World Wars I and II and the Cold War did not erupt out of the blue. The rise of the US as the world’s sole superpower was not just an accident or merely the consequence of the collapse of Soviet Union alone.
Nor were the events of 11 September 2001, which marked the end of the American epoch in world history, just a kind of nightmare. All these historically pivotal events were preceded by precursors, indicators and portents that all observers and politicians chose to ignore, whether due to interests vested in the status quo or because no one can dictate the course of fate.
The question is, what is the next surprise in store for the world the foretokens of which we are experiencing today? In late September this column addressed this question in the framework of the Middle East.
Today the task is more complicated because I have expanded the query to the whole world.
Marxists search for the key to change in the “evolution of the forces of production.” If technological and political scientists agree on anything it is that we are on the threshold of a new breakthrough in artificial intelligence, or AI.
If so, then the world is on its way to becoming bipolar again; not between the US and the USSR, this time, but between the US and China. The former is the current world leader in AI.
The latter is investing enormous resources to surpass the US in this domain in the next decade.
Political scientists are examining the movement of the constellations of international alliances and coalitions for signs of the forthcoming surprise since the state of global polarity, alone, is insufficient to determine the nature of the international order.
In this regard, there are three events that we should examine not just because of their significance in and of themselves, but also of their bearings on the search for transformations that depart from the existing state of affairs.
The first event of note is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping despite the bloody history between them during the World War II, the disputes between them over strategic islands and the ongoing and escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing.
On 14 October, the 14th annual Beijing-Tokyo Forum convened in Tokyo and focused on the theme, “Deepening mutual trust and cooperation, sharing responsibility for peace and development in Asia and the world and exploring the practical significance of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan.
” The developments in Sino-Japanese relations as epitomised by the summit between the two presidents, the forum meeting and this forum’s focus on addressing Asian concerns in the absence of and, perhaps, regardless of, the US are extremely significant.
Secondly, while those meetings were taking place in East Asia, one was also struck by the tangible closeness between Germany and Russia during the meeting that convened in Istanbul to discuss the Syrian crisis.
Notice that this regional meeting, in which France and Turkey also took part, did not include Syria, the chief subject of concern. Also noticeable for its absence was Iran which has a strong military, financial and intelligence influence in Syria and its neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq.
But more significant, from a global perspective, was the total absence of the US.
Washington remains a player in the management of the Syrian crisis diplomatically and through the provision of arms. But this time the crisis management, whether concerning how to handle Idlib or how to chart the next steps needed to resolve the crisis, is in the hands of that quartet that met in Turkey.
Although that meeting concerned the Middle East, the German-Russian rapprochement was noteworthy because it occurred despite disputes over Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow’s alleged poisoning of a former KGB agent in Britain, not to mention the sanctions imposed on Russia by NATO and the EU.
Is this a one-off situation due to the exigencies of the Syrian and refugee crises which require closer Russian-German cooperation? Or are we looking for another situation in which changes are taking place without the involvement of the US whose president, in all events, cares little for NATO and the EU?
The abovementioned scenes in both Asia and Europe are linked to developments in a third, namely the US, where I am writing this column and where a media war is raging between Trump and the press and, more generally, between Republicans and Democrats.
One also finds, here, abundant fuel for this war, from the confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Kavanaugh, and the murder of a Saudi journalist in Istanbul to the case of a homegrown red-blooded American terrorist who sent letter bombs to 12 American politicians, all Democrats, and the case of another American terrorist who went on a murder rampage in a synagogue killing 11 and wounding six, of whom four were police.
To the south, meanwhile, a caravan of tens of thousands of migrants from Latin America is marching towards the US border to which Trump dispatched US troops in order to keep the migrants out. At the same time, he pulled out of the landmark intermediate-range missile treaty that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had signed with the Soviet Union.
What is happening inside the US cannot be viewed separately from the US administration’s foreign policy attitudes which attach decreasing importance to the US’s traditional allies in the name of “America First” and a mode of isolationism that is open to relations with others only insofar as they lead to profitable deals.
The trend is not restricted to the US. It is on the rise globally in the form of ultranationalist movements that shun internationalism and globalism and that are coarsely and sometimes violently xenophobic.
Brazil, for example, just saw the election of a new president who has saluted the US flag and vowed to emulate Trump. Bolsonaro has said that Brasilia would join NATO, quit the UN Human Rights Council and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Perhaps the world is gradually shifting towards a tri-polar order. The US would remain the chief main superpower because of its money, weapons and technology, and it would probably lead new associations of countries ruled by ultranationalist governments.
China is the rising star and is feeling its way forward in international relations. It may not be ready to accelerate the exercise of its superpower prerogative but it does have the pull to attract planets such as Japan into its constellation, and maybe the countries of ASEAN as well.
Russia is still the second superpower, at least in terms of nuclear weapons. Its technological progress in armaments compensates for its relative economic weakness and bolsters its political and military courage and daring, as we have seen in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
Moscow hopes to become the European star that attracts such planets as Germany and France.
I hope this was not too precipitate a prognosis for the future.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: World developments ahead