Tocqueville wrote that “history is a picture gallery where there are many copies and few originals” (1). The enormous demographic, technological, economic and cultural changes of the last few decades should have proved him wrong but, instead we can notice many parallels and similarities with past processes and situations in the current transformations and developments of the present.
The breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1990 opened a brief era of unipolar American hegemony which is now waning fast partly as a consequence of inner processes of decay and disintegration in the USA and partly because of the rapid rise of the Asian giant states of China, Indonesia and India -from which many countries such as Australia and even the USA are becoming economically very dependent – the revival of Russia, the increasing autonomy of Latin America under the aegis of Brasil and the undefeated defiance of a few “resistant” states such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria, backed to a certain extent by the new great powers of the East and South.
The question pondered by many is now whether the end of the unipolar system will lead to the formation of a newly bipolar global order resting on the dynamic rivalry and interplay between China and the USA or whether a more complex international structure is taking shape, reminiscent of the 18th century “concert of Europe”, hailed by Kissinger (1954) and other geopoliticians as a crowning achievement of western strategic culture since it more or less preserved a healthy balance, from 1700 until the French Revolution, between the five or six major nations of the continent, to wit, France, the German Empire, Britain, Prussia, Spain and Russia, throughout and in spite of several wars.
It must however be pointed out that such a multipolar order that characterized and perhaps made possible the Age of Enlightenment, was more manifest in times of peace and quickly morphed into a bipolar game between two coalitions as soon as a war or even a disagreement between any two of them erupted. Generally the Catholic states of the South tended to come together against the Protestant countries of the North although that was not an automatic rule while Britain and Russia often played the roles of peripheral “balancers”.
However no state had enough actual power to submit or take over the others after the French defeat in the 1700-1711 war of Spanish Succession and a divided, fragmented Germany was no longer the (at least symbolically) hegemonic empire it had remained through much of the previous eight centuries. The vast colonial possessions of the Iberian kingdoms no more enabled them to retain predominance in Europe and the growing blue water fleets, overseas interests and territories of France and Britain pitted them against each other without yet conferring a decisive global advantage to either of them.
In this new century, we can notice some superficial resemblances to that state of affairs. The USA is bleeding itself economically to exhaustion by supporting a global array of military bases and facilities and a gigantic “defence” and espionage infrastructure, much of it fueled with secret and unaccounted funds siphoned off the public exchequer for unknown or unclear purposes. Yet its very status as the sole military superpower and its “exorbitant privilege” as emitter of the Dollar, hitherto the global reference and trading currency maintain it as an indispensable or rather inevitable power. The European Union is demographically, economically and even intellec tually (in terms of science and technology resources) bigger but is hampered by its lack of unity and leadership and comparative military weakness as its shrinking forces are under the control of US-led NATO in any event.
China is still in part a “third world” power where much of the population lives at or not much above the subsistence level while Russia is underpopulated, under-productive industrially and relying mostly on its energy and mineral sales to maintain its ranking in the elite club. Japan, India and Brazil are for various reasons still in the second tier of nations in geo-strategic terms, the first as a territorially small and insular vassal and military satellite of the USA and the other two because they are beset by daunting domestic and regional problems that they have not been able to overcome so far. The disparity and disproportions between those leading states of our times may not enable them yet to establish a truly multipolar order among equal partners. However the rather rapid impoverishment of the “First World” and the drastic downsizing of its middle classes (which are beginning to feel like the proverbial frogs in slowly heating water) is narrowing the gap between the old and the newly rising powers.
Going further back in history, the USA invites many tempting comparisons with the Roman empire, particularly in its final period and not only because the American Republic was explicitly inspired by Graeco-Roman precedents. Like Rome, the US from a republic has gradually become an increasingly tyrannical and militarised oligarchic Imperium, in nature if not in name as the old parliamentary system of checks and balances ceased to work and was replaced by the “national security state” officially run by the presidential administration which is suspected however of acting as a cover for non-elected and unidentified oligarchic interest groups.
