2021 Yearender: New world disorder

Manal Lotfy , Saturday 25 Dec 2021

New world disorder
New world disorder

Of all the pictures appearing in 2021, the images of Afghan civilians running alongside a US military jet as it prepared to leave Kabul Airport, with others clinging to the plane’s wings in a desperate bid to flee the country while some managed to hide in the ventilation shafts – only to end up dying, no doubt – were the most defining. 

Those images from Afghanistan were not only about another failed military intervention, they were also about poverty, misogyny, mismanagement, the pandemic, climate injustice, corruption and a superpower losing its hegemony to the point of surrendering, literally, to the Taliban.

No wonder, some three decades after announcing the end of history following the victory of the liberal-capitalist system in its fight with the Eastern Bloc, Francis Fukuyama is now expressing fear of the decline of American hegemony for complex reasons, some of which are internal, others external.

“The peak period of American hegemony lasted less than 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to around the financial crisis in 2007-09. The country was dominant in many domains of power back then—military, economic, political and cultural. The height of American hubris was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it hoped to be able to remake not just Afghanistan (invaded two years before) and Iraq, but the whole of the Middle East,” Fukuyama wrote in The Economist last November.

The American failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria reinforced the need for a multipolar international system. Russia and China had always rejected the idea of a unipolar system anyway, but the European Union too has shown a desire for strategic independence from America in the past few years.

By military standards alone, America is still the most powerful country in the world. But on the domestic level, it suffers from complex problems, on top of which is a divided society, severe political polarisation, a culture war between liberals and evangelicals, the rise of far-right ideology, institutional racism, declining growth and collapsing education and justice systems.


THREE SIMULTANEOUS CONFLICTS? It is hard to imagine the US regaining its place at the centre of the world amid all these internal problems, especially with the continued rise of China and the Russian challenge on several fronts.

In addition to the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, US foreign policy during 2021 saw serious strategic blunders, including America secretly agreeing to sell Australia nuclear submarines. The agreement angered Paris, which had agreed years before to provide Australia with the submarines. France felt that the secret agreement reflected disrespect, opportunism and a blow to the transatlantic alliance. “Allies do not stab each other in the back in this way,” said one French official at the time.

Another miscalculation was the US administration’s decision to boycott the Winter Olympics 2022 in Beijing. Washington sought to have other countries join it to express a unified position against Beijing, but only Britain, Australia and Canada followed in America’s footsteps. Even Israel, a very strong ally of America, described the boycott as absurd.

At the close of 2021, the US administration is facing potential military confrontations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. US officials have been briefed that Russia is planning an invasion of the Ukraine in early 2022. The Pentagon warned that China’s military manoeuvers near Taiwan appear to be a rehearsal for a full-scale invasion, too. Iran continues to enrich uranium at a high level despite negotiations with the Biden administration to revive the nuclear deal. If Iran came close enough to fissile material to manufacture a nuclear weapon, Israel might launch a preemptive strike.

Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden and international diplomat, warns that US policymakers should contemplate the possibility of simultaneous invasions of Taiwan and Ukraine. “Taken together, these two acts of conquest would fundamentally shift the global balance of power”.


BIDEN’S “LEGISLATIVE PARALYSIS”: Those challenges require all the energy in the US foreign policy machine. They also require the president’s full attention. But 2022 being the year of the midterm election, it is in the nature of US political system for the Biden administration to be heading towards gridlock. 

At a time of acute political polarisation, passing any major legislation has proven to be a very difficult task for the Biden administration, despite the Democrats’ control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The likely outcome of the midterm elections is that the Republicans will take back the Senate. This would effectively mean the end of Biden’s ability to pass any major legislation, with the same “legislative paralysis” that overtook Barack Obama in his last two years in office.

So, while the US in 2022 needs to look strong and united, it most probably will look weak, fragmented and polarised, and this may push Russia, China and Iran to take advantage.


RUSSIAN (AND CHINESE) ROULETTE: In 2021 a significant decline in relations between the West and both Russia and China took place, and this is likely to continue in 2022.

