A World of Blocs?
President Vladimir Putin’s second war of aggression against Ukraine has accelerated the division of the world into opposing geopolitical, economic, and ideological blocs.
Russia’s unprovoked brutality has further deepened its isolation from the advanced industrial democracies and its disastrous military incompetence has driven Moscow into ever-deepening dependence on Beijing. The shock of invasion has expanded NATO’s ranks and galvanized unprecedented transatlantic security cooperation. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s refusal to condemn the actions of his “best and bosom friend” has fueled suspicions about Beijing’s intentions in European capitals, raising the perceived probability of war in the Indo-Pacific and creating new possibilities for enhanced strategic cooperation among the United States and its democratic allies in both regions. Finally, even as they sharpen divisions between East and West, recent events have accelerated their burgeoning rivalry in the global south.
A tightening authoritarian axis, a resurgent democratic coalition, and an intensifying contest in the developing world. Of these three tendencies, the greatest uncertainties surround the second. Pooling their resources and working together more closely would better enable the democracies to defend their common interests and shared values, but the fact that such coordination is necessary does not make it inevitable.
An “Axis of Authoritarians”
Since early in the post–Cold War period, both the Russian and Chinese governments have believed that they face an arrogant and overbearing American hegemon determined to block their revisionist ambitions and deny them a sphere of influence commensurate with their power. As sought more openly to push back against what they regard as U.S.-led containment, Xi and Putin have helped to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Ukraine war has given added momentum to this cycle, stiffening democratic resistance, thereby further heightening the authoritarians’ perceptions of threat and tightening ties between them. Moscow is now desperate for Chinese markets, capital, and technology, while Beijing needs Russia more than ever to divide the attention of its enemies and provide it with more food and energy via secure overland routes.
Although the material interests they share are strong, it would be a mistake to understate the commonality of values and outlook that also binds the authoritarian powers together. Putin and Xi share an intense animosity to the ideals and governing principles being propounded by the liberal democracies. What the Chinese Communist Party refers to as the West’s “so-called universal values” are inimical to the precepts on which both the current Russian and Chinese regimes are founded. To counter this threat to their legitimacy, the two governments have crafted alternative ideational programs that contain varying blends of authoritarianism, statism, and nationalism as well as appeals to history and “traditional values.” These platforms are not identical, but they are far more similar to one another than either is to liberalism, their common enemy.
Thanks to his bungled war of aggression and the emergence of internal threats to his continued rule, Vladimir Putin has no choice but to cling as tightly as possible to his partner and patron. Given his dark assessment of Western intentions, Xi’s options with respect to Russia are also quite limited. Permitting Putin to be isolated, defeated, humiliated, and perhaps overthrown would set a very dangerous precedent, and it could also remove Russia as a useful counterweight to the West. Xi will therefore continue to provide diplomatic cover, economic support, and “dual-use” technology in hopes of keeping Putin in power and in the fight. But he will take the further escalatory step of openly arming Russia only if he fears that it is on the verge of outright defeat.
A Coalition of Democracies
As was true during much of the Cold War, the world’s major democracies can be thought of as comprising a triangle, with the United States at the apex, flanked to the east and west by its partners in Asia and Europe. Thanks in part to the war in Ukraine, the three vertices of this triangle have all grown stronger and more cohesive and, albeit to varying degrees, so too have the ties between each of them. Whether these trends will prove enduring remains to be seen. Despite the strong forces driving the democracies together, differing perceptions of interest, budget constraints, and the vagaries of domestic politics could still slow their convergence and hold them apart.
The United States and Asia
Well before the current crisis, China’s increasing strength and its growing belligerence had begun to produce a stepped-up counterbalancing response on the part of its wealthiest and most capable neighbors. In the past half-decade Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and India have all undertaken major increases in defense spending. Concerns over China’s growing capabilities and opaque intentions have also led to intensified consultation and cooperation, both bilaterally with the United States and in various multilateral regional groupings.
Events in Ukraine have given an additional impetus to all these efforts. The shocking reality of a high-intensity war in the heart of Europe has heightened fears of a similar disaster in Asia, while Putin’s unexpected and arguably irrational decision to use force to absorb another polity has highlighted the danger that unchecked dictators may be prone to disastrous mistakes. At the same time, the demonstrated effectiveness of precision munitions, information operations, and flexible tactics have bolstered hope that, with proper preparations, a war in the Indo-Pacific can be deterred and, if necessary, won.
