Unipolarity crumbles to give way to multipolarity

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Since the multipolar order reflects the reality of state power: it goes beyond the proforma concept of the Westphalian sovereignty of all states, but instead recognises that “real sovereignty may be only achieved by a combination and coalition of states”…writes Talmiz Ahmad

(In Part-1 of this article the author argues that the war in Ukraine may be the culmination of a failed attempt by the US-led west to artificially and unrealistically impose a unipolar world order, which resulted following the collapse of the Berlin wall, and subsequently the Soviet Union. But with the emergence a multipolar world led by Russia and China, this attempt at perpetuating the “unipolar moment” may no longer be achievable.)

As noted above, for most Russian security thinkers and practitioners, the West is intent on weakening Russia through regime-change initiatives at its borders and even by seeking to subvert the country from within through a ‘colour revolution.’ It is in this background that Russia has shaped a strategic approach that would safeguard its security, support its great power aspirations, and serve to realise its vision of a new order that would attract regional and extra-regional backing and contribute to regional and global stability � the centrality of ‘Eurasia.’

In 2011, Putin wrote an article for Izvestiya, in which he introduced his idea of a ‘Eurasian Union.’ He spoke of it as “a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.” This idea was then institutionalised in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU): it started as a customs union in 2011 and became an economic union in 2015. Besides Russia, its members are: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Its objective is to create a single market for goods, capital, labour and services, evolving later into a more integrated entity, on the lines of the European Union.

This grouping is complemented by a defence grouping � the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) � that includes all the EAEU members, plus Tajikistan. The CSTO promotes cooperation among member-countries to cope with domestic security challenges and external military threats.

However, Putin’s greatest diplomatic achievement has been the co-option of China into the idea of Eurasia.

Putin first spoke in public about ‘Greater Eurasia’ in September 2013 at the annual general meeting of the influential think tank, the Valdai Club. In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping also spoke in Astana, Kazakhstan, about the ‘Silk Road Economic Zone’ and, a month later, he presented in Jakarta his vision of the ’21st Century Maritime Silk Road.’ These two visions to revive logistical linkages of the old Silk Road and the maritime Spice Route were collectively referred to as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) and later as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), highlighting that the participation of partner countries and the projects envisaged were both open-ended and would expand to accommodate new proposals.

In May 2015, Putin and Xi Jinping issued a joint statement on cooperation between the EAEU and the implementation of the OBOR projects. Xi Jinping referred to the “linking of the two countries’ development strategies” and “development of deeper economic relations in Eurasia,” while Putin envisaged their cooperation as “opening up joint economic space across the Eurasian Continent.” A dialogue platform was set up to provide concrete ways in which EAEU and OBOR could be harmonised. Thus, from the outset, Russia and China have tried to ensure that Putin’s EAEU and Xi Jinping’s OBOR are not viewed as competitive. This perception is being supported by Chinese commentators as well; as Li Xin has noted: “In geo-economic terms, Russia’s Greater Eurasia and China’s One Belt, One Road are the same thing.”

Not surprisingly, western writers have tended to be sceptical, even hostile, to the idea of Eurasia and the Sino-Russian partnership that is at its centre. In an intemperate outburst, Casey Michel spoke of Putin’s idea of Eurasia as “layered with remarkable fraudulence and outright fabrication” that now “threatens the post-Cold War order”. Sino-Russian interests have been described by several observers as a “marriage of convenience, based on fragile common interests, that will not last”.

This view does not enjoy universal support. Nadege Rolland, writing a year before the pandemic sharply divided the US and China, said that “evidence points to an increasingly deep condominium between the two powers. � China and Russia are certainly looking together in the same direction with equal yearning towards Eurasia.” In support of this contention, she noted: one, both share the sense of a western threat to contain and ultimately undermine them; two, both share the interest in Eurasian security and stability, and, three, both share the need for partnership with the other � China knows that its own “regional supremacy cannot be achieved if Russia is antagonised and stands in the way”. Hence, both countries are seeking to converge and balance their interests � as evidenced by the converging of the EAEU and BRI proposals.

Li Ziguo of the China Institute of International Studies supports this position. He wrote in April 2019 that “there is no contradiction in principle” between EAEU and BRI and that the link between them is the result of “strategic thinking” on the part of Russia and China. These initiatives are a response of the two countries to US attempts to contain them by broadening their ties with the ‘outside world.’ They provide several immediate benefits to Central Asian participants � shared markets across Eurasia, trade facilitation through customs cooperation and e-commerce, and massive investments in joint projects to expand local potential, particularly in agricultural produce.

