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  • William Paton


Chinese New Year in a World of Wars

A map of the world with countries divided into the West and the Rest, or global North and global South.

by William Paton, Beijing 4 February 2024

I am not much for horoscopes but this time it looks like Chinese astrology has it right:

Beyond February 10, things start to become interesting, as Dragon years are epitomised by activity and reaction. The element associated with the 2024 Dragon is strong yang wood. In the five-elemental cycle, wood fuels the element of fire, and thus the quality of the Dragon is enhanced. Be prepared for an unpredictable and volatile year ahead. “Never a dull moment” is the phrase for 2024! [1]

Why in the world is there so much turmoil? It is not simply due to the pace of change. It is because of a refusal to accept that change. As the Global South’s economies continue to catch up, their rising economic power must be more fairly reflected in a new world order, with greater roles in managing world affairs. Wise leadership would be actively revamping the institutions of the post-World War II order, soon to be 80 years old, to make them fairer.

Instead, Western nations, led by the USA, have closed ranks, clinging to their shrinking power. American politicians especially, are determined to maintain their country’s global military and economic dominance. Rising resentment of the West in the developing world, combined with the greater economic sway needed to do something about it, is the main source of growing friction today along the world’s many fault lines.

Choosing Wars

In Gaza, over 100,000 people have been killed, wounded or are ‘missing,’ including at least 11,000 children killed – crimes committed by a state founded in good part by holocaust survivors and which was itself very recently the scene of butchery. The carnage offends any sense of decency, but Israel’s Prime Minister makes it clear it will continue to refuse Palestinians their freedom. Even if a ceasefire is agreed, their plan is to go back to fighting afterwards.

Finding, unsurprisingly, that a very small number of the 13,000 staff in Gaza of the main UN relief agency, UNRWA, were supporting Hamas (mostly indirectly), the USA and many other donors have stopped funding its humanitarian aid. The Israeli government wants UNRWA shut down. Donors, however, appear to have realized this is going too far.

The USA in particular, Israel’s chief arms supplier, goes through a charade of arguing with Israel about its policies, for instance ‘sanctioning’ four individual settlers in the West Bank. But the USA invariably supports Israel, no matter what; it will no doubt also back whatever it decides to do with the rubble and survivors.

Ukraine was, until recently, pledged ‘unfailing’ military support by the USA and Europe, though it may be already failing in the USA. Continuous military encroachment on Russia’s borders, even placing nuclear-warhead capable missile launchers in Romania, provoked Russia’s repeated protests, and was the reason behind its disastrous decision to invade (again). Russia has been invaded repeatedly from Western Europe (Poland, Napoleon…), and the last time, in WWII, lost twenty-seven million souls.

Only two weeks after Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine, Turkish mediation was on the verge of a truce. Both Ukraine and Russia had even stated “progress was being made” on a deal in which Ukraine would remain militarily neutral. The USA and close allies strongly ‘urged’ Kiev not to compromise and continue the war.[2] A massacre in Bucha in May then exploded any desire for talks and the gruesome fighting continued, sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands more men. The war, though, will likely end with much the same deal that was on the table in Turkey, on 14 March, 2022.

Both in Gaza and in Ukraine, war was chosen: it is obvious Palestinians should have long ago been given a state of their own, and that apartheid would not bring peace and should not have been allowed to continue for decades. And it is obvious that surrounding Russia with new NATO members (breaking a promise not to), was not a recipe for peace. Nor was deploying those nuclear-capable launchers in 2016; then withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and then vowing to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, which would give the USA effective control of the Black Sea.

According to the Institute for Peace Research in Oslo, deaths in state-based conflicts in 2023 reached their highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union, with over 50 such conflicts, more than any time since the Second World War.[3] Horrific wars continue in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, DR Congo, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Burkina Faso ... the list is long. Mexico’s struggle against organized crime, importing drugs into the USA – with at least 350,000 dead – is also war, as is Haiti's gang war.

From the Ruins of Empire

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra describes how the developing world rejoiced at Japan’s naval victory over Russia in 1905, proving Europeans were not invincible.[4] From Atatürk in the Ottoman empire, to the young Nehru – who would become India’s first Prime Minister – rose a clamour of celebration. Sun Yat Sen, returning to China from London, recounted how Arab workers at the Suez Canal congratulated him, thinking he was Japanese. Other leading nationalists in Burma, Vietnam, Egypt, Persia and elsewhere, joined their voices in praise.

Today, that same mood is continuing, in a transition from a world conquered and controlled by Europe and the United States, to one in which the majority will have a fairer say in its affairs. Yet the West remains fixated on the status quo. The USA – with just 4% of the world’s population but 50% of its weapons – has loudly declared it intends to remain dominant, worldwide.