While the need is now clear, the ability of the United States to lead its Asian allies in a major, sustained peacetime military buildup could still face significant fiscal limitations. Barring a total collapse of Russian power, the U.S. Department of Defense will have to allocate more resources to the European theater for some time to come. This will require either a reduction in spending planned for Asia or a permanent increase in the overall size of the defense budget. With outlays still running well below Cold War levels as a share of GDP, the latter option is economically feasible, but it could prove politically difficult in the face of mounting congressional pressure for major cuts in federal spending.
The United States and Europe
Not surprisingly, the war in Ukraine has had an especially dramatic impact on key countries in Europe. Heightened concerns for their own security have driven both Sweden and Finland to seek formal affiliation with other European democracies by joining NATO. In order to wage an effective proxy war against Russia, the United States and its European allies have been compelled to engage in unprecedented levels of consultation and policy coordination. Russia’s invasion of their neighbor to the east has also induced many European countries to commit to major long-term increases in defense spending. If these promises are actually fulfilled, it could remove a perennial source of friction with Washington. Finally, although French President Emmanuel Macron continues to mouth the words, any hope that Europe can achieve genuine “strategic autonomy” has been deferred into the indefinite future.
Proclamations of unity notwithstanding, the war has also revealed significant differences in outlook among the democracies. The German and French governments want to see Putin’s aggression fail, but they also hope that Russia can somehow be reengaged economically and brought back into what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has described as the “peace order” that supposedly existed in the past. By contrast, former members of the old Soviet empire harbor deep and enduring suspicions about the Russian government’s intentions and many are determined to see it decisively defeated and isolated from the rest of the continent, at least for as long as Putin remains in power. For now the United States is closer to “new Europe” in this regard, setting the stage for possible future disagreements with Germany and France. While trans-Atlantic ties appear sturdy at the moment, they may yet be tested by the mounting costs of a protracted conflict or by renewed fears of nuclear escalation.
Despite its recent role in leading opposition to Russian aggression and pressing for closer trans-Atlantic cooperation, there is also uncertainty about the permanence of the U.S. commitment to Europe. Alongside a desire to limit government spending and a belief that China poses the greatest threat to U.S. security, there is an underlying suspicion and resentment of Europe in the minds of some Republicans. Such sentiments may fade as more familiar attitudes on the right reassert themselves, but there is now a clear division between those who favor cutting aid to Ukraine and pulling back from Europe and those who support the dominant Cold War–era Republican position of backing fellow democracies against authoritarian aggression. The election of Donald Trump in 2024 could tip the balance in favor of the former group, setting the stage for a potentially terminal crisis in trans-Atlantic relations.
Europe and Asia
As in the past, the links between Europe and Asia remain the least developed leg of the democratic strategic triangle. Even the most capable countries in both regions have limited capacity to project military power to the other side of the globe, and the greatest threat in each theater clearly derives from the closer of the two authoritarian powers. Despite these enduring realities, there appears to be a growing recognition that the democracies of the “rimlands” face a common danger emanating from Eurasia’s “heartland” core, and that they must work together in order to meet it. In the words of NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, “What happens in Europe matters to the Indo-Pacific. And what happens … in Asia matters to NATO.”
Reflecting this perception, in 2022 the NATO meeting in Madrid was attended for the first time by observers from America’s most important Asian allies and, in another first, the strategic concept adopted at the summit explicitly identified China as a source of “systemic challenges … to Euro-Atlantic security.” European officials have expressed growing concern about the threat China presents to freedom of navigation throughout the Indo-Pacific and, more specifically, to the security of Taiwan.While they might prefer to remain aloof, European leaders are increasingly aware that a war over the island would have devastating consequences for the prosperity and security of their countries. Hoping to signal their commitment, preserve a favorable balance of power and deter aggression, a number of European and Asian states have recently entered into strategic cooperation agreements of varying configuration and covering everything from consultation and information exchanges to joint exercises and future technology development. European government officials remain reluctant to discuss publicly the possible use of economic sanctions against Beijing, but some have gone so far as to warn that if China invades Taiwan, the E.U. “will impose similar or even greater measures than those we have now taken against Russia.”
