Shifting planes

Doaa El-Bey , Sunday 26 Jul 2020

When the US emerged as the sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union the unipolar world order did not last for very long


Sayed Amin Shalabi sets out to review changes in the world order in the last two decades, detailing the relative decline of the US and the rise of such powers as Russia and China.

Reviewing not only the present moment but also the last few centuries, Shalabi concludes that a new order is emerging in which no one power will have the ability to shape the world or determine issues of war and peace.  

The book starts with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which introduced a system of peaceful coexistence among sovereign states. That concept was to become central to the world order. Shalabi moves onto the French Revolution (1789) and the Congress of Vienna (1814), which reasserted the principles of Westphalia in new ways. The author moves onto the two world wars and the Cold War, during which a bipolar order emerged for the first time in the wake of World War II, with the US and the Soviet Union facing off.

But when the US emerged as the sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Shalabi argues, the unipolar world order did not last for very long with uncertainty building up as various powers including Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa expressed their disaffection, perhaps the most vocal being Russian leader Vladimir Putin who intervened in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, and boosted Russian presence in the Middle East.

But it is China that remains paramount. Shalabi feels that, whatever the future structure of the world – multipolar, non-polar or bipolar – China will be central. Through such schemes and initiatives as the 16 + 1 formula and the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is active not only in Asia but across over 70 countries, notably in the EU, and multinational organisations. Shalabi cites the March 2019 summit that brought China together with France and Germany.

Shalabi devotes the last chapter to the effects of these changes on Egypt, starting from the colonial race of the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century and progressing onto independence, conflict with the West over the High Dam – leading to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the Tripartite Aggression – and the alliance with the Soviet Union.

This alignment was reversed after the 1973 War and the peace process, with the US-Egyptian alliance climaxing when Egypt took part in the coalition to expel the the Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990. More recently Egypt’s two revolutions of 2011 and 2013 have reflected international transformations, enabling a new multipolar strategy in place of the pre-2011 alliance with the US. Together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, Egypt is adopting a balanced approach to the changing power structure.

Shalabi, who has contributed regularly to the Weekly’s opinion page, has been a diplomat since 1961, serving in Prague, Belgrade, Moscow and Lagos before becoming our ambassador to Norway in 1990. In 1966 he took part in the establishment of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for diplomatic Studies and in 1999 of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, an NGO, serving as executive director in 2000-2015.

He is the author of many books including World Order at the Crossroads in 1967, From the Cold War to the Search for a New World Order in 1996 and Egyptian American Relations from 1952 to 2015 in 2015.

*Reviewed by Doaa El-Bey

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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