Ambiguous Geopolitical Fault Lines Endanger World Peace

EDITORIAL, 17 Apr 2023

#792 | Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

The idea of ‘geopolitical fault lines’ is not well established in the practice or theory of international relations, but their existence is profoundly relevant to the maintenance of peace and security among Great Powers, and for the world generally. Their relevance is partly a result of the failure of international law to set consistently respected limits on the behavior of these political actors, granting them impunity for acting beyond the limits of the law. In this sense, geopolitical fault lines offer an improvised substitute for international law by setting formally agreed mutual limits on behavior, which when transgressed result in severe tensions, and possibly warfare between the most heavily armed states in the world.

The Ukraine War is illustrative. There is no doubt that Russia violated the core prohibition of international law and the UN Charter prohibiting non-defensive recourse to international force when it launched its February 2022 attack on Ukraine. There is also little doubt that the United States irresponsibly provoked Russia by a series of interferences with the internal politics of Ukraine, which was expressive of Washington’s post-Cold War orientation as the one and only sovereign state with a geopolitical status that permitted the pursuit of strategic interests without respect for geographical proximity and the restraints of international law, including the sanctity of the international boundaries of sovereign states. It is this post-Cold War circumstance that led the United States to become the first extra-territorial ‘global state,’ filling the temporary geopolitical vacuum of the 1990s with a delusion of permanence, which is what made the challenges posed by China and Russia so disquieting from the U.S. hegemonic worldview.

The launch of the Ukraine War became the occasion of a geopolitical war of position in which the primary stakes were the relative alignments of the U.S., Russia, and China, and, contrary to public protestations in the West to contrary second tier stakes involving the sovereignty of Ukraine. Expressed differently, the to be or not to be question is whether global security remains a traditional preoccupation of several governments managing a multipolar or bipolar world order or has this arrangement been replaced by an existential shift to unipolarity in the aftermath of the Soviet implosion (in effect, a U.S. implemented ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for the World).

The geopolitical proxy war in Ukraine is about settling this post-Cold War controversy about the alignment of the Great Powers in the world for which there are no established guidelines, and no evident willingness of the geopolitical actors to back down. As recently as early April 2023 the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, at least articulated an awareness of the strategic issues at stake when he rejected a ‘unipolar world order by one hegemon’ and proposed a ‘new world order’ along multipolar lines based on principles presumably agreed upon by China, U.S. and Russia.

Despite the devastating world wars of the 20th century, the tricky challenge of arranging global governance in the security domain did not succeed in substituting international law or the UN for a continued reliance on the managerial skills and responsible self-restraint of dominant states to keep the peace sufficiently to avoid World War III. The UN was established in an atmosphere of hope and fear, but also within limits set by state-centrism and geopolitical ambition, giving rise quickly to tensions that extinguished, or at least, greatly limited hopes of transcending the high-risk Great Power rivalries of the past. This led to Cold War bipolarity with its complex ideological, military, territorial, and political dimensions of intense conflict. And yet World War III was avoided, despite some close calls, in the ensuing 45 years after the end of World War II.

It is my contention that this fear of a resumption of major warfare never materialized because principal geopolitical fault lines had been established and respected between the West and the USSR by diplomatic agreements reached at Yalta, Moscow, and Potsdam in the last years of World War II producing a series of prudent political compromises resulting in dividing countries, and even cities and regions between East and West orientations. By far the most important arrangement of this character involved the agreed division of Europe, with special attention accorded Germany, and Berlin. These fault lines were also respected out of a fear that breeching them could quickly escalate into a mutually disastrous war fought with nuclear weapons, and a reinforcing informal, yet robust, taboo about crossing the nuclear threshold by threatened or actual use of weaponry of mass destruction.

The close calls during the Cold War decades occurred when perceptions in Washington or Moscow put the relevant fault lines under challenge, perhaps most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Although dumb luck played a role in avoiding the confrontation, as Martin Sherwin convincingly demonstrating in his masterful Gambling with Armageddon (2020) so did the realization of leaders in Moscow and Washington that there were dangerous ambiguities in the formulation of the fault lines. For the Soviet Union, U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in its Turkish neighbor was treated as equivalent to putting nuclear weapons in Cuba, especially given the threats of intervention being directed at Castro’s Marxist government. For the United States this Soviet challenge was interpreted as an unacceptable encroachment on a vital Caribbean sphere of influence further aggravated by the intended nuclear deployment of weaponry intended to deter future efforts to replace the Castro government by a regime-changing intervention.

