The New World Order

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 1 Mar - Apr 2017
Page No.: 
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Crystal gazing at the world order that is likely to emerge
Ajay Singh
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The post-World War years were a nice place to be in. It was a simple, uncomplicated world order with power divided somewhat equally between the two superpowers USA and USSR. The power equations were on ideological lines with the US and the USSR championing Democracy and Communism respectively (though the two major communist powers, USSR and China were themselves at loggerheads) and waging their proxy wars across the globe. For four decades this equation continued, and then the USSR imploded spectacularly in the early 90s and the USA emerged as the sole superpower.  It was Pax Americana all the way with no contender in sight. Russia had arisen from the debris of the Soviet Union and was in economic and political turmoil. China was focusing on its economy and choosing to bide its time. The European Union was firmly in the US camp, and major organizations like the UN and NATO completely in its control.

Perhaps the arrogance of the USA as a sole superpower, precipitated its decline. It plunged into Kuwait in the early 90s against Saddam Hussein’s invading forces and then stayed put in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The presence of ‘infidel troops in the land of two mosques’ built up Muslim ire that led to Osama Bin Laden’s spectacular aircraft laden strike on the twin towers on 9/11 2001. With that strike the world stage changed and paved the way for the coming order.

As a vengeful USA plunged into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan – where it would remain mired for the next decade and a half – it made the cardinal error of Invading Iraq in 2003, looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. These Six Trillion Dollar wars sent the USA into a decline which perhaps was terminal. Worse, directly or indirectly, it contributed to the Islamic fundamentalism that the world is trying so hard to combat now.

As the USA was sucked in these conflicts, it provided the strategic space for other contenders to rise. China emerged as an economic and military powerhouse and began asserting its nationalism. Russia, under a vehemently nationalistic Putin, too began flexing its muscle as it moved into Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The disintegration of Iraq provided fertile soil for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which would metamorphose into the Islamic State, the entity that most represents Islamic fundamentalist terror across the globe. With the advent of the Arab Spring, states like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan and Syria were in turmoil and Syria plunged into a vicious civil war which caused 2,50,000 casualties and created over 11 million refugees. The flood of refugees into adjoining Europe coupled with the rise of home grown terror, fueled Islamophobia and created a dangerous divide.

The USA, singed in both Afghanistan and Iraq chose to take a backseat in the new dynamics. Under President Obama’s reluctance to get involved in another war, it let Afghanistan fall deeper into drift, and withdrew pre-maturely from Iraq, setting the stage for the IS assault on the nation. It also refused to get involved in the Syrian Civil war, and let Russia take a leading role on the side of the Assad regime. The vacuum of world leadership has been gleefully filled by Russia and China who are happy to reclaim what they see as ‘historic roles.’ And as the world power equation has shifted, along comes Trump to further shake the order.  

The Present World Equilibrium

The arrival of President Donald Trump as an abrasive, disruptive President of the United States of America could change the World Order as we know. It. The USA is still the world’s largest superpower with a GDP that is 22% of the world. Its military spending of $596 Billion outstrips that of the next 11 nations combined. When it sneezes, the world catches a cold. When the President speaks, his words reverberate across the world. His vision of the world will now shape its equilibrium.

For over six decades now, the world order has been used to seeing the US take a lead in world affairs. As the USA increasingly turns inwards, both strategically and economically, the equations will change. For starters, there will be a re alignment of power centers. It is unlikely that the USA will pay the same attention to its allies and institutions that it once did.  Nations such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Israel and other traditional allies which banked on a comfortable US security umbrella would no longer be assured of it and would realign themselves to other friends and allies. Trumps complete disregard for NATO could declare the world’s major strategic alliance as irrelevant. (In fact NATO is already losing its cohesiveness with Turkey, under President Erdogan, gradually shifting away from the bloc.) A weakening of NATO could further embolden Russia in its eastwards encroachments and perhaps bring in a revival of its expansionism.

At the same time, Trump’s re-alignment towards Russia will upset the world’s equations considerably. Russia has already been emboldened by Obama’s inward looking policies and in spite of sanctions has exerted its influence towards its neighbors. Its entry in the Syrian War (where it deployed its ageing aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetzov’ in a blatant show of power projection) has made it a major player in the Middle East conflict, more so since the US has been unwilling to do any more than launch ineffective air strikes against IS positions. Should Trump turn towards Russia as an unlikely ally we can definitely expect a revivalist Russia on the world stage. A US –Russia alliance if it does arrive, will form a world order dominated by the ‘Big Two’ with China being gradually sidelined. That in a way would be a marked change from the envisaged era of a USA- India- Japan alliance balancing the gradual coming together of Russia and China.

China has already emerged as a ‘near-peer’ to the USA and its economic footprint perhaps exceeds that of the US. It is likely to cross the USA as the leading economic power by 2026 or so as per estimates. China has already emerged as the leader in a slew of alliances like the SCO and  BRICS and its ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ initiative can tie down regional economies irrevocably to it. With Trump viewing China as Public Enemy No 1, will the famed US ‘Pivot to Asia’ materialize, or will China remain unchecked in its expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. With Trump focusing on ‘America First’ , in spite of his antipathy towards China, he is unlikely to divert large US resources to check it and in the meantime China would rise from ‘near-peer’ to ‘peer’, and become the dominant power center of the Asia-Pacific.

