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Rising global threats force ‘epoch-making’ shift in world order

The return of great power competition across the globe is forcing countries to adapt, spurring major changes to alignment and spending from Europe to the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East. 

The change is everywhere on the map — but most evident in countries like Sweden and Japan as the nations make dramatic changes to meet rising threats from Russia and China.

“I’ve described the security environment as the most dangerous I’ve seen in 40 years in uniform,” said U.S. Adm. John Aquilino, head of Indo-Pacific Command, before the House Armed Services Committee this month. 

The rise of new tensions has driven up defense spending worldwide. In an annual report this year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies found defense spending was up 9 percent worldwide last year, reaching $2.2 trillion. 

In a breakdown by country, a majority of nations increased defense spending from 2021 to 2023. 

European countries collectively drove spending up from about $350 billion in 2021 to more than $388 billion in 2023, while Asian nations bumped that from more than $500 billion to higher than $510 billion in the same time frame. 

The spending bumps go hand-in-hand with public opinion. A November Ipsos poll of 30 countries found 84 percent of people believe the world is becoming more dangerous, up from 74 percent in 2018 (the poll was conducted before the Israel-Hamas war). 

“I don’t think we’re days away from World War III, but I do think that the world is becoming more unstable,” said Joseph Shelzi, an analyst at the Soufan Group, a global security and intelligence firm. 

“There’s a higher risk now, like peer adversaries engaging in high intensity conflict. We see that playing out now in Ukraine, and we see the possibility for that to play out in the streets of Taiwan.”

Russia brings war to Europe

In Europe, the threat from Russia has grown significantly since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022. And it has become more acute with the war dragging into a long conflict that increasingly favors Moscow. 

Smaller Baltic nations have pushed to bolster defenses against a potential, future Russian attack. 

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who have been warning of a Russian military buildup on par with the Soviet Union, agreed this year to build a common defense line made up of bunkers and other defense structures. 

Further north, Finland and Sweden joined the Western security alliance NATO following Russia’s invasion.  

Sweden abandoned a policy of more than 200 years of neutrality to officially join forces with Western allies in NATO this month. Stockholm stuck with that policy of neutrality through World War I, World War II and the Cold War.  

But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said the inclusion of Sweden into NATO this year was a “natural” step to take. 

“We are joining NATO to even better defend what we are and what we believe in: our freedom and our democracy,” Kristersson said in an address after inclusion into NATO. “This is an epoch-making event for our country.” 

Minna Ålander, a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), said it was “huge” for Sweden to join NATO. She said it was the result of a dangerous security environment with more uncertainty than even during the Cold War. 

“During the Cold War, at least towards the end of it, you had a system” with reliable rules, she said. “The post-Cold War norms don’t seem to apply anymore in many places. But you also don’t yet have new rules for the game [and] that’s what’s so dangerous about this moment right now.” 

Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, also motivated Sweden to act by applying to the alliance, said Shelzi from the Soufan Group.

“It’s concrete and you see it on the map today,” he continued. “Russia has brought war back to Europe and so this has been a wake-up call for European leaders throughout Europe.” 

NATO members are also pledging to increase defense spending to meet the 2 percent of economic output target, a point of contention as nations other than the U.S. have historically not met that goal and for years relied on Washington for security. 

Although a record number of NATO members are expected to meet the target in 2024 — 18 members — the riff over defense spending reached new levels this year. Former President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election, said he would let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” to countries that did not pay up in NATO. 

Ålander, from CEPA, said there was a “total shockwave” in Europe after Trump’s comments, leading to a recommitment to meeting defense spending and ensuring individual national security, with some countries seeing the U.S. as a potential threat in the future if a hostile president abandons them.

“This isn’t really a Trump problem. It’s a much more longer-term problem with the volatility of American domestic politics and how that has started to swing foreign policy as well,” she said. 

Along with NATO, the European Union recognizes the need for countries to boost their security and has called to increase collaboration on security challenges and ramp up defense spending. 

European Council President Charles Michel called for a “real paradigm shift in relation to our security and defense” in a letter this month. 

“Now that we are facing the biggest security threat since the Second World War, it is high time we take radical and concrete steps to be defense-ready and put the EU’s economy on a ‘war footing,” Michel wrote. 

Some analysts see the U.S. and European military buildup as escalation rather than an effort aimed at securing peace.  

Phyllis Bennis, director of the new internationalism project at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, warned against “a massive escalation of power” through NATO and urged the implementation of more treaties that reduce the deployment of arms. 

‘We need a new structure for Europe that’s not defined solely or primarily as a security, military structure,” she said. 

