The Balkans and the Caucasus: Drifting into Multipolarity

Posted in Other | 27-Oct-08 | Author: Bernd Papenkort

"A major shift in the current geopolitical landscape is on the way with a reappearence of Russia on the global…
"A major shift in the current geopolitical landscape is on the way with a reappearence of Russia on the global stage. A cooperative handling of the glacis from the Baltic to the Balkans and the Caucasus could be an important effort to match the words of a "strategic EU/NATO -Russia partnership" with deeds."
The decline of big powers in history always started with political, economic and social problems inside and on the periphery of their empires. Consequently, the glacis between falling and rising powers became the contested area for exercising influence. Rising powers started to reshape the glacis around their own state in order to safeguard new and broader interests. Such developments sometimes took quite considerable time, but the result was always the same – imperial overstretch led to the fall of one empire and to the rise of another. Is this what is happening between “the” West and “the” East? Are we experiencing the decline of Western supremacy?

Yes. We need to realize that a major shift in the current geopolitical landscape is on the way with the reappearance of Russia on the global stage, the enormous pressure on the US to tackle a huge amount of social, economic and political problems at home, the struggle of the EU to meet its role as “global player” and the rise of China, India and other powers as future regional or global players. The current financial crisis – caused by the West, foremost the US - is only the last signal of this tectonic shift of power. The world has crossed a threshold and is drifting away from the US-dominated hegemony in politics, economy and culture into multipolarity, or in the worst case into a world of “no polarity” in which the danger arises that multiple players play according to their own interests and rules.

Signals for these shifts are increasing the challenges faced by all Western-dominated global institutions. The current bank crisis will lead to major adjustments of the global financial structures – calls for a “Bretton Woods II” are on the table. The failure of the Doha trade talks and demands for a new balance in international organizations (e.g. the G-8, UN) indicate only that the current system of power no longer reflects today’s realities and those of the future. It will have to be adjusted. We have to look for new bodies, or if we cannot agree, to adjust the current institutions so they reflect the new global realities in a better way. And as a next step, we have to agree on new “Rules of Engagement” or new strategies in order to provide some stability in the turbulent times ahead. This task is the most complex one for all national and international policymakers. Failure to accomplish this would most probably result in a “world without order.”

Another indication of a power shift is the behavior of Russia in the current reshaping of political positions between East and West on the Eurasian continent in the critical arc from the Baltic via the Mediterranean towards the Caucasus and Afghanistan. The list of hot spots and unsettled issues waiting for the final policy settlement is an impressive one: Ukraine, Moldavia, Serbia/Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq and Afghanistan – to name the most striking ones.

This WSN newsletter will concentrate on the role of the United States and Russia in shaping the “glacis from the Baltic to the Caucasus.” By using this very contested region as an example, it intends to offer some reflections about a possible “political code of conduct” for the handling of broader policy issues in other regions in the years to come as well.


Western Powers (US and related alliances like NATO and the EU) have used the favorable situation that arose after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to expand their area of influence eastwards. They used the established rules of power and strategy and asked others to play their “sheet of music.” This was done sometimes without due consideration of the interests of other neighboring countries. However, NATO and the EU have done this always with the support of local governments and populations - without using coercion in order to achieve their aims. Only Kosovo is a rare exception to this Western rule.

Outsiders who criticize the West for this policy – like Russia - need to ask themselves why their neighbors were rushing westwards and did not remain in the “Eastern club.” Critical reflection about historical experiences and respective roles may provide valuable lessons learned for the future.

However, the US is suffering from imperial overstretch due to its global commitments and internal problems. NATO seems to be hitting its limit, too, with PfP obligations and operations in Afghanistan. The EU has no clear concept as to “what and where its final destination” is. In other parts of the world the Western policy is questioned, too.

There are now many signs indicating that a period of Western supremacy could be coming to an end. The West should not complain about these “signals of history.” What is now required is a realistic assessment of their own realities and resulting political options in order to define its new place in the upcoming new world order.

