This year by far has been the most chaotic year in international politics, since the end of the Cold War. The depredations of the so-called Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East threaten to upturn borders that have been settled for close to a century. Europe is in the throes of an unexpected tussle with Moscow, with former Soviet President Gorbachev characterising the state of relationship between Russia and the West as being on the brink of a new Cold War. In the South and East China seas, China’s aggressiveness, too clear now to be ignored, is leading to a reluctant quasi-alliance with some strange bed-fellows. And as the year winds to a close, the weird North Korean regime is back on the front pages, demonstrating that generational change in no solution for preposterousness.
Though a certain amount of turmoil was always present in international affairs, the general sense of a gathering disorder and uncertainty in international affairs today is much deeper. One indicator is that this in itself has become an issue of debate. Concerns about an emerging global disorder, such as predicted by Gorbachev, have been disputed by Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, who argued recently that statistically speaking, violence is coming down and “the world is not falling apart”. They argue that homicide rates have fallen, crime against women and children are decreasing, a majority of the world’s countries are now democracies, and that genocide and mass civilian killings are trending down.
However, this is a simple statistical sleight of hand: none of this has anything necessarily to do with global disorder. They do argue that war has also declined: war between states, they declare confidently, “are all but obsolete.” We have heard this before, of course: a century back, Norman Angell publicised the same conclusion, only to be proved disastrously wrong when the First World War broke out.
If war is indeed obsolete, nobody told defence ministries around the world: as SIPRI notes, military expenditures and arms purchases have been steadily raising (though total global military expenditure declined slightly primarily because US defence budget declined as a consequence of the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). As Thomas Hobbes pointed out a long while back, war is not just about the condition of fighting but of preparations for it.
The problem with statistical analysis is that they are meaningless without political understanding. There were few great power wars for almost a century after the Napoleanic wars ended in 1815. But competition between rising new powers and existing great powers had created a tinderbox that was easily lit in 1914. Two world wars in the first half of the 20th century were followed by a bipolar and then a unipolar peace that is probably now ending.
For two decades after the end of the Cold War, Europeans and East Asians basked in the liberal myth that greater trade and economic integration would overcome the fear and conflict that have always been at the heart of relations between nations.
What we are witnessing is political fracturing in three key regions: Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Europeans, long smug about having moved into post-modern politics in which war was for the history books, are suddenly facing a blast of Russian reality. Both Russia and the West share the blame for the current crisis, but it is one from which there is no easy escape either considering that the issues at stake for both sides are sovereignty and security.
In Asia, expectations that economic interdependence would ensure that China’s rise was peaceful was always the victory of hope over historical experience. What 2014 demonstrated was that China is normal, that it would do what other great powers have done before. The response was equally normal, as states with no tradition of prior partnership came together to form an as yet amorphous grouping that could one day become a counter-China alliance. The Asian fracturing is no flash in the pan either because China’s power continues to grow, even if slightly slower than before.
The Middle East has been fractured for decades, of course, but today’s divisions are new. For long, the Palestine issue obscured other regional differences such as between traditionalist and radical regimes or between Shia Iran and the rest of the region. All of these have been displaced today by a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia powers which has the potential to restructure the entire region. This conflict now has local manifestations all the way from Lebanon to Yemen, each fed by the Iran and the Sunni powers.
What unites all these stories is the continuing retreat of the U.S. under President Obama from its traditional global role. From Ukraine to Syria to the Pacific, Obama’s reluctance to get involved has disappointed old partners, who are increasingly looking to local means of dealing with regional threats rather than dialling Washington. This makes weaker American allies even more insecure and these conflicts even more intractable because compromise is that much more difficult when the issue is survival. It also makes the cost of the inevitable US involvement that much higher, as the US is learning in both Ukraine and Syria.
This lower profile role is not the consequence of the much heralded American decline, but rather a deliberate policy choice. The US may eventually decline to be one among many great powers but it still remains by far the world’s most powerful nation. Anyone who doubts its capability need only look to what the US has been able to do to Russia over the last few months. When the US first announced sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, it was treated as a joke in Moscow. With the rouble plunging and Russia facing an economic contraction by as much five percent next year, nobody there is laughing anymore.
Because this lower profile role is a matter of choice, it can be reversed fairly quickly. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Obama will reverse course so late in his presidency. It will take a new leader in the White House before this course is corrected.
But this year also provides us a preview of what a multipolar world might look like. American hegemony has its downsides but it will be nothing compared to its end, especially if it leads to a multipolar world in which no one is in control.
This has lessons for New Delhi too. India has for long craved a larger global role and routinely calls for a multipolar world. This is couched in the language of a more democratic world order, which barely hides the true intent: a world in which India hopes it will be one of poles. That desire is but natural for a country the size of India but New Delhi’s long-standing desire to play this larger role should not make it overlook all the complexities and difficulties that such a world might generate. India has mostly kept its head down this year but this is a luxury that it might not have if it is one of poles.
(The writer is a Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University Delhi)