The scalable world war ahead
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan begins a new era of confrontation between the US and China, and with it, marks the beginning of an already open conflict over Eurasia, this unique place where world history takes place and world wars are fought. It begins an era of war slightly different than the previous world wars, because it is scalable. Each of the subsequent system wars was obviously different from the previous one, so there is no surprise here. This time, in a scalable clash, each side will try to force its interests through various domains of contemporary dependencies in a densely globalised world that will be violently split open before our eyes.
Pelosi’s visit accelerates the process of sharp and violent decoupling of global globalisation, i.e. breaking, for geopolitical reasons, all the networks of financial, investment, capital, trade, commodity, internet and human (etc.) connections that have been a sign of the peaceful globalisation period and the result of Pax Americana in the last 30 years. It turned out that the great powers do not agree on the principles on which the world operates and on which they cooperate with each other. China, the US and Russia believe that the old model of global cooperation no longer serves their interests, that they deserve more, so they demand that the interests of other countries and powers be matched with “their” desires, which does not suit others. Only old Europe would like everything to be the old way, naively thinking that the “old” will come back. Completely unprepared for the return of geopolitics, it is on the way to becoming the subject of the game of the three above-mentioned powers, a place of struggle, also a place of kinetic wars, and not the main actor of the war for the world with ambitions and strategic initiative.
The time of conflict is coming. War in many domains will be a constant issue on the agenda: trade, technology, finance, raw materials, currency market, data and internet, cyber attacks, point terror, attacks on infrastructure, operations of special services, drone attacks, executions, kidnappings and murders, fighting the information domain, the struggle for oceans and lands, for the control of communication nodes where strategic flows accumulate, even outer space. Finally, hot proxy wars, coups, revolutions and collapses of governments, and the quite likely direct clash between China and the USA in the Western Pacific, or a war of some NATO countries with Russia in our region.
The main focus of the conflict will be the manipulation of strategic flows and thus influencing the opponent’s stability and social contract: banning the sale of microprocessors necessary in a modern economy to China and, in return, banning the export of sand to Taiwan necessary for the production of modern components and the existence of the construction industry; a ban on capital investments in China and, in return, expropriation of large American companies with production in China. And so on.
In addition, all kinds of sanctions, blockades, embargoes on trade and raw materials, false failures of energy transmission systems, attacks on infrastructure and various military demonstrations intended to disrupt the enemy’s economy. A good example will be the effective sea and air quarantine of Taiwan in the course of the Chinese sea-air exercises or the unilateral announcement of the ban on flights by Russia over Lithuania or Poland, which may be broken one day, if the Russians want to prove that they won’t be dictated to us with regards to what planes they fly and how come to Poland.
In this clash for the world, a kinetic war between the US and China in the Western Pacific regrettably becomes very likely, even seems to have to break out sooner rather than later, given the irreconcilable structural differences of interest between the two powers. For a critical imbalance in the world system has already arisen, which will be difficult perhaps impossible to correct in the foreseeable future without resorting to violence or force, and such an escalation naturally leads to war. The situation around Taiwan in connection with Pelosi’s visit, and earlier Russia’s ultimatum towards Ukraine, is a clear proof of this.
Fortunately, the existence of a thermonuclear weapon lowers the willingness of each side to enter into an uncontrolled conflict without reflection. It forces the obligation to escalate tensions, but to obtain something by using or threatening to use violence without stupidly starting a thermonuclear war. This makes the coming world war scalable and this is what sets it apart from previous world wars.
When entering the hot phase of system wars such as the Napoleonic wars, World War I or II, the attacking side immediately sent corps, fleet, infantry divisions, artillery, armoured divisions and air force, all that was necessary to defeat the enemy, conquer the capital by manoeuvring to paralyse the decision-making and political system. For then there were no weapons, the use of which destroys entire cities, states and nations.
Weapons such as thermonuclear weapons and their use on a strategic level (as to the tactical use of nuclear weapons, it can be discussed: who knows, maybe they will be used soon, and we will get used to it as we got used to the war in Ukraine and its brutality) neutralises the political goal of the war, which is political submission to the will of the loser. So it is useless for the realisation of a political goal, as it is for them to establish principles of cooperation that are convenient for one side. Thus, it destroys the strategy of securing a favourable set of interests in the future by war. This is the real cause of wars, they are not emotions and values, and certainly not the bad characters of leaders.
Above all, strategic thermonuclear weapons mobilise the potential of an automatic retaliatory attack on a strategic level between the great powers, taking the last rung of the escalation ladder with a big “boom”. This was not the case in previous world wars. There was no need to think about calibrated actions and potential responses of the opponent on the multi-level escalation ladder, because sides wanted to immediately take a dominant position in the application of violence and take care only at the operational level for its effectiveness on the real battlefield. That was the way of the German Blitzkrieg, whose initial phenomenal operational efficiency diminished over time, leaving Hitler to look for a variety of Wunderwaffen at the end of the war.