A critical Western view might state: Yes, we have won over many nations and people to support our political concepts and ideas in the last decade. We offered through NATO and the EU a new option for participation in Western alliances. But we have made many mistakes, too. We did not recognize well enough that not all problems could be settled through using a “Western solution template.” In our policy maneuvers, we have dangerously disregarded the roots of historical and cultural diversity in many countries and now we are faced with the consequences.

This does not require the West to disappear into the backyard of history, by no means. In spite of all of the problems mentioned above, the West must offer a very attractive political philosophy that is based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and accountability of democratically elected governments. Regardless of all of its deficiencies – this Western approach cannot be matched by any other political design. This attractiveness and its still-impressive economic and technological power gives the West a comparative advantage over other political systems. But, it needs critical reflection – like this paper aims at – and continuous internal improvement.


"Acting in the new multipolar environment requires a new and enhanced effort for collaboration"
"Acting in the new multipolar environment requires a new and enhanced effort for collaboration"
RUSSIA is back on the political stage – but this is a Russia that is in the middle of a transition period and a transformation process. Russia is a country that could find itself on the shiny side of geopolitical developments, but with a huge burden of problems in the fields of society, infrastructure and economic readjustments. Russia does not need to be taught by the West about the ways to move forward.

Russia is again a strong political player and will safeguard its own national interests, including acting in the glacis. The West should not complain about such a political maneuver because it does not differ from the current Western (EU/NATO) approach in the glacis region and other parts of the world. It only reflects the “rules of the old strategic game.” But Russia should make sure that it offers a cooperative and not a confrontational attitude towards the West. The Georgian case could become a key element in this.

SAUDI ARABIA/IRAN/IRAQ/UAE and other Arab countries are important political and economic players with wide ranging geopolitical influence and potentials. They are key factors within an upcoming new world order and need to be integrated into structures and related organizations in a different way than today. However, they are characterized by great diversity in politics, social structures and economic potential and interests. To balance necessary modernization and maintain stability internally and externally could pose a daunting challenge to many Arab countries. The Arab world needs to define and design its future political and economic framework in quite a different way.

CHINA, INDIA and other countries are regional political powers with clear aspirations to become global players. In a globalised economy, they offer new markets, new consumers and new investors, and they have become driving forces of the world economy. They have great historical and cultural potential and have powerful geo-strategic assets like population, geography, economy and military. However, they face, like other developing countries the challenge to balance modernization and social development within their own big societies in order to provide political stability.

A view to the “East” might state: The “Rising Stars” cannot compete with the West on the political attractiveness of the democratic system. The rules of law and basic human rights are assets that these countries have to facilitate. However, the geopolitical power balance is moving eastwards. This will offer new opportunities for all countries in the decades to come. It will be a tectonic shift, which will have political repercussions as well. It will provide challenges and new opportunities, and it will inevitably lead to conflicting issues along the lines of scarce resources and respective geopolitical resource management, be it about energy, the supply of raw materials or climate change.


The changing geo-strategic landscape towards a multipolar world has caused enhanced potential for political and economic conflicts between the East and the West. The “arc from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic – Caucasus – Central Asia” offers manifold hot spots for escalation between the West, Russia and China. The two main questions for future political policy will be: “Will there be a search for cooperation in the concert of nations – in spite of all rivalry?” and “What are the rules for the big game to come?”

For the purpose of this essay let us concentrate on relations between the West and Russia because the ongoing crisis between the US/EU/NATO and Russia about Georgia is a warning signal of potentially worse things to come. The overriding task for sound policy is to prevent now that the “glacis or periphery” becomes again what it had been always in history – a playground for the antagonistic moves of competing empires.

On a global strategic level, collaboration and cooperation between the big players (the US, Russia and China) is required. This could include a new “grand bargain” on glacis issues. It could offer respective countries the freedom to choose “where they want to go” – but ensuring that the overriding interests of neighbors are respected as well. In the worst case it means division of a country. But this is sometimes better than a forced unity of people who do not want to live together. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are positive examples for such sound policy directions along this direction. A look at the hot spots in the glacis – which were mentioned earlier – shows a considerable and pending list. Nation “finding” and state building in Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus has not been finalized!

