For the past two months, the world’s attention has been focused on the war in Ukraine. Indeed, so focused have we been on that war that one might be left with the impression that history had ground to a halt elsewhere on the planet — or at least that nothing serious or consequential has been happening elsewhere.
But that is not the case. Unseen but in plain sight, the four horsemen have continued their deadly chevauchée through the planetary countryside, visiting war, plague, pestilence and death upon the peoples of the world. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, to take but one horrific example, war, war crimes and war-induced famine have left between 300,000 and 500,000 people dead since the end of 2020 — a tragedy largely unregistered in the Western media.
And, similarly invisible but no less consequential, any number of more hopeful and positive developments are taking place. Among these must be counted the winding down of the global pandemic, which is continuing apace even though there remain many who seem reluctant to let go of “crisis” and others who cling to the delusion that it won’t be definitively over until we reach “zero COVID.”
So, no, history has not come to an end everywhere but on Europe’s eastern marches. It continues to be made in every corner of the globe, even if we lack the bandwidth to register – let alone process – its onward march.
Although it lacks the moral drama of war, or even the residual frisson of being caught up in a planetary pandemic, one of the more significant of these unregistered and unprocessed historical developments has been the continuing evolution of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That program, of course, has been under way for decades, yielding slow but steady gains in the Hermit Kingdom’s ability to visit nuclear death and destruction on its neighbors. But in the first few months of 2022, the pace of testing accelerated dramatically, revealing and advancing the country’s growing capabilities in the areas of hypersonic glide vehicles, cruise missiles and new and improved intercontinental ballistic missile technology that could put U.S. cities at risk.
None of this garnered much attention in the West, of course, our field-of-vision being narrowed dangerously by a kind of moral panic that has blotted out all international news save that related to the war in Ukraine. But these developments were certainly noticed by North Korea’s regional neighbors, who seem to have been able to pay attention to the war in Ukraine, China’s ever-increasing assertiveness, signs of U.S. unsteadiness and developments in North Korea all at the same time.
And the result has been portentous indeed.
Take Japan’s reaction, for instance. The recent flurry of North Korean tests – in combination, it must be said, with ambient anxieties about China’s hegemonic ambitions in the region – prompted former prime minister Shinzo Abe to call publicly for Japan to rethink its long-standing policy of neither producing, possessing nor allowing the deployment on its territory of nuclear weapons.
Although, quickly dismissed by the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, such a direct challenge to the country’s once-sacred “three-principles” by such a respected public figure suggests that the national security discourse in Japan is changing — and changing in ways that may well culminate in the country playing a radically different role on the regional security stage than the one it has played for the past half-century or so. Imagine the consequences of a Japanese decision to develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons.
Such a development would not be well received in Beijing. It would strengthen the anti-hegemonic coalition that is forming to resist China, and the strengthening of that coalition would be perceived by Beijing as a direct threat to its interests and security. In turn, China would feel compelled to take steps to offset this unwelcome shift in the regional balance of power, perhaps by increasing its own nuclear arsenal, perhaps by more broadly increasing the number of hard and sharp power arrows in its national quiver. Most likely by doing both.
The net effect of all this might be greater regional stability (with more states incentivized to be cautious because of the danger of nuclear crisis and war) or it might be great instability (arms races, proxy wars below the nuclear threshold, etc.). Either way, the region would be deeply transformed.
Indeed, the changes stemming from recent developments in North Korea and China are likely to have far more transformative effects on world politics than whatever the geopolitical fallout from the Russo-Ukraine war turns out to be. Does anyone doubt this? If yes, they simply aren’t paying attention to the world beyond the eastern marches of the Europe Union.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.