The Shifting Sands of Global Order


The resistance to diplomatic solutions today is common to most of the major conflicts affecting world peace. Vladimir Putin’s revisionism has launched NATO into the biggest military buildup on Russia’s borders since the Cold War. An Arab-Israeli peace is as elusive as the chance of an imploding broader Middle East making peace with itself anytime soon. And in East Asia, China’s challenge to U.S. military hegemony threatens to corral these two powers into a Thucydides trap. A similar strategic deadfall was in Sir Eyre Crowe’s mind when he predicted in his famous 1907 memorandum that Germany’s defiance of British naval hegemony was bound to lead to war—which it did in 1914.

Understanding Middle East Disorder

A military response can always temporarily change the balance of power, but it does not offer durable solutions, be it in East Asia, Syria, Palestine, or Ukraine. It certainly cannot resolve situations that stem from deeply rooted cultural and religious convictions, like the rise of Islamist extremism. Young people are being drawn to jihadism out of a quest for status and belonging to a wider community. Young men in a state of emotional deprivation embrace religion as a way to extricate themselves from a life of hopelessness and failure. A religious mission, even when it leads to death and destruction, is their way to greater meaning.

The current Middle East mayhem is largely due to America’s oscillation between two destructively destabilizing approaches. First it was George W. Bush’s “constructive instability” strategy—he eventually left the region at the instability stage—and then Obama’s vacillation between withdrawal and timid engagement.

Yet, the crisis in the lands of Islam is fundamentally a civilizational and homegrown conflict. The lesson from Iraq and from Israel’s war with Hamas and Hezbollah is that forging international and regional alliances around a legitimate objective and an educated understanding of complex historical conditions are more adequate than sheer military capacity for tackling complex religious and cultural conflicts. Israel’s way against Hamas—two eyes for an eye—represents a nihilistic decline into a permanent state of war. After a long, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, Washington finally accepted that negotiating with the Taliban is no anathema.

Engaging political Islam needs to be a central component of a new reform and peace strategy in the Middle East. The challenge is not how to destroy Islamic movements, but how to turn them away from revolutionary politics by allowing them legitimate political space. The tense equation between the incumbent Arab regimes and political Islam cannot be a zero-sum game, as Egyptian President Sisi pretends. Taking religion out of the public square is a Western liberal model that cannot work in the Arab world. The region has a formidable and historic task of building a modern state for devout people.

Eradicating the mother of all jihadists, the Islamic State, is of course a noble mission. Yet, it is conducted within a tension between values and highly uncertain strategic benefits. The Islamic State is the symptom, not the root cause, of the meltdown of artificial Arab states. The only true antidotes to the group are strong and solid Arab states. The borders of its expansion are functional Sunni states with a firm national identity, like Turkey, and solid nation-states, like Iran and Israel. Should the Islamic State try to expand toward Jordan, it would meet an orderly state whose survival is a primordial Israeli concern.

Sunni warlords are bound to be a persistent phenomenon in Arab lands as long as the socio-political environment that has produced them remains unchanged. The indigenous Islamist groups operating beyond the Caliphate borders—in Sinai and North Africa—might have sworn allegiance to al-Baghdadi, but they neither owe their existence to him, nor will they disappear if the Islamic State’s core is defeated.

The challenge posed by the Russia–Iran–Hezbollah axis is far more robust than that of the Islamic State, and its strategic goals are already being attained. They go beyond just consolidating a resurrected Syria and Iraq as unfriendly nations to the West. An Assad victory in the Syrian war would mean the end of Sunni communities as a social and political force in the space stretching from the liberated Damascus–Aleppo arch down to the Lebanese border. The Iranian Shia empire would then consist of a contiguous belt stretching from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It also has footholds in the Shia areas of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen, where the Houthis have become Iran’s proxy in the local war.

