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.
It would not be unfair to say that 2011 has not been a good year for many of the above. Due in large part to the actions of protesters participating in the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions across the Middle East and a renewed American determination to pursue terrorist networks with drone aircraft, several tyrannical regimes and terrorists have been ousted from power across the globe.
In the Middle East, what began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in protest at the confiscation of his goods by local authorities led to wider political and social protests throughout Tunisia; this in turn providing the catalyst for similar ‘revolutions’ across the region. This series of events became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ and has since resulted in the downfall of the autocratic Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Yemini governments.
Furthermore, Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaida, was eliminated after a daring raid into sovereign Pakistani territory by US Navy Seals. The information gathered from Bin Laden’s lair in turn led to the death of high ranking Al Qaida leader Al-Awlaki in Yemen following a CIA drone strike; his demise severely disrupting Al Qaida’s operations in the Arabian Peninsula and having the added bonus of taking out an important American born, internet savvy jihadist recruiter.
So, at the risk of making a series of fanciful predictions akin to the one made by Yale University economics professor Irving Fisher in 1929 when he stated that “stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” are further dictators and tyrants likely to fall in 2012?
Unfortunately the short answer is no, there are not. Despite all international media attention currently being focused upon Syria and its authoritarian President, Bashar Al-Assad, the end result is unlikely to result in victory for the protesters and rebels. For instance, although in a recent ludicrous interview with the American network ABC Assad claimed that he was not in full control of Syrian security forces, the United Nations has since stated that this is unlikely to be the case and that troops loyal to Assad will continue to brutally clamp down where needed.
Additionally, unlike Libya, there is virtually no chance of Western nations imposing a ‘no fly’ zone to protect civilians and remove Syrian armour to the benefit of protestors due to a lack of political, financial and public support. Instead, the United Nations has chosen to pursue a policy of enacting sanctions – although such sanctions are doomed to failure since there is a crucial lack of support from both Russia and China, and also because Syria has been an international pariah for years and is therefore well-versed in dealing with Western threats.
Similar to Syria in some respects, the North Korean state under the ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong Il is also unlikely to buckle soon. Isolationist, isolated and weak, the country is often referred to as a Stalinist dictatorship with one of the lowest human rights rankings of any country.
Despite such horrors and other issues such as a widespread famine and continued international pressure, the family dynasty has remained intact and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future – mainly due to the elaborate government controls on all aspects of North Korean life.
Presently, one of the only authoritarian countries showing signs of potentially abandoning autocracy is China. With the prospect of increased personal wealth and travel opportunities for millions of urban Chinese threatening the absolute authority of the Communist Party, the Chinese leadership has begun to slowly grant citizens more personal freedoms in a bid to retain control.
Even with such a small increase in personal freedoms it should still be noted that there is still complete government control of the media and political system. Political protesters and citizens routinely go ‘missing’ and many never return, often presumed to have been executed by the authorities.
Whilst still a cause for concern, if compared with the paths taken by other industrially advanced countries it is hoped that further Chinese economic development will fuel deeper international involvement and responsibility; this in theory leading to increased personal freedoms and an abandonment of authoritarian practices. It is unlikely however that this process will occur anytime soon, even if such predictions were to prove correct.
Despite what would appear to be an overwhelmingly negative outlook with regards to disposing of more dictators, tyrants and terrorists, the future is actually not as bleak as it may seem at a first glance. Not only are my predictions just that – predictions – but they are also based on rationale and logic; both these things are inherently difficult to apply to the constantly morphing world of international politics.
An example of this constantly morphing political world can be seen during the height of the Cold War when despite high-level meetings between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev no political commentator from either the East or West predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, complacency and a purely accidental misunderstanding on the part of Soviet press secretary Günter Schabowski led to the downfall of Communism in Europe.
There are also far more dictators, dynasties, terrorists and tyrants remaining in the world than covered in this article; these including the governments of states such as Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Burma as well as the second in command of Al Qaida, Al Zawahiri. Each has their own unique circumstances and to analyse all would be a task of enormous undertaking.
And to answer the question posed earlier in the article? Yes, there are many despicable people and governments left in power and yes they will eventually fall. History has repeatedly proven this. All that remains to be seen is how, when and where.