The supposed new Cold War
In the third of a four-part series on the world after Bush, Azmi Bishara sees discord emerging, but no universal blueprint that would ground a new Cold War between the West and the rest
International politics will have entered a new phase after Bush, regardless of who his successor in the White House is. But the post-Bush phase does not imply a post-US phase, as some wishfully think. The empire has not decayed to that extent yet.
Throughout this transitional US presidential election year, the Middle East, which has been so much the focus of Bush era policies, has experienced a decline in the offensive of the US and its allies and the beginning of a counteroffensive on the part of local adversaries to those policies. The Israeli defeat in the July 2006 war on Lebanon, which I have described as a US war employing Israeli tools, was crowned with the completion of the prisoner exchange process. The liberation of the Israeli prisoners had been the official aim of the war on Lebanon. Also, after some wavering, Hizbullah settled the "pro-government versus opposition" crisis in its favour when it overran some pro-government locations in Beirut and the Mount Lebanon region on 7 and 8 May and then established a national unity government, which had been Hizbullah's demand from the start. Hizbullah's offensive was a response to attempts on the part of the US and its allies to test the resistance movement's strength on the question of arms and dismantling the resistance, and simultaneously an attempt on the part of Hizbullah to alter the stagnant status quo. Could this have been a rehearsal in miniature for what Georgia would do in South Ossetia two months later?
Also this year, Iran declared that it would continue its uranium enrichment activities, a position that it held was not negotiable with the West, and Syria succeeded in breaching the Western blockade as the plans that had been devised against it following 11 September and the occupation of Iraq petered out. The most important landmark in the siege against Syria was the passage of Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by France and the US, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon (meaning Syrian forces) and the dismantlement of the militias (meaning Hizbullah). It was no coincidence that that resolution appeared in 2004. It harmonised with the assault on the Arab world that began with the invasion of Iraq, and the consequent storms that swept the region shook dozens of articles of faith and drove many politicians and intellectuals towards the American camp, which held the initiative and seemed destined to win with breathtaking speed. That camp's campaign against Syria escalated following the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri. However, over the past year or so, Syria has succeeded in breaking through its diplomatic isolation by means of its indirect negotiations with Israel and renewal of its relations with France. Also, with the backing of Qatar and Turkey, Syria took the initiative to officially support the Russian counteroffensive against Georgia. Nor has it concealed its desire to use this connection to acquire more advanced weaponry from Russia, a desire to which the latter was more willing to accede when it realised the extent of Israeli military and political involvement in the events in Georgia.
On 7 August, fired by the Bush era spirit though unaware that it was past its sell-by date, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took it into his head to invade South Ossetia that, like Abkhazia, is a breakaway region from Georgia. The Russian response was so immediate and overwhelming that one almost suspects it had been prepared in advance and that the Kremlin had expected the impetuous Georgian president to rush headlong into its grasp. In all events, not only did Russia expel Georgian forces, it took the opportunity to display its might by invading areas of Georgia proper. Then, over angry recriminations from the West and in spite of American warships sailing back and forth threateningly in the Black Sea, Moscow recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This action was portrayed as a kind of repayment in kind for the recognition by many Western nations of the independence of Kosovo, preparations for which took seven years since the bombardment of Serbia in 1999.
However hard the Western media tries to differentiate between Kosovo and the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia it cannot win. This is not because Russian President Medvedev drew a parallel between the two situations to the detriment of Serbia. By justifying Russia's behaviour on the grounds of the West's behaviour in Kosovo he retroactively recognised the independence of Kosovo. Kosovo had historically been a part of Serbia. That the majority of its inhabitants are Albanian makes no difference. The "international community" had always tolerated the reverse, which is to say secession even when the majority of the inhabitants were Serbs. The majority of the population of Bosnia are Serbs who had converted to Islam at the time of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. In spite of this affiliation, the independence of their province was easier to justify since at some time in the past it had formed a separate kingdom. Kosovo was of a different order. In spite of the fact that the majority of the population are Albanian, the Russians and Serbs regarded Kosovo not only as Serbian but also as the cradle of Serbian nationalism. If every region of the world began to demand independence on the grounds of its demographic composition, Russia, itself, would be torn to shreds, as would some Western nations, such as Spain, which is why it is not surprising that Madrid opposed the independence of Kosovo in February this year.
