Geopolitics

Why The Whole World Looks Like Africa, And How To Fix It

Too many nations and peoples with too many grievances. A wealth divide that grows deeper. A new (new) world order is needed, with the U.S. and China firmly in charge.

Anti-government protests last year in Thailand
Anti-government protests last year in Thailand
Dominique Moïsi

-Analysis-


PARIS â€" Armed tension is once again rising on Europe's eastern front. But has it ever really been absent? To the south, ISIS is growing and expanding its territory. The latest G7 summit in Bavaria raised more questions than it answered, but it could hardly have been otherwise. Its origins and composition were always intended to solve geo-economic rather than geopolitical issues.

Our current world order lacks any kind of real order, one that's either legitimate or clearly imposes itself on nations and institutions. The ideal of "peace through international law" is as elusive as it's ever been, and "peace through empire" no longer exists because there is no emperor.

If we are to try and repair fractures, our first imperative is to understand the world's complexity. The starting point is to explain the collapse, rebirth and weakening of four empires.

To the south and east of its borders, Europe finds itself facing the far-reaching and direct consequences of the collapse of both the Ottoman empire and the Soviet Union. The entire Asian continent is destabilized by the rebirth of a Chinese empire that intends to translate its economic success into geopolitical influence, or instead compensate for its growth slowdown by ramping up nationalism. But the dominating factor, and one that unites all the others, comes from the weakening of a fourth empire, if the U.S. can indeed by called an "Imperial Republic," as French philosopher and historian Raymond Aron once characterized it.

Beyond this global Game of Scales, the weakening of the U.S. paradoxically has been accompanied by a questioning of the multilateralism Washington had gradually come to support, albeit reluctantly. Of course, the inability to change the UN Security Council's composition contributed to the system's paralysis, or at least to its legitimacy being questioned, but it's far from being its sole cause.

In the aftermath of the independence wave that followed a de-colonizing Africa, some commentators lamented that there were "too many states," and all too often states that were entirely artificial. We could argue that the world has become like Africa. We've become the victims of a process tying identity and national sovereignty too closely together, resulting in too many countries originating from fallen empires and, among them, too many failing or dysfunctional ones, from Somalia to Macedonia.

The world's have-nots

Global instability has also been exacerbated by the explosion of inequality around the world. Wealth gaps continue to grow, both between countries and inside countries, creating a world that's both more fragile and less legitimate. How can we claim to be working for the greater good when so few have so much, when a growing number of people have so little, and when this acute reality is there for the whole world to see?

Defending the G20 in London in 2009. Photo: Charlotte Gilhooly

The question is how can we re-create a world order in which there is a new balance between legitimacy and power. It seems to me that there are three possibilities, and they complement one another more than it might seem.

First, perhaps we should move away from any world order at all. Since the end of World War II, the global system has been bipolar (U.S.-USSR), unipolar (U.S.) and, in the last decade, nonpolar. Wouldn't it make sense first to establish a new form of bipolarity between the only two countries that possess both the means and the ambition to play such a role â€" that is, the U.S. and China?

Europe isn't ready (yet?) to contribute to the operation of a multipolar world. Russia is disordered and doesn't have the goods to back up its ambitions. India, Japan and Brazil, meanwhile, are great powers, but only regionally.

True, a bipolar order around the U.S. and China wouldn't be a panacea. The U.S. possesses a resilience and a set of structural advantages in terms of values and creativity that China lacks. This alliance, at best, would be an asymmetrical bipolarity with the advantage of forcing Washington and Beijing to admit that they're not alone anymore and that power and responsibility go hand in hand.

But there is also the issue of values. In late 18th-century Europe, Kant and Rousseau believed that lack of democracy was the main cause of war. But today, wouldn't it be more appropriate to suggest that too little rule of law is ultimately the main source of world disorder, if not chaos?

The rise of inequality and corruption push too many countries down the path of nationalism in its most revengeful form, as a shield against dissent. "Your living conditions are always worse, but be proud that your country's recovered its greatness," they seem to say. "And if you're poor, it's not your fault. It's the fault of them, and their sanctions!"

We could also circumvent the UN's paralysis by granting the G20, an institution that's far from being perfect but is at least more representative of the world's reality, enough power to give it institutional legitimacy. These are, of course, mere ideas and possibilities, but they deserve a good hard look.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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