The European Union on the other hand invites comparisons with the Greek city states after they became protectorates of the Macedonian empire or with the vassal kingdoms of Rome. As a result of its subjection, its role is fading in the global arena where it has to play second fiddle to the United States now working to further absorb it into the proposed Trans-Atlantic Partnership (TAP) in which some in the West see their only hope for maintaining some form of supremacy and resisting the competitive pressures from the rising powers to the East and South.
Many questions are also raised by the parallel American endeavour to forge a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a free trade zone intended to keep Chinese commercial and strategic expansion in check in that sprawling and critically important region. If it succeeds, the plan will put paid to Immanuel Wallerstein’s prediction (2) about a grand US-Chinese alliance directed against the Eurasian bloc which, in his view, would include Russia, former USSR member states and all or part of the EU. Rather what would develop is a bi-oceanic league of nations centered in North America with China and Russia presumably strengthening their alliance in response to that common potential economic and military threat.
There is not much doubt that in either such bi-polar scenario, Africa and even Latin America would remain divided between the oceanic Leviathan and the continental Behmoth even though Brasil’s traditional instinct is to bring its own continent together in a union emancipated from both North American and European neo-colonial preponderance . India and other South Asian states may also try to navigate between the two alliances. If Iran and perhaps Turkey are likely to join the Eurasian side, if only for reasons of geographic proximity and economic inter-dependence, the Arab world may remain in endemic turmoil as a theater of proxy warfare between the global powers.
India is historically connected to Russia almost since its liberation from colonial rule, increasingly linked with China in business terms and will find it more and more difficult to achieve a satisfactory cooperative relation with the USA so that it may eventually enter into a loose association with Eurasia together with the South East Asian nations , especially if the TPP does not come to fruition. On the other hand, the TPP would, in the form envisaged at present, be quite harmful to India’s economic interests in the East Asia/Pacific region so that it may have no choice but to come closer to Russia and China, excluded from the TPP, as a way of counterbalancing a creeping US-led regional trading block at its doorstep. The territorial conflict between Beijing and Delhi has sparked several skirmishes in the last fifty years but is not a vital matter for either party and there are much higher imperatives that could result in a wide-ranging cooperative agreement that is already taking shape de facto. There is no doubt that India would prefer to act as a swing power and remain neutral between the US and China but for its energy needs, the country will increasingly depend on Iran and some Central Asian countries that are in the orbit of both Moscow and Beijing. The Arab Gulf states are also edging closer to China, partly as a result of the latter’s rising stakes in their own economies and partly because of the obvious decline of the US which leaves them worried about their own security under the fraying American aegis.
By becoming a major oil and gas producer through its strategy of large-scale shale extraction on its soil the USA is reducing its stakes in the West Asian region and is mostly kept there by its increasingly onerous and problematic commitment to Israel.
The rising revulsion in America towards the violent, complex and unpredictable nature of Middle Eastern politics is leading the country to distance itself from that quagmire despite the vested interests of the military-industrial complex in fighting, directly or indirectly, long term regional wars away from the homeland. Instead, China, India, Japan and other Eastern nations will have ever greater need for Middle Eastern energy supplies and that should inevitably bring the Arabs closer to them. With historical “Greater India”, their neighbour the Persian Gulf nations all share very ancient cultural and trading bonds and those are getting stronger as the alien and indeed religiously inimical influence of the USA and Western Europe gradually recedes in their area whereas the clout of Asian “dragons, elephants and tigers” increases fast.
If both Saudi Arabia and Iran were strongly linked to a pan-Eurasian economic and security system, India would have a compelling reason to adhere to it as the country is geographically the indispensable connecting link between West and East Asia as well as the hegemon of the Indian Ocean. In a world of regional economic closed enclaves, the lines now connecting India to the Americas are likely to be overstretched and to lose some of their importance since the North American market will presumably become far less accessible to Indian exports, outsourcing subcontractors and emigrants.
