US, Russia and China flags. US, Russia and China flags. Source: Wikicommon/ cropped from original / shared from Public domain

US power may be waning but inter-imperialist competition is intensifying, argues Dragan Plavšić

The world is changing. The three-decade reign of the US as the one and only superpower is ending. And though it remains the most powerful imperialist state today, the cumulative signs of decline are unmistakeable: the disaster in Iraq, the failure in Syria, the defeat in Afghanistan, and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to halt further Nato expansion, all against the backdrop of China’s seemingly inexorable rise.

Every ending is also a beginning, and though there is agreement that we are at a turning point in world politics, there is disagreement as to what the future holds. One line of argument doing the rounds goes something like this. In stark contrast to the unipolar era of US supremacy now passing away, a multipolar world is emerging in which regional and global power will be dispersed and distributed among multiple states such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, among others.

This multipolar world is a positive development, the argument goes. Since power is being dispersed, redistributed even, a fairer world beckons. Moreover, the global scope of the US for the multiple aggressions of its unipolarity will now be constricted by a rising tide of developing, countervailing states. As a result, a safer world also beckons.

This is problematic for two key reasons, however. It underplays one trend (the intensifying competition between imperialisms) and overplays another (treating multipolarity as more multiple than it really is). As a result, the impression that history is moving in a fairer and safer direction has to be questioned.

To see why more fully, we need to assess the specific character of the relevant states, their relations with one another, and the essential context in which they operate, a global system driven by the unrelenting logic of capitalist competition, which is where we must therefore begin.

Competition

Competition is the ‘essential locomotive force’ (Marx) of capitalism, but also its most destructive power. As history shows, the once invigorating competition of petty merchants for local markets has metamorphosed over time into the now deadly competition of heavily militarised states under the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.

The logic of competition is ruthlessly ‘coercive’ (Marx again). Just as corporations failing to keep pace with their competitors lose market share and go under, states failing to keep pace with their competitors are condemned to decline and fall. 

As a result, states use every means at their disposal – economic, geopolitical but especially military – to gain the competitive advantage they need, making war under capitalism no mere aberration but a system-driven necessity. 

By its nature competition breeds winners and losers. Its results are as inevitable as they are uneven. At one end of the competitive spectrum are the imperialist states wielding global or regional hegemony; at the other, the so-called ‘failed states’ or the statist equivalent of the bust corporation. The internecine struggles of the imperialist states have sourced our most deadly and destructive wars, including the threat of nuclear holocaust. 

The struggle of Britain and Germany led to two world wars and 80-100 million deaths. The Cold War struggle of the US and the Soviet Union saw nuclear arms races become the key competitive means of draining your enemy’s resources and undermining their power, bringing us to the brink of nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

We are now entered on another such phase of inter-imperialist struggle, this time between the US and China, and also Russia.

US imperialism

US power is waning, relatively speaking, but its decline should not be overdone if we are to understand why global tensions are intensifying so dangerously. The US remains the single most powerful imperialist state of global reach. And although its relative share of world GDP has fallen by almost half since 1960, with China closing fast, it is still the largest economy in the world.

Crucially, its military expenditure is greater than the next ten countries combined, spending three times more than China and ten times more than Russia. It has a globally established military presence with about 750 military bases in some eighty countries. Russia has about twenty, mostly located in former Soviet republics, and China has five. The US also heads Nato, the most powerful military alliance of our times, ensuring Europe remains under its wing.

As its relative economic power has waned, therefore, the key competitive advantage of the US has increasingly become military, leading to a greater readiness to resort to force and the threat of force, as the multiple aggressions of the last three decades in the Middle East and the Balkans have already shown. 

Moreover, today, it is emerging from its unipolarity on the aggressive front foot in Russian and Chinese backyards (Ukraine and the South China Sea) where it is determined to press home its current military advantage to seal Russia’s encirclement and block China’s advance. The specific character of US imperialism at this point in its history therefore – the combined effect of its waning economic power and its superior military might – is critical for understanding why competition is intensifying, and intensifying so dangerously.

Russian imperialism

Russia is no economic powerhouse. It lies eleventh in GDP rankings, just above South Korea and below Italy. US GDP is over twelve times greater.

After losing the Cold War, its focus became regional. It intervened in Moldova-Transnistria in 1992, Chechnya in the 1990s, Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Kazakhstan in early 2022 to suppress unrest, and now, most decisively of all, in Ukraine. The character of these aggressions has been for the most part defensive, brutally so, but undertaken pre-emptively to block Nato expansion and prevent popular unrest coursing into potentially pro-Western and pro-Nato channels.

At the same time, Russia’s energy resources are a vital asset, enabling it to maintain a significant military capability (despite the problems it has experienced in Ukraine). It has 4,489 nuclear warheads, the US 3,708 and China 410, even if the US arsenal is qualitatively superior.

The US has become increasingly reliant on its military because of its waning strength, but Russia is reliant on its military because of its underlying weakness. Nevertheless, its military together with its energy resources gives Russia a greater geopolitical weight than would otherwise be the case, enabling its ruling class to cling to global pretensions that hark back nostalgically to the days of the Soviet Union.

