The Year the World Began to Fragment

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed a geopolitical trend that has largely held steady into the present day. That is, the United States became the world’s sole superpower: with a national economy of unparalleled size, a military of unprecedented global reach, and the political capital to intervene in regional affairs to a far greater extent than had been previously possible. Likewise, cosmopolitan philosophies also experienced their own awakening: the UN began seriously expanding its role in world affairs, the World Trade Organization was created, and humanitarian issues began to be taken seriously as a subject unto themselves without being hijacked by national politics, as had usually been the case in the past. These trends of a dominant national power and expanded global governance complemented each other in spite of their divergences. The United States was no longer at risk of being upended by a rival nation and, as such, could afford to underwrite the expansion of global governance without having to abide by its rules. Likewise, the dominance of the United States created an environment in which it was easier for globalists to subordinate regional and national interests in favour of their own. This trend, for all of its flaws, has played a key role in promoting global economic prosperity and has almost eliminated interstate war in the process. It is also a trend whose long term weaknesses were on full display this year.

Image courtesy of Axel Kristinsson,© 2015, some rights reserved.

If 1991 was the year that globalism overcame geopolitics, 2014 was the year the nation-state fought back. Most fittingly perhaps, it was the year of Vladimir Putin, heir to the state whose fall brought about this current era, and who is now working tirelessly to deconstruct the status quo. Appealing to a dormant Russian nationalism that had been stewing for decades, Putin has made Russia a nation to be feared again, revitalizing its military power and pursuing confrontation with the West at every opportunity. While his quest to restore Russia’s empire may be a bit quixotic due to the material limitations of the Russian nation, he has nevertheless succeeded in exposing the emptiness of post-Cold War rhetoric. The Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed the protection of Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for their nuclear disarmament has become a bitter joke and a reminder of what happens to a country that neglects its own defence and relies on outside assurances. NATO as a whole has been exposed as the paper tiger it has been for two decades as it now scrambles to convince reticent Europeans and disengaged Americans to strengthen its virtually non-existent defence preparations for Eastern Europe.

Of course, for all of NATO’s recent rhetoric, it is highly unlikely that Europe will be able to unite in the face of a Russian threat given the unwinding of Europe as a whole. The Euro has managed to avoid immediate annihilation and the spectre of a Grexit, or a Greek withdrawal from the Eurozone, has been pushed back. However, this is a small comfort for the many countries devastated by the cost of saving it. Likewise, the overall tension between national sovereignty and the practicality of maintaining a single continental currency remains disturbingly unresolved. Even assuming it can be saved however, the Euro is not the only thing dividing the region. Viktor Orban’s Hungary has become increasingly authoritarian in character, as has Erdogan’s Turkey; and across the continent as a whole, far-right parties that once would have never been given the time of day are now sweeping elections across the whole of the continent. Disillusionment with the EU is growing and the promise of unity that it once provided now seems increasingly hollow. As the continent’s economies flounder and its people grow ever more nationalistic, it has now become difficult to conceive how the 28 very different nation-states of the EU can pursue their own objectives without trampling upon those of their neighbours. Europe may not be at war, but its nations are growing further apart from another with every new election and the idea of these nations uniting to defend three tiny countries along the Baltic Sea is becoming harder to believe as a result.

Meanwhile in Asia, as Putin noisily threatens to restore Russia’s relevance, China is quietly writing its own rulebook. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has given him the cover he needs to cement his personal authority and wield the kind of unilateral power that no Chinese premier has wielded arguably since Deng. This will be crucial, China’s GDP growth has slowed to 7% annually, though independent estimates reckon it to be two or three percentage points lower than officially reported. If true, that would mean that the Chinese economic miracle is coming to an end and that the Communist Party needs to secure a new source of legitimacy if it is to thrive in the coming decades. Like Putin, who reverted to nationalism to obscure his failures over the fall of Yanukovych, China will need reawaken its own long-held sense of national destiny if it wants to convert its consolidating economy into enduring geopolitical capital that can solidify its international strength. That process is already underway, China has pushed maritime claims with its neighbours by aggressively confronting the Japanese Navy, planting oil rigs in Vietnamese-claimed waters, and constructing new islands for its air and maritime forces throughout the South China Sea. On land, China has ratcheted up tensions in its border dispute with India, deepened its ties with Pakistan to offset the former, and openly articulated its intentions to expand its influence in the old Imperial stomping ground that is Central Asia through Xi’s New Silk Road initiative. It has become an inescapable conclusion that China is pursuing a push towards regional hegemony, one that will become increasingly essential to the Party’s long-term survival, given its fading domestic fortunes.