President Putin, who indicates he will never come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet Union, talked about the humiliation after the collapse of the USSR not only on a political level, but also on a personal level. Putin spoke about his memories of having to work as a taxi driver immediately after the collapse of the USSR to make ends meet.

That was 30 years ago. As Russia’s strongman now he is eager to correct Russia’s stand on the international stage. Putin wants to restore Russian influence in areas that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, including the Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic. He is concerned about Western military expansion into ex-Soviet countries. At the beginning of December Russia demanded that Nato formally scrap a 2008 decision to open its door to Georgia and Ukraine.

“After all, what is the collapse of the Soviet Union? This is the collapse of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union,” Putin was cited as saying in a film by broadcast Channel One titled Russia: Recent History. Its release coincides with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia has demonstrated that it has the tools to make life difficult for the US and Europe if its interests are not respected. Among these tools is the extraordinary mobilisation of forces along the Ukrainian border, manipulating natural gas prices as a message to the Europeans that they need Russian gas and they need it at a low price, weaponisation the immigration crisis and turning it into a geo-strategic card after Moscow encouraged Belarus to accept refugees from the Middle East and promised them easy entry to the European Union through the illegal crossing of the Polish border, and increasing Russian influence in the Caucasus. 

While the EU and the US have warned Moscow that it would face consequences if it invaded Ukraine, the options they have do not go beyond economic sanctions. Military action against a nuclear power like Russia is very unlikely.

“Aggression needs to come with a price tag,” said the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen mid-December during a joint news conference with Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Nonetheless, Von der Leyen said the EU would not discuss publicly any “sanctions and other measures across economic and financial sectors” that the 27-nation bloc could take with its partners against Moscow in the case of an invasion.

“We want a good relationship with Russia, but it depends first and foremost on the way in which Russia behaves. Russia is taking a threatening stance towards its neighbours and that undermines Europe’s security,” she said.

Asked if sanctions could include shutting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry gas to Europe, she said that, in general, energy should never be used to exert pressure and the energy security of Europe and its neighbours should be secured.

Scholz also declined to answer the question on the Russian-German pipeline, saying that while it was clear that the EU and others would react if there was an invasion of Ukraine, talks to prevent such an outcome were also important.

During an earlier visit to France, Scholz called for a revival of “Normandy format” talks between Germany, France, Russia and the Ukraine to resolve the crisis.

Relations between China and the West are also facing serious challenges. The US imposed extensive human rights-related sanctions on dozens of people and entities tied to China. It also added Chinese artificial intelligence company SenseTime Group to an investment blacklist.

Although the Europeans have their differences with China, on top of which are human rights violations, unfair economic competition and intellectual property rights, Europe does not want to enter into a cold war with Beijing and European Union leaders prefer a pragmatic approach in dealing with China to following in America’s footsteps. The next few months may therefore witness a US-European divergence on China.


MACRON TEST: 2022 is the year of the French presidential elections and the year of the French presidency of the European Union, and French President Emmanuel Macron has great ambitions to pass both tests.

Indeed, Macron has linked the two campaigns. He reiterated time and again that France is stronger with a stronger European Union. Thus, his major reform projects for the European Union are presented to the French electorate as being beneficial to France as well.

Macron’s top priority during France’s presidency of the EU would be reforming the European migration system and the visa-free Schengen travel zone. Those two top targets make domestic political sense in France as large segments of the French constituency are concerned about illegal immigration and cheap labour from Eastern Europe, which has led to a decline in wages for the French working class and an increase in unemployment among them.

Macron will have to reassure French voters that he is serious about confronting illegal immigration, protecting French jobs and the interests of the French working class, while reforming the European Union and enabling to meet the security, economic and political challenges of the future.

He may be helped by the fact that the majority of French voters still support France’s membership in the European Union and are likely to vote for Macron.

The legacy of Macron’s first term may also help with his re-election. France managed to weather the pandemic in 2021 fairly well, vaccines are widely distributed, and the economy is growing.