The United States has lost the will and capacity to challenge this radical reshaping of the strategic game in the Middle East, a region that will remain for a long time vital to the security of the West. The irony of it all is that Washington is almost exclusively focused on fighting the Islamic State, precisely the one piece of the puzzle that counterbalances the Moscow-led axis. America is now paving the way, through its obsession with the Islamic State and its estrangement from its Sunni allies in the region, for the consolidation of a takeover of the Middle East by Moscow and Tehran in connivance with Turkey, a NATO member that is closer these days to Moscow than to Washington.

The Islamic State may or may not be defeated, but the United States is bound to once again betray its most efficient allies in the war, the Kurdish Peshmerga. Washington’s strategic trap is such that compensating the Kurds with their longed for statehood would be torpedoed by all of America’s reluctant allies and foes, including Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. It is certainly not going to be a Wilsonian post-war ideal for the Kurds.

Missing Multilateralism

The world would be a better place if powers, small and big alike, moved past their penchant for unilateral action. Multilateralism was definitely vital in solving conflicts, such as those in the Balkans. A growing multilateral consensus was also responsible for the successful negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the climate change deal reached in Paris.

But in the conflict theaters where nothing less than world peace is at stake, such as the Middle East and East Asia, actors are either going their own way or are incapable of devising convincing multilateral solutions. Stymied by domestic constraints, Washington has become an utterly ineffective broker in the Palestine process—it would do well to relinquish its monopoly over it. A multilateral enterprise along the lines of the negotiations with Iran would definitely be more effective.

Conspicuously, the most important emerging world actor, China, has traditionally been indifferent to multilateralism, a concept entirely alien to its political vocabulary. What China is looking for in its strategic vicinity is mastery, not a multilateral order. Beijing wants a return to the principles of the Westphalian system, namely no interference in its own internal affairs on matters of human rights. It also opposes circumventing this principle through Western-inspired concepts such as the so-called responsibility to protect, be it in Syria or North Korea.

There is nothing more dangerous in international relations than a strong power that is also insecure. Israel’s penchant for overreaction on security matters and Iran’s nuclear adventure and anti-status-quo strategy are cases of two encircled and isolated powers whose regional behavior stems from a genuine sense of existential vulnerability.

China is no different—it is an insecure giant. Its rise is compounded by fear and uncertainty. Its encirclement by what it considers a foreign power, the United States, that threatens to encroach on its territorial integrity and Westphalian sovereignty is bound to turn Beijing into a revolutionary force bent on changing the status quo in East Asia. Before China and the United States overstep each other’s boundaries, it is advisable to abandon the language of “primacy” and “containment” in favor of a regional concert of big Asian powers capable of solving differences and reducing tensions.

Winners in a Changing Global Order

With Putin’s revisionism and Donald Trump’s supposed isolationism, China may still emerge, however, as the real champion of the established global order. Throughout history, as we learned from Thucydides, it was the rising power, not the established one, that worked to upset the normal order. To prevent a revolutionary behavior of lesser powers, the global power should have an interest in upholding international institutions. Now it is America that has assumed with Trump a revolutionary position, while China defends global governance, the WTO, the Paris climate accord, and the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Military buildup in East Asia is compounded by a real war closer to Europe. To Vladimir Putin, the 1945 Yalta agreement did not die; its borders simply moved eastward. Putin is no Hitler, but he shares with him two ominous traits. One is his tendency to push the inherent laxity of democracies to fight back to the limits, and the other is the ambition to create a territorial contiguity with Russia’s ethnic minorities beyond its borders.

Trump arrived in the White House after Putin had already upset the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East, and assumed the task of undoing the European Union. Russian banks saved Marine Le Pen’s campaign after she was refused credits by French banks. Eastern Europeans are being drawn back to their core identity as Christians and Slavs, and Russian state-sponsored propaganda is already driving former Soviet republics away from the EU. Pro-Russian governments are now in place in Moldova, Bulgaria, and Estonia. The Czech Republic and Hungary have been campaigning for the end of “this nonsense,” as Czech President Milos Zeman called the EU sanctions on Russia.