To avoid victory/defeat scenarios in this encounter led the Soviets to abandon the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba and the U.S. to remove discreetly nuclear weapons from Turkey on the pretext of their being headed for ‘retirement’ in any event. In other words, a more or less reciprocal backdown from postures of menacing confrontation. Respecting spheres of influence, thanks to crucial agreements reached by the wartime diplomacy in 1944-45, the U.S. enjoyed a free hand in Western Europe and the Soviets in Eastern Europe, as well as the subdivision of Germany and the sub-sub division of Berlin. It was this recognition of and respect for such traditional spheres of influence that likely prevented World War III, especially in discouraging the kind of coercive responses by NATO countries to crude and brutal Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), East Germany (1958), and Czechoslovakia (1968) despite conservative and militarist pressures to do so.

The two most prolonged wars during the Cold War were in Korea and Vietnam where no major strategic interests or nuclear deployments nor geopolitical alignments were at the time significantly engaged. This runs contrary to Antony Blinken’s contention in the ‘rule-governed’ world that the U.S. respects, but its rivals supposedly do not, spheres of influence were thrown into the dustbin of history as of the end of World War II. The nature of what is Blinken’s source of rule governance, other than the foreign policy of the United States, has never been officially enunciated. What we know is that it is something currently presented by the highest U.S. foreign policy official as something radically different from both international law and the geopolitical framing of world politics by Russia and China, countries that obviously give weight and legitimacy to regional and traditional spheres of influence. Perhaps, the spirit of the rule-governed world that Blinken hopes will become the ‘new world order’ is best captured by the phrase ‘Pax Americana.’

A final observation. Historians agree that World War I arose out of a series of interacting miscalculations by the Great Powers of Europe that resulted in a deadly war costing tens of millions of lives and great devastation. This conflict exemplified the dangers of managing global power relations without geopolitical fault lines. However, the peace diplomacy at Versailles after combat ended in 1918 failed in its war prevention efforts centering on the establishment of the League of Nations, a punitive peace imposed on Germany, and an acceptance of an unregulated economic rivalry. Fascism and the Great Depression arose and new challenges were mounted against world order, abetted by Japan’s rise, which produced World War II. This destructive struggle led to a victory for the liberal democracies but also the onset of the Nuclear Age. A second effort at war prevention was undertaken, although the UN was marginalized by the Great Powers, and ‘peace’ rested on a combination of prudent self-restraint, mutual deterrence, and the largely effective respect shown geopolitical fault lines.

This combination of developments led to the long Cold War of arms races, interventions, and ideological antagonism yet succeeded in avoiding a third world war. Unfortunately, the Cold War ended in the early 1990s with available steps not taken to bolster war prevention capabilities, and here we are at the edge of the cliff with the only hopeful sign a belated willingness of both sides to recognize that the Ukraine War would most likely to end in a stalemate. In conformity with my analysis, if this happens, the incentives to achieve a diplomatic recognition acknowledging the relevance of geopolitical fault lines for the 21st Century might actually occur but only if there is enough pressure by peace forces from below and rationality from above.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Apr 2023.

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One Response to “Ambiguous Geopolitical Fault Lines Endanger World Peace”

  1. What Richard Falk calls “not well established in the practice or theory of international relations….” to me is is “perfectly well established”.

    This because, contrary to Richard’s thinking, that laws exist for the maintenance of peace and security among Great Powers, and for the world generally”, I believe Laws are made so that Peace and Security are always threatened.

    Armed Forces exist for the purpose of ensuring “the failure of international law”. This is essential, to ensure political actors do their job by creating armed conflicts, wealth for themselves as for their guardian angels, military manufacturers.

    In short: countries must be disunited so that they can be united: must abuse human rightds so that UNHCHR has work to to and must create refugee-producing armed conflicts, so as to promote the multi million Refugee industry.

    In my seven years in Geneva in close contact with the UN, I witnessed the brewing, negotiations and creations of many wars.