By Munir Akram
February 7th, 2016
HENRY Kissinger’s last book World Order could more aptly have been entitled ‘World Disorder’. As he observes, there has never been a ‘world order’. Today, in a globalised world, as disparate civilisations meet in the midst of a historic transition from Western domination to multi-polarity, constructing a world order has become an existential compulsion. However, the challenges in the way of achieving this are complex and daunting.
The most significant evolution under way is the multifaceted relationship between a powerful yet anxious America and a rising China. The Greek historian, Thucydides, posited the inevitability of conflict between a ruling and a rising power. Kissinger lists 15 such instances in history of which 10 led to conflict.
Hopefully, given the significant interdependence between the US and China and their convergence of interest on myriad regional and global issues, such as climate change and sustainable development, they will be able to avoid the Thucydides trap.
However, the points of friction and rivalry are growing: the US-led alliances around China’s periphery; US intervention in China’s maritime disputes; the emerging Sino-US naval rivalry; competing trade pacts and development institutions. The ‘muscular’ rhetoric of US Republican candidates is matched by a Beijing leadership which is no longer willing to ‘hide’ China’s strength or tolerate challenges to its vital interests. A Cold War looms over Asia.
This Asian Cold War may well be accompanied by a revived one in Europe.
The Western- engineered ouster of the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime crossed Putin’s red line. Moscow’s response, including the takeover of Crimea and “protection” of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, was predictable.
Putin is unlikely to be cowed by economic punishment. Historically, the Russians have a high threshold for suffering. Confrontation will yield actions like Moscow’s intervention in Syria. The US will quadruple military spending in Europe and deploy a full brigade on Russia’s borders, provoking Moscow without changing the military balance. Unless the more measured approach of German and French leaders avoids a mutually debilitating confrontation, tensions could lead to a conflict by accident or miscalculation.
Apart from the confrontation with Russia, Europe faces economic stagnation; massive migration and political division.
After almost a decade, Europe remains mired in economic stagnation. The common currency, which was supposed to integrate Europe into a robust economic area, has instead constrained the ability of its weaker economies to revive growth. Greece may yet be forced to leave the eurozone. The economic recession, the failure to integrate minorities and the large Muslim influx have led to the sharp rise of racial discrimination and neo-fascist parties in Europe. The schism between West and East Europe has become more visible. Resistance is growing to European institutions, and to the very idea of the European Union. Britain will shortly hold a referendum whether to stay in the EU.
Many Europeans see economic salvation in a closer relationship with China. Inevitably, this will require normalisation with Russia and weaken the transatlantic ties with the US. Europe’s strategic role is no longer clear.
The numerous internal and inter-state conflicts raging across the Muslim world today signify the final collapse of the West’s colonial legacy. Within the Muslim world, the forces of the status quo, of the modernisers, and ‘Islamists’ are vying for supremacy. The most extreme among them seek to impose their vision by force and violence. Each of these three competing forces often overlap and are themselves divided into factions and subgroups.
The past and on-going involvement of foreign powers has intensified, complicated and prolonged the internal struggles within Islamic countries.
The revival of the geopolitical rivalry between Shia Iran, and its allies, and Sunni Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and other Sunni powers, like Turkey, has intensified Muslim conflicts militarily and strengthened ideologically motivated groups on both sides.
In many ways, Islam’s wars today resemble the Thirty Years War in 17th-century Europe. That war was ended by the negotiated Peace of Westphalia, constructed through a balance of European powers and agreement to allow each power to impose its own religious order within its territory. Today, the Muslim world needs its own version of a Westphalian peace which accommodates the essential interests of the major Islamic states and builds a new post-colonial regional security order within the Muslim world. Reliance on external powers will not produce sustainable peace in the Islamic world.
Solutions to the world’s concurrent conflicts are made more difficult by the nature of modern combat. Today, the military capabilities of the major and some minor powers are enormous. Since this makes direct conflict between these powers unthinkable, most conflicts now are a combination of conventional, clandestine and irregular warfare. The calculus of military strength and the determination of victory or defeat is more complex. It is impossible to reach political settlements when the warring parties are unclear if and when they are winning or losing.
Most of the conflicts around the world, domestic and inter-state, are the direct or indirect consequence of either injustice or poverty. Despite the United Nations Charter and numerous international prescriptions, injustice against the weak remains the global norm. An effective and impartial mechanism to ensure the just resolution of disputes is a critical prerequisite for the settlement of current and future conflicts.
The technology and capital are now available to end world poverty and remove the most pervasive cause of conflict. Unfortunately, greed stands in the way. The world is more unequal today than ever before in history. Half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1pc of its population.
Constructing a world order, and preventing global chaos, will not prove possible unless the major powers can be persuaded to fully support and facilitate the endeavours of the United Nations and other impartial mechanisms to address and overcome the enormous challenges to security and development.
The next UN secretary general must lead the way in addressing these challenges.
Munir Akram is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.