Two other factors, not completely unrelated to each other, also affect the world equilibrium. The first is the battle against Islamic fundamentalism. Although the Islamic State has been defeated in Iraq (as al Baghdadi conceded in a farewell address to his cadres after Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul), its hydra like tentacles will resurface in different parts of the world especially Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and Syria. The US has lost much of its influence after it proved unable to win the ‘Battle against Terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now will, Trump clamp down on Islamic fundamentalism as he has promised. Then what will be his choice of allies. He seems to consider Russia as an unlikely ally in this war, but Russia will extract exorbitant concessions for its role and it will be a short-lived marriage of convenience. In the long-term, a balanced, sustained campaign would have to be waged to fully eliminate it, but it seems unlikely that the Trump administration would be able to sustain it. If this administration is viewed as being anti-Islamic, as it is already perceived to be, it could precipitate the clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington prophesied.  

The other factor is the rise of an inward looking right wing nationalism that is sweeping the world from India to the US and everything in between. This has seen the rise of Trump, it has seen Brexit (and possibly Scoxit) and seen right wing leaders emerge in France, Germany and the Netherlands, who believe in ‘the nation first and international institutions later’. That itself could prove disastrous to another notable institution of the World Order – the European Union. A world which at one time seemed to be coming together in an internationalized order will now revert back to pockets of inward-looking nation states.

Global Power Equations

What we are seeing emerge is the rise of three power centers; the USA, China and Russia. The USA still strides the world like a colossus, and its premier position is likely to be maintained for the next two or three decades at least. It would look to shore up its influence with allies in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. India would be a ‘preferred ally’ as would traditional allies of Japan, UK and South Korea. But just how much the USA is now willing to contribute to its allies and how much will they demand in return remains to be seen.

The equations between USA, China and Russia will be marked by the relations with each other. I, for one, do not see a US-Russia rapprochement coming about. (Which would shift the goal posts considerably away from China and completely upset the applecart of power equations).  In spite of the recent push by President Trump, a US-Russia conclave  is unlikely to happen. There is too much animosity and mutual suspicion and their national interests clash. What could happen at best is a year or two of thawing off, before contradictions resurface and then perhaps a further deterioration of ties.

A more likely alliance is that of Russia and China. They have already been coming together as a natural counter to the US and that would only increase. Their economic and nationalistic agendas are markedly alike and their domination of forums such as the SCO and BRICS gives them a platform to assert their joint interests. The flexing of their nationalistic muscle too is likely to increase with time, especially if the US proves unwilling to intercede effectively.

Other power centers that will rise are regional alliances like India-Japan and Australia in an economic and strategic partnership that can define the region. A similar alliance could emerge in Europe with UK-France-Germany to cater for the reduced role of NATO and also as a hedge against Russian expansionism towards Eastern Europe. There is also a likely coming together of Muslim nations in two blocs; a Sunni One and a Shia one – with Saudi, Kuwait, Pakistan and UAE championing the Sunni cause and Iran-Syria as the drivers of a Shia alliance. The first indicators have already been seen in the Saudi led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen (countered by Iran’s support to the pre-dominantly Shia rebels) and the formation of the 34 nation ‘Islamic States alliance to fight Terrorism’ which was recently launched in Jeddah.

The strategic spaces of the world are likely to remain in Afghanistan, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. Afghanistan, blessed by strategic location and cursed by virtually everything else will see the emergence of greater China-Pakistan-Russia influence there. The US seems to have virtually given up in Afghanistan and the power vacuum can be filled by China- Russia which would then prop up Pakistan to exert their influence there. A gradual edging out of Indian interests there is quite likely.

The Asia-Pacific too will emerge as the global hot spot, especially with China’s nationalistic zeal in the region. It remains to be seen how strongly Trump will follow up on the ‘Pivot to Asia.’ That would require a greater US outreach towards India, Japan and Australia who themselves would become natural allies bound by geography.

The Middle East is likely to see the most changes. With the US no longer dependent on Gulf Oil, it is unlikely to exert the same influence there. Russia, with its foothold in Syria could well fill up that space. Should US-Iran tensions further rise, especially with the repudiation of the nuclear deal, Iran will emerge as another hostile force which will readily support Russian influence in the region. All this will heighten the Saudi-Iran rivalry and the schism could be the impetus for another wave of fundamentalist violence.

Europe too could see a throw back with Russia trying to reclaim the position of the former Soviet Union – more so if it remains unchecked in the initial years of Trump’s presidency. The fraying of NATO and the European Union could help precipitate it.

All in all there would be a gradual creep towards different power centers. The US, China and Russia would be the prime triumvirate, with the balance of power shifting with the alliances they form within themselves and others. An inward looking USA could be supplanted by outward reaching China and Russia which will lead to smaller power centers such as the regional blocs of India-Japan-Australia; UK- France- Germany or a Saudi led Middle Eastern bloc. The traditional role and composition of one of the greatest symbols of World Order – the United Nations would also need to change. An enhanced Security Council with India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany would provide a wider and equitable representation. What emerges will depend on the four years of Trump’s presidency. The positions he takes and the direction he sends USA towards will determine the coming balance of power and the shape of the world order as we know it.