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Thursday, January 2 2014
2014, The New War of the Worlds
Twenty-five years after the collapse of Communism, the world is still divided in three subworlds at least. The West is facing a coalition of authoritarian nations led by Russia and China. And failed States proliferate in the former Third World.
Back in the Cold War years, from 1945 to 1989, there were three worlds.
The First World, known otherwise as the West, encompassed the United States and the industrialized countries that had not fallen in the hands of the Soviet Union. It was centered on the United States, both as a military and political protector and as an economic godfather. Still, the lesser partners – especially the former European Great Powers, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and the former Asian Great Power, Japan - enjoyed much autonomy, were free to set up their own political system or economic agenda, and were not just allowed by America, but actually encouraged, to build up regional cooperation among themselves.
Originally, the First World was supposed to be the Whole World, or at least the Whole Developed World. Throughout World War Two, America, under the Roosevelt administration, had made plans for a future world system : the idea was not to repeat the dreadful blunders, from isolationism to economic anarchy to indifference to agression and human rights violations, that had led to fascism and war in the 1930’s. World peace was to be protected by the United Nations Organization and its Security Council. World cooperation was the matter of various UN agencies, including a World Bank, a Word Monetary Fund, and a World Trade Organization. Human rights and the rule of law were to be guaranteed, once and for all, by a comprehensive new international declaration and a World Court of Justice.
For a while, the Truman administration attempted earnestly to implement the Roosevelt administration vision. However, it quickly appeared that the Soviet Union, America’s and Britain’s ally against Nazi Germany and –belatedly – Imperial Japan, had a completely different agenda. It was not interested in a new world order but rather in carving out its own world empire out of whatever it could grab.
Some parts of the Whole World plan were implemented : the UN, some of its agencies, the Declaration on Human Rights. It was much more window dressing than substance. However, America went on with the rest of the plan, in a more effective if more limited way, wherever the Soviet Union could not interfere : as a military shield against agression, Nato and other regional treaties substituted for a tame UN ; the World Bank and the World Monetary Fund were duly established – and completed by such new international organizations as OECE and Gatt ; in Western Europe at least, regional bodies like the Council of Europe and later on the European Assembly functiond as stalwart defensors of human rights.
The First World worked well. As a consequence of both initial assets pertaining to industrialization and wise global, American-led, governance, it achieved throughout the period an unprecedented growth in wealth, personal freedom and living standards. That achievement, in turn, cemented the First World even more, and helped it overcome what appears, retrospectively, as its midlife crisis : a decade-long crisis that lasted from the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s.
The Second World was the Communist World : countries that, out of all kinds of circumstances, had opted for or had been forced upon with, a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Many of them were not industrialized when then went red. Some were only industrialized in part (Russia had been a prime example). Very few – Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia – were fully industrialized from the very onset.
From the late 1950s on, it became apparent that this Second World was splitting into more subworlds : there was the Soviet-controlled Communist World on one side, and the Chinese-controlled, or Chinese-influenced, Communist World on the other side, and a few countries in between.
As for the Third World, it consisted of everybody else, that is to say of every former colonial or semi-colonial nation that had not gone Communist. Many Third World countries were still mired in archaic, premodern, conditions. Some had both modern and premodern features (Latin America came to mind). Some ascribed their shortcomings to the former colonial rulers and were eager to distance themselves from them. Some opted for hard work along Western lines, or more specifically Japanese lines, and were confident they could replicate the Western success story in due time.
The Cold War started as a confrontation between the two first worlds, with Europe as the main putative battleground. However, the American-Soviet balance of nuclear armaments and deterrence (the « balance of terror ») soon made bilateral fighting, even at conventional level, impossible or very unlikely. The only way for each side to weaken the other side was thus to encircle it, so to say, through proxy wars and indirect action in the Third World.
The Cuba missiles crisis in 1962 was a turning point in this respect. Originally, the Soviets thought of Red Cuba in plain anti-American confrontational terms : the island was to be used as an advanced platform for a nuclear attack, or the threat of a nuclear attack, on the continental United States. When the Kennedy administration made clear it would not countenance such a development, the Soviets settled for compromise : they withdrew their non-conventional devices or personnels from Cuba against an American promise not to topple the Castro regime. From then on, Cuba was given a completely new role : it was to be Russia’s top proxy in the Third World, as the leader of the Tricontinental Conference, a loose confederacy of revolutionary and anti-Western groups.
