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Era of strategic adjustment

At a time of shifting global power dynamics, a conference organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) offered an instructive tour d’ horizon of the world’s strategic challenges. Held this time in Oslo, the annual global strategic review assembled experts and officials to debate key geopolitical challenges and geo-economic opportunities at an unsettled global juncture.

With the post World War II international system undergoing transformation, the sense at the conference was that ‘strategic adjustments’ to the balance of power were underway in key regions across the world. This echoed a central point made by the Institute’s recently published annual survey, which saw this trend intensifying in the year ahead.

An important theme at the conference was the hardening of the strategic environment. The revival of major-power geopolitics was seen as a growing trait of the global environment. The other prominent feature was turmoil in the Middle East. Also, hybrid forms of insecurity were challenging many developing countries.

The plenary session on the Middle East attracted much interest and revealed diverse views about the prospects for stability. The regional order was being reshaped by bloody turmoil. But it was the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) that shook the region and forced a policy reappraisal by the US-led West. There was agreement among a distinguished line up of speakers that the drivers of present instability was a crisis of legitimacy of governing elites, breakdown of institutions, as well as weak and failing states.

Speakers also pointed to the West’s missteps and interventions, which had compounded the situation. So had regional rivalries and competition for influence. An Arab speaker drew a parallel between the situation in Iraq/Syria and the anti-Russian campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the West armed and funded the mujahideen and empowered extremists there.

The spread of Isis, said one speaker, was the result of multiple failures: failures of government, institutions, and Western attempts to reshape the region. Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times described the region as a “comprehensive mess” with a “high risk of contagion”. The very existence of several states – Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – was in question, she said.

The most damaging cleavage today was sectarian, fuelled by the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Western moves towards rapprochement with Tehran had widened this cleavage, she argued. A second cleavage was between pro and anti-Islamist forces. If Tunisia had achieved relative stability, this was because of its culture of compromise, not evident elsewhere.

Most participants agreed that the present crisis in the Middle East could not be resolved by military force alone. The main battle, declared an Arab speaker, is political, and involves “tying people back to the state”. Also, without a regional consensus, no ‘solution’ could be found.

The session ‘A new cold war in Asia?’ was just as engaging. This focused on rising strategic tensions in Asia-Pacific driven by competing maritime claims but also, as the session moderator said, by China’s interpretation of America’s ‘rebalancing’ strategy.

A Japanese speaker and former minister drew a parallel between the Russian action in Ukraine and Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. But he dismissed the notion of a new cold war. What was happening, said another speaker, was more like a football game than a boxing match.

It was the speaker from China, Eric Li, who stole the show. A venture capitalist and political scientist, he offered a lucid assessment of China’s objectives. The cold war framework was not useful to understand ongoing developments, he argued. Rejecting parallels with US-Soviet competition, he said China is deeply integrated into the global economy and China and America so economically interdependent as to rule out any confrontation.

Because Li’s was a well-argued summation of China’s aims it is useful to recall its main points. The first was this. “The US is the current dominant world power, which shaped the post World War II and post cold war global architecture, encompassing all aspects of world affairs.” Asia-Pacific too formed part of that architecture.

China, on the other hand, was a rapidly rising power, set to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy. But China did not participate in the design and establishment of this global architecture. It benefited from it but its interests were never accommodated by this arrangement.

The second part of his argument was that this post cold war architecture was “breaking down” for two main reasons. One, what Li described as America’s troubles, brought on by internal structural problems and by “external overreach”, which produced “failures and exhaustion”. And two, the rise of the rest, with China being the most prominent.

This led to his third point, that the existing global architecture cannot be sustained, being inherently rigid and unable to adapt to change. Despite its declared pivot to Asia, America has had to direct its attention in many areas – Ukraine, Middle East. This, he said, made it difficult for it to sustain a long-term strategy in any particular region.

But China, according to him, is pursuing a longer-term strategic objective to “reclaim its preeminent role in Asia”. To do that it must seek “adjustments” to the “current global architecture”. This has given rise to tensions, which however was “natural” when anyone sought “a bigger share of the pie”.

Li conceded that assertive behaviour risked “destroying the pie” itself – by which he meant military conflict. But China had been careful in “realizing adjustments in the status quo in its favour” without risking war.

He characterised this as the essence of China’s strategy and predicted that “short of accidents”, a “new configuration will emerge peacefully” through adjustments from a “long and complex” process of negotiation between China and the US.

This notion of the ‘normality’ of tension at a time of global transition also echoed in other sessions, even though varying views were voiced about its implication for global stability.

The session on Iran, titled ‘Towards an endgame?’ examined whether current nuclear negotiations might yield a deal by this year’s end. An Iranian speaker spelt out his country’s position, indicating that a deal could “open the door for broader engagement” on other challenges facing the Middle East.

But the consensus among speakers was that the nuclear talks were “not at an endgame stage”. Substantial obstacles remained, with the two sides still far apart on fundamental issues. The likelihood was that negotiations would be extended beyond the November 2014 deadline.

Among issues raised in this debate was whether the Middle East’s new geopolitical landscape had made a nuclear agreement more or less difficult. A former American official made the point that neither Washington nor Tehran were at present prepared to make fundamental nuclear concessions. While the Iranian delegate confidently proclaimed that even if the 5+1 talks fail, America was in no position to orchestrate more sanctions against Iran.

A lively discussion took place on the Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine. The institute’s chairman, Francois Heisbourg, raised a slew of important questions. Was Europe’s purpose in responding to Russia aimed at regime change in Moscow or preserving the post Second World War order and freedom of choice for former Russian republics? Strategy and purpose were out of sync if the tools deployed against Russia reflected the former aim. Punishing Russia without resolving the problems that led to the present standoff was hardly prudent strategy.

A Russian speaker pointed out that the perception among Russians and President Putin himself is that Europe is pursuing ‘regime change’. He also insisted that the US was following a ‘dual containment’ strategy against Russia and China, but this would only drive the two powers closer.

Important questions were raised in this debate. Was the standoff beyond the point of no return? Could the post cold war order in Europe be preserved or was it up for negotiation? Why has dialogue been so limited? There were no ready answers. But then good conferences almost always raise more questions than they answer – especially at a time of flux and unpredictability in a fast moving world.

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.  Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, "Era of strategic adjustment," The News. 2014-09-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political relations , International relations , International issues , World war II , Cold war , President Putin , United States , Afghanistan , Washington , Tehran , Russia , China , Iraq , Libya , Syria , Iran , IISS