The Geopolitical Context of the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

The “War on Terror” is not taking place in a void. Other geopolitical developments affecting international relations on a global scale are also occurring. Indeed, some of these may be more important for international relations in the long term than the “War on Terror” — however long that may last. A rising China and a rising India are two obvious such possibilities, but there may also be others.

Something like this also took place during the “Cold War.” While the Soviet-American competition was the main event during this era, several other geopolitically important events were also occurring:

• the dismantling of the West European colonial empires;

• the independence of so many of their former colonies in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere;

• the emergence of Sino-Soviet hostility, followed a few years later by the emergence of Sino-American cooperation;

• the growth — as well as the growth in importance — of what would become the European Union;

• the initiation of what Samuel Huntington referred to as the “third wave” of democratization, which began with Spain and Portugal in 1975, crested with the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and continued in several other countries afterward.

Some of these developments have arguably had a greater impact on present-day international relations than the “Cold War.”

China and India are both on the rise during the “War on Terror” era, presenting challenges to geopolitical calculations, both now and in the future. Other potential challenges could arise from the further development of the European Union; Russia’s attempted resurgence; the rise of Brazil, Indonesia and possibly other powers; and the fate of non-Islamist revolutionary enterprises — especially the “Bolivarian socialist” one led by Hugo Chavez in Latin America, and the Maoist one in South Asia. Any of these possibilities, however, could also prove illusory.

The point here is not to try to forecast which geopolitical developments in addition to the “War on Terror” may or may not occur. The questions that will be addressed here instead are: How has the “War on Terror” (especially the way in which the United States has prosecuted it) affected the larger geopolitical context of international relations? How have events since 9/11 affected relations among the great powers, as well as the overall balance of power among them?

The entities that are now or are on the cusp of becoming great powers are the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and India. Relations among these five are neither completely friendly nor completely hostile. Some of the bilateral relations among them are more friendly (especially those between America and the EU) while others are less so (the United States and Russia; China and India). One thing all five have in common, though, is that, even before 9/11 (long before, in some cases), each of these great powers had contentious relations with one or more Muslim opponents.

Arab and Muslim opposition to U.S. support for Israel, hostile relations between the United States and Iran since the 1979 revolution, and Osama bin Laden’s campaign to expel the United States from the Muslim world (which began when America and its allies sent hundreds of thousands of troops to protect Saudi Arabia during the 1990-91 Gulf conflict) are all well-known. The EU and European governments in general have been far more sympathetic to the Palestinians, critical of Israel, and willing to do business with Iran than Washington has. Europe, however, has been far more worried than the United States by the prospects of Islamic radicalism in nearby North Africa — and, even more, in the growing Muslim communities within Europe itself.

Moscow found itself at war with Western-backed Islamists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. More recently, and more worrisome for Moscow, it has been fighting to prevent one of Russia’s own Muslim republics — Chechnya — from seceding. Islamic radicalism has spread from Chechnya to other Muslim areas of Russia’s North Caucasus in recent years.

Although opposition to Chinese rule in Buddhist Tibet is better known in the West, there has been much fiercer Muslim opposition to it in the north western area that Beijing refers to as Xinjiang. The breakup of the USSR in 1991 and the independence of five states in neighboring Central Asia served to spur demands for the independence of “East Turkestan” on the part of the Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uighurs, who resent the mass influx of Han Chinese settlers.

Opposition to rule by predominantly Hindu India in the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir is well-known, as is India’s longstanding hostile relationship with predominantly Muslim Pakistan (which of them rightfully owns Kashmir is a key part of their dispute).

Before 9/11, each great power (and those aspiring to be) battled its Muslim opponent largely on its own. Indeed, there was actually considerable sympathy and support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, not just in the Muslim world, but also in the United States and several European countries. The Chechen cause also enjoyed sympathy in the United States — and even more in Europe — prior to 9/11. The longstanding U.S. alliance with Pakistan and the Soviet alliance with India during the “Cold War” resulted in some strife between the United States and India during much of this period. Sino-Indian rivalry also resulted in China’s supporting Pakistan vis-à-vis India. Europe’s growing problem with its restive Muslim population was seen by Americans as evidence of Europe’s being less willing and able to assimilate immigrants than the United States. Perhaps most dramatically in retrospect, Washington did nothing to support the efforts of Russia (along with Iran) to prevent the Taliban from taking control of all Afghanistan during the five years prior to 9/11. Russia and China were most in tune with each other in establishing (along with four Central Asian republics) the Shanghai Cooperation Organization just prior to 9/11 in order to combat “terrorism, separatism and extremism” — all of which Moscow and Beijing associated with Islamic radicalism. Even so, Russia’s cool relations with Pakistan (which it saw as supporting Moscow’s Muslim opponents in both Afghanistan and Central Asia) contrasted sharply with China’s friendly ties to Islamabad.