Third World countries had initially attempted to remain out of the struggle. One reason was that they saw the United States and the Soviet Union as two faces of a single coin - an enduring White European supremacy that had humiliated them and quite often brutalized them since the 16th century for some of them, or the 19th century for most of them. Hence the launching in 1955 of what purported to be a coalition of « non aligned countries », the best attempt of the Third World to coalesce into a geopolitical force in its own right. However, most Third World countries (and most Third World regimes) were just too weak to resist enticement or interference from either the West or the Communist Second World.
For most of the Cold War, the Soviets were seen in the Third World as the more promising option. While White, European and post-Christian themselves, and the heirs of a massive colonial empire in Eurasia, the Soviets were supposed to have rebelled against « imperialism », that is to say against classic White European supremacy. Moreover, the Soviet recipes in governance (Statism, one party rule, revolutionary mobilization, emphasis on heavy industry, social engineering) were more attractive than the more piecemeal and step by step approach advocated by Americans and other Westerners. And the Soviet system rested ultimatley on naked power. Something that was enormously attractive to most Third World cultures.
Unsurprisingly, the « midlife crisis » of the West – a very complex phenomenon, involving an economic slowdown and youth rebellions in most European countries as well as setbacks like the Vietnam War – was also the heyday of the Third World romance with Communism. By the late 1970’s, it looked as if every « developing » country was turning « progressive ». In a quick succession, Western dominoes were falling : from South-East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) to the Middle East (Iran) to Africa (Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola) to Latin America and the Caribeans (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Grenada).
Then, something unforeseen happened. The Reagan Restoration not only made America the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world again, in just a few years, but helped launching a world wide technological transformation – the third, information-based, industrial revolution – that on the one hand proved too much for Communism to cope with, and on the other hand allowed for a growing number of Third World emergent countries to emerge for real and join the First World. Communism collapsed almost instantly and almost everywhere as a system.
For a while, it seemed, as Francis Fukuyama famously claimed, that « history had ended » and that an American centered « new world order » would finally be enforced. Twenty-five years later, we know that history is back. And that the world is divided again.
There is still a democratic and free market West, it is still American centered, and it remains the wealthiest, most effective and most powerful part of the world. As compared to the Cold War’s West, it is much larger : it now comprises not only of North America, Western Europe, Oceania, Japan, but of Eastern Europe, and many East Asian and Latin American countries as well. All in all, its total gross product was close to 49 000 billion dollars in 2013, out of a world’s gross product of 74 000 billion dollars : 65,2 %. Its average GDP per capita was 40 000 dollars : more than four times the world product per capita in real terms. Its total military budget was over 900 billion dollars, almost two thirds of the world military expenditures, which amounted to almost 1600 billions. According to the Shanghai Ranking, 450 out of the 500 top universities in the world are Western (including Western/East Asian). Most of science intensive and innovation intensive industries are Western based.
However, there is still an authoritarian Second World, still centered on the former Cold War Communist Empires. And it is still challenging the West.
Russia renounced Communism as a secular religion and an economic utopia, but did not embrace democracy, nor the market economy. Rather, it reverted – even under Yeltsin and all the more so under Putin - to a core national tradition, patrimonialism (the State as the ultimate owner, the State servants as feudatory beneficiaries). On the one hand, it prevented Russia to become a major player in the innovation intensive early 21st century economy : nobody has heard, so far, of a successful Russian venture in high tech or the social networks. On the other hand, it enabled it to derive cash from the rise of energy and raw materials prices in the 2000’s, from arms sales and, last but not least, from nuclear and ballistic technology transfers.
In geostrategic terms, Russia lost in between 1989 and 1991 its outer sphere of domination in Eastern Europe and the Third World and even what it called the « near foreign » or peripheric sphere : the non-Russian albeit Russified countries, from the Ukraine and Bielorussia to the Caucasus and Central Asia - that had been part of the Tsars realms, respectively, since the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries.
