Today the familiar contours of the post Cold War era (1991-2015) are changing before our very eyes. A new set of rising powers -- Russia, China and Iran -- are challenging the post-Cold War status quo dominated by the United States and Europe. The Russians in the last seven years in Europe and the Caucasus have seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Crimea and parts of Left Bank Ukraine. The Iranians are gaining ascendancy in the Middle East in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. The Chinese are developing a 100 billion dollar Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with support from key European powers. They are rapidly building up their military power (150 billion dollars/year in military spending) while moving aggressively to make "China dreaming" a reality in the South China and East China Seas.
By contrast, the status quo powers seem unwilling to defend the post-Cold War democratic capitalist order. The lone superpower, the United States, seems (at least under President Obama) to be in semi retreat and has an economy growing at under 3%/year.
The European Union, with its 28 members, is in deep trouble with less than 1% GNP growth, demographic decline, serious internal conflicts and a tendency towards pacifism. There are massive problems in Eastern and Southern Europe, where Spain alone has 27% adult unemployment and 52% youth unemployment.
Russia, China and Iran all originated in large multi-ethnic empires from over 500 years ago (Russia) to over 2,000 years ago (China and Persia). All have authoritarian regimes with strong ideologies. They have large territories (Iran 750,000 square miles, China 3.7 million square miles and Russia 6.5 million square miles). Their populations are huge (1.35 billion Chinese) or large (143 million Russians, 85 million Iranians).
They are substantial nuclear powers (Russia), moderate nuclear powers (China) or close to having nuclear weapons (Iran). Their chief rivals are often weak. Russia faces a Europe whose three largest armies in toto have barely 275,000 troops and limited power projection capability. China faces a Japan whose 250,000 man military is limited by its post-war agreement to avoid foreign military engagement. Iran sees Saudi Arabia with 150,000 troops heavily reliant on the United States. Russia with a 385 billion dollar reserve fund and China with a 4 trillion dollar reserve are prepared for a long struggle.
These three powers must overcome serious problems. The next American President may not continue Obama's foreign policy. The United States has the world's largest economy (17 trillion dollars), biggest military (600 billion dollars/year of military spending), strongest high tech (Silicon Valley), greatest soft power, best scientific research (50% of all scientific references in journals cite American institutions), most elite universities (17 of 20 best universities in the world) and massive immigration (1 million/year). The European Union (10 trillion dollar economy, 440 million people) has the resources if it developed the will to stop Russian expansionism.
The three countries also face significant difficulties in their rise. Two of them (Russia and Iran) are petro states which are being severely harmed (beyond sanctions for Iran) by the sharp decline of oil prices. Millions of Russians and Iranians have emigrated abroad and over 60% of wealthy Chinese wish to emigrate. They also face common problems of corruption, pollution, demographic decline, weak agriculture, limited hi tech exports, hostile minorities, one party rule and little creativity.
Iran (370 billion dollar GNP) and Russia (2.1 trillion dollar GNP), unlike China, also face more powerful economic rivals. Their rise will provoke a number of states to engage in a military and nuclear arms race. Iran will face off with nuclear armed Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps Turkey. Russia may ultimately face a united Europe while China may have to cope with a resurgent Japan and already nuclear India.
The ultimate winners of this race are hard to foresee. Other countries aspiring to regional and global dominance (Spain 16th century, Holland 17th century, France 18th century, Germany and Japan 20th century) ultimately failed--but at a huge human and material cost. China is most likely to succeed and Iran the least likely. But, only time will tell as we move into uncertain and dangerous times as authoritarian regimes seek to transform the very nature of regional and global politics.