The United States, Asia, and Europe
Outside the realm of military cooperation, the democracies have also converged to a degree in their views of the values gap that separates them from Russia and China and, albeit tentatively, in their economic policies for dealing with those powers. Like their American counterparts, some policymakers in both Europe and Asia have begun to attribute the aggressive behavior of the authoritarian great powers to the repressive nature of their domestic regimes and their rejection of the liberal principles that were supposed to underpin the post–Cold War international system. In the words of NATO’s new strategic concept “authoritarian actors challenge our interests values and democratic way of life.” As one Japanese cabinet minister recently cautioned, the authoritarians have “amassed tremendous power” and are now using it to threaten “a world order based on fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Europe’s paralyzing reliance on Russian energy has driven home the dangers of economic dependence on potentially hostile regimes. The current crisis has also helped fuel doubts about the wisdom of relying on China for a wide range of manufactured goods, chemicals, and natural resources, including everything from semiconductors to rare-earth minerals. In response, the United States and its major trading partners have announced the intention to “de-risk” their economic relations with China. The precise ways in which the parties operationalize this concept will vary, but they will presumably involve some mix of efforts to constrict exports of critical technologies, boost subsidies for domestic producers of essential goods, and build out networks of friendly, reliable suppliers.
How far the United States and its allies will ultimately be willing to go in insulating themselves from China, and the extent to which they can harmonize their trade and technology policies, remains to be determined. Germany, France, and the European Union as a whole have been reluctant to upend relations with a country that they still regard as an indispensable future trading partner. Some allies are also wary of what they regard as a self-interested, nationalistic turn in U.S. economic policy. To forestall further policy coordination, Beijing has targeted threats and inducements on Europe, which it sees as the weakest link in a tightening democratic chain.
The Struggle for the Global South
Even as it tends to solidify opposing liberal and authoritarian blocs in the northern hemisphere, the war in Ukraine has ushered in a new era of intensifying competition between them for influence in the global south. With its arsenal depleted and its reputation for military prowess tarnished, Moscow will find it much harder to exert influence in the developing world. By contrast, Chinese strategists have for some time seen this vast domain as central to their plans for pushing back against U.S. and Western hegemony and catapulting their own country into a position of global leadership.
As most developed countries experience population decline and as China’s relations with the advanced democracies worsen, Beijing will need to find new outlets for the products of its vast manufacturing base. Its planners evidently hope that Africa and South Asia could someday become important new sources of demand for China’s exports and drivers of its continuing economic vitality. Economics aside, Beijing clearly sees the developing world as a source of backing in its escalating “systemic rivalry” with the West and it has sought support from poorer countries to advance its own distinctive interpretation of concepts such as human rights and internet freedom. Having abandoned its previous objections to overseas bases, Beijing also now appears intent on building a network of facilities that could extend from the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, to the Atlantic coast of Africa, and perhaps into the Western Hemisphere.
The downward spiral in relations with the United States and the wider West has sharpened Beijing’s southward focus, encouraging it to launch new and as yet ill-defined global security and development initiatives. All of this, in turn, has begun to draw the attention and heighten the anxieties of the democracies, causing them to begin to respond, albeit belatedly and in a still unfocused and reflexive fashion.
In addition to their other pressing tasks, the democracies are now scrambling to develop a coherent, collective approach for dealing with the developing world. Rather than scattering their resources, the U.S. and its partners must set priorities, focusing first on helping to bolster democratic practices and institutions where these have already taken root, as well as countering China’s influence in countries that sit adjacent to major maritime chokepoints or contain large reserves of critical resources. The democracies should mobilize more capital for sound investments that benefit entire societies rather than select elites, open their own educational systems and markets more widely to people and goods from the global south, and work to counter more effectively Beijing’s claims in its “discursive struggle” with the West. Notwithstanding its allegations of imperialism and ceaseless rhetoric about “win-win cooperation,” it is China that today seeks to penetrate and gain leverage over smaller and weaker states, establishing relationships of dependence and exploiting them for its benefit.
Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2023 as part of the CSIS Marshall Papers series. https://www.csis.org/analysis/world-blocs