I am not saying that nuclear weapons will not be used in the coming war. There are many indications (especially in the Russian strategic and military literature) that it is possible to “disenchant” the use of nuclear weapons, but even then the militant parties will always remember that at the strategic level they can mutually annihilate, which hampers the decision-making process and emphasises the management of an escalation ladder or truss. This is already evident in Washington’s dealings with Ukraine and the Americans’ reserve in providing Kyiv with the equipment that Ukraine could use to attack targets in Russia by climbing a higher step of the escalation ladder.
Therefore, the technological development and the existence of thermonuclear weapons mean that the war must be scalable. Sides cannot immediately reach (or threaten to reach) for the highest level of the escalation ladder, which was an armoured division or even a B-29 Superforteca strategic bomber with the first copies of the atomic bomb in 1945, to quickly force the opponent to the desired behaviour.
At the same time, the accumulation of mutual interactions between states is greater today than in the world wars of the past: trade, the global division of labour, global supply chains, and supra-regional flows of raw materials are larger and more intensified and diversified. So there are plenty of means of applying pressure or leverage in the endless game of agency. Just as there are more cases where violence can be used. Destruction of transshipment terminals, attacks on gas terminals in the USA, attacks on transshipment ports in Europe, explosions in refineries in Russia, attack on terminals in Świnoujście, the kidnapping of decision makers, executions and other means of destabilisation, even terrorist actions against cities and societies that would affect the situation in the internal territory of the attacked country; the destruction of observation systems in space and the emerging competition in space, not forgetting about selective artillery or rocket fire, acts of sabotage or actions cutting off raw materials, etc.
Thus, there will be more need to ensure the resistance of the state to manipulation of strategic flows and less discussion about the number of soldiers from the 20th century. The real capabilities of the military to modern war and the application of violence, often remotely, and the resilience of the state will be more important than empty numbers of soldiers and equipment shown (as if being shown to schoolchildren) in parallel tables. The ability to effectively manipulate strategic flows, the country’s resilience to such manipulation of enemies, and modern armed forces will be the basis of the state’s political strength in the new era, the era of the scalable war for Eurasia.
The war that has already begun is a scalable war and therefore different from previous world wars. It is already changing the global geopolitical system. As in the last world war, new methods and technologies will emerge. All innovation accelerates in times of human wars. This is the dark – militant and competitive – nature of man. During World War II, we saw the first German maneuvering and ballistic missiles, at the end of it the first German primitive guided missiles, the jet engine, the technological miracle for those times of the American B29 strategic bomber flying sky-high and far, and the Allied computer needed to constantly break the German Enigma. Now, during the world war, automation and robotics will certainly develop. Personally, I’m betting that artificial intelligence developed for war and human competition will change our civil lives beyond recognition before the war is over.
In all of this, our dear Europe still refuses to understand that the war is already underway. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the uproar he caused, and the imminent elections to Congress will lead the US to focus on the Pacific. Therefore, I believe that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a mistake, very unfavourable for Poland, because it accelerates the Americans’ perspective of a war on two fronts in Eurasia, which must always be avoided. And it pushes China into helping Russia on the Western (European) front, even if this aid is or will be hidden for some time, just as Roosevelt’s decision to help the British was hidden from world opinion, made after the fall of Paris in 1940, and therefore long before US open entry into the war.
It means that we will be left here with Russia largely alone. Perhaps a slight correction – with Europeans who do not have significant military capabilities or excessive determination to confront Russia, apart from Finland, Sweden and Great Britain. As the war for Eurasia will be scalable, the conflict with us does not have to be the same as with Ukraine. It can be terror, destruction of infrastructure, kidnappings and killings, destabilisation and low-scale impact. However, there can also be a full war like in Ukraine, depending on the capabilities of the Russians and the geopolitical need in a given system and time, largely dependent also on our own capabilities, resilience and preparations. The Russians will adjust their strategy to this.
It is important that Russia wants to gain agency in Europe. There is a way to do this by pushing the Americans out of Europe and weakening Europe’s cohesion as part of the transatlantic world. This road leads through the corpse of the agency of the Polish state and over the corpse of NATO security architecture.
What is happening in the Pacific is therefore of paramount importance for Europe and Poland. Let’s get ready for a war, even if it is a scalable war, which sounds somehow scary to me. We have to move efficiently on the escalation ladder, although it may be better to say the escalation truss – because the change of the pace and intensity of the clash does not have to be linear in today’s complex world of connections.
The world system has become unstable, the balance has been broken. A new equilibrium will arise after the war that seems inevitable today. Somewhat comfortingly, it seems to be a scalable war. In the case of Poland, located at the junction of the World Ocean and the Continent, it can be anything: from terrorist attacks to manipulating the supply of raw materials to us (which may end in rationing raw materials and destroying our economy and competitiveness), by kidnapping people, destroying infrastructure and even conventional war – like in Ukraine, even with the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The world has become more complex, but no less deadly.
Let’s get ready for what’s coming.