On the other hand, the ex-Soviet power apparatus remained very much in place in Russia proper, and even reasserted itself as a nationalist power apparatus under the Yeltsin and Putin regimes. Moreover, it gradually recovered much of the lost ground abroad. Most of the « near foreign » independent nations remained as post-Sovietic as Russia and kept or resumed ties with their former imperial overlord ; they are supposed to join Russia in 2015 in an Eurasian Union that will look much like a half-revived USSR. Former Soviet military and geopolitical alliances in the Third World and even in Europe were maintained or revived, with a special emphasis on energy, weapons and strategic techonology transfers. Last but not least, the vast array of Cold War covert action and political penetration networks was never dismantled but on the contrary gradually reactivated.
China took a completely different approach but kept similar goals. Deng Xiaoping renounced Communism as an economic utopia as soon as he seized power, in 1977 ; but he retained a blend of Communism and Chinese nationalism as a civic religion and the Communist Party as a ruling class vested with absolute power. The formula – reminiscent of Meiji Japan’s Fukoku Kyohei (« Rich country, strong army ») program – seemed to fail in 1989 but then worked exceedingly well. In less than thirty years, China became the world’s largest manufacture, and the second economic power after the United States. Its GDP grew at an almost 10 % rate. Three hundreds millions of Chinese citizens – out of a 1,3 billion population, admittedly – entered prosperity. Still, China seems as interested in achieving political and military dominance in East Asia and Central Asia and other places as in becoming the 21st century superpower in science, technology, business and trade.
The national interests of Russia and China may differ or even collide in the long run. For the time being, the two Empires cooperate closely in many fields and tend to coordinate their strategic and diplomatic policies, notably at international organizations and forums, in order to resist the West’s de facto hegemony. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), that primarily brings together Russia, China and several Central Asian former Soviet Republics, is one vehicle among others of such cooperation : it conducted bilateral or multilateral military exercises since 2003, and facilitated bilateral or multilateral arms trade. Even more remarkable is the cooperation in terms of diplomatic, media and influence campaigns : both countries networks are mutually supportive on issues like the legality or legitimacy of Chinese rule in Tibet or of Russia’s influence in the « near foreign » post-Soviet countries.
The Russian-Chinese tandem is eager to win over allies, especially among the most developed and most authoritarian and nationalistic former Third World countries. SCO has gradually coopted a wide range of associate countries, from emerging India, to religious-nationalist Iran to neo-Ottoman Turkey. Further agreements interlink SCO and its associates to ANC-ruled South Africa, emerging Brazil, neoperonist Argentina and « bolivarist » Venezuela, not to forget Cuba and North Korea. Clearly, a global anti-Western alliance is in the making.
What then of the Third World ? The world as a whole has undergone an impressive economic growth over the past twenty-five years. Many former Third World countries have either qualified as Western-style fully industrialized countries or as emerging nationalist powers along Russia and China. Still, many areas remain underdeveloped, well below a 5000 dollars and even a 1000 dollars per capita GDP, and as such remain pawns in larger geopolitical games. Some have gone even lower : they have desintegrated as States, broken up in several de facto sub-States, or entirely fallen into chaos. According to the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index (FSI) – a yearly report published by Foreign Policy since 2005 - 60 countries out of 178 fit into that category in 2013 : one out of three. Somalia, the number one country on FSI, collapsed almost thirty years ago. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, or more recent failed countries like Libya, Syria or the Ukraine, barely fare better. And so forth.
However, the failed States have not vanished into thin air. They have been taken over, in one way or another, by infra-State powers : from criminal networks (trafficking in drugs, slaves, raw materials and many other commodities) to terrorist brotherhoods. And they still interact, in one way or another, with the Western or anti-Western functional States : as markets or as providers. In addition, a growing proportion of the legal and illegal immigration that is reshaping the demographics of North America and Europe is in fact stemming from the failed and chaotic ex-States. While most immigrants simply look for a better life or can be described as bona fide asylum seekers, many of them may be, willingly or unwillingly, agents of the predatory infra-States powers.
A vexing question is whether Western observers and decision makers have fully grasped the new world system – or rather the New War of the Worlds – and drawn the proper strategic consequences. Europe is largely inert, apathic, and unable to take care of its own global defense. The United States, under the apalling Obama administration, is powerful but blind. Nato has not realized yet that at least one of its members, Turkey, is now a member of an hostile counter-alliance.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2014
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-thank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
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