Hopefully, Trump’s fascination with Putin will not prevent him from redressing the balance of power as part of, if not as a condition for, a true reset with Moscow. What kind of a realist would Trump be if he didn’t use a united Western alliance to reset relations with Moscow before acquiescing to a Yalta-style division of spheres of influence as if the Berlin Wall never fell?

Portraying Putin as the movie’s bad guy will solve nothing, however. Of all people, it was George Kennan, the man who defined America’s Cold War strategy, who also warned against NATO’s enlargement. Instead of expanding a hostile military alliance up to Russia’s borders, what was required was a strategy for engaging Russia and respecting its legitimate security concerns and sense of status.

The West is left with practically no cards to play in the Syrian war. It is then Ukraine that holds the key to reaching an understanding with Moscow. The February 2015 decentralization project for Ukraine, a key demand of Moscow, is still a dead letter. Europe, a “patient in an iron lung,” as Arthur Koestler defined it 70 years ago, is now going through another momentous existential crisis, and it is truly pathetic to think that its embrace of Ukraine as a potential member, an idea fiercely opposed by Putin, could be the solution to Kiev’s colossal financial problems.

This is not about resuscitating the Soviet empire; it is about reordering its dangerously chaotic dismemberment and ultimately engaging Russia in a benign cooperation with the West while strictly limiting Russian revisionism. Russia has a right to feel free from NATO’s presence in its immediate near-abroad, provided Moscow acknowledges the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

Sanctions are not going to bring Russia to its knees. Its vast geography, nuclear capabilities, and immense cultural baggage make it a power to be reckoned with. A global superpower it is not, but Russia can be a highly dangerous global spoiler.

The Coming Global Order

No modern autocrat can survive through naked power alone—a doctrine and a mission are always required. That emerging powers, such as China, Russia, Turkey, and a plethora of non-state actors, are challenging a world order they had no part in drafting represents, in essence, the assertion of civilizational distinctions. The Western-inspired order of political correctness, the primacy of human rights, and international rules of conduct over the Westphalian concept of national sovereignty are incompatible with the traditions of the new rising powers and the major civilizations that are now asserting their presence with particular virulence.

Due to the evident exhaustion of Western universalism, Henry Kissinger’s recipe in his latest book, World Order, of a return to the Westphalian system and the balance of power is gaining ground. President Trump’s abhorrence of multilateralism, his promise of a spectacular boost to military budgets and nuclear arsenals, and his departure from America’s enlightened global mission in the name of an “America First” idea with its ugly echoes from its own history are steps in that very direction. In this context, the possible withdrawal of South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia from the International Criminal Court, along with calls from the African Union for a mass withdrawal, are part of an illiberal zeitgeist that is gaining ground both in domestic politics and in the international sphere.

It might, however, be premature to declare the death of multilateralism. The world’s economies are too interdependent and trade wars would prove to be self-defeating. The compelling reality of climate change is bound to defeat its deniers and environmental challenges can only be tackled collectively. Wars can be declared unilaterally, but the resolution of conflicts, even when there seems to be an apparent winner as in the case of Syria’s war, will always require a concert of nations. In the case of the Israel–Palestine situation, we’ve even seen Donald Trump advocate a “regional solution.”

And, what about those areas and groups that have not even reached the Westphalian stage, including a great part of the Arab and Muslim Middle East? What about the spaces where no one is in charge and non-state actors and secondary states are starting to set their own agendas and are not deterred by the balance between world powers?

Allowing these foci of world concern to go through the entire historical cycle until they are fully “Westphalianized” is too dangerous for world peace. If global anarchy is to be averted, world powers—the Euro-Atlantic community with an engaged Russia—and regional actors need to facilitate transitions to more stable arrangements.

Universal peace is a dream for the fullness of time. Time and again, the attitude of Europe’s statesmen in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars (as it was interpreted in Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored) that the optimal objective is not universal peace but periods of stability as prolonged as possible has been vindicated. But even this requires that we are blessed with leaders that do not start a war out of anger or fight a battle out of spite.


Shlomo Ben-Ami is the former foreign minister of Israel.