After 9/11, though, the great powers became notably more sympathetic and even supportive of one another in many — though not all — of their individual conflicts with various Muslim entities. European governments expressed strong support for the United States in the wake of the attack, and many contributed armed forces and other resources to the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan that began in October 2001. Overcoming the objections of his own defense minister, Russian President Putin gave his blessing to the use by the United States and some of its NATO allies of military facilities in former Soviet Central Asia in order to facilitate the intervention. China (among others) voted to approve a UN Security Council Resolution in 2001 authorizing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, thus enhancing the legitimacy of the U.S.-led intervention. Cooperation between America and India on security issues increased significantly after 9/11, even though India was not happy about Washington’s renewed reliance on Pakistan to prosecute the war in Afghanistan.

This relative degree of common purpose among the great powers vis-à-vis Islamic radicalism did not, of course, last long. The Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq aroused strong opposition from Russia and China and deeply split the European Union (India expressed half-hearted opposition). Especially in the early phases of the intervention, when it appeared to be successful, many governments feared that the United States would launch additional interventions and proceed unilaterally to overthrow and replace other governments in the greater Middle East. Some leaders even claimed to see Washington as more of a threat to the international order than al-Qaeda. Others, though, opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq because they saw it as a distraction from the international struggle against Islamic radicalism. While elements of the Bush administration (particularly Vice President Cheney) insisted that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were allies, others argued that Saddam’s secular Arab-nationalist regime in Baghdad served both to suppress Islamic radicalism inside Iraq and to keep Iran in check. And, indeed, the failure of American forces to establish stability after their intervention did indeed lead to negative consequences: al-Qaeda in Iraq and similar groups gained an important presence, and Iran was able to interfere much more easily in Iraqi politics.

The animosity between the United States and the other powers that had opposed the American-led intervention in Iraq diminished as it became clear that the United States had become bogged down there as well as in Afghanistan, and that Washington was not likely to attempt additional regime-changing interventions any time soon. Indeed, this state of affairs could even be seen as benefiting the great-power aspirations of some countries. The American presence in Afghanistan, in particular, has served to protect Russia and its Central Asian allies from the spread of radical Islam northward into the former Soviet Union. The American presence in Afghanistan has also served to prevent external assistance to China’s Muslim opponents in Xinjiang. Although India may not be happy about the post-9/11 renewal of American-Pakistani security cooperation, American actions against the Taliban have served Indian interests, since the Taliban was — and apparently still is — allied to Pakistan. The U.S.-led intervention also opened the door to increased Indian influence in Afghanistan, something that Pakistan has not been happy about at all. For many European nations, sending troops to Afghanistan may have appeared to be an easy way to curry favor with the United States —especially before the conflict there became difficult, and European publics grew opposed to keeping their troops there.

Even the U.S. presence in Iraq that they so objected to has served the interests of other great powers. The award of lucrative petroleum contracts to Russian, Chinese, European and other firms has given these countries a strong interest in the preservation of Iraq’s American-sponsored government and security order. These contracts may well prove worthless if either breaks down.

Yet, while some great powers have benefited from America’s presence in Afghanistan and even Iraq, they have also benefited from America’s preoccupation with these two conflicts. For example, heavy U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan made it virtually impossible for Washington to do much of anything to oppose the August 2008 Russian military intervention against Georgia. Similarly, it is not clear that China would have recently moved so aggressively to assert its claims to the South China Sea as well as certain islands in the Sea of Japan if the United States were not so bogged down elsewhere. Especially during the George W. Bush years, several European leaders also sought to take advantage of what they saw as America’s military as well as moral failure in order to promote the great-power ambitions of the EU — especially in terms of being able to define whether or not American actions were legitimate. In addition, Brazil has taken advantage of America’s preoccupation with the greater Middle East and inattention to Latin America in order to bolster Brazilian influence in the Western Hemisphere and beyond.

As Paul Kennedy observed in his 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, overextension on the part of one great power provides the opportunity for others that are not overextended to increase their relative strength. American overextension in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided just such an opportunity to Russia, China, India, Brazil and perhaps even the EU.

Many Americans — especially conservatives — worry that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will harm America’s overall influence in the world. Ironically, an American withdrawal from Afghanistan in particular is likely to have much more negative consequences for Russia, China and India. Being closer to Afghanistan, they will suffer far more security challenges from the return of the Pakistani-backed Taliban than will the United States.


Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top