By Assad Bhuglah
The world is witnessing a new period of great uncertainty. Security alliances that were established in the post-World War II era are gradually disintegrating at both bilateral and multilateral levels. New coalitions such as the G8 and G20 do not have the capacity to replace them. The dominant discourse of the Washington Consensus for a broadly free market is losing prominence while various forms of neo-protectionism and economic nationalism are rapidly gaining ground. Likewise, the idealistic rhetoric of global integration is rapidly losing confidence. In the wake of rising geopolitical tensions among major global powers, rising far-right movements and xenophobia, economic protectionism and regional turf wars, nationalistic tendencies are strongly raising their heads.
As trends in neo-protectionism, trade tensions, currency wars, far-right politics, xenophobia and superpowers meddling in volatile regions such as the Middle East gained ground, proponents of sustainable and humane development, equitable distribution and poverty alleviation found it increasingly difficult to have their voices heard – so much so that the early optimism and enthusiasm surrounding the G20's ability to resolve urgent international problems concerning trade liberalization, terrorism and climate change through participatory decision-making have all but evaporated.
All of these developments are prelude to a transition period for the international system. As the previously dominant power of the post-war regime, the guarantor of the Bretton Woods system and the liberal trading order, the U.S. is withdrawing from its policing position and refusing to undertake the costs associated with global governance. On the other hand, politically the U.S. is playing a risky and tense game in critical conflict zones such as the Middle East in an attempt to acquire geostrategic and economic advantages in turbulent waters. Vividly seen during the most recent crisis in the Gulf, the hypocrisy and double standards of U.S. power manifested in declaring Qatar a terrorism-sponsoring state and signing agreements with the same state for the sale of billions of dollars' worth of high-tech military equipment in just one week. The corollary of the Gulf crisis, especially for the countries in the Middle East, was the first-hand opportunity to observe that the U.S. cannot be trusted during crisis situations.
Donald Trump's election as U.S. president seemed to have triggered worsening trends in various realms of international relations. The Trump administration’s disavowal of international institutions and scepticism of global governance will complicate international cooperation in 2017 and beyond. Trump’s “America First” policy abdicates U.S. global leadership and endorses U.S. unilateralism at a time when the globalized world demands more sustained, coordinated action to mitigate global challenges like climate change, terrorism, and cyber conflict, which can climb any border wall, no matter how high. At the recent G20 Summit, world leaders found that ‘compromises and answers" on climate change and trade liberalization looked very grim, given the predetermined positions of U.S. President Donald Trump on these issues. At a time when the U.S. raised the stakes of neo-protectionism against emerging economies, Putin opposed global trade restrictions, indicating that financial sanctions on a political pretext were damaging the global economy, in an apparent reference to the Western sanctions against Russia.
When it comes to the ever-deepening diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Russia, Trump, despite his admiration for Putin, has been taken hostage by the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex that constantly favour confrontation with Moscow. Since the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia following the military invasion of Crimea, the tone of anti-Russian rhetoric in U.S. Congress became increasingly harsher. Hence, despite the helpless efforts of Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to resolve the outstanding issues amicably with Putin, U.S. Congress codified the sanctions against Russia on the pretext of "violation of the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and Crimea, brazen cyberattacks and interference in elections and continuing aggression in Syria." The latest congressional amendment added, "broad new sanctions on key sectors of Russia's economy including mining, metals, shipping and railways" while authorizing "assistance to strengthen democratic institutions and counter disinformation across Central and Eastern European countries that are vulnerable to Russian aggression and interference."
Rising geopolitical tensions and a lack of clarity on U.S. objectives and intentions complicates multilateral policy coordination. China, Iran, and Russia, among other countries, are filling the strategic vacuum. In Asia, denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula remains atop the world’s non-proliferation agenda, but misaligned priorities and geostrategic mistrust among the main powers, not least China and the United States, make a durable solution elusive. Meanwhile, geopolitical competition is increasingly intruding into cyberspace. Although the internet has become indispensable to billions, conflicting national positions on cybersecurity and cyber governance have prevented the emergence of international norms of state conduct.
China's increasing dominance in global production and trade networks became a real security issue for the American state establishment, which posited that Beijing was on course to translate this economic might into military muscle. Therefore, multiple challenges against Beijing in the form of economic neo-protectionism as well as intensified security collaboration with Japan, South Korea and India were perceived as parts of a systemic attempt to encircle this giant player in Asia. Even the recent removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan was interpreted as a move supported by Washington in an attempt to constrain the close allies of China in the region. While the focus of American foreign policy shifted to the Asia-Pacific, ongoing tensions in the South China Sea continued to produce new sources of friction, with nuclear threats from North Korea attracting increased attention.
As the U.S. enters into a more isolationist policy under Trump and given that Russia does not have the economic means to carry the burden of long-term proactive foreign policy, it is only a matter of time until Beijing takes centre stage as a major player in global governance and conflict resolution in critical areas such as the Middle East. For now, China is trying to complete its internal consolidation and regional connectivity through initiatives, like the Silk Road dubbed as “One-Belt-One-Road” Project, which also has an offshoot in the Indian Ocean, known as Maritime Silk Road. However, patient observers will not have to wait long to witness the gradual transformation of China's cautious attitude into one of global, diplomatic proactivity.