Changing Alliances & the Still Emerging New Order
SOURCE: ARAB AMERICAN INSTITUTE
BY: DR. JAMES J. ZOGBY
There are significant realignments taking place across the globe. Old alliances appear to be experiencing stress or outright fractures, while new ones are being born. Media commentary on these developments too often takes a microscopic view, focusing on individual conflicts or shifting alliances without historical context. Seen through this myopic lens, the shifts that are occurring are presented in overly dramatic terms. However, if we take a step back and look through the long lens of history, we see that the last century has, if anything, been characterized by dizzying twists and turns of nations and power blocs that have occurred from the end of the First World War to the present day. In this light, the change we are witnessing isn’t so much the “Doomsday” end of some sacred “world order” (as this particular “world order” has only been in existence for a few decades). Rather, what we are seeing is just another reordering of nations based on evolving priorities and changing realities. A look at the last century is instructive.
The First World War concluded with Western Europe as an ascendant power bloc. At the 1920 San Remo Conference, these nations arrogantly divided up among themselves the “spoils” of that war, consolidating their control over much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The United States, which absented itself from these proceedings, was left as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, with extensions of its “empire” into the Pacific.
While that war had been dubbed “the war to end all wars,” three factors contributed to unraveling the post-WWI order leading to another World War: the punishing economic hardships imposed on Germany helped to fuel an extreme nationalist backlash leading to an aggressive, racist regime bent on revenge; the Communist revolution beginning in Russia, laid the foundation for the ascent of the Soviet Union; and the rapid growth of industrial Japan coupled with an extreme religio-nationalism led them to seek greater influence in the Pacific.
The end of World War II left the former Western European powers in a weakened state — their economies in shambles, dependent on American support and largesse. With its decisive victories over Nazi Germany and Japan, and its expanding economy, the US emerged from the war with an even stronger role as leader of the West. At the same time, Soviet Russia moved quickly to consolidate its control over the countries in Eastern Europe that had been ravaged by Nazi Germany. As the colonial empires of the West were crumbling, their demise was hastened by Soviet support for “national liberation movements” which in a few decades led to the independence of nations across Africa and Asia and the emergence of a “non-aligned movement” — which, though functionally anti-West, was technically unaffiliated with the two superpowers.
From the 1950s onward, for at least three decades, the world order was dominated by these two hegemons — the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — who engaged in a Cold War, which was often characterized by “hot” conflicts fought by surrogates for these two powers. During this same time, both the US and the USSR suffered humiliating and exhausting defeats — the US in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan — which weakened but did not completely end their respective roles.
When the Soviet Union did collapse at the end of the 1980s, the US emerged, for a time, as the world’s dominant military and economic force. That lasted for a decade until American hubris led to its unraveling. The Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate American power and usher in an expansion of “pro- US liberal democracies” across the Middle East produced the opposite result. Instead of securing “an American century,” those wars left the US exhausted and demoralized. And instead of consolidating America’s hegemonic role in the “new world order” these wars bred resentment of American arrogance and violations of international law, fueled the growth of extremist movements, and emboldened regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the Arab Gulf States) and global powers (the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China) to extend their influence in defense of their own interests.
The US’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have revealed new contours in the changing world order. While the US and many of its allies in Western Europe have imposed punitive sanctions on Russia, that country has countered these sanctions by demanding that its significant fuel and grain exports be traded in rubles, bolstering their value. And many nations, including American allies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have either not agreed to sanction Russia or are supporting its war in Ukraine.
While the US and Russia are exhausting themselves and depleting their political capital in wars they can’t win, another critical development has been taking place. As a result of decades of exporting American industry, jobs, and technology to China, that country has slowly become an economic giant. And while America is struggling to impose itself in regions of the world where its influence is waning, China has made major investments in these same countries in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. As a result, China, once called a “sleeping giant,” has quietly and non-confrontationally emerged as a new influential pole in the still-forming new world order.
Everywhere we look, new alliances are being formed in recognition of rapidly changing power dynamics. Countries that once relied on the US for security and investment have formed new blocs, as they pursue their own national interests. There are trade pacts in Asia centered around China. In the Middle East, some Arab countries have signed far-reaching agreements with Israel, China, and India. And many of the BRIC countries have refused to honor Western sanctions against Russia.
The US and its Western allies still have enormous economic and political assets; it would be foolish to count them out of the game. But clearly the game that is unfolding isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago. A new order is emerging and there is no certainty about what it will look like 20 years from now. This should come as no surprise; any review of the past century’s twists and turns make clear that despite the ethnocentric or ideological hubris of those who, at different times, have dominated, change is the one constant.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.