It’s been a noisy, tumultuous summer around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Hong Kong – briefly shutting the city’s international airport – in a remarkable challenge to Beijing’s power. Crowds have also marched through Moscow, rattling the Kremlin with their call for free elections. Wars blaze on in Syria and Yemen, tensions are ominously high in the Persian Gulf, and an unchecked North Korea has launched a new flurry of missiles.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided this chaotic moment in history was the right time to strip the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir of its autonomy, touching off a dangerous war of words with neighbouring Pakistan. It was just the latest example – after Russia’s seizure of Crimea five years ago, and U.S. recognition this year of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights – of a regional power moving to change the facts of a long-standing conflict. In doing so, Mr. Modi joined Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in pursuing what they see as their countries’ vital national interests – while disregarding what used to be considered international norms.
Amid the global cacophony was a very significant silence: Scroll through U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed – the megaphone of the world’s most powerful man – and you’ll find little in the way of support for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and Moscow or criticism of India’s move in Kashmir.
Instead of trying to play the old U.S. role of global policeman, Mr. Trump floated a border change proposal of his own – suggesting that the United States could purchase Greenland – then took offence when Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen dismissed it as “an absurd discussion.” It was easy to chuckle at the Trump-induced spat. But the underlying thinking – that borders can be changed without consulting the people who live there – reveals how the old rules of international relations have vanished.
“A new era has begun,” Mr. Modi declared in the wake of his Aug. 5 announcement, which effectively made the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir – a predominantly Muslim region that spans the border between India and Pakistan and which the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought two wars over, clashing as recently as 1999 – into just another Indian state. But Mr. Modi’s remark applied far beyond South Asia.
Almost three years after the election of the isolationist Mr. Trump, it’s more obvious than ever that the unipolar, U.S.-led world we lived in for a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War is over. It’s not yet clear what will take its place. “We’re seeing an unwind of the international order,” said Ian Bremmer, the head of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based international risk consultancy. And the multiplying crises around the world, he said, were “symptoms of what happens when a geopolitical order ends but we don’t have a new one emerging.”
The sudden void has left countries such as Canada, which felt comfortable and safe under the previous system, stumbling to figure out where it’s now safe to stand. Even the old architecture is disappearing, with Mr. Trump pulling the U.S. out of everything from trade and environmental treaties to arms-control pacts. He has also questioned the utility of two keystones of Canadian foreign policy, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while the European Union, another stalwart Canadian friend, is for the most part too consumed with its own problems to project itself on the international scene.
The disorder will be on display this weekend as the Group of Seven countries gathers in Biarritz, France, where disagreements over how to handle everything from Brexit to the Iran nuclear deal – combined with Mr. Trump’s penchant for the unpredictable – have meant there will no joint statement at the end of the annual gathering for the first time since 1975.
Canada’s Liberal government has been slow in recognizing how much the ground under its feet has shifted. The past 12 months have seen Ottawa wander into barbed diplomatic disputes, first with Saudi Arabia and now China, simply by standing up for concepts once proclaimed to be “universal” – human rights, the rule of law – to which Riyadh and Beijing no longer even feign deference.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a pre-election foreign-policy speech this week, said the rise of nationalist and populist forces around the globe had created “a more unpredictable and unstable world, where some have chosen to step away from the mantle of global leadership, even as others challenge the institutions and principles that have shaped the international order.”
Historic parallels are imperfect because the advent of technology has dramatically changed the nature of everything from warfare to the way governments relate to their citizens. Non-state actors, from terrorist groups to social-media companies, are also more powerful than they’ve ever been (witness this week’s move by Twitter and Facebook to expose – and shut down – an alleged online effort by the Chinese government to sow dissent among the Hong Kong protesters).
But the growing international disorder nonetheless sparks comparisons to the prewar periods of the previous century. “Anyone who looks at the news today has to realize that we’re getting closer to one or two of these things boiling over,” Mr. Bremmer said, pointing to Kashmir, the Persian Gulf and the escalating tensions in East Asia as three of the most dangerous flashpoints. “Given that the world is now going into an economic slowdown, [the instability] is certainly going to intensify.”
The United States’ withdrawal from the international stage, of course, began before Mr. Trump’s 2016 run for the White House. He is a symptom and an accelerant – take, for example, his claim in late July that Mr. Modi had asked him to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which infuriated Indian hardliners and put pressure on Mr. Modi to act. However, Mr. Trump is not, by himself, the cause of his country’s growing isolationism.
