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Grave new world

Oct 25,2014 - Last updated at Oct 25,2014

Global transformations are nothing new. But, with globalisation and technological advancements, the pace and scale of such transformations have accelerated considerably. 

In the coming decades, this trend will only intensify — bringing with it significant potential for instability.

It has been more than 20 years since Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting the near-unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces.

When Saddam defied the resolutions, a 34-country coalition, supporting the United States-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm, drove his troops out of Kuwait.

That was in 1991, when the Soviet Union’s collapse had left the US as the world’s only superpower.

But that is no longer the case — a reality that is reflected in the international community’s muddled responses to similar territorial breaches today.

Consider Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea earlier this year. Though the move clearly violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, 11 countries voted against the UN resolution condemning the action, and 58 countries — including all of the non-Western powers — abstained.

Clearly, the global balance of power has changed.

In international politics, perceptions matter — sometimes even more than reality.

The perception today is that America’s unipolar moment has come to an end; Europe is on the decline; and a new set of powers is rising, bringing their own unique worldviews to global affairs.

In a sense, this might seem like a good thing. More varied perspectives could enrich multilateral processes and generate more comprehensive solutions to global problems.

But this multipolar dynamic also generates instability. Though the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and challenges are no longer confined to national or even regional borders, major powers are increasingly reluctant to assume global responsibilities.

Worse, given their frequent unwillingness to accommodate one another’s interests, impasses — even clashes — become likely.

Strong, effective, and inclusive multilateral institutions can play a vital role in combating this instability and fostering cooperation.

But even the best-designed structures can achieve little without the political will to resolve conflicts through dialogue.

In order to make progress, countries must learn to defend their principles while respecting those of others — and never to lose sight of their shared interests and objectives.

Without such a unified approach, geopolitical stability is diminished.

 For example, Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991 and is fully integrated into the international system, having ceded its nuclear weapons in 1994 and presided over three sessions of the UN General Assembly.

In failing to craft an adequate response to the Russian invasion, however, the international community pushed Ukraine towards a dark past.

One hopes that the recently concluded Minsk Protocol — which includes 12 provisions, including a ceasefire and a programme of economic recovery — succeeds in resolving the conflict.

In any case, international stability has been compromised — and several more potentially destabilising developments are on the horizon.

In the developed world, US President Barack Obama’s tenure will soon end. European politics are, too, undergoing a potentially significant transition, with the new European Commission set to commence operations, against a worrying background of rising nationalism in European Union member states.

Two leaders who will remain in power for the foreseeable future are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping — both of whose countries have generated instability in their respective regions.

Long before Russia invaded Ukraine, China was engaged in territorial disputes with several of its neighbours, most notably in the East and South China Seas. 

Furthermore, Russia and China are pushing back against traditional Western dominance in multilateral institutions. 

They — along with Brazil, India and South Africa (the BRICS) — have established their own development bank, motivated partly by the International Monetary Fund’s failure to fulfil its 2010 pledge to adjust voting rights to reflect the global balance of economic power. (Until the 2010 G-20 summit where that pledge was made, China had the same voting rights as Belgium.)

All of this uncertainty surrounding the world’s emerging and traditional superpowers has impeded efforts to address security challenges in the Middle East, from the enduring Israel-Palestine conflict and the aftermath of the Arab Spring to the new and potent threat posed by the Islamic State.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Islamic State is not a fragmented network of relatively small cells; it is a territorial entity operating as a pseudo-state in Syrian and Iraqi territory.

And the rest of the world does not seem to know how to stop its unrelenting advance.

The US has rushed to form a confusing coalition with nearly 30 countries, including 10 Arab states. How the coalition will be organised and what results it will achieve remain to be seen. 

Here, the European Union could help. In fact, when the US first employed its so-called “leading from behind” strategy during the 2011 intervention in Libya, European countries were forced to assume greater responsibility.

Instead of viewing that intervention as an anomaly, the EU should recognise the need to enhance its role in defending global security — not least to uphold its own interest in a prosperous and stable neighbourhood.

In this sense, the EU’s decision to delay implementing its association agreement with Ukraine in order to create space to pursue consensus with Russia is a positive indicator.

In a multipolar world, actors with widely divergent worldviews must work together to advance their shared interest in security, stability, and prosperity.

It is time for all of the world’s powers to recognise their responsibility for making constructive cooperation a reality.

The writer was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centte for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.

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