Quo Vadis – Where is the World Going?

MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti) – The weakness of western powers and the international community was exposed once again last week after Iran arrested British sailors and marines it claimed had strayed into Iranian territorial waters.

One Iranian official has said that if the United Kingdom does not admit that the sailors were in Iranian waters, they would be charged with spying, which, he added, carries the death penalty in Iran.

International Anarchy

It is indeed ironic that after decades of criticism of the West and all its works by western left-wing and Third World intellectuals, quite a number of developing countries are, lo and behold, indulging in sabre rattling and acquiring arms as fast as they’re able – right up to and including nuclear weapons – to the detriment of their own people. In other words, they are merely proving the eternal truth that major powers tend to behave as major powers.

China has long been a nuclear power and recently announced an 18% increase in its military budget, which comes on top of many years of double-digit increases. The two “new” nuclear powers of India and Pakistan demonstrated their atomic prowess to the world at the end of the 1990s. Some countries in Latin America have been increasing arms purchases, while Iran and North Korea provide further examples of poor countries that seem bent on acquiring military muscle rather than sorting out their economies and providing opportunities and decent living standards for their populations.

Seen from Tehran or Pyongyang, of course, the American and British invasions and interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are grist to the mill of the more bellicose politicians, although the internal situation in Iran is very different from that in North Korea.

But neither Europe nor the United States can afford to allow countries like Iran to possess nuclear weapons. The inevitable result – the established powers feel constrained to defend themselves. The United States claims it wants to set up anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Europe and itself against possible Iranian attacks. And if there is any fear that Iran really will go nuclear, Israel and/or the United States will almost certainly make a pre-emptive strike.

On the other hand, concessions to Iran are all the more likely to encourage other would-be nuclear powers, especially after the compromise on North Korea. But despite this compromise and its pacifist constitution, Japan is beefing up its defenses in general, and today deployed a Patriot anti-missile system to defend Tokyo in a clear response to Pyongyang’s ballistic tests in 2006. And of course Tokyo is also worried about China’s growing military potential, as is much of East Asia.

There is, then, a very worrying sense of increasing international instability, arms races and states engaging in dangerous brinkmanship which could all too easily escalate out of control.

Many observers attribute this situation to the collapse of the Cold War, with two superpowers no longer around to constrain client states and the hegemon – the United States – less reluctant to intervene than earlier because it no longer needs to counter a Soviet threat, countries are much freer to go their own way.

This is valid as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. China embarked on its current course of making money in 1978, and Iran’s Islamic revolution occurred in 1979. The “democratization wave” began in Portugal in 1974 and has continued, with reverses, ever since. Islamic fundamentalism in its current militant form was a result of Israel’s sweeping victory over the Arabs in the Six Day War in 1967.

In other words, the developing world would have undergone profound changes irrespective of the Cold War – some positive, such as democracy in South Korea, some negative, such as desire of Islamic fundamentalists not only to set up a theocracy based on a mythical understanding of the religion’s early period, but to force their views on everyone else.

Soon after the collapse of the Cold War and bipolarity, theorists of international relations were speculating that the emerging multipolarity would result in increased global instability. And indeed, the much vaunted “New World Order” of George H.W. Bush was disappointingly short-lived. The horrors of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, two wars with Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan and the inability to cope with “rogue states” highlight the general problems facing the world and the increasing anarchy in international affairs.

International Order

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that we no longer live in a unipolar world, a position echoed on every occasion by China.

This is very true, but what does it mean for international relations, and for the world order? Harping on about the fact that we don’t live in a unipolar world is not enough. Politicians have to make more serious efforts to find solutions since the long-term effects if the current state of affairs continues will be dire not just for established powers, but also for those in the developing world, including countries in both camps, namely Russia and China.

Lavrov has also recently proposed that the United States, Europe and Russia should work more closely together in order to solve global problems. And yet it was Russia that watered down the UN Security Council resolution to condemn Iran’s seizure of the British marines. It also took some considerable time for both Russia and China to agree that the problems with the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea required more serious and coordinated international action – perhaps finally realizing that it is in no one’s interests that undemocratic, unstable or populist regimes possess nuclear weapons. This reluctance is all the more surprising given that North Korea borders both China and Russia and that Iran is close to both.

In late 2006, five Russians were kidnapped in Iraq and later killed by their captors. A television channel later broadcast a program showing interviews with former Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who said that when Soviet diplomats were kidnapped in the 1980s in the Lebanon, Moscow told Iran that during the upcoming Soviet naval exercises in the Caspian Sea, “our unreliable missiles could go astray and land on Qom (Iran’s holy city).” Surprisingly, the diplomats were released within days.

Times have changed and Russia is keener on diplomacy these days, just as the United Kingdom no longer engages in gunboat diplomacy at the drop of a hat. But the international environment nowadays is fraught with minefields – and a number of new leaders with little experience of foreign affairs will be coming to power in major countries over the next one or two years.

The New World Leaders

U.S. President George Bush will be leaving the White House in January 2009, but is already gravely weakened by a democratic Congress and the joint catastrophe in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the next few months Tony Blair is due to vacate Downing Street for Chancellor Gordon Brown, and Jacques Chirac will hand over the Champs Elysee – it is still early to say who will be his successor.

And of course Vladimir Putin’s second term of office is drawing to a close and a new Russian president is due to be elected in March 2008.

So at a time when the world needs first-class and experienced leadership more than ever, several key leaders are either weak or about to leave the world stage.

The idea of a benign liberal empire a la Niall Ferguson and others as a solution to global problems is hardly feasible, but much closer cooperation and agreement between major powers seem to be the best hope of solving some otherwise almost intractable issues.

That will doubtless mean less emphasis on ideology by the Western world, and less emphasis on commerce by Russia and China. This approach would also help the world to concentrate on the really big issues – lifting the poor out of dire poverty and providing better lives for people, but without destroying the environment at the same time.

It remains to be seen whether the new incumbents will have this level of strategic vision and the will to make tough decisions in the wider common interest.

Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.

Now available at https://sputniknews.com/analysis/2007033062868217/, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.

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