The Global Order in Reset An Uncertain Dynamism

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 3, Jul - Aug 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
With Russia's re-emergence and China defining the contours of its influence, the article looks at the implications for the world at large
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)
Friday, August 3, 2018

The last time the world entered transition in search for a new world order was 1989-90. Glasnost and Perestroika, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-Eighties triggered and to an extent even enabled the onset. However, while the two super powers themselves maintained a balanced relationship with receding threats of conflict between them the period yet was turbulent. The former Soviet Union was dismantling its structure with creation of 15 new republics, Warsaw Pact nations were no longer remaining bounden to the former Soviet club and former Yugoslavia was imploding into civil war with creation of six nations. Away from Europe and Eurasia the latent but suppressed forces of ethno-nationalism were getting released. In Africa and in Central Asia these forces were manifesting in violence. The United Nations (UN) had suddenly found a new voice with an enlarged role in attempting to stabilize the internal, proxy and other conflicts with peace enforcement, peacemaking or peacekeeping operations. Human rights and globalization became bywords. With US as the only remaining superpower and Europe yet fresh and strong from the victory in the Cold War the partnership was strong. For a new world order to emerge there was no necessity of an imposed international system or even a Westphalian kind of treaty. Geopolitics shaped the progression and that happened through the last 30 years with interests of nations being sought and fought over, alternative ideologies attempting to muscle their way and emerging technologies playing their role.

To understand why in 2018 the world is taking note of another emerging change in the world order it is necessary to briefly examine what the major factors were which shaped the current world order through the last thirty years. It is important to take note of the fact that this time it is being termed a ‘Reset’ and not a new world order. The broad implication of that understanding is the fact that unlike 1989-90, in 2018 the transition is in place much quieter and without a preceding jolt.

The major trends of the last thirty years which shaped the new world order, in no order of priority, were as follows: -

• Domination of US and unsuccessful attempts to refocus on the Asia Pacific after 50 years of the core areas of conflict being Europe and the Middle East. As much as it tried to neutralize the potential rise of China the US remained mired in conflicts in the Middle East and Af-Pak; China was important but yet secondary. US core interests continued to be dictated by the energy resources of the Middle East until the shale gas revolution diluted its dependency leading to receding interest by 2012 or so.

• Areas which had remained stable due to the balance of power which the Cold War brought with it emerged into internal subnational conflicts. Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and Russia’s other near abroad region were among these. Progressive stabilization occurred as new nations emerged in Europe and older ones changed their political outlook with the purge of the ghosts of the communist era. EU and NATO’s eastward march promised them greater opportunities.

• Terror and its linkages with elements within Islam threatened to subsume the world. Progressively it divided the world on the basis of faith; faith becoming a political term. The main strain of Islam which attempted to hijack the faith was the Saudi version – Wahabi Sunni, which primarily aimed at return of Islam to its supposed original moorings. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq gave spurt to greater divisiveness among faiths. This led organizations such as the Al Qaeda to initially gain ground in less charted areas and from that came the rise of Islamic State (IS).

• The information technology boom led to migrations of working populations, outsourcing and a general flattening of the world with far greater international travel, tourism becoming a major economy booster. Nations such as India benefitted from the software boom emerging as giants in that field and becoming the core centres of outsourcing giving a fillip to their economies.

• Terror was enabled by the progress in technology; it provided ease of financing, command and control, training and coordination of terror acts. Later IS revolutionized online motivation towards radical extremist violence.

• 9/11 came like a half way mark with the launch of the global war on terror (GWOT). It led to conventional expeditionary intervention with no positive results. GWOT remains in place, much lesser in intensity but a temporary halt in international terror activities may lead to a dilution of the transnational structures and efforts with potentially disastrous results.

• Even as all the above was in progress Islam itself was threatened by sectarian divide. The Shia-Sunni conflict overflowed into proxy conflicts fought in different parts of the Middle East. Iran’s isolation from the western world and rest of Middle East gave it aspirational progression towards achieving nuclear weapon status. The attempts at prevention of this dictated much of the time and energy spent by international diplomats culminating in an agreement in 2015 - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

• The emergence of China and India as fast developing economies influenced the international economic order. The term Middle Powers came into existence and by the later years in this millennium their clubbing attempted a breakout from the stranglehold of the West and of the traditional advanced economies. The formation of BRICS gave rise to more economic blocs with ASEAN, although older, becoming   among the most successful ones. The EU model flattened Europe with common controls on borders, migration and economics.

