Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  08 June, 2023

U.S. Allies Look For Their Place In The Emerging Global Order

Image: motioncenter/

This article was first published in The Japan Times on 2 June 2023 and is reproduced with permission.

America and the West are more isolated from the rest of the world than at any time since WWII

From May 22–23, the Toda Peace Institute convened a brainstorming retreat at its Tokyo office with 16 high-level international participants.

One of the key themes was the changing global power structure and normative architecture, with the resulting implications for world order, the Indo-Pacific and the three U.S. regional allies Australia, Japan and South Korea. The two background factors that dominated the conversation, not surprisingly, were China-U.S. relations and the Ukraine war.

The conflict in Ukraine has shown the sharp limits of Russia as a military power. Both Russia and the U.S. badly underestimated Ukraine’s determination and ability to resist (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy famously said when offered safe evacuation by the Americans early in the war), absorb the initial shock and then reorganize to launch counteroffensives to regain lost territory. Russia is finished as a military threat in Europe. No Russian leader, including Vladimir Putin, will think again for a very long time indeed before attacking a NATO ally in Europe.

That said, the war has also demonstrated the stark reality of the limits to U.S. global influence in organizing a coalition of countries willing to censure and sanction Russia. If anything, the U.S.-led West is more isolated from the rest of the world than at any time since 1945. The “Global South” in particular has been vocal in saying, firstly, that Europe’s problems are no longer automatically the world’s problems. And, secondly, that while they condemn Moscow’s aggression, they also sympathize quite heavily with the Russian complaint about NATO provocations in expanding to Russia’s borders.

U.S. global leadership is hobbled also by rampant domestic dysfunctionality. A bitterly divided and fractured America lacks the necessary common purpose, principle and the requisite national pride and strategic direction to execute a robust foreign policy. Much of the world is also bemused that a great power could once again present the choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for president.

The war has solidified NATO unity but also highlighted internal European divisions and European dependence on the U.S. military for its security.

The big strategic victor is China. Russia has become more dependent on it and the two have formed an effective axis to resist U.S. hegemony. China’s meteoric rise continues apace. Having climbed past Germany last year, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s top car exporter, with 1.07 million and 0.95 million vehicles respectively. Its diplomatic footprint has also been seen in the honest brokerage of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in promotion of a peace plan for Ukraine.

The war might also mark India’s long overdue arrival on the global stage as a consequential power. For all the criticisms of fence-sitting levelled at New Delhi since the start of the Ukraine war, this has arguably been the most successful exercise of an independent foreign policy on a major global crisis in decades by India. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar even neatly turned the fence-sitting criticism on its head by retorting a year ago that “I am sitting on my ground.” His dexterity in explaining India’s policy firmly and unapologetically, but without stridency and criticism of other countries, has drawn widespread praise, even from Chinese netizens.

On his return home after the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, the South Pacific and Australia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented that “Today, the world wants to know what India is thinking.” In his 100th birthday interview with The Economist, Henry Kissinger said he is “very enthusiastic” about Washington’s close relations with New Delhi. He paid tribute to its pragmatism, basing foreign policy on non-permanent alliances built around issues rather than tying up the country in big multilateral alliances. He singled out Jaishankar as the current political leader who “is quite close to my views.”

In a complementary interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kissinger also said he foresees, without recommending such a course of action, Japan acquiring its own nuclear weapons in three to five years.

In a blog published on May 18, Michael Klare argued that the emerging order is likely to be a “Group of Three” world with the U.S., China and India as the three major nodes, based on attributes of population, economic weight and military power (with India heading into being a major military force to be reckoned with, even if not quite there yet). He is more optimistic about India than I am but still, it’s an interesting comment on the way the global winds are blowing. Few pressing world problems can be solved today without the active cooperation of all three.

The final import of the structural changes under way is how the changed balance of forces between China and the U.S. affects the three Pacific allies. If we start with a presumption of permanent hostility with China, then of course we fall into the security dilemma trap. That assumption will drive all our policies on every issue in contention and will provoke and deepen the very hostility it is meant to be opposing.

Rather than seeking world domination by overthrowing the present order, says Rohan Mukherjee in Foreign Affairs (May 19), China follows a three-pronged strategy. It works with institutions it considers both fair and open (U.N. Security Council, WTO, Group of 20) and tries to reform others that are partly fair and open (IMF, World Bank), having derived much benefits from both these groups. But it is challenging a third group it believes is closed and unfair: the human rights regime.

In the process, it has come to the conclusion that being a great power like the U.S. means never having to say sorry for hypocrisy in world affairs: entrenching your privileges in a club like the U.N. Security Council that can be used to regulate the conduct of all others.

Instead of self-fulfilling hostility, former Australian Foreign Secretary (Vice Minister) Peter Varghese recommends a China policy of constrainment-cum-engagement. Washington may have set itself the goal of maintaining global primacy and denying Indo-Pacific primacy to China but this will only provoke a sullen and resentful Beijing into efforts to snatch regional primacy from the U.S. The challenge is not to thwart but to manage Beijing’s rise — from which many other countries have gained enormous benefits, with China becoming their biggest trading partner — by imagining and constructing a regional balance in which U.S. leadership is crucial to a strategic counterpoint. In his words, “The U.S. will inevitably be at the center of such an arrangement, but that does not mean that U.S. primacy must sit at its fulcrum.”


Related articles:

Could the US and China become partners for peace in Ukraine? (3-minute read)

China strategy: Transatlantic and European cacophony (3-minute read)

Russia and China are edging out the US in the Middle East (3-minute read)


Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.