The perceptions of Russian commentators are equally ambitious: they see “Greater Eurasia” as a long-term conceptual framework embracing geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-ideological thinking that would, over time, achieve an economic, political and cultural renaissance among the Eurasian states; this would finally make Eurasia into a global economic and political centre.

Alarmed by these serious challenges to its order, US-led opposition to this alternative global order is now centred on the Ukraine conflict.


The US pushback

The US is leading the confrontation against Russia. It has mobilised its NATO allies in Europe into a hard coalition, without entering into the conflict directly. Over the last two months, Ukraine is being continuously provided with the best possible military equipment from the Western arsenal. These military supplies to Ukraine are being supported by severe financial sanctions on Russia � several Russian banks have been excluded from the global SWIFT system that facilitates transnational banking transactions. Major western companies are withdrawing from Russia, covering sectors such as shipping, logistics, aviation, consumer goods and technology.

On March 8, the US announced an embargo on Russian energy exports in order to undercut European dependence on Russian energy and deprive Moscow of much-needed revenues. Some weeks later, most European countries had fallen in line and committed themselves to end their energy imports from Russia over the next few months.

The US has shaped the opposition to the Sino-Russian coalition in a democracy versus authoritarianism framework. In his State of the Union address in March, Biden described the Ukraine war as between freedom and tyranny. A few weeks later, in Warsaw, he spoke in Cold War terms of leading the free world to victory in the great struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force”.

The NATO secretary general and former Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, echoed this view when he said: “I think we are approaching a new world order, where we see two camps: an autocratic camp led by China, and a democratic camp led by the US.” At the same time, he warned that France and Germany appeared to be “weak links” in the democratic camp for what he saw as their “soft approach” to Russia.

Western writers echo this perspective. Hal Brands, writing in May, has pointed out that the Ukraine war has “clarified and intensified the struggle between advanced democracies and Eurasian autocracies”. In a separate article, Brands and Michael Beckley hoped that the war would “consolidate a global alliance that unites democracies against Russia and China and thereby secures the free world for a generation to come”. In short, the prevailing US view of the global competition is shaped as a sharp binary divide � redolent of the earlier Cold War framework.


Towards a multipolar world order

Even as the US’ priority has been on shaping a confrontational binary in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, Russia and China have focused on rejecting the US’ unipolar hegemony and affirming their commitment to a multipolar world order. In a detailed and comprehensive joint statement of 4 February 2022, three weeks before the commencement of military operations in Ukraine, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping emphasised that “multipolarity” was the principal feature of the “new era of rapid development and profound transformation”.

They criticised the US’ unilateral and intrusive approaches, imposing of so-called “democratic standards” on other nations, and drawing dividing lines on grounds of ideology and “establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience”. In this context, the statement referred specifically to NATO’s eastward expansion, and the setting up of the “Quad” and “AUKUS” that, in their view, aggravated insecurity, promoted an arms race, and risked nuclear proliferation.

They tacitly rejected the shaping on a Cold War binary by stating that their bilateral relations were “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era”, and later specifically rejected “the return of international relations to the state of confrontation between major powers”.

The values and principles enunciated by the Russian and Chinese leaders were reaffirmed by their foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, a month after the beginning of conflict in Ukraine, with Lavrov stating their joint commitment to “move towards a multipolar, just, democratic world order”.

The idea of a multipolar world order has had a chequered history. In February 2000, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said the US did not seek to “establish and enforce” a unipolar world and that, with the economic integration that it had supported, it had already created “a certain world that can even be called multipolar”. After this, in November 2008, the US’ National Intelligence Council said in its “Global Trends 2025” report that “global multipolar system” would be in place within two decades. In 2009, President Obama spoke of an “era of multipolarity” in which the US would prioritise ties with Russia, China, Brazil and India, while, in July 2009, then Vice President Biden asserted: “We’re trying to build a multipolar world.”

Even as these remarks were being made, there was no clarity about what these US sources understood by multipolarity � since at no stage was there any suggestion that the US conceived of abdicating the West’s dominant role in world affairs or its own hegemonic position at the centre of world order. In any case, once China began to assert its claims to a central position on the world stage, particularly from 2013 when it presented its vision of the Belt and Road Initiative before the international community, no US leader made any public references to multipolarity but has spoken firmly about upholding democratic values and the “rules-based” world order.

