Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2012
Issue No. 1089
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

A new Cold War

As the international system that has prevailed over the past two decades draws to a close, what does the emergent global order hold for the Middle East, asks Galal Nassar

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar world order, the literature on international relations had much to say on the new world order that was in the making. Since then, a train of studies and in- depth analyses have attempted to monitor the features of this. However, it was not until the developments that unfolded in the Middle East and elsewhere over the past few months that a fairly precise idea of the nature of this new world order was to be had and the forces and interests that control it.

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'No one can predict the outcome of a train of "creative chaos". While the US is the producer and director, its Middle East allies are nothing more than extras, no matter how firmly they have convinced themselves that they are playing starring roles. They have not been made privy to the full script; they have no idea how it ends, and some will be taken by surprise when, in an upcoming episode, they find themselves written out of the script altogether and replaced by a new actor who will be puffed up by the new role'

For a fuller analysis, it is useful to trace the conflict from the very beginning, from the old Cold War to the onset of a new one that will shape the fate of humanity, especially now that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is back in the Kremlin and is displaying all his political ambitions and canniness.

Firstly, it is important to stress that while every phase of history has its own unique imprint, this does not mean that there have not been relatively constant factors that have regulated international relations in every phase of the modern era. The transition from one international order to another has been governed by the continuity of a balance of power that manifests itself most clearly in the wars that have been waged by the stronger powers against the weaker and that settle beyond the shadow of a doubt their positions on the international map.

As a result of such factors, the last century saw the development of two international orders, the first a by-product of World War I, in which Germany and Turkey were defeated and from which Russia bowed out. Leadership of that order was vested in the Western colonial system, represented by Britain and France, and these countries continued to rule until the end of World War II despite their economic weaknesses.

The second international order was the product of World War II itself, which saw the US and the Soviet Union emerge as the two greatest military powers on earth. However, the invention of the atomic bomb by the US and the acquisition of this weapon by the USSR soon afterwards created a new reality that altered the military confrontation between the two superpowers. Because a military showdown that could call nuclear arms into play would have annihilated human life on the planet, a different logic came to prevail in the conflict between the two sides.

The foremost characteristic of this conflict was its quintessentially ideological nature. On the one side was the US-led capitalist camp, championing economic freedom and the unfettered market, while on the other was the communist camp, which restricted freedom and championed the state as the owner of the means of production. An important component of this conflict was the fight to control minds, and another was the race to build "spheres of influence" by supporting friendly regimes on every continent.

Since the relationships between states hinge primarily on a contest of wills, rather than on cooperation, two major attempts took place to keep conflict off the boil and to promote world peace. The first of these was the League of Nations, formed after World War I, and the second was the United Nations and particularly the Security Council, created after World War II. The charters of these bodies affirmed the need to safeguard world peace and the principle of non- intervention in the domestic affairs of independent states. Unfortunately, these missions and principles rarely went beyond the paper they were written on, and there was a constant stream of wars that took millions of lives.

Another feature that characterised international relations in the world order that emerged after World War II stemmed from the inability of the US and Russia, the leaders of the opposing camps, to engage in a direct military clash. This aversion to conventional warfare even as the tensions between them persisted, sometimes bringing them to the brink of war, became known as the Cold War. The term had various dimensions. One was the Soviet Union's campaign to champion national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, while US administrations campaigned to ensure the subordination of America's "backyard" in Latin America, a task in which they largely succeeded, the sole exception being Cuba, which escaped US hegemony and joined the Soviet camp.

Another dimension was the US drive to contain the communist camp by setting up a system of allies. In the 1950s and 1960s this system extended from Pakistan to Turkey, passing through Iran and Iraq, so as to encompass the Soviet Union from the south. To the west, the policy of containment was performed by NATO, whose western European members stared across the wall at the eastern European members of the socialist camp's Warsaw Pact.

These arrangements confirmed the conflict between the superpowers and simultaneously drew red lines between their respective spheres of influence. Moscow and Washington may have drafted their initial understanding and geographical division of the world in Yalta in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but the subsequent arrangements they made on the ground during the Cold War proved more far-reaching. Throughout the Cold War period, both sides adhered to these arrangements and never overstepped the implicit agreement between them not to encroach on the other's sphere of influence.

However, there were still grey zones: countries or territories that were not part of the agreement between the superpowers and that therefore remained focal points in the contest between them. Foremost among these were countries that had begun the fight to free themselves from the European colonial powers such as France, Britain, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The rivalry between the eastern and western camps over these countries became intense, frequently erupting into what became known as proxy wars. The first of these was the Korean War, in which the US supported the south and the USSR the north, and which ended in the partition of the country into South Korea, annexed by the capitalist camp, and North Korea, annexed by the communist camp. The rupture between the two Koreas remains unbridged six decades later.