If Macron wins a second term in office, he will become the first French president to be re-elected for 20 years. But it won’t be easy. Leaders of the French right such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour speak not only of jobs and the economy, but of the French identity threatened by immigrants and foreigners who do not want to integrate into French society and live in isolated cultural and religious ghettos.

When Zemmour was in London last November to meet with the French community in the UK, supporters who came to listen to him said he understood the French people’s concerns better than Macron.

“He offers some things that other politicians just don’t offer. He talks frankly about issues like the French identity, which other politicians avoid. There has been an issue of integration and assimilation in France, which caused social tensions across the country. We need to protect French values and our way of life. There are places in France which are not recognisable because it has turned into cultural and religious ghettos for immigrants,” said Margot, a London-based French citizen, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Zemmour asks questions about where we are going and what is the purpose of our politics? Because the economy has been so central to our political conversation, we didn’t have the opportunity to talk about culture, ideals and history. History has been completely cancelled. Where do we come from? What are the roots of our values? What does it mean to be French?” she added.

To win a second term, Macron needs to win not only the economic argument, but the cultural argument too. Winning the support of the marginalised classes, who may vote for the French right because of promises to stop illegal immigration, and to protect what Zemmour calls Eternal France, whatever that means.

Of course, Europe and the world will closely monitor the results of the French election, which is due next April.  Macron’s victory would be very good news for the European Union.

Any other result could worry EU leaders and would put obstacles in the way of initiatives to strengthen Europe’s defence capabilities and the EU’s strategic independence.


FILLING MERKEL’S SHOES: Macron’s survival is increasingly important to Europe, as the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz faces a difficult task in filling the void left by former German chancellor Angela Merkel. This is the first time in 16 years that someone other than Merkel is in charge as the new coalition government will try to find its feet in Germany and on the international stage.

There are many factors to determine whether the new alliance of three coalition parties (Social Democrats, Greens and liberal Free Democrats) would face immediate strain. 

The first is the Covid-19 challenge. Germany is in the grip of a fourth Covid-19 wave. Infection rates are rising and hospitals are reaching the limits of their capacity. A large segment of Germans do not want to be vaccinated, especially in states where right-wing nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany are popular. Thus, there is a fragmented picture of the vaccination map in Germany. In Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt, the vaccination rate reaches 70 per cent, but in Saxony it is well below 50 per cent. Increasing vaccination rates against Covid-19 will be a top priority for the new German chancellor. Scholz has advocated mandatory vaccination for all, but there are still obstacles, including the significant increase in infection, queues for vaccination and increased pressure on hospitals.

The second challenge is the slowing economy as Scholz faces a worse economic outlook due to the spread of new Covid variants. This has led to increased supply chain problems, which negatively affect industrial productivity. Industry has also suffered shortages in raw materials and products such as microchips. Inflation hit 6 per cent last month, its highest level since the early 1990s. Experts now believe Germany could take longer to return to pre-pandemic levels of economic growth than the eurozone overall.

Germany’s new government is also facing foreign policy challenges. The EU, NATO and the US want a unified Western stance against Moscow and the threat of severe sanctions to discourage military action against the Ukraine. This may mean the end of the honeymoon between the ruling German coalition parties. Many in the SPD are inclined not to be harsh on Putin, in contrast to the more hawkish Greens. There is likely to be a row over what to do about Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Russia across the Baltic, which the Greens oppose and the SPD backs. These challenges may make the first months of Germany’s ruling coalition difficult and fraught with disagreements.


2022 PREDICTIONS: The French election: That will be the most important event in Europe 2022. Despite the challenge from the right and the far-right candidates, Emmanuel Macron’s win is still the most likely outcome of the elections.

The Brazilian presidential election: Despite all attempts by the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, to cling to power, the most likely outcome is the victory of former Brazilian president Lula de Silva.

US Congress midterm election: It will be a polarising and close election, but the Republicans are likely to take back the Senate, while the Democrats are likely to keep the House of Representatives.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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