The energy map of the planet is changing fast. Without opening up the discussion about the likely impact of improved renewable energy use and new non-fossil energy-generation technologies, we should point out that new oil and gas producing areas are being discovered all the time and are gradually coming online. Apart from the huge offshore resources located along the Brazilian coastline, one can also point to the recently charted Levantine basin (3), shared by Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Cyprus, the still untapped South Sudanese oil reserves and also to the apparently enormous gas fields located in and off Mozambique and in other areas of East Africa. The economic geography of Asia and of other parts of the world is bound to evolve accordingly and though there will be staunch competition between the various powers for access to those promising finds. It is significant that Russian and Chinese oil companies were invited by the United Arab Emirates, historically a Euro-American protectorate and ally, in 2013 to bid for a new giant oil field to be opened up in Abu Dhabi (4). Considering the importance taken by the tiny Emirate of Qatar on the global stage in view of its natural gas exports, one can imagine how wealthy and influential Iran and its Shiite-majority ally Iraq could grow once their energy reserves are harnessed to their full potential to feed the booming Asian and African markets.
An incipient Russo-Sino-Iranian alliance, linked through the land routes and financial vehicles built under the auspices of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and EURASEC (Eurasian Economic Community) would indeed be a formidable coalition of natural riches, technical and scientific human resources, massive population and military power that could complement and activate both ASEAN and the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) . Under that shadow, the sparsely populated, immigration dependent and militarily weak nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council would probably have to join a regional collective security system, proposed by Iran since several years (5), for their own survival.
Other geopolitical changes will ensue from both climatic and man-made developments. For instance, the loss of the ice cap over most of the Arctic region is opening a new sea route connecting Europe with Northern Asia along the Siberian shore, allowing China to become a polar power in cooperation with the Russian Federation and is also making new oil and gas deposits accessible for exploitation. This prospect has already triggered a military competition between Russia on the one hand (backed by the CSTO, the security alliance it leads) and the USA and its NATO confederates on the other. There is, in the medium term future a real possibility of military conflict in the boreal region. Another factor is the growing network of road and railway links being built and funded mainly by the PRC, Kazakhstan and the RF across Central Asia and Russia between China , South and West Asia and Europe (6). A South-North land borne axis is taking shape through Iran and the former USSR Republics of Central Asia and the Caspian region to link the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea with the European/Baltic region. These new thoroughways would supplement and probably reduce the importance of the longer and more problematic sea routes around South Asia and Africa or through the Suez canal.
The formation of a TPP might bring India and China together in defence of their respective economic interests while the unlikely but possible formation of an effective G-2 between the USA and China would force New Delhi to seek relief with the Russia-led EURASEC that could well embrace in one form or another Iran, Turkey and Germany in the years to come, whether or not the European Union turns into a real quasi-superstate or fades into a mere symbolic shadow of itself like the Holy Roman Empire that survived only as a diplomatic convention between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. With Bismarck at the helm, the smaller but revived Prusso-German realm struck an alliance with Russia to buttress its predominance in Europe. A smaller (northern and central) EU headed by Berlin is likely to move into the same position, reaching out to the Orient through a renewed Ostpolitik rather than a revival of the age-old Drang nach Osten.
Hence the familiar pattern observed at various times in the past may well apply in the coming years. Five or six regional groupings formed around strong national core-states and with a fluctuating periphery of smaller nations are taking shape and will gradually increase their autonomy from each other until a conflict of global proportions or existential impact breaks out, at which time they will converge around two opposite poles along fairly predictable lines dictated by geopolitical and economic considerations and contingencies.
1- de Tocqueville, A, 1999, L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution, Gallimard/Folio, Paris
2- Wallerstein, I, 2001-02, The End of the World as we Know It (University of Minnesota Press). And The Geopolitics of Ukraine’s Schism (www.iwallerstein.com/commentaries) no 271, Feb 15, 2014
3- Arbuthnot F, Dec. 30, 2013, Israel: Gas, Oil and Trouble in the Levant, Global Research (www.globalresearch.com/israel-gas-oil-and-troubles-in-the-levant/5362955)
5- Iran offers a new Security System for the Region, Borysten Intel (bintel.com.ua/en/analytics/iran-predlagaet-sistemu-bezopasnosti/)
6- Bassanini F, Baydakov M et al, Transeurasian Corridor of Razvitie, New Dimension of Cooperation, (Gromyko Y, ed.) 2012 (west-east.org/bocconi/images/pdf/book_eng.pdf)
- Come Carpentier de Gourdon is Convener of the Editorial Board of the World Affairs Journal. The article has been published at Pressenza, April 12, 2015 .