In all events, neither Medvedev nor Putin, nor the commentaries in the Russian press that I have seen, have tried to claim that Russia's actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were any more just than the West's actions in Kosovo. The Kremlin simply justified its actions on the grounds of national security and the need to protect Russian vital interests along its borders and in areas that were once part of the Soviet Union. This is not the rhetoric of a political-ideological camp that claims to offer alternative values to those that prevail in an opposing camp. It is no more and no less than the language of a government appealing to its rights as a sovereign nation. This does not signify the return of the Cold War.
The "Cold War" epithet was used to describe the international relations that prevailed between the American and Soviet camps from 1949 (the year that NATO was formed and a successful Russian nuclear test broke the American nuclear monopoly) and 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall). It conveyed much more than its immediate sense of two opposing camps the tensions between which were kept short of erupting into open warfare between them.
First, it conveyed the "balance of terror" between the two camps that arose during the post-World War II period. This "balance" produced quite a few hot wars: in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Latin American, the Middle East and Africa. In fact, about the only place war was cold was in Europe. Elsewhere, the blood of the Koreans, Vietnamese, the Arabs, Americans of the north and south, Africans, Indians and Pakistanis was flowing. One of the major understandings between the two camps in the post- World War II era was to preserve European security. This tacit understanding was crowned with the Treaty of Helsinki. It was one of the few points of bipolar equilibrium, which also included agreeing a division of areas of influence in Europe and safeguarding the security of Israel (a commitment to which Moscow adhered even as it supported Arab nationalist regimes). Only towards the end was there also agreement on ending the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Second, the Cold War manifested itself in an international partition that did not respect the international order that arose in Europe following World War I in deference to Woodrow Wilson's principle of right to self-determination. The Cold War balance of power was based on respect for the allegiance of countries to one or the other of the two camps within their respective spheres of influence, not upon respect for national borders. It made no difference at that time how many ethnic regions Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union consisted of (especially in the western parts of the Soviet Union, which came to include the Baltic nations and the Caucasian republics where Stalin's population transplant policies of the 1930s and 1940s created the demographic structure that is exploding today). What counted were spheres of influence. And while the lines between the two spheres were distinctly drawn in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America became the theatres of ferocious battles over the demarcation between the spheres in those continents. It is not true that the nation state went into decline following the end of the Cold War. If anything it has experienced a remarkable boom with the rise of nationalist secessionist movements in the Baltic, the Balkans and elsewhere, beneath the rubric of "civil society".
Third, and more importantly, the Cold War was one in which the rival camps claimed to champion a social economic order that was good for everyone in the world, or at least good for building nations if not for reconstructing humanity.
It may seem a bit ridiculous, these days, to bring up that literature that was so enthusiastic about the fall of the Soviet Union that it proclaimed the end of history; however, I ask you for the moment to restrain your smirks and jeers. Even a theory proven false would deserve to be called a theory if it were founded on a kernel of truth and entailed a serious scientific endeavour. The kernel of truth for Fukuyama was not that history was over but that with the collapse of communism there no longer existed, in his opinion (and there still do not, in my opinion), countries championing a purportedly universally valid socio-political ideology. Fukuyama refuted Huntington's claims with regards to the clash of civilisations. Confucianism does not offer an alternative to liberal capitalism at present; nor does Islamic civilisation. Setting aside the wilder hopes and slogans, the political Islam that has echoed around the world barely offers itself as an alternative in Muslim states and societies themselves. Nor does it offer a clear political economic theory, which is one of its weak points in the opinion of critics in Islamic societies themselves. Political Islam is engaged in a conflict over part of the periphery, not between the periphery and the core. It is not engaged in a universal struggle, offering people around the world an alternative to liberalism and capitalism, contrary to the claims of Huntington and his disciples and to the fears being stirred by the neoconservatives. No such challenge exists.
This, of course, does not refute the fact that even after the occupation of Iraq and events in Georgia, Fukuyama has not yet learned the lesson. He still supports America's involvement in the historic mission to spread democracy around the world. The only difference now is that he distinguishes between this mission and the expansion of NATO and the risks that come with it. NATO's foremost responsibility is to protect its members from aggression, and this could lead it to become involved in wars with Russia in spite of itself or for which it is unprepared.