There’s no such thing as the “end of the year” in geopolitics. The Gregorian calendar is only one way of tracking the earth’s path around the sun and every day is significant to one people group or another. Yet December is an opportunity to step back to frame the tectonics driving the world system.
The central reality of the 2015 world is the increasing instability of the landmass called Eurasia, described as between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and between the Arctic and Indian Ocean. Worse, as geopolitical forecaster George Friedman says, the separate crises have begun to merge.
Africa is not sufficiently developed to be unstable, and its countries seem every year to take two steps forward and one step back. That continent still attracts mixed predictions from the world’s experts as to its future. Geopolitics moves so slow in Africa that its trajectory is essentially a flat circle.
However, the continents of North America, South America and parts of the Western hemisphere are comparatively stable. This assessment does not include Europe which is realising its flawed attempts to avoid future conflict by forming a monetary and ideological union were doomed from the start. A major thread in 2015 is the European Union’s continued unravelling.
Many factors have led to the dissolution of the EU. Few people would have guessed that at the end of the year Europe would be wrestling with crippling immigration levels rupturing the status quo and forcing member states to reintroduce border controls. EU leaders say the measures are temporary, but it does not take much for temporary rules to become permanent.
Arguably the two most important EU member states – France and Germany – are drifting inexorably apart. The original EU conception was to balance those two states but the sheer productive dynamism of Germany and France’s existence as both a southern and northern European country pulls them in different directions. The Greek crisis shows how belligerent Paris and Berlin have become in matters both fiscal and political.
The aggression of Russia – as it too struggles to hold itself together with a crippling budget deficit and extremely low global oil prices – is also helping split Europe apart. There is no compunction among EU member states for political or military unity. No Dutch fighting force is interested in, say, coming to the aid of Poland or Latvia.
The EU was supposed to mimic the US structure, but it has turned out remarkably different. Inhabitants of California feel compelled to assist Michigan out of a financial hole because of a coherent and strong US narrative. US states often act like individual countries, as in Europe, but would never question sending troops for the other’s defence.
Not so in Europe. The complexity of Brussels’ and the suspicion of allotting it too much power precludes the supranational entity from driving the union forward, together. Instead, every time Brussels plays for more control it is pushed back by member states who consider themselves first as German, French or Italian and European second.
The Russian factor is exacerbating the European crisis, it is also forcing the world’s only superpower to learn the absolute basics of owning an empire. The US in 2015 has moved in fits and starts towards a post-9/11 reality. Acting as an interventionist force weakened the collective American will but strengthened its military prowess. Those two denominators have summed to a worrisome equation this year.
Parking a US aircraft carrier group off the coast of a rogue country is still enough to make most leaders think twice. But the difference is that the US is the one which is thinking twice. It still wants to engage with the world – by strategically tipping the scales whenever it must – yet the grand strategy of why it must tip the scales appears to be lost on many at the US State Department.
What is happening in Eurasia demands some action from the US, strictly because the US were the ones which made Eurasia this way. Not by hiding in the shadows fomenting unrest, but by inheriting control of a world order created by European powers centuries ago. The US is responsible for the maintenance of this world order because it chose neither to remove nor replace it.
Responsibility is power, yet the US is having difficulty organising its power over the world system and balancing its conflicting desire to encourage individual national autonomy. It certainly recognises the unrest in Eurasia but cannot reconcile what it must do with what it wishes to do. The maintenance of the world system demands that the US act amorally, not confuse ethics with responsibility.
In 2015, two usurper forces personify this dilemma for the US political ecosystem. Russia is the first and arguably the most dangerous example. Moscow is attempting in Ukraine to introduce an alternative government for its Former Soviet Union state. This has changed the now-frozen conflict into anything but a normal spat. It is a direct affront on the world order.
Russia was not pleased with Ukraine’s evolution towards becoming a Western-aligned government. The idea of being a nation state and operating a semi-functioning parliamentary system are still default assumptions for Russia, it can live with them in Ukraine. But it cannot live with the rest of the world order assumptions in Ukraine. If it had the power, Russia would prefer its own statehood not use this framework either. But right now, its usurper message is best played out in Ukraine.
