Picture credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The multi-matrixed revolutions

Predictions of a new Cold War understate the complexity of the future

The Taiwanese elections in January will kick off a year in which over half the planet will vote across some of the world’s biggest democracies. Other elections in 2024 will include those of the US, India, Indonesia, UK, and the European Union (EU). Concurrently, next year will see an acceleration of the fragmenting of the predominant system of international rules-based order built out of the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the signing of death warrants in Nuremberg, and the signing of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) in San Francisco and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris. 

In 2024, existential risks, such as climate crisis and unregulated technological advances, will interact with geopolitics in increasingly unpredictable ways, whilst an attempted energy transition from fossil fuels to green energy and technologies will complicate this fragmentation. 

In recent months, German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron and Russian President Putin have claimed we are moving into a multipolar world, where, instead of US hegemony, states cluster around three or more regional and global powers, motivated by survival and mutual benefit rather than any specific ideology. The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, claims the world has been a system of “complex multipolarity” since the 2008 financial crisis. 

I believe a better description is a “multi-matrixed” world

I believe a better description is a “multi-matrixed” world. It is not news that the world is interconnected and interdependent. The extent and complexity of this interconnectivity and interdependency is only really being understood now as the world is going through a period of displacement. 

States are being exposed to the complex matrices of relationships they belong to as some of them begin to break apart. An anchoring of security, trade, and energy policies on to one or more new “poles” is not going to be enough. Instead, states are developing complex new relationships with different and sometimes contradictory, partners on security, trade, and energy, both with other states and multinational corporations, whilst mitigating multiple interplaying risks outside of the control of any single state or intra-state body. These will be required for our survival in the world to which we are already arriving. Throughout history, times of transition have created uncertainty and violence, and this period is unlikely to be different. Key elections could provide the spark to ignite conflict. 

The Taiwanese election will be one of these key elections and will provide further evidence of declining US hegemony, the key driver of geopolitical fragmentation. Elections in Taiwan are usually a two-horse race between current incumbents, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), traditionally the party of the native-Taiwanese majority, many of whose members want formal independence from China, and the Kuomintang (KMT) traditionally the party of Mandarin-speaking mainlanders (who fled China as the Communist Party won the civil war). This election will see a third candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) going up against the current vice president Lai Ching-te of the DPP and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi for the KMT. The DPP’s time in power has been marked by deteriorating relations and increased tensions with China. Polls have the DPP ahead, but only just, and a potential alliance between the KMT and TPP has collapsed. The result will determine Taiwan’s future relationship with China. The KMT claims it is a choice between peace and war. 

China will likely be doing more than just watching closely

China will likely be doing more than just watching closely — these elections could be unprecedented when it comes to disinformation. Taiwan already experiences twelve million cyber-attacks per month. According to a 2022 report by the Digital Society Project, Taiwan has ranked as the biggest target for foreign disinformation globally for nearly the last decade. These elections will give us an insight into new tools that could be used throughout 2024. Artificial intelligence (AI) and deep fakes could see more targeted and convincing disinformation — and at a greater scale than seen before. We will likely see these tools used again during elections in Europe and the US later in the year, by China and others, particularly Russia. Russia will want to cast doubt on the results of several elections in 2024, whomever wins. Russia sees any action it takes which damages the West as fundamentally good for Russia and will seek to widen division and ultimately, hack public trust in democracy across the West. States will need to partner with “Big Tech” companies to prevent this. Taiwan is a leading nation in its attempts to counter disinformation and build such partnerships. 

In January, China will try to influence a KMT victory. If the DPP are ousted there could be a temporary easing of tensions. While reason dictates that the cost of Chinese military action outweighs the gain for Premier Xi, reason does not always win over vain considerations of legacy. If the DPP wins, we would likely see, at the very least, an escalation of “grey zone activities”: blockades, economic quarantines, and cyber-operations. China has the world’s largest navy, second largest coast guard and an inestimable number of fishing boats that can be used to hassle Taiwanese vessels. They can conceal a blockade by repeated military exercises or the use of civilian vessels to create constant disruption. Taiwan imports 99 per cent of its energy and has limited ability to store natural gas reserves. It relies heavily on shipping for many basic goods. 

Taiwan’s vast tech manufacturing capability is attractive to China. As well as accounting for over 90 per cent of the world’s most advanced microchips, Taiwan accounts for 63 per cent of the total global market in semiconductors. However, any conflict would cause economic disruption, when Xi is already managing internal economic challenges. A significant increase in grey zone activities could exacerbate the current global microchip shortage, pushing the global economy toward recession. 

