The Ants and the Grasshoppers

Strategic ambiguity on the part of traditional great powers compels middle powers to seize the initiative.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Barack Obama of the United States at the White House in Washington DC, June 29, 2010
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Barack Obama of the United States at the White House in Washington DC, June 29, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

The advent of new governments in many countries around the world during the first decade of the twenty-first century brought with it strategic indefinition. The reason is found in small systemic revolutions that some of these newcomers represented in terms of geopolitics. In such countries as Brazil, Japan and Turkey, the newcomers had been away from power for decades. Thus the elections that swept them into office were practically regime changes.

The priority given to the worn out promise of “change” made foreign policy departments a prime target. Whereas during the Cold War ideological alternatives were available for different political factions, nowadays the primacy of the free-market model and of the Washington Consensus make alternative governance difficult. As a result, the perception of policy making is largely dependent on symbolism instead of substance. Hence, social conservatism and liberalism are being used as a political platform rather than economic policy.

Foreign policy too can be a symbol, especially for the ideological margins that lost their normative platforms with the end of the Cold War. Now devoid of an overarching ideological doctrine, many of these margins are driven by ad hoc causes like altermondialisme and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Another problem is the currently constrained nature of great-power politics. Centrist politics provides ample incentive for political correctness and strategic vagueness. There are virtually no real national-security strategies in Western countries because naming a rival or adversary by name would be perceived as tantamount to militarism. There is no investment in defense — quite the opposite — because the armed forces are seen as burden; a polished machine for an outdated era.

In spite of all this, history continues in the making and the advent of a geostrategically multipolar world means that only those who can afford it can actually deprive themselves of their strategic responsibilities. The great powers seem to have chosen the easy way out of strategic friction by resting comfortably in their politically correct concepts and leaving the initiative of the multipolar realignment to others. Thus while humanitarian interventions and development schemes make the headlines, it is the intelligence and military establishments of the middle players that are forced to bear the brunt — and take the heat — of the necessary hard power decisions.

So while Western Europe was occupied with frivolous pursuits of universal jurisdiction or effective democratic development models for Africa, Eastern Europe has been engaged in a tense competition with Russia, for geopolitical safety.

While America focused on making the world safe for democracy, the Middle East was bridled with new initiatives aiming at regional supremacy.

While South America played with sterile models of regional unity, Africa was invaded by the big Asian powers.

Could it be then, that situations in which the great powers are “dragged” into conflicts are in fact the result of a devolution of strategic responsibility on the part of their capitals?

It certainly seems to be the case in the Middle East where the Aqaba Axis (a discreet alliance of the Gulf of Aqaba states which used to include Egypt) seems to have been left alone fighting for a pro-Western order in the region.

The same can be said of Eastern Europe which has been left to the political whims of Germany and Russia, or of Africa where the Asian powers have made inroads significantly facilitated by the West’s insistence on normative conformity in its dealings with African polities.

In the Middle East, the temporary “fix” the Saudis found was to expand the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Morocco and Jordan and actively start lobbying in Cairo for the possible maintenance of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s strategic paradigm. While Riyadh’s cash flow is impressive, with problems requiring their attention in Egypt, Iraq and Yemen, their efforts might stretch too thin.

The only consequence of the disaggregation of the GCC+1 (Israel) would be the domination of the region by Iran and Turkey and thus permanent instability. Hence, America’s distraction with Libya is condemnable.

In Eastern Europe, the erosion of the Soviet threat brought with it the disinterest of the Western edge of the continent. If Poland and some of the color revolutions spawned regimes tried to work on a Russophobe initiative (including the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development and the Vilnius Group), the Obama Administration’s Asian focus and determination to reset relations with Russia as well as France’s co-option by Germany and Russia, have certainly shelved those plans.

At the moment Poland and Serbia among others are attempting to juggle the growing German, Russian and Turkish influences. Serbia seems to have no alternative but to accept Turkish “constructive” mediation in the Western Balkans and Poland is being assuaged through the Kaliningrad Triangle to collaborate with the current status quo — a policy made all the more persuasive after Ukraine’s defection from GUAM and from the Polish sphere. Eastern Europe could risk being transformed into Berlin’s and Moscow’s strategic depth.

Finally an emerging power like Brazil lags far behind its Asian and European rivals in the competition for African markets. Wasn’t South American unity (UNASUR) supposed to propel Brazil into stardom rather than distract it from its interests?

In 1914, it was Russian diplomatic largess toward Serbia that allowed for the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand. Unlike Russia then, let’s hope today’s powers don’t wake up at the eleventh hour to reclaim control of events.