The return of great power politics?

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 18 May 2017, 21:26:53

The return of great power politics?

Anyone following 20th Century trends and developments will automatically realise every country needs another to 'tango' with, whether it is an ally or adversary. The balance of power system until 1939 was built upon it. Bluntly put, 'America first' is lip service going nowhere, writes Imtiaz A. Hussain
"From this day forward," as the 45th US president alerted us, "it is going to be only 'America first'." Donald J. Trump might have spoken out of turn, but with no complaints. In 2017, when he spoke, and indeed, thus far in the 21st Century, this proposal has made sense: the United States struggles to keep pace with the global economic pace-setters, or to decisively overcome military challenges abroad. Lamenting such a loss presages the clamour to climb again. Yet, going alone makes no sense beyond pride and patriotism when partnerships produce better results in routine trade and investments, and agreements.

Trump's four immediate predecessors recognised that. George W. Bush downsized regional partnerships for global: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, one of the triggers of the 1990s economic boom), and the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA)  gave way to his global "with us or against us" crusade; Barack Obama played encore by extending the US 'pivot' to Asia; Bill Clinton, reversed his own party's reluctant NAFTA position by implementing it, thus making 'America' a collective identity from the one it unilaterally usurped previously; and George H. W. Bush sought 'a new world' based on a cosmopolitan Kantian democracy over a single superpower claim. Trump would do well to learn the lessons from these.

At stake is global leadership. Unfortunately, global leadership lost its punch under a single superpower regime from about 1990: with the Soviet Union as an adversary until then, the global system enjoyed stability in spite of numerous and constant local conflicts. This was the reason why it was called the Cold War: the heavyweights did not engage each other directly. Yet, after 1990, local conflicts, still riddling the international system, now directly threaten those heavyweights.

As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, hell's angels let loose, softly, silently, but with significant results. On the one hand, by resurrecting democracy, the New World Order made the United States its gatekeeper; yet a generation later, democracy is withering, within the United States no less, as authoritarian tendencies thrive. On another, the dawning neo-liberal order drove many countries towards (rather than to) free trade agreements from their protectionist safety-zone anchors; yet, today's populism in many developed countries (the key global importers), challenges liberalism from within.

From a third view, emerging 'soft power' was set to tame the resort to 'hard power'; yet, hard power is back with a vengeance today, if Indian, Israeli, North Korean, Pakistani, and Russian military expenditures, among others, are any guide. Similarly, a fourth appraisal indicates, in spite of hard power, low-intensity conflict (guerrilla, terror) steals the headlines, inspired by the Taliban, Islamic State, gangsters, and narco-traffickers challenging or replacing the traditional state.

None of the above destabilising sources can be tackled with superpower paraphernalia (traditional military hardware, nuclear third-strike capability). Subduing terrorism requires special forces, not an army division, while soft power, economic power, and democracy can only be quashed by superior soft power, economic power, and democratic performances, respectively. A single superpower can no longer fit into this post-1990 era without a similarly constituted adversary: it must pick up its marbles, go home, and return with a new, low-profiled play-kit or atrophy by continuing to build unnecessary top-heavy tools.

Trump's deduction was spot-on, but his prescription was problematic. Anyone following 20th Century trends and developments will automatically realise every country needs another to 'tango' with, whether it is an ally or adversary. The balance of power system until 1939 was built upon it, as too all subsequent regimes: superpower rivalry between 1945 and 1990, single superpower since then, and all the multiple tangential above-mentioned forces nibbling away at the single superpower since 1990. Bluntly put, 'America first' is lip service going nowhere. In 100-odd days, even Trump may have realised that, if his desperate China courtship is any guide.

What it does mean is that great power politics is back from its generation-long hibernation. The United States needs China, at the very least to control North Korea without a conflict (otherwise, the world would become even more unstable). Yet, by not seizing Angela Merkel's White House visit, Germany, once its closest allies since 1945, was left dangling. Adroit in great power politics, Merkel met the hitherto Russian noise-making outcast, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi, for a great power handshake. This was a huge improvement given the lesser entities he was playing with: Reccep Erdogan's Turkey, Hassan Rouhani's Iran, and an occasional Arab leader or two (since they, too, face Islamic State threats); and, of course, an Ukrainian gateway unpalatably created to return to the lost East Europe theatre. When Merkel categorically rejected any new arrangements to replace the September 2014 Minsk Protocol over Ukraine with Russia, Putin knew his stock market value had soared beyond Russia's weight. As both sides confirmed many unresolved issues would remain unresolved, at least for now, but German dependence on Russian energy being almost as bad as Russia's need for an Atlantic ally, the new partnership was worth its weight in gold.

The great power story gets more tantalising. With Britain's decision to leave the European Union, that global great power game has gotten back its favourite 'balancer'. Anticipating precisely that outcome after Brexit, Merkel's Russian card became more lucrative; and she spoke for the entire continental West Europe. France, very much like Trump's United States, does not have a choice: without serious rivalry abroad and a sinking domestic feeling against populist pressures, great powers cannot but find partnerships abroad to survive this lean period. None can afford to go to war, regardless of machismo posturing and rhetoric, and instigating others to fertilize the terrain, as Putin has shrewdly done, from Ukraine to Turkey, then across the Caucasia to Iran, can only be pursued for so long and stretched only so far.

How Putin came out of the cold should be required reading for Trump. China is Trump's one option that should not fail: it neither reneges, and if the ball game is both economic and for the long term, it may be the cleanest devil to hold hands with to cross choppy economic waters. Patience and Trump have thus far made incorrigible company; but with a more calibrated, rather than off-the-cuff, policy approach, Trump stands to harvest Britain's Theresa May's renewed interest in the non-European world and get the great power juices flowing in the same way it did a century ago. Then it was Britain, France, and a reluctant and belated United States against Austria and Germany. Today Germany-led Europe and Russia face a fulcrum of the United States-Japan-India combination, with China and Britain sliding into 'balancer' roles.

Though not too far-fetched, the above scenario still must be placed within perspectives. First, each of the above great powers have satellites of their own, some of them too undisciplined and disruptive, as Turkey for Russia. This may divert attention from the biggest game in the 'global town': the emerging high-end rivalry. Second, though economic viability seems to be the name of the dominant current game, if 'bad' turns to 'worse', every player is ready to jump ship, donning their nationalistic and military armour in the process. In such a slippery circumstance, partnerships serve as anchor. Third, the domestic milieu has become a more unpredictable great power setting than ever before: playing the façade game of democracy, each of the above great powers can stoop low enough to pluck populism as and when needed for global rivalry purposes. No leader can say they were not warned. Finally, though the post-Cold War roller-coaster ride is set to continue, the only difference from this point in the 21st Century on will be the more realistically reflective regime of great powers than a single superpower.

Though the United States is poised to remain 'great', with so many contenders now, partnering rather than ranking them may better reflect realities.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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