Analysis by Jotam Confino.
When the cold war ended, American domination of the international system seemed to be complete. Great minds like Francis Fukyama predicted it was the end of history, capitalism and liberal institutions had prevailed. Bill Clinton spoke on behalf of the free world, with the ultimate goal being to “expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies”. The ideals of Woodrow Wilson were no longer resisted by hostile nation states in Europe, nor did a competing ideology hinder a new world order under US dominance. Democratic regimes flourished, the world economy was booming and most important, the US dominated in all spheres. What could possibly go wrong?
In 1993, Henry Kissinger predicted a great deal of the changes that the international system is currently undergoing. First, he pointed to the often overlooked observation that the duration of world orders have shrunk since the peace of Westphalia, which lasted 150 years. The Congress of Vienna created a system that would last a hundred years, and the cold war ended after only forty years. The current world order started shaking after 25 years, which has tempted scholars to foresee the emergence of a multipolar world order.
Second, Kissinger argued; “Power has become more diffuse and the issues to which military force is relevant have diminished”, which today seems to be the case in many aspects. Cyber hacking and hybrid warfare have already proven their potential to interfere with elections and manipulate millions of people. Russia’s alleged interference with the US election and the upcoming elections in Germany and France only strengthens Kissinger’s argument. Possessing and manipulating information means the potential to control who is in power and thus shake up alliances. This gives the media and hackers a dangerously powerful role in today’s politics.
Third, Kissinger observed a crucial consequence of colonialism, which would inflame regions such as the Middle East. Brutal civil conflicts in post-colonial nations would erupt if Wilsonian principles of self-determination were to be applied in those nations. In many post-colonial states, the army is the state and vice versa, and those armies will not give up their grip on power without a fight. Despite belonging to the neo-conservative wing, George Bush’s foreign policy had Wilsonian principles written all over it. Spreading democracy and strengthening liberal institutions were core values that ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences from those wars caused the US to reconsider its presence in the Middle East, while radical Islam rose to new heights.
Lastly, he predicted that; “The absence of an overriding ideological or strategic threat frees nations to pursue foreign policies based increasingly on their immediate national interest”. The hypothesis is true to some extent, in that no ideology has even come close to influence the world like communism did. On the other hand, the western world is fighting a battle against a new ideology, namely radical Islamism. The interesting thing is that it is precisely because of the ideology of radical Islam that nations have pursued certain foreign policies, such as going to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Sudan. It is true, however, that the current enemy is nothing like that of the Soviet Union and its superpower status. Terrorist groups don’t have the same military capacity, nor have they ruled territories even remotely as big as the Soviet Union.
Multipolarity and balance of power
It has become increasingly obvious that powers such as Russia and China are entering the world stage again. Russia’s annexation of Krim and its domination in Syria proved that Pax Americana had come to an end. Not only did Putin get away with threatening Ukraine, a vital EU partner, he also seized an opportunity to fill the superpower vacuum, which the US left in the Middle East. Putin is now the leader that the competing powers are looking to, when trying influence the outcome of Syria. Turkey, Israel and Iran are all rushing to Kreml in pursuit of securing national interests, while the EU is slowly dissolving in Russia’s back yard. There is no doubt that the US is far superior when it comes to military power, even Putin has admitted that openly. The question is therefore not whether Russia has replaced the US as a global superpower, but rather how each actor exerts its power.
While Obama was busy recovering the US economy and signing a deal with Iran, Russia decided it would put an end to the hypocritical and often patronizing behavior of the US. Putin rightly assessed that Obama would not use military power to stop the Russian adventure in Ukraine, due to realist foreign policy. Ukraine was simply not threatening US national interests to an extent that Obama would engage in a deadly war with Russia. At the same time, he knew that supporting Assad would mean gaining a vital foothold in the Middle East, and possibly cause a tremendous amount of immigrants flooding into Europe. The latter resulted in a revival of strong nationalism among the European states, all of which slowly began to distance themselves from the EU. It all culminated with Brexit, which put the last nail in the coffin of the European project. Separately, European states will be weaker and thus give Russia an opportunity to replace the EU as a major power.
China has long been expected to outgrow the US as the world’s leading economy in the future, which is why Obama’s foreign policy attention pivoted from the Middle East to Asia. China’s economic growth might have normalized in the past couple of years, but it is still catching up with the US with an alarming speed. Technologically, China has also proven to be a dangerous adversary to the US. The US has accused China of hacking into US companies, and stealing vital information about technological and military inventions. Lastly, tensions in the South China Sea haven’t been solved, and the Chinese military is constantly testing the US, to see how far it can push the red line.
One could draw the conclusion that China and Russia are aware of their increasing influence in the international system, which was illustrated with the Iran deal. There is no doubt that both powers played a significant role in landing the deal, which they knew were extremely important to the US administration. The recent provocative behavior of both Russia and China is therefore not unusual. It should be seen as a way to test the limits of US power, and at the same time counterweight US dominance and restore the balance power. Unless President Trump decides to confront China or Russia militarily and start a possible world war, the use of economic and technological power tools will bring us back to a multipolar world order.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.