Change is a uniquely predictable phenomenon in nature. Also, by logical extension, in politics. Ions ago the observation of Heraclitus of Ephesus that the world is in constant flux, and one never steps into the same river twice is an incontrovertible axiom. Hence the idea that any existing global order, or a political system on the international matrix with a certain hierarchical power arrangement can sustain perennially, would be an erroneous one. When I was a student of Cold War and Global strategy in the mid-seventies the concept of 'paradigm shift' propounded by the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his tome "The structure of Scientific Revolutions" enormously interested me. Simply put, Kuhn argued that the shift occurs when any dominant paradigm under which science operates (his main concern was physics though this also applies to the social sciences) confronts new phenomena that renders it incompatible. To me the thesis remains relevant. A case in point is the place of the United States of America in the global scheme of things. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s , the existing bipolarity in the world order of US-Soviet dominance ended. The US emerged as the only 'hyperpower 'an expression used by the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in 1999,'and held absolute unchallenged sway in a unipolar world.
Many could argue today with ample justification that America's unipolar moment was an opportunity lost. This was the time when the US could have shored up the global institutions it had helped so much to create in the post War world of late 1940s and the decades that followed. It could firmly establish universal global norms setting the guidelines for the conduct of politics and economics to further its own espoused and cherished liberal governance, unimpeded by any serious opposition. Instead, the chance to do all this was frittered away, the success in the Cold War resulted in a state of hubris, and the US set out to do what one of its founding fathers John Quincy Adams had counselled it against, that is going abroad in search of monsters to destroy"!
But why? Like in explanation of most phenomenon, no single cause can generally be attributed. However, one main reason certainly was the reaction in American thinking and ruling circles to the New Left and counterculture that gripped the society in the post-Vietnam era. It led to the rise of 'neo-conservative' ('neo- con')'ideas, first in the academia, and then spreading to the administration of George Bush in the persons of individuals like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and Richard Perle who in turn heavily influenced very senior policymakers like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The intellectual guru of the 'neo-cons' was Professor Leo Strauss of Chicago University, an escapee from German Nazism, who was a votary of the Greek Philosopher Plato. Now Plato, however admired, fell short of following in liberal political circles, and whom Karl Popper, another distinguished academic, had unabashedly called an "enemy of open society".
Be that as it may, the 'neo-cons' and their camp-followers led the US into a spate of interventionism in international affairs, often inexplicable, and indefensible, in moral, ethical or merely pragmatic terms. The list included Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These led to untold sufferings all round, clearly leading, however, to great profits for what Dwight D, Eisenhower had earlier described as the American "military industrial complex". Also, importantly, the actions were establishing precedence that other great powers of the future were likely to follow. At that point in time there were none just beyond the rim of the saucer, though China was rising, and Russia was showing signs of becoming more assertive. The last two powers acquired leaders that were authoritarian and nationalist, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, to both of whom what was sauce for the goose (i.e., the US) was also now sauce for the gander (themselves). For the West to criticize them, therefore, could be akin to throwing stones while living in a glasshouse.
This brings us to Ukraine and its current pains. In Europe, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact security treaty was not accompanied by the folding of its western counterpart, NATO. Instead, the western allies began to use NATO as a tool of its military interventions elsewhere, while at the same time enlarging its membership by embracing the States of Eastern Europe with difficult ties with Russia, the main successor of the Soviet Union. Initially Russia had gone along when it was too weak to resist. But by the 2010s, Russia under Putin saw itself as sufficiently strong enough to stand up to the expansion. And it did, particularly when it came to Ukraine, with its complex and complicated politics of intramural rivalries and Russia's extremely deep interest in that country for its own security.
John Mearsheimer, an extremely articulate American political scientist who belongs to the 'realist' school of thought, analyzes that the causes for the Ukraine crisis, broadly, are three-fold: First, NATO's eastward extension; second, the European Union's expansion, and third, Russian fears of "colour revolutions'' cheer-led by the west to effect regime changes. He argues that while Ukraine should of peripheral interest to the West, Russia sees it of critical to its security and hence it was well known that it would go to any length to ensure the denial of inimical influence in Ukraine. Despite that knowledge the western allies had encouraged Ukraine to embrace the west's security and economic institutions, thus leading that country up the garden path,
The resolve of Russia to stop western plans in their track had been steeled by the communique that was issued in 2008 at the end of the NATO Summit in Bucharest. It had declared that "Georgia and Ukraine" would be NATO countries, and hence entitled to its "Article 5 Protection clause (any war waged against any NATO member is war against all). The aspiration became a possibility when in 2014 the "Maidan Coup" in Kiev supplanted a pro-Russian government with a pro-western one. Thereafter, on grounds that Kiev was oppressing Russian populations and sympathizers in territories where they were preponderant, Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine (which had a pro-Russian population and hosted a Russian base in its port, Sevastopol). Moscow also supported secessionists in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, eventually recognizing this February its two tiny 'republics', Donetz and Luhansk. As NATO responded by announcing enhanced forward presence" in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, Putin invaded Ukraine. The Ukrainians have been putting up a brave but sadly impossible defence, with the west now unwilling to be goaded into a war with Russia directly. Ukraine's disillusioned but plucky President, Volodymyr Zelensky, when offered evacuation by the US, reportedly retorted: "I want ammunition, not a ride!"
