In the course of my 50 plus years of writing, commentary and analysis, there has never been a time that wasn’t filled with change. The change was always powerful, because people were changing, the forces of production were changing, international balances of powers kept shifting and some countries rose while others fell. There were moments of anxiety and anticipation, often at major crossroads when it was hard to know who would turn left or right, or who would leave the road altogether and take a totally unexpected path.
This year’s US presidential elections is a case in point. We do not have much more to go before we know the victor in this amazing race which is all the more remarkable because in many ways it seems like an extension of the 2016 elections, or as though the 2016 campaigns are still in progress. Were the US not such an important world power, few would care about the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
But the information keeps pouring in, the analyses abound and these make the waiting fraught with uncertainty. If there is a general unanimity that Biden is in the lead in the opinion polls, voices here and there are quick to question the value of such polls in light of past experiences in which Republican respondents hid their real opinions from the pollsters. Commentaries in the US media analyse the state of play on the basis of the popular vote and then, in the next minute, they revise their calculations on the basis of possible Electoral College outcomes.
As to the actual difference between Biden and Trump, this is a question we, outside of the US, rarely ponder for long, because it’s the American people who will ultimately decide whether they need another four years of Trump or whether the experience of his first term was a disaster that has to end. On the other hand, how much change will Biden bring if elected? After all, he has worked for more than 40 years in the US political establishment, as a senator and vice president moreover.
For those outside the US, perhaps it is best to approach the elections from their own particular perspectives, first identifying what they want from the US whether under this president or that, and gauging their optimism or pessimism accordingly.
Another question that has us on tenterhooks these days is the question as to whether the world is heading towards military conflagrations or, instead, will continue the trend towards fewer conflicts. Apart from the Middle East, the world has been relatively calm for the past two decades. Nevertheless, as we know from recent history, the Chinese-Indian border can be troublesome. About six decades ago the two countries went to war, but the conflict subsided into “peaceful coexistence” that helped stimulate both their economic booms.
Still, the borders remained tense and the question of Tibet constantly raises its head. This summer, violence erupted again in skirmishes and currently diplomatic efforts are in progress to bridge the differences between Beijing and New Delhi. In our region, another clash erupted between two neighbours — Greece and Turkey, which have a history of conflict that dates back centuries if not millennia. In this case, too, there were troop amassments, raucous sabre rattling, and while there were not actual skirmishes, they came close to the brink.
Will the moratorium on old and ingrained conflicts break down and release their violent potential but in the 21st century this time? Is it really the case that what is happening today in the Middle East is an extension of the Arab-Persian and Arab-Ottoman struggles? Is it only a question of time until what remains of the Arab-Israeli conflict will erupt again in some form or other? Or has it already, in the form of Israeli strikes against Syria, Lebanon and Iraq? One lesson from history is that entrenched historic conflicts will continue to emit sparks capable of igniting fires unless the disputants resolve on peaceful coexistence and another mode of life. Unfortunately, that option does not sit well with many parties.
China continues to keep everyone at the edge of their seat in a number of ways. Is it truly on its way to becoming a super power? What will it do if it does become one? Will a new Cold War erupt or just intense competition between two countries with extraordinary capacities? There’s a big difference between these two modes. Whatever the case, with regard to us, it wouldn’t work to revert to the old policies of nonalignment or positive neutrality. But how should we conduct our relations with the US and China?
For their part, the Chinese must be waiting with bated breath to see who will be the winner in the US presidential elections. After all, China’s rise to superpower status is not only a product of its own efforts but also a product of US-driven globalisation and the encouragement it received from Washington to join the World Trade Organisation. All these factors enabled China to surge forward as the production and supply chain hub of the global factory and, more recently, as a high-tech pioneer on earth and in space. Meanwhile, all must be holding their breath as their attention turns to the other side of the Pacific where questions hover over possible responses to Beijing’s actions towards Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, some of which Washington may be able to live with and others of which could spark dangerously soaring tensions.
Fortunately, another formula for Sino-US relations could steer away from the inevitable collision course and the eruption of a cold war similar to that which had prevailed between the US and the USSR before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The alternative to conflict in this case is intense economic and technological competition. This, as mentioned above, is another mode. With conflict, polarisation is acute, there is no common ground with others; it is either “with us or against us”. In competition mode, positions and “sides” are determined by the issues at hand, countries’ diverse geopolitical perspectives and their ability to build hard or soft regional alliances. The sense of anticipation in this mode focuses on gains whereas in conflict mode calculations have to factor in potentially grievous losses.
But there are bigger enigmas involving still evolving entities with uncertain futures. One of these is Russia which, after emerging from the Cold War era, has neither moved in the direction of Chinese prosperity or in the direction of American might. Russia is a strong country with powerful military assets, including nuclear muscle. But it has nothing to offer world markets apart from arms.
The EU is another major puzzle. Brexit has shaken the EU from certitude in the EU’s existence. Germany sometimes seems to lead it, but France makes enough noise as to give the impression that it holds the European rudder. Until only recently the EU was on its way to become a world power. Now it has set its sights on becoming a Mediterranean power.
These and other questions are keeping us waiting. In international relations, waiting has material costs. It can be nerve racking and it taxes our patience as long as the waiting lasts.
*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 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly