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Strategic Survey 2022: Editor’s Introduction

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Strategic Survey 2022 explores how shifts in power are exposing unexpected strengths and weaknesses that will shape the international order. 

Strategic Survey 2022 charts a geopolitical fault line marked by two decisions. The first was the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. This ended a 20-year military intervention that was the first act of the now-forgotten ‘war on terror’. The second was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine six months later. This began the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

These twin events will shape world politics for years. They have already thrown up surprises. Few expected that the Afghan government forces would collapse so completely, or that Ukrainians would stay and fight so hard and so well. Few expected, after the calamitous evacuation from Kabul, that a new war would restore Western unity and purpose, or lay bare Russia’s weaknesses across every domain of power, so quickly.

They offer lessons too. On the hubris of power, which drove the West to try to remake a very different state and society, and which led Russia to try to dictate the identity – and deny the very legitimacy – of another people. And on the significance of choices that might have been different. President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine despite a visibly unhappy, if compliant, elite unleashed forces that could end his regime. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s refusal to leave Kyiv in the first days of the war, against the advice of his aides and Western governments, instilled in state, army and country the will to resist. By preventing a Russian victory, and thus a fundamental change to the European security order, this single decision changed the course of history.

More surprises and lessons will follow as the war and its consequences ripple out into the future. These are not only geopolitical, but also geo-economic. The war has disrupted global commodities markets and fuelled inflation. More fundamentally, it is driving rapid innovation in the theory and practice of economic statecraft. Potent new instruments of coercion and constraint, such as an oil-price cap, are being honed and used against Russia, a systemically important oil exporter. Governments around the world are watching closely. And as states harness global markets for security ends, the private sector must reckon with – and better understand – a dawning era of political risk.

Beyond the war, wider forces are also shifting the landscape of world politics. Strategic rivalry between China and the West is deepening. AUKUS, an agreement between major democracies on three continents to develop and share military technology and research, is the most ambitious response so far to growing Chinese power. Islamic extremism continues to spread in Africa, especially in the Sahel and in Mozambique. An encouraging de-escalatory trend of Middle Eastern conflicts – with Israel–Iran relations the major exception – has set in. Conversely, a spate of violent episodes in Central Asian states point to rising instability.

There are growing signs, too, that the course of world politics, and especially of major rivalries, will be decided as much by the balance of domestic resilience as by the balance of power. Russia’s late and reluctant decision to order a not-so-partial mobilisation is testing support for the war and loyalty to the regime that launched it. China’s uncertain growth, against the background of a rigid zero-COVID policy, may test domestic stability. America’s politics and society appear as polarised as they were during Donald Trump’s presidency – and the revelations of the House of Representatives’ Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol show just how serious was the threat to democracy during his last days in office.

War is redefining Western security, may change Russia profoundly, and is influencing perceptions and calculations globally. Shifts in power are exposing unexpected strengths and weaknesses that will shape the international order. The rules and practices of political economy are being rewritten as globalisation – more market, less state – gives way to its opposite, economic statecraft. When the history of this era is written, the fault line of 2021–22 may run as deeply through it as that of 1989–91.

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