The next major conflagration occurred in Vietnam following the departure of the French. Here, the Americans intervened directly in the conflict between the North Vietnamese and the pro- American regime in the south. The pretext here was couched in terms of the "domino theory", which held that if this corner of Southeast Asia fell into communist hands, the rest of the regimes in the region would follow "like a row of dominos". The North Vietnamese were said to have been fighting on behalf of the Soviets, and analysts have suggested that the Arab-Israeli wars were in fact similar proxy wars between the US and the USSR.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the socialist republics in eastern Europe, the Soviet Union crumbled and the US emerged as the unrivalled champion of the post- Cold War era. Washington now needed to consolidate its global hegemony, and it turned to theories formulated by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, which said that a global power had to continuously make its military presence felt.

As a result, the US would not wait until it detected or even anticipated a threat in order to move its troops into action. The need to flex its military muscles was reason enough to go to war. The first post-Cold War opportunity to present itself was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which triggered the creation of the US-led coalition to free Kuwait, almost unanimously supported by the international community. The subsequent war brought the bipolar order that had prevailed since the end of World War II to a close and marked the beginnings of a new mono-polar order. However, the latter was an anomaly in international relations, and it lasted no more than two decades, by which time the world was beginning to feel another cold war in the making with a different set of players.


At the same time, the social and economic indicators suggest that the Russian Federation has now recovered from the deep slump into which it fell following the fall of the socialist model. Moscow has also revived a language of rivalry and defiance aimed at the US and US policy, expressing a powerful resurgence in Russian national pride after over a decade of despondency that set in with the fragmentation of the former Soviet republics and the collapse of its empire.

The tremendous rise of the Chinese economy, the rapid recovery of Russia, and the surge in India's scientific capacity, on the one hand, and the gruelling economic crisis in the US and the EU on the other, tells us that the mono-polar order that has lasted for the past 20 years is now almost over. However, this is not to say that the same thing applies to the US's leadership role. Washington may no longer be as powerful as it was in setting global policy, but, according to the US political scientist Samuel Huntington, it will still be a force to be reckoned with in a multipolar global order. Huntington says that the US will now play a different role. The wars that the US has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan show that the US alone is unable to preserve international stability, meaning that it will form partnerships to do so with other powers in the UN Security Council.

Yet, one should view Huntington's opinions with caution, as they are founded on the faulty premise that mutual understanding and cooperation among the great powers can be assumed to exist, imagining that the balance of power is something that can be worked out over the negotiating table, rather than being the product of relative strength as reflected by conditions on the ground. The players on the international scene are more like bullfighters than football players. In football, the players follow a clear set of rules, both teams have the same number of players, and the playing field itself is level. The aim of the game is not to annihilate the adversary, but to score the most points.

However, in bullfighting the winner is the one who is still alive at the end of play. There is no scope for mutual understanding beyond the implicit comprehension that nuclear terror instils in us all. Bullfighting is a battle of wills, pitting one side's strengths against those of another. When the weaker side concedes, it does not do so voluntarily. It does so because it has no other choice. If the treaties putting an end to the conflict are signed in elegant halls, the paths that led to them are paved with horror and destruction.

The US might be able to sustain its role at the centre of the international decision-making process, but it will not be able to do so for long. New forces are emerging, while others have come a long way in establishing their presence. The Shanghai Cooperation Council, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and other nations of the Third World, is making rapid strides towards achieving parity not just with the US, but with the US and the EU put together. It is doing so not just economically, but militarily as well, and ultimately it will have a chance of settling the international contest in its favour.

To furnish a fuller picture of this contest of wills and the future of international politics, we should turn now to the points made by Russian President Vladimir Putin's in his electoral platform concerning the rehabilitation of Russia's military might. In an article that appeared in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta on 20 February 2012, Putin wrote that over the course of the next decade the Russian armed forces would become equipped with more than 400 ballistic missiles that can be fired from land or sea, eight submarines loaded with strategic missiles and 20 multi-purpose submarines, more than 50 naval vessels, around 100 satellites for military purposes, more than 600 fighter planes, including fifth-generation models, more than 1,000 helicopters, 28 S-400 anti-air missile systems, 38 Vityaz anti-air missile systems, 10 Iskander-M mobile missile systems, more than 2,300 modern tanks, 2,000 mechanised artillery vehicles, and more than 17,000 pieces of military hardware.

Putin claimed that the purpose of these was to prepare for a confrontation with forces that had announced their hostile intentions towards Russia in various parts of the world. These forces threatened the security of all the peoples of the world, he said, pointing an accusing finger at the West in general and saying that the latter was trying to export its form of government under the banner of promoting democracy. The West was also prepared to use military force to achieve this end, Putin said. Such dangers, and the threat they posed to Russian security, meant that it was necessary to revive the Russian Pacific and Northern Fleets in order to safeguard the country's security in the Far East and North Sea.

