It is 20 years since the Cold War ended in Europe with the total collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, high-level relations between the United States of America and Russia have eased considerably. In a situation that was unthinkable only 30 years ago, the United States is currently completely reliant upon the Russian Space Program to resupply the International Space Station with American personnel and equipment. However, with the imminent re-election of the political dinosaur Vladimir Putin and deep divisions within the United Nations Security Council over Syria and Iran, is the world sleepwalking into a Middle East centred superpower showdown?
British Foreign Secretary William Hague certainly thinks so. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hague spoke of his fears that Iranian nuclear proliferation will lead to ‘the threat of a new Cold War in the Middle East.’ Political scaremongering aside, it is highly unlikely that long-standing enemies of Iran such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would allow Iran to be the sole confirmed nuclear power in the region. Indeed, there has been frenzied speculation within the Western press that Israel is set to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities this summer. Worryingly, American intelligence chiefs have only been able to announce that ‘to the best of their knowledge’ Israel is not poised to launch an attack. For a country that values Israel as a close ally in the Middle East and has such an extensive intelligence network the world over, such statements are hardly reassuring.
It is also true that there is no love lost between the East and West. From the early 20th Century Russia has been a constant threat to Western prosperity and European ambitions, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany during Europe’s darkest hour which among other things divided Poland and much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. However, recently it is the assumed international political unification of China and Russia which is giving commentators cause for concern.
For the people of Syria Russian and Chinese unity in opposing Western backed international action has had devastating repercussions. Despite evidence from the United Nations showing that an estimated 7500 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling and violence in key Syrian cities such as Homs, both Russia and China were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to veto a watered-down resolution condemning President Assad and calling for him stand to stand down.
This lack of action has had dire consequences, and not just for the Syrian people who are now at the mercy of a reinvigorated and fearless President Assad. Already, political commentators are talking of a ‘proxy’ war; one in which Russia and China are supportive of President Assad’s regime on one side and the United States, European Union and Arab Nations (bar Iran) supportive of the breakaway Syrian National Council on the other.
Indeed, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia, William Hague confirmed that the United Kingdom was to officially recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country. Furthermore, he promised that Britain would ‘intensify’ links with the Council – which at the moment is Syria’s largest and most developed opposition group. For weeks now, there have been rumours that foreign nations are interfering in Syria by supplying the opposition forces with weapons, training and in some cases men. Finally, Hague also fired a warning shot towards Russia and China by declaring that “”those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.” As any amateur historian will confirm, such ‘wars by proxy’ are typical of a ‘Cold War’ and indirect superpower showdown.
Additionally, aside from confrontation over Syria it is the recent actions of the Kremlin which has added to the speculation on whether we are sleepwalking into another superpower showdown. Despite repeated denials by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a meeting with security analysts and Putin near a nuclear weapons research centre was most revealing. When speaking, Putin stated that he did not see a ‘chill’ in relations with the United States. Somewhat paradoxically, he then went on to explain how Russia aims to increase defence spending and refrain from further nuclear missile reductions until conventional weapons can do comparable damage in a bid to compete with the United States.
So, is the world sleepwalking into a superpower showdown, centred on the Middle East? As has been stated before in this blog, the sphere of international politics is almost impossible to predict and to go any further than analysing the current trends and trajectories of possible outcomes would be foolish. However, what is certain is that the United States and Europe have been battered by an economic debt crisis, two exhausting wars and a ten year obsession with confronting Islamic radicalism. The political desire for any prolonged confrontation with a potentially formidable enemy is simply not present.
On the other hand, unlike the United States and European Union both Russia and China are awash with money. Possessing mammoth foreign currency reserves, Chinese investment is increasingly being sought to bail out a cash-strapped European Union. The political bargaining this brings should not be underestimated. Within Russia, high oil prices are being used to fund the renewal and expansion of the previously neglected Russian military, designed solely to offer an alternative to American influence around the globe.
The Middle East is simply acting as a proving ground for a rejuvenated East and a tired, moralistic West. Much like post-war Europe, two opposing ideologies wish to control a region which is currently experiencing a generational upheaval. With Syria currently in a state of unofficial civil war, political instability in newly formed Arab nations and an increasingly isolationist Iran in continued pursuit of nuclear technology the pickings are potentially very rich for the victor. A similar situation in postwar Europe created a 40 year conflict, fought through proxy wars and an ever increasing nuclear arsenal.
Maybe the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were right to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight after all.