The Constructivists have been prompting the idea that like all human relations, international relations, and even big power politics, are socially constructed. They argue that by reconstructing or revamping international normative structures, more learned, progressive and less-aggressive attitudes can be built between states.
Sadly, practice does not match this argument. The highly stratified and labyrinthine institutionalisation under the UN, and similar structure under the EU and in the US, and the increasing number of political and economic multilateral forums propping up around the world teach us a bitter lesson that any amount of culturing and socialising will not make states less ready to fight and kill.
If international institutions have played any normative role, it has been the normalisation of conflict and war. Some may say that the end of the Cold War brought a moment of respite in the history of mankind, but such analysts seem to forgo more than 70 conflicts and wars between 1990 and 2001, besides the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11 and the destruction of the Middle East under the guise of the Arab Spring. Western analysts tend to portray this as an era of relative peace. For them, perhaps, death, destruction and misery far away in the East, or in the South, in Africa or in South America do not afford much mention. Perhaps in this moment of unipolar US hegemony, the West thought to itself that the US and NATO are doing the right policing to keep the world in the right place. But the truth was that sensing the unipolar moment the US and its allies took it as a chance to crush their adversaries for good.
But the unipolar moment had to end because of the unsustainable and unsatiable, consumer-based capitalist system, China’s rise as a rival economic superpower and Russia’s return as a rival player in wars initiated by the allies, especially in the Middle East. And now, the Ukraine War has become the pinnacle of big power rivalry with the US, EU and NATO on one side and Russia, China and their allies on the other.
The same globalisation that was allowing the US to construct and safeguard it ‘interests’ around the world was forsaken in the Trade War against China, just because the US saw China dominating the globalised trade in the coming decades. The Trade War turned into the Taiwan-focused ongoing Semiconductor War. Also, there are no signs of Ukraine defeating Russia anytime soon in spite of the US and Europe doing everything they could. So, now we see talks of de-risking instead of de-coupling with China, and talks of finding a negotiated peace in Ukraine.
But all this should be seen as an unwanted compromise. It should not be discredited that the hubris of power and the fear of losing power are deep-rooted characteristics of the alpha-type powerful states, and this characteristic will not be subdued by any amount of social training, rather the social fabric is only there to screen it. Whenever one big-power will find the other as weak enough to be defeated, it will come out naked with its killer instinct — but till the time there will be, perhaps, another Cold War!
Author Niall Ferguson is of the view that we are already in Cold War II, but one different from Cold War I. This time we are in a globalised environment where economies are deeply intertwined, where there is massive social and economic interpenetration, and where there is Internet. It is an environment where both isolating the enemy economically and locking away one’s intellectual property from adversaries are close to impossible.
Niall also talks of the ‘three bodies of water problem’. Even with military and naval bases all around the world, the arsenal the US possesses is not enough to protect all its interests or allies across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. It is not the same kind of single dominant supplier of security to all its allies because its adversary this time is much stronger than the USSR was in Cold War I. Because China is becoming the alternative global player; it has become a peace-broker and trade partner in the Middle East; it is a major provider of funds, infrastructure, and cheap technology in Africa; it is Russia’s major ally on the Ukraine front; it is increasing its military arsenal by the day; and the cross-continent BRI network is interweaving Asian, African and even many European economies under China’s lead.
So, what is the possible future of the Ukraine and Taiwan big-power confrontations?
The two events need to be seen in their global perspective. The 2008 global recession had a year on year 6.34% inflation effect, while the Ukraine War caused an 8.73% inflation; the food price index peaked at 120 in 2008, it peaked around 150 in 2022 — showing that the war is not sustainable for humanity as a whole for long. And, between February 2022 and now, China has conquered another ground: it has struck major trade deals with Middle Eastern kingdoms and brokered peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This has been the single biggest defeat for the US for whom Israel was their biggest indispensable foreign policy component.
The same kind of defeat has happened in South America where the West could neither remove Maduro from Venezuela nor prevent the return of Lula in Brazil in January 2023; and in Africa, where French troops have been asked to move out of Niger after the coup that disposed pro-Western Bazoum. This was in line with anti-West coups in the Sahel Belt after in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, in the last two years. These and more African countries are taking military cover from Russia’s Wagner group and making trade deals with China.
With all these defeating aspects around, the West may not be ready to take the drubbing, instead it may be preparing to make a forceful comeback. Will it then learn the constructivist lesson that teaches a little equality and sharing, or will it stick to the Machiavellian realism it has always hidden underneath its pretty-face ‘democracy’?
Will it finally realise that it can no more devour upon others blood and sweat to fill its own coffers; that humanity is no longer willing to let it parasite upon its ailing body; or are there still some, willingly ready to fall into its gilded web of ambidextrous chicanery?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2023.
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