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A New Era of Geopolitical Turbulence?


A New Era of Geopolitical Turbulence?

China, Russia, and North Korea are pursuing foreign policy and national security ambitions that increasingly challenge the established international order and portend a new era of geopolitical turbulence.

Contemporary developments in geopolitics are rapidly bringing the established international order to a critical inflection point. Three decades earlier, addressing a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress on March 6, 1991, at the end of the Persian Gulf War, U.S. President George H. W. Bush had triumphantly declared that “we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order [emphasis added]. In the words of Winston Churchill, a world order in which ‘the principles of justice and fair play protect the weak against the strong…’ A world where the United Nations, freed from Cold War stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders. A world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations” [1]. Spurred on by the optimism of the “End of History” proposition and built on the foundation of the ‘unipolar moment’ that followed the end of the Cold War, that new world order vision is now running the risk of being overshadowed by the possibility of a post-Western world order or, worse, a new world disorder [2].

From the 2023 BRICS Summit in South Africa (August 22-24) to the 2023 G-20 Summit in India (September 9-10) to the G77+China Summit in Cuba (September 15-16), calls for a new global order become ever more commonplace.

The addition of six new members (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to the BRICS group is expected to raise the status and influence of the Global South on the international stage, strengthen ongoing efforts to reshape global governance and usher in a multipolar world order. Meanwhile, a weakly worded consensus statement issued at the end of the G-20 meeting has renewed debates about the geopolitical relevance and influence of the G-20 and similar multilateral forums [3]. Moreover, the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, from the G-20 gathering, and the subsequent meeting between Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Russia, can be interpreted as a not-so-subtle attempt by China and Russia to signal their disillusionment with the governance structures of the current international order as well as their determination to create an alternative order. This was certainly on display at the G77+China Summit where Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel channeled the collective disillusion of the Global South by declaring that “[A]fter all this time that the North has organized the world according to its interests, it is now up to the South to change the rules of the game” [4].

China: Revisionist Power Play

Decades-long efforts by the U.S. (and the wider international community) to engage and integrate China into the U.S.-led international order have fizzled out, not least because the two countries embrace conflicting views of international order in the 21st century. In a departure from previous great power rivalries, the breadth and depth of Sino-U.S. economic interdependence was widely expected to combine inevitable competition with increased levels of cooperation on a broad range of critical bilateral and global issues, all the while limiting the prospects of open confrontation.

Yet, it is becoming readily apparent that an aggressively realist, assertively nationalist, and increasingly ideological China is transforming Sino-U.S. economic interdependence into a destabilizing force that stokes the fires of enduring rivalry.

Mao Zedong’s notion of peaceful co-existence (和平共处, hépíng gòngchǔ) and Hu Jintao’s vision of “harmonious world” (和谐世界, héxié shìjiè) is rapidly being eclipsed by a new reality of competitive coexistence as a result of the aggressive realism of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” (中国梦, zhōngguó mèng).

The Global Development Initiative (全球发展倡议, quánqiú fāzhǎn chàngyì; proposed in September 2021), Global Security Initiative (全球安全倡议, quánqiú ānquán chàngyì; proposed in April 2022), Global Civilization Initiative (全球文明倡议, quánqiú wénmíng chàngyì; proposed in March 2023) are seen as critical pillars of Beijing’s foreign policy efforts expand its global influence and to advance the vision of a “community of common destiny” (命运共同体, mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ) as an alternative to the Western-dominated rules-based international order [5]. Xi Jinping was particularly vocal about this objective at the recent BRICS Summit in South Africa, arguing that “[I]nternational rules must be written and upheld jointly by all countries based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, rather than dictated by those with the strongest muscles or the loudest voice. Ganging up to form exclusive groups and packaging their own rules as international norms are even more unacceptable” (emphasis added) [6].

Meanwhile, speculations about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the years ahead to effectively close the last chapter of China’s “century of humiliation” (百年国耻, bǎinián guóchǐ) combine with increasingly assertive, even aggressive, posturing in the South China Sea only add to unsettling scenarios of 21st-century geopolitical turbulence.

Russia: Revanchist Ambitions

Vladimir Putin’s 2005 description of the collapse of the former Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century” is oftentimes quoted in an effort to explain Russia’s geopolitical strategy in the 21st century [7]. Missed in this simplistic analysis, though, is the fact that Russia’s post-Soviet political culture has not only been deeply shaped by the demise of the former Soviet Union (December 25, 1991) but also by the West’s subsequent repudiation of then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s (in)famous “not one inch eastward” assurance of post-Cold War NATO expansion [8]. Speaking at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin gave voice to that grievance, describing NATO expansion as “a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust” and questioning “why it is necessary to put military infrastructure on our borders during this expansion” [9].

At the same time, the degree of perceived insecurity resulting from post-Cold War NATO expansion prompted Russia to embrace a more aggressive realism and resort to military force— “hybrid aggression” [10] against Georgia (2008), annexation of Crimea (2014), and most recently, a full-fledged war of aggression against Ukraine (Feb. 24, 2022, to present). Additionally, it has heightened insecurity for Russia’s neighbors and much of Europe.

Most ironically, though, the geopolitical turbulence unleashed by Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine has led to a monumental shift in European security in decades as Finland and Sweden abandoned their longstanding neutrality in favor of security guarantees conferred by NATO membership.