Of course, China’s push for regional domination will inevitably encounter its own discontents. Japan, traditionally an economic giant and a foreign policy gnat, now has its politics increasingly dominated by the overbearing figure that is Shinzo Abe, has this year cemented his dominion over the Diet thanks to a disparate opposition. While Abe may not be the harbinger of a new Imperial Japan that some believe him to be, he is still perhaps the first strong leader Japan has had since 1945, and his assertive administrative style and overt nationalism mean that Xi may easily find an equal in Abe if China continues to push into the East China Sea. India is another obstacle. While Narendra Modi may have come to power on the back of economic reform promises, he is also by far the most dynamic Indian leader in decades and someone who is even less likely than his predecessors to stand for China’s ongoing border violations. China also remains Pakistan’s closest ally and has recently been playing a major role in modernising Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear forces. This year, both China and India tested their first MIRV ballistic missiles and Pakistan acquired high precision short-range ballistic missiles. Indeed, there seems to be a slow burning nuclear build-up that, while on a smaller scale than the Cold War, could prove far more difficult to control given Pakistan’s internal instability and the degree to which this issue has been ignored this year. While it is too early to say that Asia’s major powers are being pushed toward conflict, this intensification of inter-state competition that is taking place may make it increasingly difficult for Asia to sustain the general peace that has allowed it to prosper for decades.

The most dangerous environment for the moment, however, remains the Middle East, though not for the reason typically cited. This year was the year the Islamic State captured the world’s attention, when jihadism transitioned from a diffuse strategy of insurgency and terrorism to a more overt strategy of seizing territory and state-building. While these initial gains are impressive, the Islamic State’s shelf life is likely to be fairly short. While their particular brand of political Islam may appeal to certain segments of the faithful and underrepresented populations desperate for an alternative, their brutal inflexibility will preclude them from sustainably governing the territory they conquer in the long term. Like the Taliban, which barely governed Afghanistan for five years before being overthrown by restive tribes and American airpower, the Islamic State’s popularity will wane in the face of more traditional state governance. The reason for this is simple: there is no way the Islamic State can logistically govern such disparate territories with infantile administrative capabilities, few resources, and an inflexible ideology.

The reality is that the bigger threat to the Middle East’s stability lies in the ideological struggle that makes the Islamic State’s existence possible. If tensions in Europe and Asia are the result of competing non-ideological national interests, the Middle East remains the key battleground in which ideological conflicts are playing out. Iran’s determination to export Shia Islam to its neighbours is undoubtedly the reason why so many Iraqi Sunnis fled into the arms of the Islamic State as Maliki’s troops openly gunned down Sunni protestors. Likewise, it was Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s arms smuggling to Sunnis in Syria that created the environment in which the group that became the Islamic State could flourish. With Iran’s continual support of the Assad government, that environment is now guaranteed to persist for some time. The coup in Yemen, the breakdown of Libya, and the ongoing instability in Lebanon are all also products of this increasingly aggressive environment. Add in Egypt’s attempts to resuscitate the corpse of pan-Arabism and Turkey’s pretentions toward re-establishing the Ottoman Empire and we have the makings a multi-sided regional conflict whose ideological underpinnings will make it very difficult to alleviate. The Middle East may not have always been peaceful, but the fragile stability that defined its state system has reached its tipping point this year and it is now beyond the power of any foreign intervention to correct what may prove to be a very bloody collection of regional conflicts.

If I were to summarize the events of this year in a single word, it would be fragmentation. We are still far away from the catastrophes that have plagued previous eras, but the global unity that would have allowed us to tackle these challenges has given way to disunity. An increasingly divided Europe cannot tackle an aggressive Russia nor solve the economic woes of the continent, a competitive Asia will only heighten the risk of future conflict as the Chinese behemoth confronts its regional rivals, and the Middle East is set to fragment on both the social as well as political level. Most interesting of all has been the largely ineffectual response of the United States. This is not a case of simple decline: the United States is in many respects the same economic and military powerhouse that it was in 1991. Likewise, for all the recent assertiveness of various regional powers, it is really only China whose clout has significantly appreciated since then and even that tends to get overstated. I suspect that this weakness may have always been the case: American unipolarity was always as much a matter of perception than a reflection of reality, and America’s ability to impose its will upon the world has never been as powerful as its proponents and detractors imagine. If that is so, then it would seem that the illusion is broken; the peaceful, globalised, and homogenised world that statesmen in the early 1990’s imagined disappeared as abruptly as it arrived. While this outcome is by no means inevitable and it is possible I may be overstating its implications, I cannot help but confess that I am coming away from this year with profound sense of pessimism. I look back on this year seeing a fragmenting world, the kind of world that did not improve with time, nor reflect the wisdom of the past. Then again, I suppose history never ends.