President Biden asserted in October that “American leadership holds the world together.” The US has given assurances that they will protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression. Whether the DPP wins, and we see an escalation in aggression or the KMT wins, and we see Taiwan being pulled into China’s gravity, it will be a further test for an already stretched America, with its armouries increasingly depleted supporting Israel and Ukraine and federal debt approaching worrying levels. A failure by the US to prevent Chinese escalations, or, worse, the complete abandonment of Taiwan will be seen as the most obvious sign yet that America can no longer do what Biden claims. US hegemony, dominant since the nuclear arms race with the USSR eventually bankrupted the latter, already hollowed out by corruption and the illogic of the central planning, is waning. It would strengthen the case for China’s ascent to at least equal status. It will also embolden other powers and regional actors to ignore international norms in pursuit of their geopolitical goals. Likewise, a pivot away from supporting Ukraine increasing the odds of an eventual Russian victory — or at least a partition of Ukraine that cedes them significant gains — will do the same. 

Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, elaborates that what is being held together is the rules-based international order: “the system of laws, agreements, principles and institutions that the world came together to build after two world wars to manage relations between states, to prevent conflict, to uphold the rights of all people.” Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates recently claimed that the White House’s system is in overload, stating: “There’s this gigantic funnel that sits over the table in the Situation Room. And all the problems in the world end up coming through that funnel to the same eight or 10 people. There’s a limit to the bandwidth.” The view from DC is that the increase in risk and uncertainty in the global system to unprecedented levels is threatening the US’s ability to maintain the international order that they are the self-appointed guardians of — despite this notion of an “international order” long being seen as absurd in the developing world. In recent months, the seemingly unequivocal support for Israel has further alienated the US from many countries in the global south, as well as strengthening swing states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Xi’s position on Gaza has been similar to his stance on Ukraine. Playing to an audience in the global south, Xi has asserted a principled neutrality, while only thinly veiling a deepening of ties with Russia. Xi has sought to exploit both crises, promoting China’s role as global peacemaker contrasted to the US warmonger.

Despite Xi’s efforts, though, the US is clearly still a major force. It is an economic giant and the world’s prime military power — but in a geopolitical system increasingly closer to anarchy than order. Furthermore, its hegemony will continue to wane in 2024 as it turns inwards to focus on presidential elections in November. The US remains a force, but it is an increasingly divided force, fragmented by hyper-partisan politics and culture wars. A return of former President Trump could mean that the funnel in the situation room is sealed up as he pursues an isolationist foreign policy. A second Trump presidency may aim for a trade deal with China rather than risk military conflict. Biden’s new $61.4 billion package for Ukraine has already been blocked by Republicans in congress. His isolationism may be more in line with public opinion than the current government’s. 

None of this however, means China will replace the US as the sole superpower or that the geopolitical system will be based around a new bipolar Cold War. India, for one, will see itself as a rival power to China. Indian leader Narendra Modi claims we are in a geopolitical system of multi-alignment. He envisions India, which will hold the biggest election of 2024, as a great power among other great powers, aligning with different partners on different issues. A multi-matrixed world suggests that it is not quite so simple. States do not have as much agency as Modi suggests. They are already bound in matrices of alliances and relationships and need to continue to build new ones — often with contradictory and even adversarial partners — out of necessity to mitigate existential risks outside of their control. 

In 2024, this will be increasingly apparent to many European countries as they will be forced to deal with the impacts of climate change, Russian aggression, potential American disengagement from multinational security alliances that guarantee European security, and the shifting geo-political dynamics of energy transition. However, with at least nine elections in Europe in 2024, many European states are turning in on themselves, more concerned by internal fragmentation. Following the shock result in the Netherlands, the far-right will likely make more gains. Mainstream parties will continue to co-opt far-right and far-left policies — particularly on immigration and increasing localisation and isolationism — in attempts to win back voters as the cost-of-living crisis caused by Covid-19 and war in Ukraine and economic inequality persist. 

The impact of climate change on immigration will likely impact results, as in a multi-matrixed world interplaying risks will influence elections thousands of miles away. Rising temperatures (1.5 times faster than global average) and a series of coups have increased instability in the Sahel, a region already struggling with Islamic insurgency and climate change. Diminishing land and water resources have led to increasingly frequent clashes (climate change has seen an increase of the targeting of water systems in conflicts globally in the past two decades). Since the mid-2010s France has led multiple UN and EU task forces fighting terrorist and insurgent groups that have been exploiting these conditions. However, post-coups these countries pivoted towards Moscow, some seeking support from the Wagner private military company. Russia sees controlling refugee flows into Europe as a weapon of hybrid war. This was used to great effect via Russia’s proxy, Belarus in 2021. More recently, Moscow has been accused of driving refugees and migrants to the border area with Finland (in response to Finland joining NATO in April), prompting Finland to close the land border with Russia for two weeks in November. Wars in the Middle East and Ukraine could add to this flow, deliberately manipulated by Russia, causing a summer of chaos similar to 2015.

