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Nothing More Dangerous Than A Clash Of Two Superpowers In Decline

The war in Ukraine is hastening the fall of major world powers Russia and the United States. There can only be one true victor from their protracted battle — China — and far too many risks for the rest of us.

A Russian soldier in Moscow in 1999.

A Russian soldier attends a May Day parade rehearsal on Moscow's Red Square in 1999.

Juan Corradi*


BUENOS AIRES — Worse than the Thucydides trap — a tendency towards war when a rising power threatens to displace an established one — is the struggle between two declining powers. In 1958, the sociologist C. Wright Mills published a book with a title relevant to our time, The Causes of World War Three. Four years later, the United States faced the Cuban missile crisis, which took the world to the brink of a nuclear war. Luckily, the leaders of both superpowers knew how to step back when a single miscalculation might have set the planet on fire.

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Mills elaborated in the book his controversial theory of the power elites. In both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he stated, the system's three great pillars — military, industrial and political — merged at the top to form a narrow, cohesive group that wielded most of the power. That was his power elite. In the United States, the power elite manipulated a two-party, liberal democratic system, while in the Soviet Union, it ran a totalitarian state through a single party and top-down social and economic management.

Mills considered both the elites as having no responsibility to the civil society below them, which was a unified block in both countries and easily manipulated. Competing on a global scale, mutual fears, and specifically the fear of nuclear annihilation, became the only check on their power. That kept an armed peace in the world until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The only wars permitted in the Cold War were proxy wars fought with conventional weapons.

Shock therapy 

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was left with a single superpower, the United States. Its hegemony lasted 10 years, and this putative victor tried two strategies with the Soviet successor power, the Russian Federation.

The world was left with a single superpower.

The first, which failed, was to incorporate it into the international order the United States created after the Second World War. Its counselors advised the new Russian authorities to implement draconian reforms and open up the economy to Western multinationals.

This was shock therapy and prompted negative reactions in Russia, which turned to a more nationalistic and autocratic path. This strategy produced a new ruling class to run the national security state. The social contract in Russia became ceding political power to an autocrat in return for material prosperity, while Russia's economy went from being industrial to an extractive one, reliant on the sale of natural resources.

Russia's new power elite is a rentier oligarchy backing an autocracy. The system maintains powerful armies superseded only by those of the United States. Former Soviet satellite states have meanwhile entered the Western orbit.

Joe Biden in South Korea

U.S. President Joe Biden salutes South Korean military leadership at Osan airbase during a two day visit to South Korea.

© Sra Allison Payne/U.S. Air/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Errors on both sides

In its decade of supremacy, the West made a strategic error for its illusion of unchallenged dominance, historical ignorance and a deaf ear to Churchill's advice to show resolve in war, defiance in defeat and magnanimity in victory. Only, there was no victory in the Cold War. One side collapsed and the other failed to be magnanimous. The West repeatedly refused to assure Russia's security on its periphery, as the EU and NATO incorporated new members from the former Soviet safety cordon.

The war went from partial to total.

Many Russians felt threatened by these advances, but merely protested as they could do nothing — until the day they could. That came in 2008, continued in 2014 and culminated in 2022 in Ukraine, which the West has sought to turn into a buffer state.

Putin also made an error, as grave as the West's mistaken dismissal of Russia as an exhausted power. Considering Ukraine a piece of Russia and not a nation, he termed his invasion a "special operation," expecting docility, even sympathy there, rather than resistance.

Rising belligerence 

But he found a nation that has put up a bitter fight, the West far less fragmented than expected, and NATO willing to aid the Ukrainians. Thus, the war went from partial to total, with a horizontal escalation that may reach the threat of a nuclear war.

Some analysts have warned that a power in decline, which Russia manifestly is, can react in extreme ways if cornered. They forget that from its earliest history, Russia was destined to be powerful and to be seen as such. The same could be said about the United States.

The sides are ramping up their belligerence (using Europe as a battering ram), but only to conceal a quiet retreat. Both have lost several wars and China has caught up with them. The world can see two former superpowers obsessively squandering their remaining forces through symmetrically mistaken strategies, and a third party on the horizon as the final winner. Together, the United States and Russia cannot boast 7% of the world's population even as they gamble with the fates of billions of people. Like two ageing thugs, they've become a danger to everyone around them.

*Corradi is a sociologist and senior researcher at New York University.

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