• The economic progress of the world was largely based on globalization which triggered expansion of free trade.

• Climate change became a greater threat even as the world struggled with protocols culminating in the Paris Accord in 2015.

• Without doubt the one supremely dominant factor through this period remained the rise of China and its voracious appetite for development which could only be fuelled through expanding trade and investment and assured energy imports. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) followed its New Silk Route initiatives.

• The rise of China which was relatively peaceful through the Nineties and the early millennium changed course as the three modernizations of Deng Xiao Ping were progressively achieved – agriculture, industry and technical education. The fourth modernization – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), last in priority, received impetus in the early part of the millennium and with its progress China’s experiments with coercion commenced.

• The one nation with whom the triggers of the new world order were linked was Russia. Its relative importance receded even though it remained a member of the UN Security Council and retained its nuclear arsenal. Two other fields helped it to retain influence; first its abundant availability of gas with which it fed Europe and made it inextricably dependent and second, its arms industry which became much more commercial. Threatened by the eastward march of NATO and the potential of Central Asia going the Islamic way Russia’s response towards retention and recovery of its power was messaged through its intervention in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the active involvement in the Syrian Civil War. It was a way of communicating the re-emergence of Russia and its true aspirations.

The World in Reset Mode

Awkwardly it was the second quarter of 2018 when talk of reset in the world order began. A trail of events through 2015-18, a relatively short period probably hastened change. The tilt of the world towards right wing political thinking and ideological make up started to take shape. It did not succeed everywhere. In France and in Germany there was sufficient resistance by old world liberalism. However, right of center as a philosophy gained primacy as much as authoritarianism, even within old democratic structures.

The first assumption on which any current change is based is the perception of regression of US comprehensive power and the rise of alternative power centres. This always remains a highly debatable issue.  In 1989-90 it was the US alone supported by the larger Atlantic community of NATO which facilitated the change.

The arrival of a non-career politician at the helm of the US leadership ceased further change in the traditionally progressing new world order which was still in the making.  Trump’s disruptive style of leadership did not trigger the reset, it only hastened it. Obama had been aware of US limitations but was pragmatic to continue pushing for US primacy even as partnerships became more equal. Trump’s strategic orientation, dictated largely by his many advisers remains in the shade of grey. The perception that the US was bearing too much cost for the leadership of the world and others needed to share the same is creating a backlash. The US under Trump wishes to spend less, be less responsible for the management of international security and yet retain primacy of position in the pecking order. Trump’s ‘America First’ is out of sync with attempts to retain power and influence. Without assuming responsibility, without readiness to shoulder greater financial burden and without more adjustment and willingness to compromise, the US cannot hope to retain the kind of power and influence it held in the post-Cold War period.

The greyness in perceptions across the world has forced a reset because nations are holding on to the few gains and unsure where these will take them in the complex 21st Century strategic environment. If there was more transparency and clarity perhaps the process of change towards another world order would have been more perceptive. At present it is not. Trump’s achievements such as the efforts towards stabilization of the Korean Peninsula are noteworthy no doubt but the post event management of the dynamics remains in doubt due to unpredictability and lack of consistency.

In contrast China’s aggressive selling of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to pump its version of reset may appear more appropriate but the expenses for it too are not being undertaken with free lunches but rather through coercive debt trap diplomacy. Its decision to ignore and virtually mock the judgment of the UN’s International Tribunal for arbitration on the South China Sea issue, calling it “a piece of paper that is destined to come to naught”, was a major trigger for the world to take note of its intent at more assertiveness and unwillingness to adhere to a rule-based order.

The real trigger for the ongoing reset was not recent and simply blaming the arrival of President Trump would be an unfair assumption. In fact this was in the making for some time once it was progressively realized that the liberal democratic order being sought by the US and less energetically by the US allies could not adjust to China or Russia’s political ideologies; a reset based upon only confrontation would spell a return to a new cold war. The decline of Russia post the end of the Cold War was mistakenly taken as a trend in perpetuity. The return of Russia’s emphatic international role came with its decision to contest the western march on Ukraine. The failed Arab Spring also gave the US enough indicators of its inability to take forward the liberal democratic agenda contributing to its cooling and comparatively lower assertiveness in the Middle East.

Russia’s return to active big power politics was challenged by the US and Europe without sufficient muscle and unity. The expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep was a challenge the latter had to resist.  Yet Europe’s dependence on Russian gas prevents unified sanctions on Russia and enhances the latter’s ability to resist. For example, in the European Union, as Germany expelled Russian diplomats, it quietly approved the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on its territory.