In December 2018, the influential Russian think tank, Katehon that is said to be closely associated with Putin’s thinking, provided a substantial definition of multipolarity. It made it clear that multipolarity is “a radical alternative to the unipolar world” and has “a few independent and sovereign centres of global strategic decision-making on the global level”.

These centres of power should have the financial and material capacity “to withstand the financial and military-strategic hegemony of the US and NATO countries”.

These centres do not accept that the West-espoused values (democracy, liberalism, free markets, human rights, etc) are universal; they must remain independent of the “spiritual harmony” of the West.

The multipolar world order is not a bipolar order; it must have more than two poles.

Since the multipolar order reflects the reality of state power: it goes beyond the proforma concept of the Westphalian sovereignty of all states, but instead recognises that “real sovereignty may be only achieved by a combination and coalition of states”.

Later, in February 2022, the influential Russian strategic affairs thinker, Alexander Dugin, asserted that American ideologues of different hues � ultra-globalists, neocons and liberal hawks � had realised that the unipolar world, based on liberal ideology, and with it the hegemony of the West, “are collapsing and they are willing to do anything � even World War III � to somehow prevent it” — hence the central position accorded to Ukraine and the deliberate confrontation engineered in Donbas. But Russia and China remained steadfast in ending Western hegemony � as evidenced by their joint statement of 4 February, which categorically voiced their shared opposition to US-led challenges through NATO expansion and the anti-China blocs in the Indo-Pacific.

While at this stage the West is firmly united behind the US, signs of the emerging multipolar order are already apparent.

The US’ core “democratic” supporters are from western Europe and four neighbours of China in the West Pacific � Japan, South Korea and Singapore and Australia. But major democracies in Asia, Africa and Latin America have refused to sanction Russia � India, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and most ASEAN members.

Again, Turkey, NATO member and traditional ally of the West, has not gone along with the US-led mobilisation of allies: it has not only refused to enforce sanctions on Russia, but for some time it also questioned the NATO membership of Finland and Sweden. Turkey has also affirmed its close ties with Russia � Russian projects in Turkey are proceeding as planned, including the $20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant which will meet 10 percent of Turkey’s power needs. The two countries are also working together to arrange the movement of Ukraine’s grain through a “grain corridor” from the Black Sea.

Again, while Hal Brands extols the democracy-autocracy divide, he himself accepts that “the hypocrisies of the liberal international order are legion”; but he still insists that, under unchallenged Russian and Chinese influence, “great power predation � would be the norm rather than the exception”, thus unwittingly affirming that the divide between the democracies and autocracies is merely one of degree rather than a fundamental division of core values.

Undermining the democracy versus autocracy framework is the fact that several countries whose backing Biden is desperately seeking are autocracies: for instance, the US needs the help of the GCC oil producers to make the energy embargo on Russia effective. However, despite Biden’s plans to visit to the region to elicit support personally, there is no indication that GCC leaders are willing to remove Russia from the inner counsels of the “OPEC +” setup that has been in place since 2016 and has served the interests of the producers in managing supplies and prices.

The global scenario is much more complex that the US’ binary framework allows for: thus, most countries outside western Europe value their very substantial economic ties with China and most uncomfortable with the idea of a confrontationist binary world order being promoted by the US. As the Indian diplomat, Shivshankar Menon, has pointed out, “many Asian countries, including US allies, are economically bound to China yet rely on the United States for their security”. He goes on to say: “This dynamic of multiple affiliations and partnerships is the norm in Asia, and it will complicate any Western framing of a larger confrontation with the autocracies of China and Russia.”

There is another problem: over the longer term, the apparently solid Western alliance could reveal itself to be quite fragile. As the British commentator and co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Mark Leonard, has recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, the US-led world order after the Second World War was “the product of the artificial weakness of Germany and Japan”. Now, for both of them the Ukraine war is a “turning point” (zeitenwende, in German) in that both have committed themselves to massive rearmament � that will transform their post-war identity. Again, while they see themselves as facing serious threats, they do not feel they can depend on the US as the guarantor of their security � Leonard writes that Germany might even seek a nuclear guarantee from France!

As the US recedes as a security-provider from both Europe and Asia, both Germany and Japan will build regional alignments, which could even have extra-regional ramifications � with their independent agendas and diplomacy to support them. Leonard concludes: “� the United States will have to get used to more cooperative and equitable relationships in which alignment is earned.”

In short, over time, as Germany and Japan emerge as independent players on the world stage, and France asserts its own independence of action, the US will become another player in the global multipolar order.

(Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)

(The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)

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