John Gittings

Uncertain World, 2017
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It has the mark of a really gripping film script. A ranting demagogue wins the US presidential election thanks to the covert intervention of the Russian KGB, in league with the FBI.  He quickly insults the other major world power -- China -- by casting doubt on an agreement that has lasted for 40 years. Who is working with whom? Does it mean peace or war? The CIA is baffled: it is definitely time to call in Jack Ryan.

In some respects Donald Trump's putative pro-Putin tilt is not so surprising: the great power triangle between the US, the Soviet Union/Russia, and China has seen this sort of upheaval several times before. In the 1950s Washington and Moscow combined -- in spite of their mutual hostility -- to keep Beijing in the cold and out of the UN. In the 1970s an unlikely US-China thaw was led by Richard Nixon and patently directed against the Soviet Union. Since then the US has wavered between regarding either power as a collaborator| or as a competitor in the new globalised world.

Are we now heading for another shift of the kaleidoscope along the lines so brilliantly forecast in Orwell's 1984?  Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia,  until one day Oceania was at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia  -- and no one was supposed to notice the change.

In the end it may all turn out to be much less dramatic, and forecasts by international relations experts differ widely on what we may expect. A Washington Post analysis at the start of January asked "Will Putin and Trump transform the globe?", noting that "US and Russian officials and experts are deeply divided" in their opinions. The question was whether Trump and Putin would find "fulfilment or disappointment once face-to-face reality strikes". 

China experts are also divided.  Those in touch with official thinking in Beijing have so far played down Trump's remarks about Taiwan (though warning that it would be very different if US policy no longer recognised that "there is only one China" -- the formula reached by Nixon in 1972). The future of US-China relations "may not be so bleak as it looks", says one Chinese analyst: after all, Trump sees the relationship with China as one of economic rather than strategic rivalry. And on the US side, some argue that "China is the future, Russia is the past", and that Trump in the White House will soon realise this.

Yet it is a sign of the unstable nature of international politics today that we now anticipate or fear that "anything could happen"   --  Trump's victory and Brexit are proof enough of this already.  While we should not follow those who argue that the world was safer in the cold war age (the Cuban crisis alone disproves that) it is certainly true that events are moving ever faster and more unpredictably. The predictions that there will be no great upheaval in US-Russia or US-China relations are based on the supposition that all sides will always behave rationally. Can we be sure that Trump will not act impulsively if he is thwarted by either Beijing or Moscow? Or that Xi Jinping will refrain from some military demonstration in the Taiwan Straits if the US seems to favour Taipei? Or that Putin will not decide that it is time for another assertion that Russia is still a great power?

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's [CND] necessary task is to remind the public that in an age of international instability, nuclear weapons continue to add an additional factor of danger, magnifying the consequences of miscalculation.  If Trump unravels the Iranian nuclear deal, the long-hovering prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East can only increase.  If China suspects US intentions in East Asia, it is even less likely to co-operate in restraining North Korea. Nuclear arsenals continue to be modernised, and the risk of accident is always there.

On 23 December the UN General Assembly passed -- almost unnoticed in the British press -- a historic resolution to launch negotiations in 2017 on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. It is needed more than ever.


Oxford CND Newsletter, Jan-Feb 2017