The change Russia wants is a world system by which the collection of people groups are arranged not by place of birth, but by the language one speaks in their mother’s kitchen. Moscow does not recognise the borders separating Ukraine from Russia when there are Russian-speakers in Ukraine. According to them, those people are Russian and should be defended with tanks if necessary.
The US looks at Russia’s alternative government and knows it is a competitor to the Westphalian concept of the nation state and an injury to the idea of liberal democracy. Washington is responsible for both these concepts in the minds of every person. Westphalian nation states now cover the globe, but not every person is convinced the structure is suitable for them. This is a fragile system.
Without a defender of these concepts, the illusion falls away and competitive ideas fill the void. The governance of an empire – Washington is discovering – requires not simply the signing of trade deals or positioning troops. It requires the constant reiteration of those fundamental ideas and the squashing of competing ideas. After all, an imperial project is not axiomatic and is not concerned with someone telling the truth about it. The only worry is a more effective lie.
In the Middle East, the insidiousness of Islamist theocracy continues to evolve and is the second usurper. The most impressive group is the Islamic State (IS). It represents an alternative form of government nakedly competing with the idea of the Westphalian nation state and liberal democracy. It has thus drawn the attention of the US and its empire, known as the “international community”.
IS in 2015 managed to conquer and hold significant sections of the traditionally Sunni Muslim lands between Iraq and Syria. Similar to Russia’s competition, it does not wish to expel the concept of the nation state entirely. It only wishes for a grouping of people not by place of birth, but by religion. It recognises the historicity only of its Sunni Muslim beliefs and encourages all Sunnis to join its project regardless of their present nationality.
Far from being strictly a terrorist group, IS is now functioning as a nascent-state. It has the support of hundreds of thousands of its Sunni Muslims in the region and potentially millions more around the globe who wait only to see if the experiment will work before they join. IS does not threaten the US homeland, but it must be fought because it threatens the illusion of the international community.
These two usurper movements in Eurasia are containable, and US President Barack Obama appears to be happy to place a fence around both and see how the story progresses. Yet as Mr Friedman points out the two crises, coupled with the slow-motion EU collapse, are merging this year. There is a danger here because other Eurasian countries are equally unimpressed with the fundamental assumptions of the US-administered status quo.
The merging of these crises is forcing a change in attitude and government in many Eurasian countries, including many outside this region in Asia Pacific and elsewhere. This change is a gradual, clear shift to the political right. The shift emerges from a frustration with the liberal world order, but one which stops short of letting that frustration to boil over.
The financial crisis of 2008 magnified this trend and in times of chaos and unrest, people prefer to band together. Frustration with the last few decades of constant movement in the leftward direction, towards greater freedom, rights and central government control, is having a detrimental effect on the international community. In these conditions, societies become less accommodating to outsiders and often slow the pace of societal liberalisation.
Elections in 2016 can be expected to bear this trend out as voters opt for greater security and societal order. The liberal desire to fragment hierarchical power structures to create chaos, and therefore more avenues for new power bastions, is antithetical to a struggling Eurasian landmass. Now, after years of the lids being ripped off the metaphorical societal bottles, its people are desiring a way to create stability. Russia and IS are only the first examples of this desire, there will be more.
The question connecting all this is whether the US, as caretaker of this fragile world order, can comprehend the extent of its responsibility and act intelligently to maintain it. At a high vantage point, it appears a few people in Washington are grasping this reality. It is a clear however that too few US lawmakers understand grand strategy and what it means to be an empire.
In order to cool Eurasia in the next five to ten years, the US must decide which actors accept the default assumptions and which do not. China, for instance is not a usurper. Beijing so deeply assumes the world system that it cannot think outside its framework, let alone propose alternatives. Instead it wishes only to have a say in how the future rules of that framework are written.
For a post-9/11 world, the US cannot be solely responsible for the maintenance of the world system. Instead it must remember that bottom-up control over hearts and minds is superior and reinforce those fundamental ideas. Should it fail in this enterprise, the world will become much more chaotic. That much is certain.