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The New Great-Power Politics

How an emerging alliance is shaping the world.


Houthi recruits in Yemen. Yahya Arhab/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Houthis, the Iran-backed militia that controls much of Yemen, have disrupted the global economy by firing on commercial ships traveling through the Red Sea. But the Houthis have made some exceptions: Ships from China and Russia are allowed to pass without being attacked, according to Bloomberg.


This policy, formalized with a diplomatic agreement last month, is the latest sign that the world has entered a new period of great power politics. On one side is the largely democratic alliance — including the United States, Japan, South Korea and Western Europe — that has dominated global affairs since the demise of the Soviet Union. On the other side are China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as well as Iran-backed groups like the Houthis.


These authoritarian powers “are more and more aligned,” Jens Stoltenberg, the head of NATO, the Western alliance, told the BBC this week. “They support each other more and more, in very practical ways.”


In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain how the emerging alliance is shaping the world and why experts are anxious about the future.



Money, weapons and propaganda

Over the past decade, the emerging anti-democratic alliance has become bolder and more coordinated. Among the examples:


  • In the Ukraine war, China, Iran and North Korea have supplied crucial help to Russia. Iran and North Korea have sent weapons. And China has allowed Russia’s economy to overcome tough sanctions, as my colleague Ana Swanson has detailed. This economic aid offers military benefits, too: China is helping Russia rebuild its military-industrial base after two years of war.

  • China and Russia also act as military allies beyond Ukraine. “China and Russia are pursuing the joint development of helicopters, conventional attack submarines, missiles and missile-launch early warning systems,” Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.

  • Iran and North Korea resumed their collaboration on missile technology during the Trump administration, according to the U.N. North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and Iran seems to want them.

  • During the war in Gaza, Chinese and Russian groups have filled social media with posts supporting Hamas (which, like the Houthis, relies on Iranian support). Many include antisemitic tropes, such as Jewish control of the U.S. “The reason why China chose this moment to take a decisively anti-Israel position is because China regards Israel as a close ally of the West,” Miles Yu of the Hudson Institute told Congress.

  • The Houthis have praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a global turning point. Ali al-Qahoum, a Houthi leader, said that the invasion had weakened “unipolarity” — a reference to American power — and promoted “multipolarity.”

Very different values

Al-Qahoum’s line underscores the larger goal of the China-led alliance. Above all, it wants to reduce American influence and allow regional powers to assert their will. China might then be able to take over Taiwan. Russia could again dominate parts of Eastern Europe. Iran could contest Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, for sway over the Middle East. (These Times maps, by Alissa Rubin and Lazaro Gamio, explain Iran’s ambitions.)


The countries in the anti-U.S. alliance, Brands wrote, aim “to reorder their regions and, thereby, reorder the world.” As Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, told Congress yesterday during a visit to Washington, “The international order that the U.S. worked for generations to build is facing new challenges, challenges from those with values and principles very different from ours.”


These other countries obviously have their differences: Iran, for instance, is an Islamic theocracy, while China and Russia have oppressed their own Muslim populations. But the countries nonetheless have overlapping worldviews.


All have authoritarian governments. All have patriarchal societies, with few women in senior roles. All restrict L.G.B.T. rights. None permit a free press. All imprison people, or worse, for criticizing the regime. The countries celebrate their hostility to liberal democracy and want to forge a world with less of it.



What’s next?

One possibility is that the world is entering a new cold war, with two broad alliances competing for power. Sometimes, this competition may lead to actual wars, in which the two alliances support opposite sides — but both take steps to avoid escalation. That describes the situation in Ukraine.


Another possibility is even more alarming: a global war. Noah Smith, writing in his Substack newsletter this week, argued that the chances of such an outcome were higher than many Americans recognized. This war could start either with a major event, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or almost accidentally.


Imagine if the Houthis killed many Americans in a Red Sea attack or a Russian missile somehow did so in Europe. Experts are especially worried about China’s harassment of Philippine ships in the South China Sea. In a White House meeting yesterday, President Biden discussed the threat with the leaders of the Philippines and Japan.


One problem, as Jim Sciutto of CNN pointed out in his new book, “The Return of Great Powers,” is that the guardrails that helped prevent a past world war seem weaker today. China and the U.S. don’t always communicate as well as Soviet and American officials once did, and proxy forces like the Houthis don’t always heed their sponsors.


The past several decades have included many agonizing problems around the world. Overall, though, it has been a remarkably peaceful period. Global deaths from armed conflicts have fallen to near their lowest levels in six centuries, and global poverty has plummeted. The future looks more frightening.


 

The New York Times, 2024

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