A new basic understanding about global responsibility and the share of interests between the “Big 3” is required and it would give their related alliances like the EU and NATO in Europe and the Shanghai Cooperation Council in Central Asia new cooperative roles and functions. It would synergize and synchronize these alliances instead of competing with each other. Such a political understanding would contribute to peace and stability in the world, a world that could stumble if it were a world without any order.


"Critical reflections about historical experiences may provide valuable lessons"
"Critical reflections about historical experiences may provide valuable lessons"
For the glacis in East/Southeastern Europe, the main powers are the EU, RUSSIA, NATO and the US. Other outsiders will have some influence, but they have only minor capabilities for the real shaping of the political landscape in the region. This responsibility rests upon the West and the East equally. Neither the US, the EU, NATO nor Russia can have an interest in turning this region again into a competitive advantage struggle for one side. No individual side has the chance to establish a lasting “win situation for its own empire” because the other side can keep it “boiling”. Both sides would lose and it would attract resources, which may be desperately needed to be spent somewhere else.

The West and Russia should make a lesson learned exercise with regard to all aspects of their most recent policies. The outcome is probably the conclusion that many things could have been done differently and better. A cooperative handling of the glacis could be an important effort to match the words of a “strategic EU/NATO – Russia partnership” with deeds. The decisive question for the future is not which side “country X” belongs to but rather: “How does country X contribute to the overriding and much more important relationship between the WEST/US/EU/NATO and Russia for the future?”

Developments in the West (upcoming new US administration, internal EU/NATO discussions) may turn away from the current neo-conservative approach in the West, which sees politics as a “winner–loser game” and may open the door to a new phase that will tackle critical policy issues in a more inclusive approach.


In a time of rapid globalization with an increasing struggle for scarce resources between states and enterprises and global challenges like climate change, leaders from all nations and sectors – government, business, public society – face a growing need to operate in a more multipolar and complex environment that recognizes the shared nature of risks, rewards and responsibilities.

Such a complex, multifunctional and interconnected environment poses a demanding challenge to modern government and business leaders alike. They will have to exercise leadership in their respective institutions under conditions of great complexity and uncertainty and make speedy developments in all disciplines.

This interconnected world requires from politics a move away from a hegemonial and unilateral state approach towards more cooperative action within a more multipolar global system. It requires statesmen who see “the overlap of interests” in conflicting issues, and who aim in conflict resolution for a win-win situation for all parties involved. We need leaders who see the bigger picture of the long-term consequences of their decisions and do not just strive for short-term political gains. We need political and business leaders who realize their limits in a new multipolar and interconnected world and will be able to practice political, economic and military strategies in a more collaborative way.

The call of the time is for political leaders to organize their policies along the lines of “optimizing one’s own national interests” with other parties instead of “maximizing national gains.” The latter does not suffice any longer.

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"The glacis between falling and rising powers became the contested area for exercising influence"


The glacis between the East and the West has experienced numerous efforts of outside intervention. Only a few were politically sustainable. The geopolitical winds of change create new challenges and opportunities. Acting in the new multipolar environment requires a new and enhanced effort for collaboration. The call in today’s world is to leave the old patterns of power competition and seek new opportunities for cooperation.

For important outside shaping powers - RUSSIA, the US, NATO and the EU - the new situation offers an opportunity to strive for collaboration in the glacis area from the Baltic to the Caucasus and to deepen mutual trust and cooperation at a strategic level between both sides.

The current crisis in Georgia provides a test-bed for “working together” instead of working against each other. A positive outcome along the lines mentioned before would have broader strategic implications and could provide cooperative concepts to other world regions and other partners, as well.


  • The West (EU/NATO/US) and RUSSIA should use the current hot spots in the Western Balkans and Caucasus glacis as one important element in their “strategic partnership policy” and develop cooperative concepts for the critical and outstanding issues in the region.
  • Such a cooperative policy may provide ideas for solutions in other contested areas and may offer new fields of synergy for efforts to the UN and alliances like the EU, NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Council. It may contribute to changing the current deadlock in the OSCE as well.

The people in politically contested glacis areas deserve the chance to leave the ghosts of their past behind and build their future in a collaborative environment. It is a challenge and a chance for “rising” and “falling” powers to rearrange their positions on the global stage in a cooperative way, which will bring more peace and stability to all players concerned.