The return of geopolitics and war

As the rivalry between China and the United States intensifies, new geopolitical hotspots are emerging. Nations in conflict are using warfare tactics that differ from those of the 20th century. Europe needs a broad public debate to tackle the challenges posed by geopolitics.

Cartoon of an ostrich with its head in the sand.
In Europe, crucial geopolitical issues often rank much too low on the political agenda. © GIS – This cartoon is available for sale in our shop.

War is an unfortunate constant in history. But the way it is fought has evolved. Before the French Revolution, battles were mostly waged by armies of paid soldiers in the service of lords. After, with the rise of the idea of nations came large armies based on conscription rather than paid volunteers. This led to massive bloodshed and degenerated into total war, where civilians were no longer protected, during World War II.

Hybrid tactics

Traditionally, war has been understood as an armed conflict. However, other aspects – some already existing, some entirely new – are gaining importance. Big powers are more reluctant to confront each other directly, and prefer proxy confrontations. For example, the war in Yemen is in fact a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More and more actors are using economic measures and sanctions, propaganda, engineered social unrest, fake news and cyberattacks. These are instruments of hybrid warfare. This “hidden” form of war is already taking place, especially between major powers. This strategy allows them to avoid direct military confrontation and the ravages caused by weapons of mass destruction (be they nuclear, chemical or biological).

Where does the clash of the titans leave other powers?

Hybrid wars are not yet perceived as real wars, since there are no direct casualties or obvious damage. But they have the potential to be highly destructive, and could also foreshadow more serious developments.

Big power competition, especially between the United States and China, is gaining momentum. Rival hegemonic aspirations are unfolding in a systemic and economic conflict. Both sides are ramping up their direct military efforts. Hybrid war is being waged through trade, propaganda, espionage and cyber strikes. The Taiwan issue is prompting continuous muscle-flexing on both sides.

Allegations that the Covid virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory has led to claims that Beijing is undertaking preparations for biological warfare.

Hotspots have developed in the Caucasus and Ukraine. The Middle East has long been one. The most contentious areas, however, are now in East Asia, especially around Taiwan and in the triangle between China, India and Pakistan, potentially involving Central Asia. The latter will radicalize in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, which amounts to handing power over to the Taliban. Refugees are already pouring into neighboring countries like Tajikistan by the thousands. Radical Islam is a major concern for all countries in the region, and perhaps even more so for China and Russia.

But where does this clash of titans leave other powers, Russia and Europe?

The Swiss model

Russia is justifiably concerned about Western attempts to influence its internal matters. It is also intent on protecting its long borders. Moscow will try to keep away from a U.S.-China conflict. However, the American administration’s harsh attitude as well as European indecisiveness and the resulting sanctions could push Russia, the world’s largest country and a nuclear superpower, to increasingly align with China – and this in spite of the fact that there is no love lost between the two.

The required response is not to talk, quarrel and ponder the matter of institutional responsibilities on foreign affairs and security. The old continent is in a weak position, and it needs to stop burying its head in the sand and congratulating itself on the success of its assumed soft power and outstanding regulatory frameworks. Geopolitics will catch up with Europe.

The first step, instead of the institutional discussion on whether Brussels or national capitals should be in charge, would be a broad and open debate on the challenges. Concerns vary. Southern and Western Europe fear insecurity in Africa and the Middle East. The United Kingdom has a more global outlook and is seeking to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific and antagonize Russia – a historical pattern. Similar apprehensions prevail in some Central European countries, the Baltics and Scandinavia. Berlin tries to get along with everybody and pays lip service to building up defense. In many European countries, the broader public remains unaware of the current security risks. For example, Germany certainly needs more awareness of global challenges.

Geopolitics will catch up with Europe.

Switzerland’s effective armed neutrality, which is maintained to this day, has allowed the country to remain at peace throughout two world wars. Bern is also considered a trusted broker in conflicts. This allowed the recent meeting between the American and Russian presidents.

Recently, the Federal Council in Bern decided to acquire 36 F-35 fighter planes from the U.S. The decision was heavily criticized by Germany and France, as they had hoped that Switzerland would opt for a European plane, either the Rafale or the Eurofighter. The Swiss left also wants to hold a referendum to halt the purchase.

Bern’s choice is significant. During the Cold War, the Swiss defense apparatus was informally aligned with NATO. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, internal support for armed neutrality started to falter. However, Switzerland is still aware that the world is a dangerous place and that peace can only be preserved with credible deterrence, alongside economic strength and social stability. In addition to their technical superiority, choosing American planes might be driven by some doubts on the effectiveness of European defense.

Switzerland realizes the importance of civil society’s role in defense matters.

Unlike many other European countries, Switzerland also realizes the importance of civil society’s role in defense matters. Recently, political parties and business and social associations have launched an institution to initiate a broad debate on geopolitics. This should help raise awareness of current global security challenges among the population. Civil protection and a credible defense are still necessary. The discussion will contribute to the country’s safety and counteract damaging attempts by the left to remove the armed defense system.

Like with economic, governance and fiscal matters, Switzerland could be a model for the rest of Europe.

The continent would be less at risk if it was more aware of the true nature of the situation, and as a result more decisive. Hybrid war is already a reality. The U.S. and China are the main players in geopolitics, and Russia understands the situation. Meanwhile, Europe persists in its blissful ignorance.

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