Changing relations among the powers

The conclusion of initial negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear capabilities has brought further into relief the changing relations between the major powers – old and new ‒ of today’s world. For years, particularly with the passage of Egypt’s President Nasser from the Middle Eastern scene, the major Western powers have tried as much as possible to keep their old geopolitical preserves in that part of the ex-colonial world intact. And in more than one sense, the Nato countries’ foray into Libya and the liquidation of the Gaddafi regime being an example, the ex-colonial powers still recently seemed to be pretending to be able to demonstrate their capacity to rule the waves – in this case the desert lands.

In the old Western preserves, under the claim of the necessity to demonstrate the utility of the relatively new principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ citizens once they are subject to unacceptable treatment by their own governments, there are still examples of this. Britain and France have undertaken such initiatives particularly on the African continent, with examples of French forays into Central Africa being recent cases. And their latest justification for this has been an increasing organized Muslimist-influenced military presence there.

In a way, they have tried to show their objectivity in such cases by referring to the Western interventions in Bosnia and other localities of disintegrating Yugoslavia, by periodic interventions, indicating a certain concern of the European Union as a whole for ensuring a peaceful resolution to the dissolution of the Soviet influence in what the Russians still sometimes appear to consider their own part of the world.

President Obama’s assumption of office in the United States seemed to indicate a certain  reluctance to go as far as the European powers have been willing in this matter. He claimed, early on, an unwillingness to preserve the American presence in Afghanistan and now seems on the brink of attaining his promise to end it, even as America’s man there, President Karzai, indicates a certain reluctance to come to final agreement on the matter.

On his assumption of office, the American president in his now famous Cairo speech, indicated a view that America’s interventions in the Middle East, up to the most recent one in Iraq, could not really be a basis for maintaining order in that part of the world. And he has insisted that those states have a primary responsibility for finding solutions to the issue of good governance, and the preservation of the integrity of their states in a changing global geopolitical environment.

Of course, the sense that he has a legitimacy for maintaining this stance has been his own, and now there is an apparent public perception that the American people themselves have tired of wars in, or against, countries, wars which never have seemed, in the recent past, to come to a decisive end.

What has also come home to the President is the increasing influence of other states, in particular China, in the post-colonial states of the globe, particularly in areas where that country has found it possible to engage in various kinds of investments relating both to her imports of necessary commodities, and her exports of goods competitive with those produced by the traditional industrial powers. This, of course, has given China a geopolitical interest in those countries – whether in Africa or in Latin America. And from this the President has drawn a conclusion that such states also have a responsibility towards maintaining peace in particular areas, albeit along lines approved of by the US and the United Nations.

From that perspective, it is obvious that the President has shown a certain reluctance to want to seek to solve other countries’ good governance problems, especially when these problems have come to border on civil war, the most recent situation being his obvious hesitation to adopt  an active American posture in dealing with the civil war in Syria.

It was undoubtedly a surprise to the American administration when President Putin took the initiative to seek a diplomatic intervention in the Syrian conflict as it appeared that certain of the Nato powers, in particular Britain and France, seemed to want some form of intervention to protect the anti-Assad forces. But Obama quickly recognized that the interest of Russia was to protect the Assad regime, even though the end point of a diplomatic intervention could result in a compromise among the various forces there, but would not result in a transfer of the whole Syria prize to the either side in the conflict.

That Putin was able to widen the play to engage the influence of the new Iranian government, and to widen the sphere of diplomatic intervention by putting into the game the resolution of the longstanding (since 1979) face-off between that country and the United States, has seemed even more surprising to the American public. But President Obama’s welcoming of the Russian initiative has, in effect, meant an American recognition of the legitimacy of Russia’s willingness to place itself in a situation of having a legitimate role in the Middle East.

This acknowledgement on the part of the US – for the first time since the Russians (as the Soviet Union) had gained a certain legitimacy in that area after the advent of Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, has not been pleasing to many Americans. But it certainly appears to coincide with Obama’s apparent inclination to take the full weight of an American necessity to adopt responsibility for large parts of the post-colonial world.

This coincides with what appears to be a further concern of Obama’s, which is that the United States can no longer be the sole arbiter in resolving  what are, in effect, the good governance problems of even its Third World allies. To that extent, as far as the Middle East is concerned, the President is obviously well aware that this message – read into his acceptance of the Putin diplomatic initiative with respect to Syria, is not pleasing to a central US ally in the area, Saudi Arabia. And it suggests, particularly if the Iranians do not renege on what they would appear to be agreeing to do, that the United States accepts the role, first of Russia in the evolution of state relations in the Middle East, and the role of what might be called middle powers like Iran, not of the same orientation of the US and its allies, in this evolution. And it suggests, secondly, that his, now hardline, traditional allies like Saudi Arabia are required to come to terms with the new posture.

In the Far East, President Obama would appear to have already accepted a progressive change of relations there, in the face of the evolution of China in normal global relations. His so-called pivot to Asia must surely reflect this, even though some read it as a challenge to the emergence of China in Asian and global affairs. For it is most likely that the President is really intending to begin a re-writing of the post-World War Two ground rules, a rewriting that would recognize a certain participation of China in the evolution of regional relations among the emerging powers in that area.

Whether the President can maintain domestic support for these various initiatives of balance between significant powers in various parts of the world, is open to question. And China does not appear to be helping with its old-style challenge to territorial and maritime issues in what the Western world calls the Far East.


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