It should not come as a surprise, of course, that Moscow views this development—an obvious blowback to its own strategic decision-making over Ukraine—as further evidence of NATO’s imperial ambitions. With obvious implications for Russia’s core national and security interests, one can expect that this latest round of NATO expansion may well catalyze geopolitical turbulence along Russia’s borders in the years ahead. Indeed, it is not altogether inconceivable that NATO’s expansion into Northern Europe will make Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in its Near Abroad even less predictable and fraught with tension in the wake of the war of aggression in Ukraine.

North Korea: Perennial Geopolitical Wild Card

Bombastic rhetoric, aggressive saber-rattling, and persistent defiance of UN Security Council resolutions are the perennial hallmarks of the North Korean regime. Its provocations—whether deemed rationally irrational or irrationally rational—have always been the source of enduring security concerns. The impact on the regional security architecture has in recent months led to an encouraging thaw in Japan-South Korea relations. In turn, it also paved the way for “a new era of trilateral partnership” between the U.S. and its two Northeast Asian allies to address the multifaceted security and stability challenges that continued North Korean belligerence (and evolving Chinese assertiveness) pose to the region [11].

Of course, it hardly came as a surprise that China and North Korea leveled strong criticism against the trilateral leaders’ summit that brought together (for the fourth time in fourteen months) the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and the United States at Camp David on August 18, 2023. Beijing criticized the deepening coordination and consultation efforts that came to symbolize the meeting as “forming various cliques with their practices of exacerbating and jeopardizing other countries’ strategic security” [12]. Meanwhile, Pyongyang took the rhetorical rebuke to a whole different level, warning that “[I]f the agreements fabricated at the Camp David Resort are additionally put into practice in the war drill … the possibility of outbreak of a thermonuclear war on the Korean peninsula will become more realistic” [13]. 

Its unrelenting nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions notwithstanding, the very real prospect of a new brothers-in-arms arrangement between Pyongyang and Moscow—deriving from a potential ammunition-for-technology quid pro quo—would undoubtedly trigger comprehensive realignments in the Northeast Asian security environment and further stoke the embers of 21st-century geopolitical turbulence.

Insecurity for one, insecurity for all?

During one of his famous ‘fireside chats’, President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned on September 3, 1939, that “[W]hen peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger” [14]. Nearly 85 years later, that warning remains as relevant as ever. In the contemporary context, the assertive and bellicose way in which China, Russia, and North Korea are pursuing their foreign policy and national security ambitions has engendered a new wave of geopolitical turbulence that presents a clear and credible challenge to the established international order. More ominously still, it may see the emergence of a dangerous, unpredictable, and authoritarian strategic triangle that could trigger a destabilizing arms race and heightened nuclear risks, with pronounced manifestations in but by no means limited to Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.

The unfolding strategic rivalry between an established power (United States) and rising/revanchist powers (China and Russia) that effectively declared a “no limits partnership” in February 2022, grows out of a determination by China (and to a lesser degree Russia) to counteract Washington’s efforts to define the norms of international relations and the very nature of the 21st century international order. Add in the specter of a Russia-North Korea arrangement, or worse a China-Russia-North Korea strategic triangle, and the world may well find itself on the cusp of a new era of geopolitical turbulence, marked by heightened security dilemmas that may lead to accelerated regional arms races, if not outright open conflict.


[1]. “Transcript of President Bush’s Address on End of the Gulf War,” The New York Times, March 7, 1991, A8, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/07/us/after-war-president-transcript-president-bush-s-address-end-gulf-war.html.

[2]. Francis Fukuyama, “The end of history?”, The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18; Charles Krauthammer, “The unipolar moment”, Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/1991): 23-33.

[3]. John R. Bolton, “The G-20 should abolish itself.” The Washington Post, September 11, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/09/11/g20-meetings-pointless-leaders/.

[4]. “G77 summit in Cuba calls for new global order”, DW, September 16, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/g77-summit-in-cuba-calls-for-new-global-order/a-66830925.  

[5]. Michael Schuman, et al., “How Beijing’s newest global initiatives seek to remake the world order”, The Atlantic Council, Issue Brief, June 21, 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/how-beijings-newest-global-initiatives-seek-to-remake-the-world-order/.

[6]. “Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 15th BRICS Summit”, August 23, 2023, http://en.npc.gov.cn.cdurl.cn/2023-08/24/c_913173.htm.  

[7]. “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation”, April 25, 2005, https://www.policycenter.ma/publications/greatest-geopolitical-catastrophe-20th-century.

[8]. For a detailed history, see M. E. Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

[9]. “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy”, February 10, 2007, http://www.en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034.

[10]. Natia Seskuria, “Russia’s ‘hybrid aggression’ against Georgia: The use of local and external tools”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, September 21, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-hybrid-aggression-against-georgia-use-local-and-external-tools.  

[11]. “The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States”, The White House, August 18, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/08/18/the-spirit-of-camp-david-joint-statement-of-japan-the-republic-of-korea-and-the-united-states/.

[12]. Bruce W. Bennett, “A trilateral summit to deal with trilateral threats”, The RAND Blog, August 29, 2023, https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/08/a-trilateral-summit-to-deal-with-trilateral-threats.html.

[13]. Soo-Hyang Choi, “North Korea says Camp David agreements raise possibility of ‘thermonuclear war’”, Reuters, August 22, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-says-camp-david-agreements-raise-possibility-thermonuclear-war-2023-08-21/.

[14]. “Fireside Chat (September 3, 1939)”, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/fireside-chat-13.




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