former Soviet territory in the belief that it is Russia’s historical imperative to dominate the Eurasian expanse that Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union once controlled.
Ukrainians’ valiant defense of their homeland has inspired neighbors and allies who see Russia’s invasion as a battle on behalf of all Western democracies to protect freedom and independence. But the rise of authoritarian sentiments in the United States and parts of Europe threatens to leave Ukraine vulnerable to Putin’s aggression.
Stalled on the Ukraine battlefields and scrambling to replenish depleted arsenals of missiles, tanks and soldiers, Putin’s war machine has resumed attacks on civilian communities across Ukraine. Trying to terrorize civilians into submission failed at the start of the Russian invasion 22 months ago and appears to have no more influence now.
Biden’s top diplomats officials have delivered back-channel messages to Netanyahu that continued disregard for the safety of Gaza civilians is costing Israel moral support in the United States, Israel’s No. 1 ally and a vital supplier of sophisticated weaponry.
Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine has led to an International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes and issuance of an arrest warrant for the Kremlin leader. Fear of arrest and extradition to The Hague has prevented Putin from traveling much outside of Russia.
In Israel, the war against Hamas militants has killed more than 23,000 Gaza residents, mostly women and children. Indiscriminate assaults have spurred similar accusations of war crimes against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The hard-right Israeli leader has refused to bow to appeals to moderate attacks against an enclave that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s defiance of appeals by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on behalf of the Biden administration to adhere to Geneva Conventions protecting the rights and safety of noncombatants has fueled mass protests and domestic U.S. demands to cut off aid to Israel.
The growing rift between Israel and its most important ally now jeopardizes U.S. defense of and assistance to Israel’s goal of annihilating Hamas, designated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist group for its avowed aim of eliminating the state of Israel.
Those to the left of Netanyahu’s arch-right coalition warn Israel is at risk of losing vital U.S. support if Netanyahu persists in deploying Israeli Defense Forces to hunt and kill Hamas militants with little regard for casualties among Gaza civilians.
President Joe Biden’s support for Israel has appeared to be iron-clad on the surface since the shocking attacks of Oct. 7, 2023.
Biden faces rising outrage among the liberal left and human rights advocates. Protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza last week interrupted Biden’s visit to the scene of a South Carolina hate-fueled mass murder in 2015, calling U.S. support for Israeli slaughter in Gaza tantamount to ethnic cleansing of the enclave.
“As the fighting persists and gaps emerge between the U.S. and the Israeli positions, Israel has strong reasons to invest in keeping its primary alliance intact,” warns Shalom Lipner, a senior advisor to Israeli prime ministers from 1990 to 2016. In a commentary in Foreign Affairs, Lipner warns “Israel must not only manage the current military campaign judiciously but also tackle domestic political problems and determine once and for all how it plans to settle its conflict with the Palestinians.”
The hostilities riling the world today differ from those of the Cold War in that the adversaries are now more numerous and fractured than during the superpower confrontation. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated one side of a bipolar power structure with the United States, diminishing Kremlin authority and scattering 14 other Soviet republics to an array of alliances.
The wars have inflicted new fractures in an already divided world. European Union recalcitrant Hungary torpedoed a $55 billion aid package for Ukraine in December to protest an EU vote to begin admission of Ukraine to the 27-nation EU alliance.
Like Hungary, extreme MAGA Republicans in the U.S. Congress are holding $61 billion in arms assistance to Kyiv hostage to resolving a widely considered irresolvable migration crisis on the U.S. southern border.
China’s Xi has toed a neutral line on the war in Ukraine, reluctant to abandon an alliance of convenience that provides cheap Russian oil to the Chinese economy. China’s backstage observance of Putin’s disastrous campaign offers Xi a vision of what Beijing might face if it invaded Taiwan to recover political control of the rebellious former province. China’s 2-million-strong People’s Liberation Army and 1.4 billion population should easily overwhelm Taiwan if Xi decides to try to take the island by force. But the same was said two years ago about Russia’s offensive capabilities versus Ukraine’s.
NATO member Turkey delayed the admission of new applicants Sweden and Finland for months and is now blocking the passage of Western-donated mine-sweeping vessels through the Bosporus so Ukraine can safely deploy grain to hungry nations in the developing world.
NATO and the European Union benefitted from 30 years of alliance-building with former Soviet and East European Communist states looking for protection from Moscow. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, leaving the small Baltic Sea countries wary of Russian intentions.
China’s rise as the world’s No. 2 economy supplants Russia as the chief rival of the United States in the global power structure. Much-diminished from the Soviet era, the Kremlin under Putin has fostered confrontation with the West that has undermined the economic and social interactions with Russia that underpinned a boom time in the early 1990s.
The world’s recent track record since the wave of democratic victories after the Cold War gives cause for fear of continued regression as 4 billion voters—half the world’s population—are called to the polls this year. Think tanks monitoring political trends across the globe predict a further rise of authoritarians to leadership in the 60-some countries holding elections this year.
Iran holds the power to provoke a widening of the Middle East war, if it so chooses. Its support and arming of proxies throughout the region can be ratcheted up to an intensity that U.S. defense officials cannot brush off.
Whether clerics in Tehran want to taunt war with the United States and its NATO allies is debatable. Iran’s clerical regime may be eager to politically weaken a U.S. president, but the likely beneficiary of discrediting Biden would be Trump back in the White House along with his America First isolationist agenda. Tehran leaders would be mindful of Trump’s scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal painstakingly negotiated with the world’s major powers, including China, the European Union and the Obama administration.
The war in Ukraine is at risk of harming U.S. geopolitical clout in the world more from internal perfidy than actions by adversaries like China and Iran. Congressional Republicans who decades ago were the most strident Russia hawks have been supplanted by MAGA extremists in the U.S. House of Representatives. The “chaos caucus” carries out former President Donald Trump’s policies supporting Putin despite intelligence warnings Russia is the greatest threat to U.S. democracy.
Proposed legislation to provide $110 billion in national security assistance to America’s allies failed to get a vote in Congress before lawmakers adjourned in mid-December. Republicans have tied vital weapons shipments to Democrats’ capitulation on draconian measures to restrict asylum grants to migrants fleeing oppression and violence.
None of the foreign threats to U.S. freedom and security appear to be influencing American voters that the U.S. role in the world is not just charity for endangered allies like Ukraine and Taiwan but insurance that the grip of authoritarian leadership doesn’t strangle our own democracy.