Barack Obama was president when Mr. Putin made his game-changing grab for Crimea, a move that exposed the limits of U.S. and Western power. It was also Mr. Obama who decided that the U.S. – exhausted by the long war in Afghanistan and the unnecessary one in Iraq – should not intervene in Syria, an abstention that allowed Russia and Iran to step forward and shape the conflict instead.
“You don’t have a West that asserts itself as a global leader, at least not as it did under previous [U.S.] administrations, as the U.S. has portrayed itself since the Second World War,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. In the vacuum, what Mr. Dorsey called “autocrats, authoritarians and illiberals” have risen, each seeing themselves as the leader of something larger than their nation state. These regional powers feel able to pursue aggressive, even expansionist, agendas without fear of serious repercussions.
Mr. Dorsey sees a “civilizational” world emerging in which China and India dominate their smaller neighbours in East and South Asia and where Russia can pursue Mr. Putin’s ambition of restoring Moscow’s hegemony over the countries of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. will focus its attention more narrowly on the Americas, while Europe – the force that often dragged Washington away from its isolationist impulses – is distracted by Brexit and other internal challenges, such as the rise of populism across the continent. (Italy, which saw its government collapse this week, sparking concerns that far-right leader Matteo Salvini could make a play for the prime minister’s job, is only the latest example.)
The Middle East, as usual, remains contested ground, the place where world powers do much of their jousting. What’s remarkable today is the number of interested players. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar – all of them nominal U.S. allies that no longer see a need to defer to Washington – are pursuing separate and contradictory agendas in the region. That has led to clashes between their political allies and proxy armies in places such as Libya, where Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have backed an insurgent army that’s trying to oust the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, which has received military support from Turkey and Qatar.
The chaos resulting from every state acting independently is also on display in Yemen, where the UAE – after four years of fighting as part of a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels – abruptly withdrew its forces last month, leading to clashes on the ground between pro-Saudi forces and a militia that had previously been loyal to the UAE. The withdrawal was believed to have been motivated by security worries closer to home, specifically rising tensions with Iran.
Iran, for its part, is engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken that has already seen oil tankers attacked and a U.S. military drone destroyed over the Persian Gulf by an Iranian missile. Mr. Trump said after the drone incident that he was “five minutes” away from ordering retaliatory missile strikes but changed his mind after considering how many people would die. Both the U.S. and Iran say they don’t want war, but the chance of a miscalculation that leads to exactly that remains dangerously high.
Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and Iran all have troops on the ground in Syria, each of them fighting for very different goals, while Israel pursues its own agenda through occasional airstrikes. Earlier this summer, Russia and Turkey appeared to take a step closer to each other – and in Turkey’s case, a big step away from its NATO allies – when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government purchased advanced Russian-made air-defence systems. But any warming between Moscow and Ankara was frozen this week when a Turkish military column was bombed by the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad as it moved into Idlib province, a part of northern Syria under the control of Turkish-backed rebels.
Each of the many antagonists has a very specific agenda in Syria, while none has a credible vision of how to bring peace to the country after more than eight years of war.
Peacemaking is the area where U.S. disinterest is most strongly felt. For the past four decades – since the groundbreaking 1979 treaty that ended the state of war between Egypt and Israel – it has been the White House that brokered and underwrote peace in the region. But the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century,” which putatively aims to tackle the thorniest of the region’s problems – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – has been dismissed out-of-hand (and before the details are fully known) by most Middle East observers as lopsidedly pro-Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States, under Mr. Trump, is no longer capable of playing its previous role as the region’s “honest broker.”
After decades of setting the agenda through a seemingly unbeatable combination of soft power and military might, Washington is now seen as just another party pursuing its own narrow agenda in the region.
“The U.S. is no longer the reference point that everyone looks to,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs institute. “The American administration is mostly focused on domestic issues in the U.S., and trade relations, but it’s definitely not interested in the Middle East – other than supporting Israel and putting pressure on Iran.”
Ms. Khatib said the U.S., rather than policing rogue actors as it did in the past, is now abetting the sense of lawlessness in the region and beyond.
“When the U.S. doesn’t do anything about Kashmir, or when the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital even though it flies in the face of the United Nations, this gives the green light to actors to do what they want without fear of any repercussions.”