The Houthis in Yemen are not my favourite bunch. But their determination to do something to attack a US-led order they see supporting slaughter in Gaza is not hard to understand. Neither is Iran’s theocracy my model of governance, but it was a CIA-planned and sponsored coup in Iran, against its elected government, which led to the 1979 revolution, with its strongly anti-American overtone, taking the US Embassy hostage. Ever since then, Iran has opposed American domination in the Middle East, especially the persecution of Palestinians.

Of course, ‘the other side of the story’ matters little in Washington, where even neutrality is not much tolerated. ‘You are either with us or against us’ is the motto. Whichever state does not support American hegemony is targeted by sophisticated ‘cognitive warfare,’ a never-ending campaign to sway public opinion. Each of its designated foes’ leaders is depicted as a despot, for cartooned figures make much better enemies than faceless states. China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Belarus, Hizbullah (Lebanon), Hamas (Palestine), Houthis (Yemen), various branches of Al Qaeda and Islamic State ... so many enemies!

In, the case of the Gaza war, cognitive warfare has at least partially failed, despite considerable effort. For instance, the New York Times and BBC, to name just two, have persisted – as late as January, three months after Hamas’ attack, 7 October, in leading with stories about that attack rather than giving the lead to the previous day’s bombings of innocent civilians in Gaza. What is encouraging is that this effort, and even efforts to suppress pro-Palestinian speech, has had limited effect. While most Western citizens appear to have bought the theory of ‘crazed Putin’s ‘unprovoked’ attack,’ which buries the back story of NATO expansion and nuclear threat, 11,000 dead Gazan children are more difficult to vilify. The majority in the West abhor mass murder in Gaza, and in the Global South condemnation of Israel and its US backing is near universal.

While the tide of public opinion against Israel’s action in Gaza is good to see, it is also scary to watch tensions ratcheting up even further around the Middle East powder keg. How can we have come to this? I lay the biggest share of blame for poor world leadership on Washington’s doorstep, but the dearth of moral leadership is more widespread. For instance, where are the world’s faith leaders? Some have spoken up, but not very loudly. Above all, why do not more US allies stand up for Arab civilian lives, and more loudly, as most of their citizens want?

South Africa has stepped up and is playing an important role, bringing charges against Israel in the International Court of Justice. That is leadership – a good example of the participation by the Global South in world affairs that we need much more of. The way forward is fairer representation in the world’s international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, World Bank or IMF. However, the USA has a veto in all three (and has the sole veto in the Bank and IMF). Significant change in all three institutions is blocked by those vetoes, though admittedly UN Security Council reform is stalled by multiple countries.

The problem, of course, is much wider. Wherever the US imagines its military dominance is threatened, for instance by China, Russia or Iran, an ally is often levered into a proxy war – as in the case of Ukraine. There is even a risk now, that Taiwan will be successfully egged into such an armed conflict. Any government opposed to US domination, elected or not, is diabolised and, often, overthrown. The USA has engineered regime change in more than 70 countries since WWII, most recently prying out the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan (who had attempted to have good relations with China and Russia as well as the USA.)[5] An American-backed uprising and coup ousted the democratically elected government of Ukraine in 2014. That government did not want to join NATO or get closer to the EU, to avoid provoking Russia – which looks, in retrospect, to have been very wise. However, the USA had its heart set on adding Ukraine and Georgia to its NATO cordon around Russia and the Black Sea. The first Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its annexation of Crimea, followed immediately, that same year.

With morbid fascination, we are now also beginning to watch another US presidential election year. US policy today teeters back and forth between conflicting policies, joining and quitting institutions (and re-joining), raising trade barriers, blockading technologies, banning countries from the global banking system, applying copious sanctions, and of course, sparking new wars. Let us not forget that so far in 2024, the United States has launched or dropped 300 missiles and bombs on more than 100 targets in three Middle Eastern countries: Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Has war been chosen again? The USA has become the world’s most destabilizing force, and its presidential elections will make it even more dangerous – adding wood to the many fires burning, and starting new ones. That, unfortunately, is this year's horoscope from 10 February onward.


[1]   Jill Lander, 8 Jan 2024, Chinese Horoscopes for the Year of the Wood Dragon 2024, in South China Morning Post, Leisure section.

[2]   For the case about how the war in Ukraine was indeed provoked, see especially Prof. Jeffrey Sachs’ numerous articles about it.

[3]   Peace Research Institute Oslo (July 2023), “New figures show conflict-related deaths at 28-year high, largely due to Ethiopia and Ukraine wars.” [4]   Pankaj Mishra (2012), From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[5]  O’Rouke, Lindsay (2018), Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, Cornell University Press, cited in Sachs, Jeffrey, 1 February 2024), The US Toppling of Imran Khan, O’Rouke details 64 countries where the USA engineered regime change during the Cold War, in many countries more than once. Rather than try to duplicate her work for the most recent three decades, I merely add the most commonly accepted cases – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine and Pakistan, to exceed the number 70. The reader will note how frequently these interventions were accompanied by wars.


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