At the same time, scientific and technological advances in military and communications technology have given rise to new types of military hardware and weapons systems, and these have qualitatively altered the nature of any conflict. Any comprehensive rearmament drive would have to include high-precision weaponry alongside regular missiles and more conventional arms, Putin said, since this weaponry could prove decisive in any military confrontation, from a limited showdown to a full-scale war.

Given such realities in this dog-eat-dog world, Russia could not afford to rely on diplomatic and economic means alone to resolve any future conflicts. Instead, it should develop its military capacities in order to ensure the highest possible level of deterrence and the best defence and rapid-response capabilities. Only in this way would Russia feel secure and be better equipped to defend its positions and those of its partners in international forums.

Yet, this is only one facet of the emergent international order. Other signs are visible here in the Middle East. The rise of Turkey with its Islamist leadership is no coincidence, for example, since this is part of the American strategy to absorb developments precipitated by the Arab Spring. Turkey is becoming increasingly influential in the region in a way that may seem positive, but in fact could prove very detrimental to the transitional phases of most of the countries in the region. Turkey cannot risk any major change in the structure of its democratic system, even though it risks being stripped of a chunk of its territory in Kurdistan, and in spite of the fact that it may seek to expand its influence as a Sunni state serving as a bulwark against Shia influence in the region.

It is not a coincidence, either, that Qatar has emerged as an ambitious regional power trying to carve out a greater role for itself in the Gulf and the Arab world. This, too, is part of a plan conceived in Washington many years ago, which explains the unwritten alliance that has existed between Qatar and Israel since the early 1990s. For a century now, Israel's allies in the region have come out ahead both politically and economically: we should remind ourselves of the end of the Ottoman sultan Abdel-Hamid, who refused to permit the creation of an Israeli state in Palestine, and the end of Sherif Hussein, who also refused to give Palestinian land to the Jews for that purpose. These figures should be contrasted with the rising star of Al-Saud in Saudi Arabia, who signalled his approval of everything that Israel wanted.

Therefore, Qatar will probably play a major part in sowing havoc among the petroleum-producing states in the Gulf after the collapse of Syria, while the US works to sap their economies and fuels conflict in the region in the hope of redrawing the regional map as a result of the chaos and destruction it has created. This does not mean that Qatar will be the only country to come out unscathed: no one can predict the outcome of a train of "creative chaos". While the US is the producer and director, its Middle East allies are nothing more than extras, no matter how firmly they have convinced themselves that they are playing starring roles. They have not been made privy to the full script; they have no idea how it ends, and some will be taken by surprise when, in an upcoming episode, they find themselves written out of the script altogether and replaced by a new actor who will be puffed up by the new role. Qatar's role and influence will then gradually subside as a result of the rise of other powers and the spread of Turkish-style Islamism.

The US-generated chaos in the Middle East and Islamic world will not be of the sort that will enable Iran to create pro-Iranian pockets working against US strategic interests in the region either. The new balance that the US is working to forge with the support of Turkey, which has begun to shed its secular garb in favour of an Islamist one fashioned according to US tastes, will serve as a check on Iranian ambitions and on any designs Tehran might have to turn the chaos to its favour. At the same time, the Iranian leadership will also have to keep a sharp eye on its domestic population, where the US has been supporting secularist and nationalist forces in order to undermine the influence of the Islamists.

The most likely scenario, especially if Egypt is absent as an influential regional power, is that the US will gradually facilitate a Turkish-led "United States of the Middle East" in the region. In preparation for this, the states of the region as they currently exist will need to disintegrate into warring provinces that will require a strong regional power to bring them together within a new political, cultural and moral framework. The only choice the people of the region will have will be between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, and from the American perspective at least the former will win. At worst, there will be a balance of power between the two that the US could bring itself to support.

The fall of the rest of the Arab dictatorships will usher in the final and most tragic episode in this process of creative chaos. The scene will be the Arabian Peninsula and the northern Gulf, and the main theme will be the eradication of the rigid fundamentalism that has been born out of the harsh realities of the brutal desert. Here, the rise of a "United States of the Gulf" led by Qatar or the Hijaz under new leadership will steer the Middle East region as a whole into a new era.

It will take at least a decade for this transformation to unfold, bringing us to one of the most distressing dilemmas that the Arabs must contend with these days. The Arabs are faced with a choice between two alternatives: either they accept the perpetuation of dictatorship and corruption, or they succumb to the chaos that will lead to the fragmentation and partition of ancient nations and the end of their power and influence. We will also have to face the fact that the reason we are faced with this grim choice is because we have been unable to forge a third alternative defined by freedom, willpower, a united domestic front and a strong and resolute regional front.

Nevertheless, despite this bleak prognosis the Arab youth still offers a glimmer of hope. They are the route to the destruction of tyranny, and they are the key to building a brighter future. However, they must realise that there is a third way. This should be one based on developing our own autonomous capabilities and changing in ways that enable us to avert the humiliation of disintegration and self-destruction.

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