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The security risks that haunt the world

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Next week will mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022. Although Russia has signally failed to achieve its war aims in Ukraine, the international security situation looks increasingly dangerous. With American support for Ukraine faltering — due to the intransigence of Republicans in Congress — there are legitimate fears that the tide of the war may soon turn in the direction of Russia. Alongside the largest land war in Europe since 1945, attendees at the Munich Security Conference over the coming days will have plenty to ponder.

In recent months, conflict has surged in the Middle East. The fiercest fighting is taking place in Gaza. But the US and its allies have also struck back against Houthi forces that were attacking shipping in the Red Sea. And there has been fighting on the Israel-Lebanon border and clashes in Syria and Iraq — underlining the risk of a broader, regional war in the Middle East. Meanwhile, 7.8 million people have been displaced by fighting in Sudan — with the UN warning of a possible famine.

Security concerns are rising in east Asia too — with renewed speculation about the possible warlike intentions of Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. One piece of relative good news is that tensions between China and the US have eased a little since the meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in San Francisco in November. Nonetheless, the underlying strategic rivalry between the US and China remains intense — with legitimate fears that the two countries remain on a collision course. China also continues to harass neighbouring countries with which it has territorial disputes — including the Philippines and Japan.

As they seek to make the case for greater military spending and preparedness, western politicians are issuing increasingly dark warnings. Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary, recently said that Britain needs to be “prepared” for war and that the country was moving from a “postwar to prewar world”. Denmark’s defence minister has warned that Russia could attack a Nato country in as little as three years. Swedish defence officials recently told Swedes to prepare mentally for war — which is extraordinary from a country that has not been involved in a major conflict for more than two centuries.

While western politicians are right to prepare their publics for more dangerous times ahead, they have so far shown little sign that they are capable of taking the actions necessary to stabilise the system, by increasing deterrence and so reducing the risk of conflict. Russia has moved its economy on to a war footing and China has pressed ahead with a decades-long military build-up, but the world’s democracies are only just beginning to grapple with the weaknesses of their military-industrial bases. They are also struggling to find the new military recruits they need.

Western political disarray is contributing to the deterioration in the global security climate. While the Biden White House has been steadfast in its support for Ukraine and Nato — and has done a good job in pulling together democratic allies in Asia — the current administration may now be living on borrowed time. Donald Trump is currently the bookmakers’ favourite to return to the White House next January. So his recent suggestion that the US should not automatically defend its Nato allies was radically destabilising.

The result is that America’s allies are disconcerted and fearful, while its adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are on the alert for fresh opportunities. Uncertainty about the future intentions of Russia and China is dangerous enough. But an unpredictable America — and the prospect of Trump in power — has added a new layer of confusion to an already dangerous world.

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