Europe - the loser in the great geopolitical game ?

Posted in Europe | 26-Oct-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

"Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama: The former National Security Advisor Zbigniew coined the term "G-2" to…
"Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama: The former National Security Advisor Zbigniew coined the term "G-2" to describe the special relationship between China and USA and their significance."
The UN General Assembly and the G-20 summit have made it obvious that the geopolitical center of gravity has shifted away from Europe. The G-8, with its strong European presence, still exists but has lost its former significance.

The G-20 and international institutions like the World Bank now present a stronger Asia-Pacific face and may well act as a kind of 'world government'. The UN could be pushed aside, no longer able to act proactively to prevent and manage crises.

Asia-Pacific states like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the USA form the world's new center of gravity. Their demographic development and strong economies are decisive factors; they are the winners in the current global financial and economic crisis.

The United States of America realize that their former power as the world's undisputed No.1 is relatively declining. In spite of serious domestic problems and multi-faceted challenges around the world, President Barack Obama claims a "leading" role for America across all world regions. It remains to be seen whether his 'smart' policy can defuse the time-bombs ticking in Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.

If and when the competing global players regard Obama's 'soft' approach as weakness, the USA will have to fight very hard to maintain respect as a world power and keep their status in the Asian-Pacific region as an "indispensable power" (Madeline Albright). During Bush's second term, the USA successfully forged strategic partnerships in the region with Australia, India and Japan. These partnerships should contain China, the emerging world power.

China and USA will form a duo-pol

In the coming years, the Sino-U.S. relationship will be bipolar. The former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is one of the most important advisors to President Obama and has coined the term "G-2" to describe that special relationship and their significance. These countries, formerly antagonists, have become partners based upon vital national interests. China needs the USA as a consumer market, and the USA needs China as a creditor.

Further in the future that geopolitical rivalry may re-emerge; Taiwan remains one bone of contention. But China and Taiwan seem to have found a peaceful modus vivendi. As long as Taiwan does not push too hard for its independence, the developing human and economic relationships will prevent China starting a war.

Many Taiwanese are direct investors in China and vice versa. The Taiwanese are very active in Chinese real estate and are welcomed as tourists. However, China's military-focused celebration of its 60th anniversary caused some irritation in the Asia-Pacific neighbourhood and in the USA.

And the plan for the first Chinese aircraft carrier begs the question: what is the rationale for building a Chinese 'blue-water' navy? Should such a navy protect supply lanes from the Middle East and Africa to China, or underpin China's emerging role as world power? China's neighbours and the USA will watch China's political intentions and capabilities carefully.

The way ahead is not without major stumbling blocks for China. The "one-party dictatorship", violations of individual and minority rights, suppression of free media, corruption, a huge bureaucracy, pollution, the negative consequences of the one-child policy, and the widening gap between the coastal rich and the poor in the hinterland are all serious challenges. China's ruling party has to develop a prudent policy to avoid more social unrest. There are already tens of thousands of so-called "incidents" with heavy police, and even military, involvement in countering demonstrations. Thousands are executed every year.

Containment of China ?

India is another emerging world power in the region. It was less badly hit than other states by the financial and economic crisis, being relatively less dependent on exports. Their demographic development means the world's largest democracy will overtake China within decades. The level of education and innovation is very high. India's driving force is her affluent, well-educated, and well trained middle class of over two hundred million.

However, India also faces serious challenges: the caste system, the gap between rich and poor, the substandard infrastructure (especially airports and motorways), and poor regional governance in many areas are all stumbling blocks on the road ahead. India will take longer to join China and USA at the top - but it will join them.

Japan may be seen as a big question mark: the direction of her newly-formed government remains unclear. One important issue is relations with the USA. Will Japan continue their strategic partnership or distance itself from the USA?

Another Asian power, Russia, will continue to lose significance in the Asia-Pacific region, though not in Central Asia. The demographic development in Russia is traumatic. Russia loses around one million people per year. Life expectancy is far below developed country standards. Siberia's depopulation has triggered serious concerns in Moscow, especially regarding the influx of Chinese people there.

"Asia Pacific states like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the USA form the world's new center of…
"Asia Pacific states like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and the USA form the world's new center of gravity"
Lower oil and gas prices, the current financial and economic crisis, corruption, bureaucracy, organized crime, and an outdated and unmotivated military will lead to an explosive situation in Russia in years to come. On the top of theses issues comes the Caucasus region, where ethnic enmities and a radical form of Islam could lead to another 'hot' conflict at any time.

What about Africa, Europe,the Gulf region and Russia ?

Europe is a potential geopolitical center of gravity, especially the EU with its 27 members and 450 million people. The current economic crisis hit European countries very hard, especially those like Germany which depend heavily on exports. There is a growing risk of protectionism and re-nationalization.

The European community has not previously been successful at balancing the widening and deepening of its two-track approach. Much is lacking. For example, there is no clear and broadly accepted answer to the question of what the final state of EU expansion should be, and where the EU should geographically end.

Even Ireland and the Czech Republic's ratification of the Lisbon Treaty does not solve these fundamental deficits. The future European President and the EU High Representative for foreign policy will not enhance transparency, and will not end rivalry between the 27 member states, the European Parliament and the EU Commission. It is typical for the EU that member states are not looking for a charismatic, strong President from a large country, like Tony Blair, but for candidates from smaller countries with less influence and power.