When the opportunity has therefore arisen, Russia has forayed further afield to counter Nato, with the Wagner Group playing a leading role. Relying on Soviet Union era links with the Assad family, it intervened in Syria in 2015 (where the danger of direct conflict with the US was real). It has been seeking factional allies in Libya’s civil war and in the Sahel region of Africa, in Mali, Burkina Faso and most recently Niger.

Nevertheless, despite these forays, Russia remains an imperialist power of an essentially regional rather than global rank, even if it has global pretensions which it is occasionally able to pursue. Its lack of economic weight is its Achilles’ heel.

More precisely, Russia is an imperialism in the contradictory and thus vulnerable position of seeking to extend its influence in Africa while fighting a desperate rearguard war against US imperialism on its very own doorstep. Indeed, Nato expansion, specifically Nato expansion into Ukraine, represents not merely a threat but a mortal threat to Russia’s very status as an imperialist power. As the US geostrategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, put it: ‘Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an Eurasian empire.’

Ukraine

As a result, Ukraine has become the bloody staging ground of a clash between two imperialisms determined for their different but related reasons to stay the course. Russia is waging what its ruling class views as a life-and-death struggle to safeguard its imperialist standing, while the US is flooding Ukraine with Nato weaponry to win a proxy war against Moscow and thus demonstrate to the world – to China, in particular – that reports of its decline are greatly exaggerated.

This is why the possibility of nuclear escalation has become ominously tangible for the first time since the Cold War. Shortly after invading, Putin put Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert. He vowed to ‘defend Russian lands with all the powers and means at our disposal’. And Belarus has recently taken delivery of Russian nuclear missiles.

At the same time, according to the latest available figures, Washington has committed over €70 billion to Ukraine of which €42 billion is military aid; the UK over €10 billion of which €6.5 billion is military; and Germany over €10 billion of which €7.5 is military. Militarism is on the rise. Before the war, the UK announced it would spend an extra £16.5 billion on defence between 2020-25 in what it called the ‘largest sustained increase in the core defence budget for 30 years’. Germany has now announced it will spend €100 billion on rearming. Finland has discarded its long-held neutrality for Nato membership, and Sweden will soon follow suit.

Difficult though it is to predict, if Ukraine on the one side and Crimea and the Donbas on the other become permanently armed camps of their respective imperialisms – a not unlikely outcome given the bloody battlefield stalemate – an inter-imperialist faultline will have come into existence fairly bristling with incendiary potential for the future.

Chinese imperialism 

The precipitous rise of China is, of course, central to our sense of relative US decline. Doubtless Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was taken not merely in the wake of the US defeat in Afghanistan but in the expectation that Beijing would be gratified to see US energies sapped on another front. All of which will have only hardened Washington’s resolve.

Unlike Russia, China is an economic powerhouse. In 1960, its share of world GDP was a mere 4% to the US’s 40%. Today, it is the second largest economy in the world and, on present trends, set to become the largest, perhaps within a decade or two. 

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), now encompassing 155 countries, has enabled it to expand its economic power globally. Its collateral purpose is also clear. By drawing states into its economic orbit, Beijing seeks to expand its sphere of influence and thus extend its state power globally too.

Economic power is the indispensable basis of state power, but as a medium for extending state power globally, it can only get you so far. Sooner or later, states must exercise direct geopolitical and military power over other states or find themselves at a major competitive disadvantage, especially if their prime competitor is geopolitically and militarily dominant, as is the US.

China is an emerging imperialism and its present predicament reflects that. Despite the BRI, it continues to suffer from a disparity between its economic power which is global in breadth and depth, and its geopolitical and military leverage which, though growing, remains essentially restricted to its near neighbourhood.

Although Beijing has been traditionally cautious about addressing this disparity, fearing confrontation with the US will upset its economic applecart, it is one of the hallmarks of President Xi’s leadership that this is changing. Because if China is convincingly to develop its geopolitical and military leverage to a level commensurate with its economic power, it must address the obstacles on its very own doorstep: Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Taiwan and the South China Sea

Taiwan is an outpost of US imperialism that overlooks the South China Sea, through which a third of global maritime shipping passes, including 80% of China’s imported oil and 40% of its trade. Beijing claims Taiwan and much of the South China Sea including its many atolls, islands and reefs. Besides Taiwan, these claims are contested by Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among others. These are long-running disputes, of course, but they have acquired a newly perilous significance with China’s rise and Washington’s determination to block Beijing from unfurling its geopolitical and military wings across the Pacific and beyond.

This is why the US has been relentlessly provocative in its support for Taiwan, never failing to draw Beijing’s ire in response. It exploits the principle of free navigation to justify its inflammatory naval presence in the South China Sea (aided and abetted by the UK), resulting in near misses at sea and in the air. And it is busy bolstering and marshalling allies.

Last month, the US docked a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time since 1981, and it has recently gained access to four new bases in the Philippines. Like Germany, Japan is rearming, planning to increase military spending by two-thirds by 2027, while Australia is acquiring nuclear submarines with US and UK assistance under the AUKUS pact.