Once-solid alliances are falling apart in East Asia, too, where an escalating dispute between Japan and South Korea – seeded in unresolved Second World War grievances – has seen each side strike the other from its list of trusted trading partners. South Korea has said it may next cancel its long-standing intelligence sharing with Japan, a not-insubstantial threat at a time when North Korea has resumed its provocative missile tests, conducting six launches in the past month alone.
The biggest winners in this international disorder are arguably Mr. Putin’s Russia and President Xi Jinping’s China.
Five years on from the annexation of Crimea – even as Moscow stands accused of directing both a separatist army in eastern Ukraine and disinformation campaigns aimed at provoking social discord in the West – the conversation in much of Europe is over how and when to end the economic sanctions the West has had in place against Russia since the events of 2014. The sanctions have damaged both sides, the argument goes, without causing any discernible change in the Kremlin’s behaviour.
Ahead of the G7 meeting in France, Mr. Trump said – not for the first time – that he favours expanding the club to re-admit Russia, which was expelled after the takeover of Crimea.
Beijing, meanwhile, apparently feels free to indefinitely keep as many as a million of its Muslim citizens in “re-education” camps, likely because the West and the Islamic world have made only statements of concern, without attaching any serious costs to Beijing’s mass internment of its Uyghur minority.
China – similar to Russia, Israel and India – has also been establishing new facts on the ground, quite literally, in the South China Sea. It has built artificial islands, and erected military bases on them, to enforce its claim to the entire body of water, which borders half a dozen countries and contains some of the world’s busiest trading routes.
Hong Kong – and the question of whether and how to restore order there – looms as the next test for Mr. Xi, but of all the factors he has to consider, the reaction of the international community is at best a secondary consideration.
Yu Jie, a Chatham House senior research fellow on China, said Mr. Xi would be more worried about pleasing the domestic Chinese audience – which is deeply split between hard-line Communists, who want to see a crackdown on the demonstrations, and a business community that is alarmed about the repercussions of Beijing sending security forces into the semi-autonomous trading hub.
China’s rise as an economic, military and diplomatic superpower has meant the country is less concerned about ruffling feathers abroad – in part because the West, which young Chinese people used to idealize, now looks far less impressive as a model. (Chinese students studying in Britain, Australia and Canada have attended protests calling for Beijing to restore “stability” in Hong Kong.)
“China’s younger generation no longer feels themselves subject to the criticism of the international community,” Ms. Yu said. “They’ve travelled in the West and they see the West doesn’t set a good example of democracy, that the West doesn’t have a good story to tell.”
That’s part of the reason, she said, that this week’s joint Canada-EU statement on the situation in Hong Kong – which called on China to respect “fundamental freedoms, including the right of peaceful assembly, and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy" – was easily swatted aside by Beijing. Many ordinary Chinese no longer believe the West has the moral authority to make such statements about their country, and many likely appreciate their government’s tough response.
The U.S. was also very notably absent as a signatory to the Canada-EU intervention.
“The unipolar moment seems to be over, and what China seems to be trying to do is reshape the debate,” Ms. Yu said. In a multipolar world, the question is no longer about whether “fundamental freedoms” are being respected; the issue is who has and who doesn’t have a right to weigh in on a crisis unfolding on Beijing’s doorstep, far away from Ottawa and Brussels.
A few years ago – before the rise of Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi – the working assumption was that as China rose as a superpower, it would take on more responsibilities on the international stage, with Beijing and Washington making up an informal “G2” that would become the most important relationship in the world.
The concept of a G2 was based on the assumption that the economies of China and the U.S. were so intertwined that their leaders would realize the need to work together to solve international problems. The election of Mr. Trump – and the trade war he launched against Beijing – has upended that thinking and left the U.S. and China looking like two regional powers, pursing their own agendas when and where they see fit.
With the U.S. heading into a presidential election next year, many will be watching to see whether Mr. Trump’s rivals can oust him from the White House and, if so, whether the next president will seek to reverse course and restore some of the his country’s lost leadership.
But even a new president would struggle – even if they wanted to try – to undo the new facts on the ground in Crimea, the Golan and Kashmir. They’d also find themselves outnumbered on the international stage by nationalist populists such as Mr. Putin, Mr. Modi, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Xi.
“Trump is just a symptom,” Mr. Dorsey, of the S. Rajaratnam School, said. “You have, almost globally, an unravelling of confidence in the system and unravelling of confidence in the leadership. … It’s very dangerous. I think it’s a recipe for an unstable, more violent, more discriminatory world.”
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