Bennis said that structure could be modeled off the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, which Russia withdrew from last year. The Cold War-era treaty had restricted the number of conventional arms and forces in Europe. 

The U.S. “government should be trying to negotiate with Russia on things that are bilateral between the U.S. and Russia,” she said. “That could go a long way to reducing some of the tension. … You have to start somewhere because the alternative is permanent war.”

US-China competition roils Indo-Pacific

On the other side of the world, the U.S. and China are pushing to outcompete each other in the Indo-Pacific as a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan looms. And North Korea has grown more belligerent toward the U.S. and its ally South Korea.  

Washington is building alliances in the region and bolstering the U.S. presence as it tries to deter Beijing from invading Taiwan, potentially in 2027, the date that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has told his forces to be ready. 

Last year, the U.S. agreed with the Philippines to open four new bases on the island, while the White House in 2023 also cemented an agreement with Vietnam to deepen defense cooperation. There are also growing ties with Palau, Malaysia and Singapore. 

The U.S. in 2021 forged a major new Indo-Pacific pact with Australia and the U.K., known as AUKUS, which aims to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra and increase advanced weapon development between all three nations. 

But perhaps the most important ally for the U.S. in the region is Japan, which is emerging as a major partner to confront the threat from China and North Korea.  

Tokyo has shifted away from pacifist defense policy enacted after World War II, now planning to double its defense budget by 2027 to potentially become the third largest military spender behind the U.S. and China. 

Japan has also changed rules to allow for the export of lethal weapons and has released a strategy calling for the development of a counterstrike capability, another significant change from World War II-era policy that prohibited offensive military actions. 

A Japanese Ministry of Defense official told The Hill this month that the shift in policy was necessary to increase deterrence and “to stop the intention of aggression.” 

John Hemmings, senior director of Indo-Pacific foreign and security policy program at the Pacific Forum, said the diminishing influence of a pro-Beijing Japanese faction, along with a new generation more detached from the World War II-era Japanese empire, who have also grown up during the rise of China, has driven change in Tokyo. 

“Over time, that support has become internally more military facing,” Hemmings said, and “the China threat became much more popular.” 

Hemmings also noted that the U.S., Japan and South Korea set up a new trilateral alliance last year at Camp David, with Tokyo and Seoul settling historic differences to create a stronger relationship. He said Japan is growing into a powerful U.S. ally. 

“Japan is becoming an enabler for U.S. alignment efforts,” Hemmings said. “A lot of critics will say they’re merely puppets of the United States. I don’t think that at all. If anything, I think Japan has been the intellectual leadership within the Indo Pacific concept.” 

Tensions explode in Middle East

In the volatile Middle East, the threat from Iran is growing as experts are warning of a major regional war between Tehran, its proxies and their longtime foe Israel. 

Tensions in the Middle East exploded last year amid a major war between Israel, the most important regional U.S. ally, and the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.

The Gaza conflict is driving Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah military and political group in Lebanon closer to an all-out war, with both sides exchanging frequent artillery and rocket fire over the border.

“We are moving towards a greater conflict with Iran,” said Alp Sevimlisoy, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It’s very likely in the next few years that we will have to take direct military action against Iran.”

The deadly Hamas attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, which triggered the ongoing war, left more than 1,100 dead with another 250 kidnapped, traumatizing the nation and forcing Israel to seek enhanced security around Gaza and in the north around Lebanon.

For Israel, having the threat of both Hamas and Hezbollah — and the wider problem of Iran, which also has proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — close to home is becoming more and more unacceptable. 

“We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told The Wall Street Journal in January. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”

The most immediate threat from Hezbollah could escalate to all-out war in the near future as Israel tries to resolve the border crisis. That could spark a regional, if not worldwide, crisis, according to a new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report.

“A war [between Israel and Hezbollah] could dramatically raise tensions with populations across the Middle East and beyond—including in the United States and Europe—and lead to increased attacks by Iranian-backed groups against Israel, the United States, and commercial targets in the region and littoral areas,” CSIS concluded.

Sevimlisoy, from the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. may look to solidify its alliance with Arab nations in the region in preparation for a war with Iran.

“This is now an era that concerns alliances and coalitions,” he said. 

“What we should be working towards are certainly conflict plans against Iran, together with our allies in the Gulf in the Middle East, in the event that Iran either chooses to heighten the use of its proxies in many of the countries where we see a lot of chaos at present, or in the event that Iran decides to utilize its position by nuclear weapons to challenge the hegemony of either the U.S. or the national security of individual Gulf countries.”