A World of Incertitude

June 27, 2022

With the war in Ukraine, the “emerging world order” has once again become a current topic even though the use of the word “order” in the global context does not correspond to its Merriam-Webster definition which is “the state of peace, freedom from confused or unruly behavior, and respect for law or proper authority”.

In remarks at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17, President Putin declared that the unipolar world order has come to an end. For some years, with a steadily rising China, this has been a widely shared opinion. Washington increasingly saw China as its main strategic competitor but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added a new dimension to the picture: Beijing and Moscow are moving closer to one another more swiftly than expected before.

Both China and Russia are nuclear powers. Both are permanent members of the largely dysfunctional UN Security Council. Their voting patterns are increasingly similar.

Historically, Russia has been a land empire stretching from Europe to the Pacific. As Tsarist Russia emerged as a European power its eyes were set on İstanbul and the Turkish Straits. Because during times when naval power was supreme, Russia could not become one without easy access to the warm seas, that is the Mediterranean. Russia’s main fleet, naval base, and shipyards were in the eastern Baltic, frozen throughout the long winter season. Russia also had naval bases in the Pacific but supplying them was extremely difficult given the huge distances and lack of railway transport until much later.

Thus, Russia’s defeat in the 1905 Japan-Russia war was also the result of its inability to reinforce its Pacific fleet in time. Moreover, the Straits have always been a vital route for Russia’s trade. This is still the case.

Today, Russia has an east-west stretch of 9000 kilometers, and a north-south width of 2500 to 4000 kilometers. It has a land surface of 17.1 million square kilometers which makes it the world’s largest country with only a population of 145 million. From the northern shores of the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia shares a border of 7598 kilometers with Kazakhstan, 3485 kilometers with Mongolia, and 4200 kilometers with China. Maintaining a global naval presence is still a challenge for Moscow. The Montreux Convention, while limiting external naval presence in the Black Sea, imposes restrictions on its naval deployments as well.

Despite the failure of Moscow’s initial plan to take over Kyiv and other battlefield frustrations, Russia is still a major military power. It would no doubt draw the necessary conclusions and, despite economic strains, launch an effort to make up for its shortcomings sooner than expected.

Since the end of the Second World War NATO has been the pillar of Western security against the Soviet Union and later Russia. Now, as always, the Alliance is engaged in adapting to change. The US and its NATO allies have displayed solidarity in confronting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, their views do not overlap completely.

On the one hand, Poland and the Baltic states are calling for resolute measures against Russia. On the other hand, are France, Germany, and Italy trying to avoid a total rupture with Moscow. To what extent the EU’s declared commitment to reinforce Europe’s defense would materialize remains to be seen. Following the end of the Cold War, Europe enjoyed an exceptional era of peace, security, and prosperity and invested less and less in defense. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a shock. Yet, some leading European countries may be inclined to see the invasion as the last episode of President Putin’s aggressiveness that should somehow be managed, allowing for time for a change of leadership in Moscow. Thus, they may generally follow the US lead in confronting Russia but also seek accommodation with Moscow. The EU shares a 2300-kilometer border with Russia. When Ukraine joins the EU, this would almost double.

China, now Washington’s principal strategic competitor, has a land area of 9.7 million square kilometers making it the world’s third-largest country after Russia and Canada. The mainland coastline of China stretches 14,500 kilometers from the Bohai Sea in the north down to the Gulf of Tonkin in the south. China has a population of 1.4 billion. Today, China is the world’s second economic power after the US, but it is expected to take the lead soon. In parallel with its economic surge, China’s military power is also rapidly growing. Beijing is investing heavily in its navy.

Four other Indo-Pacific countries need to be considered in the context of strategic competition with China. Japan and South Korea, the world’s third and tenth economic powers respectively are strong allies of the US. However, they may not be willing partners in containing China beyond a certain point. Understandably, like America’s European allies, they would prioritize their interests as regional powers. Australia is more likely to follow Washington’s lead.

By contrast, another regional country, North Korea, already a nuclear power waiting for the certification of its status, would continue to lean heavily on China.

India, the world’s sixth-largest economy is a huge country with a population of 1.4 billion. It is nuclear power. Despite occasional border confrontations, the last one being the deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, Beijing and New Delhi are keen to prevent such incidents from turning into a wider conflict.

