Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine upended what policymakers thought they knew about the world and territorial military aggression. The ensuing war has brought destruction to Europe unlike anything since the Second World War. Regardless of how the war ends, several strategic trends, whether entirely new or preexisting and now reinforced, have set in motion a new strategic environment in which the United States must compete. Ultimately, the new strategic environment is being defined by a global diffusion of power, where the agency of middle powers and their importance in solving geopolitical problems rise in tandem.
Middle powers may be defined as regional hegemons or those with access to necessary geopolitical resources, such as India, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, or Japan. However, it also includes regional blocs that pull and consolidate resources, access, and therefore power. These groupings include ASEAN and the African Union, or more ad-hoc groupings such as those in the Gulf or hopes of a unified South American bloc. This rising agency is best understood as a strategy of hedging that may or may not align with great power interests, but is always driven by the self-defined interests of middle powers themselves.
In the spring of 2023, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) convened two New Global Commons/Schlesinger Strategic Surprise working group meetings with participants drawn from academia, think tanks, government, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. The group identified key trends and potential strategic surprises emanating from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, honed in on the issues that would affect the strategic environment regardless of the war’s outcome, and put forth policy guidelines and recommendations for the United States as it seeks to navigate a more diverse geopolitical landscape in the coming years.
The working group agreed that to successfully compete in this emerging environment, the United States must look to enhance its diplomatic toolkit. While the trends analyzed here emerged from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they will likely impact a world defined by U.S.-China great power rivalry. Working with the growing list of middle powers will require adept and skilled multilateral diplomacy, where the United States can exercise a strategy of variable geometry and lead on future international challenges. This does not imply necessarily seeking agreement on all policy decisions. Instead, the United States should work on creating an enabling environment for dialogue on issues of interest convergence where shared solutions may be reached. Furthermore, in areas of disagreement, Washington should still engage regional actors to convey its priorities and improve their understanding of the U.S. strategic vision.
Fundamentally, the United States must leverage its diplomatic resources, unique intelligence resources, and economic power to build a more resilient world and use the fora of multilateral institutions as the primary medium of issue convergence with necessary partners on a range of global issues. By doing so, it will show its ability to lead by the power of its example while respecting and working with, not against, the rising agency of regional powers as well as developing states in various regions. Recommendations along these lines include:
- Train multilateral diplomats: More training on multilateralism for U.S. diplomats is needed. U.S. diplomats at all levels should be familiar with multilateral, consensus-driven negotiations to understand their nuanced dynamics. The U.S. foreign service should incorporate postings to multilateral institutions as one of the core pillars of diplomatic training and career development in order to incentivize this type of work. As an extension of this, the U.S. foreign service should work to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of backgrounds present in the country.
- Support UNSC reform: The United Nations system remains an important institution to work within on any number of international threats, from climate change to food insecurity. Strengthening these institutions’ credibility, especially with the middle powers who view the West’s position within them as hypocritical, will go a long way in building a stronger foundation for future multilateral cooperation. Further action must be taken to build upon the Biden administration’s support for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform, including U.S. support for India’s addition as a permanent member of the UNSC.
- Exercise variable geometry in coalition building: The strategy of variable geometry moves away from a static polarity of diplomatic relations and captures the fluidity of the emerging power structure. In practice, this would involve working within existing institutions, such as NATO or the UN, as well as forming ad-hoc coalitions, to corral states with a shared interest without necessarily requiring agreement on other core issues.
- Establish clear diplomatic objectives regarding values and interests: The United States should establish a diplomatic strategy that is flexible enough to allow the United States to advance both its values and its interests. Such a strategy should clearly outline priority interests where cooperation with states opposed to U.S. values is necessary. However, when building coalitions, it is important to remember that liberal, democratic allies are more reliable for long-term strategy.
Preparing and adapting U.S. policy for the strategic environment emerging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is imperative. ISD’s working group believes the most likely environment is one defined by multipolarity and the rising autonomy of regional and middle powers and developing regions, where their strategies are based on hedging against great powers to avoid suffering as a result of their competition. By reinvigorating the diplomatic toolkit, engaging effectively in multilateral spaces, and exercising variable geometry, the United States can compete and succeed in a new global environment.