Sunday, 20 December 2009

International Relations in the First Decade of the 21st Century

As we approach the completion of the first decade of this century it is worth looking at what it brought us in terms of developments in international relations. There have been three major stories during this decade, the first concerning the relationship between the US and the Middle East, the second the expansion of the European Union and the third the rise of China and India.

Taking these topics in turn the US's role in world affairs has been subject to considerable controversy, particularly around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more generally with regard to policies that concern Israel and Palestine. The wars in the area have been consistently framed, not least by critics of the US, in relation to the continued failure of any momentum towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In some respects the Israeli policies in this decade have been surprising since Ariel Sharon, whose name was hardly a synonym for peace, proclaimed a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories, a withdrawal that, in its turn, precipitated a split within the Palestinians that led to a resurgence of support for Hamas. Israel also launched a war in the Lebanon in response to shelling from Hezbollah, a war that, at the time, was widely regarded as ending in a loss for the Israelis but which has produced the outcome they desired (cessation of the shelling). There have been no substantive moves towards peace with either the Palestinians or any of their neighbours during this decade.

It is true that the failure of movements towards peace by the Israelis is something that has been underpinned by a continued record of pretty uncritical support from the US. The majority of the decade saw the US governed by President Bush Jr and, despite being the first President to unequivocally state support for a Palestinian state, Bush effectively did nothing to bolster the Palestinian leadership and has to be regarded as at fault for the rise of Hamas. Bush also launched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Obama is now left with. The war in Iraq, whatever else one might say about it, was handled catastrophically badly with the immediate aftermath of the invasion handled in a lamentably poor way. The Obama administration unfortunately has as little appetite for nation-building as the Bush one did with the result that the long-term prospects for Afghanistan are far from rosy. Obama has noted the need for integrated policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, something evident given the continued links between the Pakistani government and many of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The failure, however, to motivate a responsible civil society in Pakistan to take seriously the notion that other factors than India may be of concern in the area continues to resound as a serious failure in Western policy.

The wider Middle East remains an area that is fraught with instability. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have been taken to be allies of the US both have severe faults. Saudi Arabia was widely understood to be an incubator for Al-Qaeda and the conditions that permitted this have scarcely been reformed. Similarly, the major opposition force in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a force that has emerged as such a force in lieu of any serious secular movement, the latter having all suffered repression. Since these are the countries to which Western countries look when thinking of allies in the region it is hardly surprising that the rest of the region looks bleak. From Algeria to Syria there is a general pattern of dictatorship, repression, human rights abuse and failure of serious development.

By contrast the European Union's expansion is a hopeful sign at least in the sense that it has helped to motivate the countries of Eastern Europe to set about economic and social developments that advance the area in general. The incorporation of these countries is hopeful for the security and prosperity of all the people of Europe with countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, all set to be able to take advantage of these new opportunities. Other countries have, however, fared less well with Romania and Bulgaria still seeming fixed in corruption and having only dubiously democratic institutions. The EU generally seems set on rejecting Turkey, a mistake whose proportions will take a long time measuring since this will ensure that Turkey will seek allies elsewhere and be more likely to move away from the path of attempted reconciliation of Islam and modernity that the AKP promised. The EU generally also appears singularly unsuited at developing as a serious force in world politics, riven as it is by national disputes and having at its heart institutions that have little normative validity.

The rise of China and India are phenomena of many sides. China's rise is generally understood to be more considerable than that of India and during the course of this year reached such an extent that talk of a G2 in the world began to be generally discussed. The economic strides made by China should not conceal the fact that it is the largest dictatorship in the world, governed by a party that has no commitment to even transition towards democratic institutions and which has only a very partial commitment to even the outline of the idea of the rule of law. Due to this the economic development in China remains unstable as it is riven by regional and national disputes that, combined with the demands of a newly emergent civil society, ensure that its rulers have no appetite for looking outwards at the world. China's engagement in Africa, amongst other places, has at present no enlightened element to it, supporting as it does, despotisms and local rulers.

India's rise, whilst less dramatic than that of China, is nonetheless, in its way, more encouraging. India, despite facing immense problems, is a society with constitutional elements and a basic commitment to working with moves towards openness. India still faces a hostile and suspicious Pakistan however, something reinforced by India's moves into Afghanistan. India also will have to face difficult questions as it balances its relations with the US with those it will have to cope with in relation to Russia and, indeed, China. Leadership in India is perhaps more sorely needed than anywhere in the world, except, naturally, in the US.

Less central than any of these trends but not something that can be ignored is the role of Russia. Since Putin replaced Yeltsin as President the basic trajectory of the country has been back towards dictatorial measures and the construction of an effective corporatist state with large areas of economic life managed either by the state directly or via arrangements with gangster elements. Effectively this makes Russia a very frightening place internally and helps to produce an unpredictable foreign policy, as, for example, when this year it emerged as effectively a cheer-leader for the repressive regime in Iran. The difficulty of engagement with Russia is pronounced since the governing class there is imbued with cynicism and is inherently turned towards violent solutions to its problems as was witnessed with the war in Georgia last year. As with the Chinese, the Russians have little interest in engaging in any normatively serious way with world affairs ensuring that they play a role of destabilisation, something serious in view of their holdings of energy supplies. In other respects the Russians have however entered a phase of continued decline and are far less likely to have serious impact on world affairs than any of the other groups mentioned here.

A word on one particularly significant event this year: the upsurge of protest in Iran. Given that the Iranian regime is threatening with regard to development of nuclear power and its links with the newly powerful Shiite tendencies in Iraq, the emergence of serious opposition opens out the prospect for a movement that could re-shape the Middle East. Watching developments there will continue to be very important.

These trends when put together suggest a very difficult decade ahead, one in which there will constantly be posed as a vital matter how the development of China and India will effect world affairs. Those concerned with international analysis should be as engaged with these countries and their influence as with that of the US, something that requires ceasing to always regard the US as either the most important benevolent or maleficent force and taking a more general view of what and how the forces that can bring openness and enlightenment can be supported in the years to come.

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