Few know that among the theories that attempt to explain the end of the Cold War and the lightning-fast collapse of the USSR there is one based on the evolution of the so-called global power triangle. This triangle was allegedly formed as early as the 1950s by the three great powers, namely the U.S., the USSR and China.
While at the end of the 1950s the USSR had a close alliance with China, where communism had won in 1949, a precious ally for the domination of Eurasia – hence from Berlin (where significant Soviet troops were deployed) to Vladivostok –, from 1956-1957 Beijing started to play its own card based on its tradition of great power (empire). During the early Cold War, in the face of the huge Eurasian communist pole, Washington based its national security and global domination on the containment decision of 1950 (NSC-68, April 1950), which was to remain the U.S. strategy until 1990-1991.
However, so considerable was the schism that occurred – for reasons related to power and ideological domination – between the two great communist powers of the global triangle, that at the end of the 1960s Moscow even considered a nuclear strike on China (an intention abandoned at the pressure of Washington). This unexpected evolution in relations between China and the USSR gave the new Richard Nixon administration (1969) the unorthodox idea of changing the overall configuration of power of the global power triangle. Namely to resort to an ample opening toward China, up to a geopolitical alliance directed against the other “vertex” of the triangle (USSR). The policy was rapidly implemented – President Nixon’s visit to Beijing, considered impossible until then, and his meeting with Chinese President Mao Zedong took place in February 1972. In just a few years, China’s geopolitical alliance with the U.S. put an end to the Vietnam War (1975) through the communist North’s victory, after more than a decade of fighting and tens of thousands of Americans killed, and a series of other problems were jointly settled in Asia or at global level. Those who read the recently declassified American documents concerning this golden decade of Sino-American geopolitical cooperation are surprised by the global vision of the Chinese leaders of the day, which H. Kissinger, the chief of U.S. diplomacy and a top-level architect of playing the “Chinese card,” assessed as being equal in subtle understanding to that of Washington. In a little over a decade, in the face of USSR’s desperate attempt to break the unfavourable imbalance in this global triangle – M. Gorbachev’s failed attempts through perestroika and glasnost and the rapprochement with the West, started in 1986-1987 –, the Soviet empire disappeared from history, being inherited by a Russia gripped by economic and political chaos.
Lately, the moves that are taking place on the international power spectrum are bringing ever more to the forefront this Cold War theory of the power triangle. Firstly, some things have to be briefly said about the subsequent evolution, over a period spanning a generation, of the three old components of the triangle. The U.S., systemic winner that registered the peak of its power after the collapse of the USSR, established unchallenged systemic hegemony for almost two decades – approximately until the 2008 crisis –, the world being defined as a “unipolar” world led by the “indispensable nation” (M. Albright).
With the onset of the economic-financial crisis of magnitude, with consequences that are yet to go away, the system entered a period of uncertainty – as Western analysts defined it – whose apex should be a new systemic reconfiguration (some talk about the onset of a “non-polar world” (R. Haass), others about the U.S. as being “still number one,” and recent analyses and scenarios on the international system of 2035 see global stability dependent on the relations between the U.S. and China or, rather, on a fragmentation into global “islands” and “communities,” in order to avoid falling into chaos, into the so-called “paradox of progress”).
Post-Cold War China economically progressed in a historically unprecedented evolution that took it to the second place in the global rankings in 2010, only for it to hold, in 2014, a first place it itself doubts.
Just as unprecedented is the fact that during this astonishing economic growth period that spanned a generation, while the West needed almost two centuries to reach similar performances, China managed to take out of poverty well over four hundred million people of its population of 1.5 billion, visibly imposing itself as one of the great powers without which nothing or almost nothing can be solved globally. Moreover, through the consolidated market economy it developed and the single-party system (communist party) of political leadership, Beijing has projected an original social management formula opposed to Western-style liberalism and neoliberalism, a formula that is highly attractive at international level (see illiberalism, among others). Russia, the third “vertex” of the Cold War triangle, has went through a period of transition, featuring great material losses and human suffering, toward a new economic and political system – market economy and authoritarian political leadership, dubbed “sovereign democracy” – and lately, since the early 2000s, it has enhanced its assertiveness on the international scene. Its strategy is to oppose the forward movement of Western organisations – NATO and EU – toward the borders of the former Soviet space, which also triggered the biggest post-Cold War systemic crisis (Ukraine).
Hence, at this moment, two of the “vertexes” of the systemic triangle discussed here (U.S./West and Russia) are on positions of hostility, the West applying sanctions on Moscow for annexing Crimea in March 2014. At the end of the previous analysis on the situation on the Korean peninsula, I wrote that “there are high hopes that the current dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula would be solved short of war. From this standpoint, China will undoubtedly play a very important role. Beijing’s role in the Korean peninsula and in solving the North Korean nuclear dossier is important the more so as it could signal a major change on the plane of global political relations. From this standpoint, Russian analysts are wondering whether Beijing may have opted for partnership with the U.S., preferring it over its association with Russia (…) a strategic move with a huge impact on the evolution of the international situation.”
Thus, it seems the older “global power triangle” of the Cold War has become relevant once again and ample “shifts” are taking place in it. The results of these shifts will be a new reconfiguration of power at systemic level.