China, for its part, has been steadily building up its forces. Ship for ship, its navy is now the largest in the world, with 355 frontline vessels and plans to add another seventy by 2030. The US has 305 with another 42 planned, though a caveat is necessary here. US ships are bigger. On average, their tonnage is over twice that of Chinese ones, allowing them to carry more weapons, absorb more damage and fight thousands of miles from home. Nevertheless, China’s direction of travel is clear.

At the same time, China has been building up islands and reefs in the South China Sea and militarising them by constructing ports and airstrips on a scale unmatched by other claimants. The general character of these developments is of an ominously gathering storm, generated by the competing interests of a still dominant but waning imperialist power determined to block a newly emerging but increasingly self-confident one from spreading its wings.

Brazil, India, South Africa and the Global South 

The inter-imperialist struggles primarily of the US and China but also of Russia are the driving forces behind multipolarity, such is the concentrated economic, political and military weight of these states. In short, they have the power to polarise (even if their powers are uneven).

It is in this context that we need to consider the argument that multipolarity is in fact being driven by the developing countries of the Global South (in Africa, Asia and Latin America). This comes with the claims that their economic rise is making for a fairer world and a certain readiness not to do the US’s bidding is making for a safer one.

The rise of Brazil, India and South Africa is often pinpointed here. And certainly, these states are much stronger economically than their neighbours, their growth enabling them to provide, or aspire to provide, regional leadership.

But as they have overtaken and outstripped their neighbours, it is also the case that they have introduced yet another layer of inequality between states. Indeed, they are now members of the elite G20, and of the BRICS with China and Russia. Their rise reflects the necessarily uneven nature of development under conditions of capitalist competition, but not a fairer world.

Equally, though, the rise of Brazil, India and South Africa should not be exaggerated. US GDP is almost $27 trillion, China’s $19 trillion, while India’s is $3.7 trillion, Brazil’s $2 trillion and South Africa’s $400 billion. And though Russia’s GDP is $2 trillion, its military weight is of a different order, which means these states are not yet imperialist powers even of a Russian-style regional rank. The qualitative distinction between regional leaders and regional imperialists should not be lost sight of here.

This is important, because as inter-imperialist competition intensifies, especially between the US and China, the pressure to choose between East and West will also intensify. India is a case in point.

Though it is the fifth largest economy in the world, its long-standing dispute with another nuclear power, Pakistan, over Kashmir, ties it down militarily and limits its wider geopolitical clout. Its other long-standing border dispute is with China, leading to war in 1962 and clashes in 2020 for the first time for decades, leaving tens of soldiers dead. Indeed, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been undertaking huge infrastructure and other investment projects in Pakistan. In April, China went further, agreeing to ‘deepen and extend’ military ties with it.

The US views India as a key strategic counterweight against China, and successive administrations from Obama onwards have worked hard to improve relations given Washington’s traditional ally is Pakistan. For these anti-China reasons, India is not immune to US entreaties. Their mutual interest looks set to intensify, making it more likely, when push comes to shove, that India will side with Washington rather than act as an independent pole.

This is true of the Global South generally. Although, as is often pointed out, 140 countries have not imposed sanctions on Russia, over 140 countries voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution of March 2022 which condemned only Russia, and of the ‘anniversary’ resolution of February 2023 which reaffirmed it. Brazil voted in favour on both occasions, while India and South Africa were among the 35 or so that abstained.

Brazil, India and South Africa are rising economic powers, but it is premature to view them as independent poles in their own right. They lack the necessary economic, political and military weight. They will struggle to resist the polarising pressures of one or other of the global powers, especially the US. Many others in the Global South will simply oblige.

Conclusion

Multipolarity is not delivering a fairer or safer world. The belief that it is presupposes that the competitive logic of capitalism can – in and of itself – deliver such a world. In turn, this can encourage political complacency when we need political urgency.

In fact, the raw reality of multipolarity shows that we are entering a much more dangerous period because inter-imperialist struggle, the consummate expression of the coercive and uneven logic of capitalist competition, is again at the heart of global politics.

Each imperialism brings its specific character to this struggle: the US is the still dominant but waning global power determined to stay supreme; China is the rising global power set on unfurling its wings to the full; while Russia is a power determined to safeguard its imperialist status. Together, they are polarising the world.

It is thus fanciful to expect a break with this competitive logic from Russia or China. They are as dedicated to it as the US. The states of the Global South, meanwhile, will be drawn for the most part to one pole or other, depending on where they think their competitive advantage lies, or where they are obliged to think it lies.

A break with this logic can only come from an altogether different source today: the rise of anti-war movements at home and abroad, like Stop the War and CND, that combine mass campaigns with a clear-sighted political focus on opposing the main enemy – our own imperialism. Anything less will disable our purpose.

At the same time, socialists will have to work hard at elevating the spontaneous opposition to wars they will encounter to a level of consciousness that seeks not merely to oppose a war, essential though that is, but to end all wars. This means looking to the working class, the one social force whose conditions of life compel sustained resistance to the destructive logic of capitalist competition and, crucially, whose social power can overturn it once and for all.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).