Not the least of triggers is the ongoing trade war seriously diluting 25 years of effective globalization and interdependency. The reset is giving direction to new regional trade blocs such as the recently reported potential 16 nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which includes ASEAN nations with China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia; this could be a reality by end of 2018 much against US interests. Most countries yet do not want to give up the liberal approach in trade without control regimes. In fact, the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) it initiated several years ago but other countries are trying to recreate it without US presence. The new protectionism the US is attempting to foist, the politicization of economic relations and attempts to foil positive economic interdependence in Europe, based on Russian natural gas supplies in exchange for European goods, as also China’s unwillingness to be intimidated by trade wars may witness a path towards a new economic order which will form the basis of the reset underway.

It may seem apparently far-fetched but the US decision to withdraw from the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear efforts has been a clear trigger. The cleavage in US and European perceptions on management of international security came out into the open. The progressive attempts to isolate and coerce Iran with a potential regime change as the main intent are likely to be resisted in greater measure than the US may have perceived.

The Middle East which had been the focus of the world through 2011-2017 due to the Syrian civil war, the rise and eventual defeat of the ISIS, the migrations to Europe and the entry of Russia, has apparently cooled. Yet, the sectarian divide in Islam has manifested in direct potential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the latter’s continuing expansion of influence in the Levant. Not the least among the trends is the apparent change in Saudi Arabia sought by Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), diluting its radical approach to faith and preparing the nation for the future. It is facilitating a more acceptable Saudi Arabia with stronger relationships with the US and Israel. 

India’s Role

Of interest to us is the fact that Obama perceived India as an important potential strategic partner; the geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean, its emerging power status, fast growing economy, hunger for technology and young population gave India a status of huge strategic importance for the US. India as foil and to balance the rise of China was the underlying theme.  Trump appears to have shifted focus from that without a clear understanding of the potential of India and taking mutual interests into focus.

While India’s role in this emerging reset may yet be unclear there are some indicators that a quiet diplomacy to retrace some steps and prevent being strait jacketed in relationships, is also underway the symptoms of which are quite obvious to keen observers. The enthusiastic indicators of an emerging Indo-US strategic partnership which appeared evident in 2014-16 and perhaps even a little later have given way to an ominous reconsideration with a realization that the world will neither be unipolar nor bipolar in the future. It was realized that the larger role envisaged for India in the Indo Pacific by the US would emerge in clash with the interests of other power centres. China’s support to Pakistan and its aggressive posturing in India’s neighborhood were messages in response to the increasing Indian propensity to be seen to be in league with the US. 

Doklam momentarily upset Indian perceptions even though it was being drawn into multilateral arrangements such as the US-Japan-India equation and the Quad of Nations without a full think through on the future implications. The signals emanating from Moscow were also none too positive and a potential Russia-China-Pakistan equation was likely to militate against Indian interests. At the beginning of 2018 a reset in India’s relationships was already on the cards; Wuhan, Sochi and Qingdao followed in quick succession. In later years any examination of the progressive international reset will recall these meets as important waypoints.

There is no closure to a process such as an international reset, as witnessed in the past. There are already enough issues that are on the cards which will dictate which way the progression will go. Not the least is the handling of Iran by the international community as part of the sanctions regime; India’s response to US pressure to abide by sanctions will be significant. Russia’s ability to wade the sanctions against it, retain its European interests against US pressure and continue safeguarding the core joint interests with China with strengthened mutual trust will decide the order that will emerge. The progress of Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) ‘eastern NATO’ status will also be under test.

For India, it is almost back to non-alignment and issue and interest-based cooperation because polarity in the international order will be far more diffused.  Straddling will become the order of the day rather than cozying with any of the strategic dispensations. Yet, it cannot afford complete obfuscation of its foreign policy. The NDA Government displayed a fine understanding of its interests in the beginning of 2018 and followed it with some deft handling of emerging threats to its interests. The virtual ASEAN summit on India’s Republic Day, visits by the Prime Minister to the Middle East in Feb 2018 and return visits by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Iranian President and that of the King of Jordan signified a straddling effort. The efforts to set aside emerging conflict of interests with China and Russia and a slowdown in the move towards the Quadrilateral of Nations were significant decisions towards a reset.

However, the speed of reset is as yet slow. As it picks up pace India may have to display even more deftness in its relationships.

The Iran sanctions issue and the yet to finally crystalize decision to remain firm on the commitment to purchase arms and equipment from Russia will remain among the major challenges in coming few months.