The results of the European elections could see a backsliding on climate commitments further exacerbating migration challenges. Keir Starmer claimed the implementation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) by the Labour Mayor of London cost Labour victory in recent by-elections. Since then, Prime Minister Sunak has announced U-turns on climate commitments, including pushing back the deadline for selling new petrol and diesel cars. The gilets jaunes protests in France originated from protests for lower petrol prices. As the impacts of green policies hit voters’ pockets politicians worry they will be vote losers. The UK Critical Minerals Strategy (updated in 2023) highlights that as technology evolves and we attempt an energy transition away from fossil fuels, we are becoming more reliant on a new cohort of minerals: lithium, nickel, graphite, manganese and cobalt for batteries for electric cars; silicon and tin for our electronics; rare earth elements for wind turbines. Critical mineral supply chains are complex and opaque, and China, through their Belt and Road initiative is the dominant player. Services Wagner provides in Africa are often tied to contracts to extract such minerals. UK jobs and industries increasingly rely on supply chains vulnerable to geopolitical events and logistical disruptions. 

To meet green commitments, Western countries will need to expand trade deals with China and countries in the global south that China has already secured deals with — at a time when tensions between China and the US are rising. Countries in the global south will find it easier to mix and match security and trade relationships. Western countries already in well-established security relationships, such as NATO, will find it more difficult to do so. They will risk causing friction, as the UK discovered when, following US sanctions against Chinese communications company Huawei, they had to backtrack on using Huawei’s equipment to provide 5G networks or risk being removed from intelligence sharing relationships. Green commitments may unfortunately fall by the wayside as short-term geopolitical pragmatism prevails, even if a stretched US will have to make more and more concessions to countries that want its security protection but do not want to follow its geopolitical agenda.

European countries, including the UK, are more dependent on the US security guarantee than since the hottest moments of the Cold War

European countries, including the UK, are more dependent on the US security guarantee than since the hottest moments of the Cold War. Current progress towards European strategic security autonomy is limited. Projects between France and Germany for a next-generation combat aircraft and main battle tank are slowly failing and Germany’s biggest recent defence investment — the European Sky Shield anti-ballistic missile system — is being developed without France, outside of the EU framework, based on US and Israeli technology. $50 billion of EU funds are being tied up due to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán). Germany is having a bigger impact going directly to Kyiv, where last month Defence Minister Boris Pistorius made a downpayment of €1.3 billion in medium range missiles out of a wider €8 billion package. European countries will need to increasingly rely on a patchwork quilt of alliances to deal with threats. Some within existing wider alliances, such as the Baltic and Nordic bloc with NATO focussed on the threat from Russia, are starting to develop, as well as new alliances such as AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific region between Australia, UK, and the US. Clearly, these still heavily rely on the US. There is more that needs to be done in European capitals to build new alliances not dependent on the US.

New alliances will also need to be sought with private companies, especially companies that control essential technologies, as Ukraine successfully did with several US tech companies to ensure its communications during the war with Russia. Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took time in November to meet with Elon Musk to influence him to reduce antisemitism on X and not to deploy Starlink communications in Gaza unless the Israeli government gives permission. Of note is the fact that Tesla relies on China for 85 per cent of its production inputs, giving China a potentially large amount of leverage over Elon Musk’s other businesses including X, which in turn has influence on voters round the world.

As the world is shifting it is important to remember that the West still has much to offer. The European Council on Foreign Relations and Oxford University surveyed people in the US, Europe, and all across the global south, and while China is the preferred partner for trade, almost all these countries prefer the US for “security cooperation.” Interestingly, asked where else you would live if not in your own country, large majorities in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey voted Europe or the United States. Only in South Africa did the proportion of respondents choosing China exceed 10 per cent.  Almost nobody opted to live in Russia. The values on which liberal democracies are built remain attractive to many. 

To succeed in a multi-matrixed world, Western governments must first realise this is the nature of the geopolitical system they are now in. They need to mitigate key risks by developing targeted strategies for great and middle powers and treating those in global south as equal partners. They need to practice, flexible, wide-ranging diplomacy, adhering to our values but not being limited by past alliances — instead adapting them into new matrices of geopolitical relationships that reflect the changing dynamics of a fragmenting world.

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