Analysis | Great power conflict: The case for an “authoritarian surge”
In a recently published article examining the path and course of a world mired in great power competition, ISD Senior Fellow Casimir Yost outlines possible scenarios involving Putin’s war in Ukraine and Xi’s potential invasion of Taiwan. He reviews how critical decisions over either conflict may lead us to one of four possible futures.
In the twenty-first century, international politics entered a global economic competition phase that sharply contrasted with the Cold War rivalry. In 2022, however, societies were forced to revisit the long-forgotten vocabulary of the era of nuclear deterrence and global power conflict. It seems that interstate relations have grown more adversarial beyond simple competition.
In his latest report titled “Great Power Conflict: Four Futures,” ISD Senior Fellow Casimir Yost discusses the increasing volatility of global power relations. Yost argues that the danger of regional conflicts escalating into great power confrontation is both perilous and probable. He points to the key uncertainties that influence the U.S. position as a global leader, including Putin’s and Xi’s propensity for risk in Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. The report proposes four scenarios for future development ranging from the general authoritarian retreat from confrontation to the “authoritarian surge.” The latter is the focus of this article.
Yost describes the authoritarian surge as a scenario whereby both Putin and Xi become highly risk tolerant and take decisive measures in conflicts central to their regions — Ukraine and Taiwan. For example, Putin continues to wage war in Ukraine, leaving few settlement options. It is closely aligned with his political position at home, which makes compromise or readiness to accept Ukrainian terms less than likely. In addition, the more vulnerable Russia is on the battlefield, the more risk-tolerant its leadership will be. Scholars of the region express similar sentiments regarding Russia’s increasingly narrow pool of choices. For example, Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor argue that despite Russia’s weakening, some of the threats it poses may only worsen.
Akin to Putin, Xi views Taiwan as a matter of both national and personal honor. An increase in Western support for Taipei puts greater pressure on Beijing to act. Although Xi is more likely to ground his approach in economic risk calculation, his determination to resolve Taiwan’s political status in a timely manner may spur decisive action. Seeking unification, Beijing may turn to means including military confrontation, though it is still unclear what nonmilitary measures are considered by the PRC’s leadership. Conceptually, the outcome is manifested in the PRC’s shift from economic development to security as the main focus of its foreign policy.
An important distinction between Ukraine and Taiwan is that denying China a swift victory is far more costly than responding to Russia’s ill-fated invasion. Distance matters. Supplying Ukraine with increasingly powerful weapons is easier because it borders NATO countries. Taiwan, however, is 5000 miles away from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. Due to the war in Ukraine, U.S. military equipment stockpiles have been badly depleted and need to be replenished. Its current missile reserves are set to run out within a week if China decides to invade and compel Washington to respond. As a result, the U.S.’s capacity to strengthen its military capabilities and replenish reserves may have a direct influence on Xi’s actions in Taiwan.
An integral part of the authoritarian surge is the autocrats’ perception of the U.S. resolve to protect its allies in Europe and Asia. Yost points out that Washington committed itself to decisively supporting both, becoming reliant on decision-making in Kyiv and Taipei. Ultimately, in this scenario, the Biden administration must find a balance between competing and cooperating with China. At the very least, now that Beijing and Moscow have upped the ante, the U.S. government finds itself in escalating competition with two major nuclear powers.
In the case of Putin, the war in Ukraine is closely attached to his grip on power, legitimacy, and historical legacy. Even though he appears to have become less risk-averse by invading Ukraine, the fundamental unwillingness to raise the stakes remains. The decision to conduct mobilization was taken too late to produce strategic advantages, and even then, it was framed as Putin accepting the proposal of the ministry of defense. Many other pivotal actions received similar “proposal-approval” coverage, highlighting Putin’s distancing from risky decision-making and deferring the responsibility to other domestic actors. Consequently, a prolonged slow conflict may well be within Putin’s reach and interests. On the other hand, Xi’s recent order for the Chinese military to be ready for an invasion by 2027 signals that the pressure and the incentive to escalate are rising.
Mikael Pir-Budagyan is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate student in the Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies program at Georgetown University.