Without doubt, the European unification process is a success story. It has brought peace and welfare to the region after two world wars fought across their territory. The EU has become a common market but has failed to unify politically. The EU and other European countries have no agreed vision, no grand strategy, no common interests or values. There are no political leaders in sight like Adenauer, de Gaulle, Delors or Kohl, who could lead us to a politically unified Europe.

Therefore, the EU and most European countries will play a modest role on the world's stage.

Another center of gravity is formed by the Gulf States and Iran. These states have been hurt by the current economic crisis and relatively low oil and gas prices. The Gulf States and Iran also suffer from religious conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis. The most pressing, and interlocked, issues are Iran's nuclear weapons programme and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So far, Iran has not feared UN sanctions, nor proposals by the International Atomic Energy Agency and some European states and Russia. Iran is obviously approaching a 'red line': the breakout capability to switch very quickly from a civilian to a weapons programme. If current negotiations offering Iran a guarantee for their fuel cycle fail, the situation will get worse.

Most states will not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. But how to prevent this at the end of the day? There are some military options under discussion, but here is no chance of destroying Iran's entire well protected nuclear infrastructure. It may be possible to paralyze the programme for years by hitting crucial elements, but the question remains whether Israel would be supported by other nations - especially by the USA.

That would be a hard decision for Barack Obama, and a 'no-win' situation. He could only decide by whom he wants to blamed - by the Israelis or the Arab world. But how would Iran react? A long lasting blockade of the Straits of Hormuz would have severe consequences for consumers of Iranian gas and oil. And worse: Iran could start suicide bomber operations throughout the region and beyond. Iran's proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, could start a third intifada against Israel and a military conflict would send shock waves around the world.

Across the Indian Ocean lies Africa, recently more attractive because of its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth; especially attractive to China, who has increased its engagement in Africa drastically. Could Africa play a role as a political unit?

There are huge differences between the performance and governance of African states. A recent survey in The Economist showed some states doing quite well, for example Liberia, Egypt and Angola. So far, the Republic of South Africa is not in a position to play a leading role in Africa beyond its neighbouring states. There is no major initiative to build an African Union, a pan-African organisation, which comes close to the European Union.

National interests will prevail in Africa for a long time. But the successful states should receive more support from developed countries; not money, but support of clearly defined and properly monitored projects.

The emerging world order without a dominating superpower is called 'multi-polar' or 'non-polar', a situation towards which many states aim. But whether such a world would be better and safer must be questioned. History, unfortunately, offers many negative examples, particularly Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The big powers could lose their former ability to impose their will on others. The United States of America are not capable of forcing Israel to accept a two-state solution, or to stop settlement building. China cannot stop North Korea playing with fire in the form of nuclear weapons and missile tests.

"The UN General Assembly and the G-20 summit have made it obvious that the geopolitical center shifted away from Europe"
"The UN General Assembly and the G-20 summit have made it obvious that the geopolitical center shifted away from Europe"
So what are the most serious threats and risks?

  • Worldwide energy demand will increase significantly after the economic recovery, particularly in large countries. Competition for sufficient energy supplies at affordable prices will lead to crises and conflicts
  • This problem will be sharpened by the conflict with radical Islam in the Broader Middle East and Europe. In Europe there is a silent revolution, whereby differing demographic developments of indigenous peoples and immigrants will lead to Islamic majorities in some large European cities, causing social and ethnic problems
  • Iran poses a threat if it approaches the 'red line'
  • Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain hotspots
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain the biggest stumbling block, fuelling all other conflicts in the region
  • Demographic developments will dramatically influence the ranking of states and their influence in the world. The rise and fall of powers will have a demographic dimension, especially true for Russia in a negative direction

What are WSN's recommendations?

  • Governments and the public have to increase their understanding of our globalized world with its web of complex and complicated interdependencies
  • No political problem can be solved with an independent approach. We must develop a unified policy addressing all problems simultaneously. Good examples of this are Pakistan and Afghanistan or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Politicians and diplomats should be trained to see the big picture - the 'global village'
  • Individual states and organisations like ASEAN, the EU and NATO have to improve their early warning systems to prevent and manage crises
  • We all have to accept the emerging tripolar world of China, India and the USA
  • The "G - 20 plus" need to build up a small, competent and efficient permanent staff to guarantee continuity between summits
  • We need to learn to live with crises and conflicts, but we have to establish platforms and tools to contain them
  • A combined effort of states and organisations like the UN and EU should stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, without excluding a limited air strike as a last resort, because Iranian nuclear weapons would trigger a nuclear arms race in the region and beyond
  • Another combined effort to bring Israel to accept a two-state solution and to at least freeze settlement building. The Palestinian National Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah should accept and guarantee the existence of a Jewish state and should stop asking for the return of all refugees to Israel
  • European countries should follow the U.S. example and launch a temporary military and medium term civil 'surge' in Afghanistan. Pakistan must be convinced that insurgents are the existential threat to Pakistan, and not India. India should resuscitate talks with Pakistan to improve mutual trust and confidence
  • The 'G-2' should prove its capabilities by pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange with an American security guarantee and Chinese aid