Prior to the invasion, during the Beijing winter Olympics, Putin and Xi signed a historic 5000 -word joint policy document that heralded the start of a "New Era of International Affairs", cementing their "friendship without limits. It read like a demarche delivered by two great powers to a till now yet more powerful third, signaling the beginning of what earlier in this essay I had called a "paradigm shift". For the first time, China was endorsing some key Russian demands. The two, China and Russia, opposed "the further expansion of NATO". Russian concession to China for this support was significant. Russia joined China in expressing "serious concern "about trilateral security partnership between Australia, Britain, and the US. The signing of this document was decidedly one of the most important watershed points in contemporary global politics.
Important in terms of contemporary political theory, China and Russia rejected the western definition of democracy and proffered their own based on historic heritage and long-standing traditions, relying on "thousand years of experience of development, popular support and consideration of the needs and interests of citizens". So, if China and Russia have their way, the "new era "would be shaped by values other than those the world had known to be universal, emanating from the west. This was most certainly nothing short of throwing down the gauntlet to America and the west.
One should stop short of concluding China and Russia have combined inextricably with no daylight between them. For instance, China has constantly, while giving support to Russia in the conflict vis-à-vis the US, has behaved with studied circumspection. It has urged restraint upon Russia and Ukraine and has also China had also called for talks to end the belligerency, which are now taking place, though without much success at writing. China and Russia feel that they have emerged as great powers in their own right, but as two separate poles, rather than together as one. In fact, the three existing civilizations, western, eastern, and central Eurasia are represented in the three protagonists, the US, China, and Russia. In the foreseeable future, none of the three would wield, or be allowed to wield, absolute power. US disinclination to directly confront Russia, as in denying President Zelensky's fervent appeal for "no fly zone over Ukraine" could be symptomatic of a limitation in the future to behave in a freewheeling unilateral manner as in the unipolar times, particularly in regions the two rising powers, China and Russia, have deep interest. Russia's ability to operate unfettered in Ukraine without America' military confronting it, is also a sign of acceptance of the notion of 'spheres of influence'.
So what may be likely emerging for the future is a global "tripolar" order comprising the US, China, and Russia. This, despite the existing US technological and innovative superiority, which may be eroded by the burgeoning geo-strategic influence of the other two. Their relations may be based on an interplay of the classical "balance of power" theory and behaviour-pattern in the contemporary political scene. Each will lead a group of nations, and switch sides in issues based on perceptions of self-interest, unencumbered by ideals or ideology. In a Kissingerian sense, the behavior-pattern of the three poles would be as follows: One, each pole would act in accordance with the principle of "raison d étre" shunning any notion of universal morality; and two, no pole would be dominant but would advance its capability by aligning itself with one or the other according to its calculations of power imperatives. At this time, Russia and China are together, but this situation could also change in the future, depending on the circumstances. The subordinate players in each pole could also choose sides, though with utmost care, given the fate that Ukraine unfortunately found itself in. For now, Europe has chosen to play a secondary role vis-à-vis the US, despite occasional outbursts of autonomous predilections. That too could change. For instance, in dealing with Iran. So active diplomacy between and within the circles of the three poles will continue.
What would be the role of lesser players in such milieu of a tripolar globe. Clearly, multilateralism and international institutions, some things I had myself placed great store by in the past, cannot offer the same amount of security. These will remain important but not as predominant sources of protection. Power will tend to emanate from the three poles, each of which will provide all possible support to those under its umbrella. Unfortunately, unrestrained 'realpolitik' will be the name of the game. Any global order that emerges would perhaps need to be underwritten by the three.
For weaker or smaller or powers the situation will not be ideal. What will be necessary for each of them is the building of a web of linkages with powerful global actors, including pole-leaders, and having them develop stakes in each. This would call for nimbler diplomacy because there are no set rules or protocol for such maneuverings. Neutrality is not necessarily the easy way out, as we are beginning to see in this conflict. As a Singaporean scholar, William Choong has said observing the current scenario, neutrality is a narrow plank, getting increasingly narrower. While this may look like a global chaos, eventually an order out of it will emerge, a new global "Social Contract", driven by the primordial instincts of the humankind to survive. It is difficult to delineate it at this time, but it will surely reflect more realism than idealism.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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