A link on India’s Ministry of External Affairs website says that bilateral ties with Russia are a key pillar of India’s foreign policy and that India sees Russia as a longstanding and time-tested friend that has played a significant role in its economic development and security. India has been criticized by some for not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reflecting the sentiment among many nations, this was what India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in a recent interview: “… Somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but world’s problems are not Europe’s problems…”

It seems that if the West were to continue with its criticism directed against those “sitting on the fence”, pandora’s box of its colonial past would be opened

Last Thursday, President Putin took the world stage for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, at the virtual BRICS summit hosted by Beijing.

The XIV. BRICS Summit Beijing Declaration says that in the past 16 years, upholding the BRICS spirit featuring mutual respect and understanding, equality, solidarity, openness, inclusiveness, and consensus, BRICS countries have strengthened mutual trust, deepened intra-BRICS mutually beneficial cooperation, and closer people-to-people exchanges that have led to a series of significant outcomes. It reiterates the importance of further enhancing solidarity and cooperation based on common interests and key priorities, to further strengthen the strategic partnership of the BRICS countries. [i]

At first glance, the Declaration has a lot that would appeal to the Western audience like the call for the respect of democracy and human rights. However, the words used have somewhat other meanings.

This is what the 75-paragraph Declaration said about Ukraine:

“22. We have discussed the situation in Ukraine and recall our national positions as expressed at the appropriate fora, namely the UNSC and UNGA. We support talks between Russia and Ukraine. We have also discussed our concerns over the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine and expressed our support to efforts of the UN Secretary-General, UN Agencies and ICRC to provide humanitarian assistance in accordance with the basic principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality established in UN General Assembly resolution 46/182.”

Engaged in strategic competition with China and Russia is the US, still the world’s largest economy and leading military power with allies and military bases across the world but facing multiple challenges at home, polarization topping the list. After four years with President Trump at the White House, the US is continuing to restore confidence among its European allies but AUKUS and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan were not reassuring experiences. Moreover, US domestic politics look far from settled worrying allies.

To sum up, with the post-Cold War years behind, the world is not moving toward a consensus-based “global order” but a period of greater uncertainty. [ii]

I have always held the view that today’s major powers are unable to undertake “decisive interventions” in the immediate periphery of the other two. I do not believe that the Western response to the Russian onslaught against Ukraine changes that. Because in the end, unfortunately, Ukraine would again suffer the loss of territory. Yes, the Western support has helped Ukrainians to prevent the Russian takeover of their entire country enabling them and the West to say that President Putin’s special military operation proved a failure. But this was because Ukraine borders NATO members and thus received important supplies of arms and ammunition. Taiwan and Hong Kong do not border Washington’s Asian allies who would not wish to get involved in a military conflict with China to start with.

In this new era of incertitude, proxy wars would continue. Economic sanctions and hybrid warfare would likely characterize strategic competition undermining global economic growth and impacting the developing countries more than the others. If military tensions in critical regions were to rise, nuclear proliferation will become a major challenge since several countries already enjoy the capability to go nuclear not in years but months. This is why effective multilateralism through dialogue and compartmentalization of differences remains the only path to global peace and stability.

Last Thursday, in a welcome development, Ukraine and Moldova were given candidate status by the EU. But, as we know well in Türkiye, this comes at a price. My guess is Kyiv has been “strongly advised” to engage in diplomacy with Russia to end the war.

As for Türkiye, last week Ankara witnessed yet another foreign policy U-turn by warmly welcoming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince MBS with full protocol reserved for heads of state.

In the meantime, there is no progress in the diplomatic efforts to have the Turkish government withdraw its objections to Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership before the Madrid summit. On the one hand, most Western nations now regard Turkey as a nominal ally, a troublemaker. On the other hand, Turks are deeply frustrated with their allies’ longtime anti-Türkiye bias across the spectrum. During the past decade, the government has only encouraged this sentiment which is to last. In a nutshell, Ankara’s relations with the US and the EU are at their lowest point ever. Thus, emboldened by the current state of affairs, Türkiye’s audacious eurasianists who have little interest in or have given up our nation’s quest for democracy are now arguing that it is time to exit NATO.

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[i] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202206/t20220623_10709037.html#:~:text=We%20reaffirm%20our%20commitment%20to%20a%20world%20free%20of%20nuclear,of%20the%20Conference%20on%20Disarmament.

[ii] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2021/05/10/the-rules-based-international-order/

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