Sailing in Uncharted Waters

April 7, 2020

The Arab Spring threw the Middle East in chaos. Then came the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As the Syrian conflict moved up on the international agenda the former receded. Despite on and off official statements regarding the illegitimacy of Crimea’s annexation, everybody knew that there would be no going back. With a rising China and a resurgent Russia “global realignment” became a current topic. There was even talk about “Cold War II” and more investment in military power. The rise of populism and authoritarianism led to a pessimistic outlook regarding the future of democracy.

In brief, the world has been in disarray in the last decade. And now we have the coronavirus chaos underlining the contradictions of modern times. We have guns, drones, fighter aircraft, heavy bombers, but as it turns out soap is a more effective weapon than any of these. While social distancing is recommended as the ultimate measure to contain the spread of the disease, contemporary technologies have brought “big brother” increasingly into our lives.

Some say that after coronavirus passes “nothing will be the same”, an opinion widely expressed after 9/11. Others are taking a step further and prophesying the world order of the future. While appreciating the appeal of looking into the future I feel it is too early to draw far-reaching conclusions from the current crisis. Moreover, depth in futuristic scenarios would depend on an honest and shared assessment of how the world got here. Without that, sweeping judgements regarding the rise and decline of global powers, redistribution of power and wealth, conflict resolution would likely lack substance. Much more important is ensuring respect for the current norms of international behavior or their redefinition.

The global economic outlook was and remains unpredictable.

Insofar as international politics are concerned there is much accounting with the past. Main themes are China’s rise and West’s decline, the rise of authoritarianism and democracy’s descent. Interestingly, most of these focus on the U.S. People are asking “what went wrong?” to use the title of Bernard Lewis’ remarkable book on the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East which still continues. Pundits are voicing their criticism of Washington’s history of external military interventions and their political/diplomatic/economic cost. The impact of Trump presidency on U.S.’ global status is under scrutiny. Need for leadership is emphasized.

The following is from the April 2016 Obama interview by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic:

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power. That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

President Obama also said more than once that America could not remain on “a perpetual war-time footing.” Indeed, during the last century, brief military interventions aside, the US has gone to war seven times. These are the First and Second World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the two Gulf wars and the war in Afghanistan. The intervention in Afghanistan has outlasted the Vietnam war. The war in Iraq lasted nine years. The two world wars aside, none of them justified the conclusion “mission accomplished”.

The questioning of the wisdom of external interventions and “endless wars” is a good thing. But would that lead to a commitment for the future? What about climate change, Iran nuclear deal, the long list of Middle East conflicts? Would Moscow stop power projection in “near abroad”? Would China help pave the way for nuclear disarmament in the Korea peninsula and encourage Korean reunification? Would the P5 reach consensus on genuine U.N. reform?

In Russia, America’s postwar adversary, President Putin has been in power for two decades. Although much has been said about his unpredictability he has remained on a steady course in restoring Russia’s global status as a major power and he has seized the opportunities offered by the West in Georgia and Ukraine. In other words, he has been more than predictable. The coronavirus saga is unlikely to bring about a fundamental change in Russia’s policies.

In his book “On China” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.” Indeed China, while rising as a global economic power, has wisely refrained from getting involved in international conflicts and has remained principled and predictable by today’s international standards. President Xi Jinping has constantly expressed a desire to “protect multilateralism”.  But, his emerging as China’s leader-for-life has disappointed those who believed that China would become more democratic as it became wealthier. Nonetheless, that Beijing has now emerged as an equal of Washington is widely accepted.

The EU, a global economic power, has remained divided and ineffective as a foreign policy actor. Its public discourse on democracy and the rule of law has weakened. Authoritarian tendencies in some E.U. countries are inspiring autocrats elsewhere. So, the question is whether the E.U. would go back to its founding principles, project democratic values or continue to prioritize selfish economic interest.

The U.S., China and Russia continue to engage in competition as global powers. Yet, all three must see the impossibility of achieving exclusive global dominance and making decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two as shown by the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts. This is also true for South China Sea disputes and North Korea’s nuclear program.

In view of today’s international challenges, world’s major powers need to agree on an agenda of peace and cooperation, sooner than later. Whether they would rise to the challenge is the big question. Judging by the record, they are more likely to pursue their nationalistic agendas, invest more in biological warfare capabilities and the health sector. They would not see investment in the soap and mask industries as the ultimate guarantee of global ascendancy.

Coronavirus attack is seen as the greatest global challenge of modern times. Because, the death toll has reached tens of thousands and is likely to go up. Yet, the world has suffered greater loss of life in the millions in attacks of countries, peoples on one another. The regrettably high number of coronavirus victims in some countries is understandably causing deep grief, but hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives in the last four decades and nobody said “sorry”. In Syria, calling al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist organizations but blaming the regime for the total death toll of the conflict has been convenient but unfair.

A greater test for the world could be an attack from another planet. Under such a scenario, major powers may again put the emphasis on their own survival, try to strike political/economic deals with the extraterrestrial aggressors if their messages do not get lost in translation.

In the light of the lessons of the past, a search for new global order must prioritize respect for the current norms of international behavior or their redefinition over narrow national interest and global supremacy. And that, sadly, happens to be an unrealistic expectation. Even some improvement in the international “rules of engagement” would be a step forward.

Henry Kissinger concluded his April 3 Wall Street Journal article, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”, by saying, “… The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.”

The world and particularly the West can start by looking for such leaders.

If a miracle is not around the corner, the world should start worrying about potential coronavirus-related impoverishment and violence.

As for Turkey, we suffer from a disease worse than the coronavirus: chronic polarization. And, no vaccine is yet in sight.






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