The World Is Assuming A Pre-War Posture

“Ironclad” and “no limits” battle lines are being drawn across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Tehran, April 15. (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

It appears that the last vestiges of the post-war era have finally been exhausted and we now risk entering a pre-war era that consolidates the battle lines of conflict globally.

Like the invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the massive swarm of drones and missiles launched directly from Iran against Israel, and now Israel’s return strike, as tempered as it may have been, is yet another precedent-shattering departure from past expectations that red lines would not be crossed. 

The danger is that either deliberate or miscalculated actions taken in hot wars raging in the Middle East and Europe will course through ever-more hardening alliance systems and draw them directly into conflict on a world scale. Urgent calls for restraint are themselves a recognition that what was for so long unthinkable may not be so far off.

The Battle Lines Consolidate

Predictably, the G7 immediately met to condemn Iran’s act of war and pledge their unwavering defense of Israel, while, at the U.N. Security Council, Russia called the plea for de-escalation of tensions hypocritical since the council did not condemn Israel’s earlier attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

Keen not to isolate a key partner in the resistance to Western dominance of the world order, China — which has enabled Iran to escape the brunt of Western sanctions by purchasing 90% of its oil exports — has called Iran’s attack “self-defense” and only vaguely warned against acts that could escalate the crisis.

Ongoing developments elsewhere also mark a shift from the post-war mindset of peaceful accommodation to a mentality of inexorable confrontation.

Following the launch in recent years of the Australia, U.K. and U.S. (AUKUS) pact to build nuclear-powered submarines as one aspect of containing China in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration patched up long-standing mutual animosity between Japan and South Korea to forge a trilateral agreement last August that would closely coordinate military responses in the event of aggressive acts by China or North Korea.

Last week President Biden went a step further, hosting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a formal state visit to cement the most significant upgrade in America’s security alliance with the Land of the Rising Sun since 1960, including integrated battle planning and joint development of advanced technologies to directly challenge China’s capabilities.

In a speech to Congress, Kishida tied together the global threat landscape: “China’s current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large. Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.”

The next day Biden convened a summit with the Japanese leader and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to deepen joint security ties in the face of China’s growing belligerence. “I want to be clear, the United States defense commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad,” Biden said, using the same terminology applied for the other side of the world to Israel.

Not so surprisingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping sees these moves for what they are. “Western countries led by the U.S. have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us,” he declared last year, “bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

China is thus pushing back in other ways that backstop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, not least through an economic lifeline that neutralizes the impact of Western sanctions. U.S. intelligence sources revealed last week that, despite public pledges otherwise, Chinese suppliers are providing machine tools, propellant and engines for the drones and missiles Russia deploys in Ukraine, leading U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who was visiting Beijing, to warn of new sanctions that might be imposed on China.

In another tie that binds, the Shahed drones Iran fired at Israel are of the same family of munitions the Islamic Republic provides to Russia for use in Ukraine. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put it, “The sound of Shahed drones, a tool of terror, is the same in the skies over the Middle East and Europe.”

In response to Washington’s mounting pressure on China, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov huddled with Xi in Beijing to reaffirm their “no limits” partnership and plan for an upcoming state visit by President Vladimir Putin.

On yet one more front, as noted recently in Noema, the Baltic Sea has become a “NATO Lake” with the accession of formerly neutral Finland and Sweden as members. For the first time, Russian forces there are fully surrounded by alliance militaries and navies with no buffer in between. 

Absolute Stakes

More frightening still is that the stakes are becoming absolute all around. For China, Russia can’t lose in Ukraine or its most powerful ally against the West seeking to contain it will be formidably weakened. For Western leaders and their Asian allies, Russia can’t be allowed to win or the entire liberal order of open societies will be at risk of geopolitical bullying by well-armed autocrats, notably Xi, who they fear will come to believe seizing what they please by force will only be met with limited repercussions.

For the first time since the Jewish state was born in battle in 1948, the stakes are existential. As Israel has shown in Gaza after the horrific Hamas assault, it will be merciless when its survival is threatened.

The ability of Israel, the U.S., the U.K. and their silent Arab partners to repel Iran’s fusillade demonstrated such an overwhelming superiority in technology and military prowess that it serves for now as a deterrent, especially since Israel has shown it is capable of and willing to strike back on Iranian territory. Yet, as Iran gets closer to possessing nuclear weapons, that deterrent will surely be tested. Then the dynamic of escalation will take on a spiraling life of its own that the alliance systems dividing the world will not be able to avoid getting pulled into.

A Mitigating Factor

If there is one mitigating factor to the fraught lineup of absolute stakes it is the economic entanglement of key members of the Western security alliances with China. Even as efforts to decouple or “de-risk” are underway, China remains the main trading partner for Germany, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Just this week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Beijing with all the country’s top chemical and automotive executives in tow lobbying Xi for more access to the Chinese market as their own economy slows.

In the end, how they manage to balance security with economic interests, or not, may make the difference between war and peace.

From A New Cold War To 1914

It is often said that the best way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. While history has certainly shown that the unprepared are fatally vulnerable, it has also shown that knowing an enemy is preparing for war breeds insecurity while stoking the passions of hate, fear and paranoia that all too readily slip into an escalation of hostilities to a point of no return.

Recent talk of a new Cold War has already subsided as applied historians instead invoke the more ominous experience of rigid alliance systems in Europe being drawn into world war in 1914 by incidents at the margins of empire.

That we are compelled to reexamine the worst past catastrophes as a guide to today’s consequential decisions is a portent that the uncharted waters we have now entered could be the stirrings of the next world war in the making.