The Return Of Great Power Diplomacy

In case you missed it, international relations has gone all retro

Despite what Twitter has told you, WW3 is not imminent, and nor is a new Cold War; the nuclear weapons aren’t one a hair trigger, and Soviet socialism is long dead. What we are instead seeing is a return to the default setting of international relations; unsubtle power politics by nation states.

In the early 1990’s, flushed with success at the Soviet demise, Western policy makers allowed themselves to fall into a trap of their own making. Theorists announced that Western style multi-party, free market liberal democracy was the zenith of political development, and the ultimate destination of all countries. Sure, there would be fits and starts, but that would be ‘managed’ by a West whose only role now was to enforce a minimal rule set, and nudge countries in the right direction with the soft power tools of culture, development aid and all that warm fuzzy stuff.
Western military machines would thus need to be reformed too. The US Leviathan would remain just in case, but that meant Europe could dispense with the heavy stuff and concentrate on peace keeping and ceremonial duties. The catalyst for much of this in Europe was the EU; the previously warring tribes of the continent would no longer have the tools nor the inclination to tear themselves apart again.

But while Europe indulged in smug contentment, the rest of the world carried on regardless. For while Europe and the US were happy with the then status quo, many others weren’t. These revisionist powers didn’t get the memo that borders were now fixed and that power was passe. Even the institutions that were meant to underpin the New World Order are becoming an irrelevance, with non-Western powers simply starting their own, like the Eurasian Union or the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement.

Chief among these are China, which openly claims chunks of India, the whole of Taiwan, and a clutch of islands from the Korean PACOM Delegation to ChinaPeninsula to the South China Sea. And this isn’t hollow bombast; China has expanded it’s road an rail connections to camps on the Indian border, at great cost and with no economic benefit. In response, India has swelled the number of mountain fighting units, and doubled patrols in the area. Worryingly for India, Marxist rebels in Assam and the Naxalite rebel (both backed by China) have increased activity, with the latter carrying out a number of bloody attacks last year. China regularly drills island seizure war games, and has built or purchased amphibious craft and floating docks. These serve no other purpose than to take and hold islands.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran spar for regional hegemony, with Saudi embarking on a flurry of military purchases and a defence agreement with India, while Iran stirs sectarian tensions on the east of the Arabian Peninsula where a Shia majority live under the yoke of Sunni princes. With 40 percent of the worlds traded oil passing through the Straits of Hormuz between the two, this rivalry could be devastating. In Africa Ethiopia and Eritrea both seem immovable on a border dispute centred on the town on Bao. The last war between the two looked more like 1914 than 1994, with artillery bombardedments followed by mass infantry assaults.

Russia has been the most overt revisionist power. In addition to the usual pipelines-for-airbases quid pro quo games in Central Asia, Russia has perfected the 21st century land grab: identify a fragile former Soviet republic, fund thuggish militias, play merry-hell with the gas supply, and generally destabilize the institutions of the state, identify a Russian minority (and if you can’t find one, make one by throwing Russian passports out like confetti) then step in and set up an ‘autonomous republic’ under Russian protection.

This last policy tool should be one of consternation to the West, and the EU in particular. The treatment of Georgia and Ukraine has sent message across Eastern Europe as to what happens when countries flirt with western orientation in defiance of Moscow. For the sad fact of the matter is that Europe doesn’t have the tools, the will, or the mindset to deal with Russia when it plays hardball. Western capitals have spent too long a post-mordern mind set, too willing to believe that everybody was just like them and that countries simply didn’t ‘do’ annexation anymore.

Even the US, for all its criticism as an imperial power, is ill equipped to handle relations with an unabashed 19th century style Great Power. The US can contain aggression when it’s Saddam rolling into Kuwait, but even the usual Washington hawks aren’t advocating war with Russia over Crimea. Washington also knows that sanctions will be watered down by a Germany which needs Russian gas to keep the lights on. And European commitment to sanctions has been painfully exposed over Iran.

And the world is going to get less stable as US power wanes. Local tensions and disputes that have for decades been held in check by the Pax America will bubble to the surface. Lacking confidence in US will and capability, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan are having to divert resources from social programs into defence procurement.

The debacle over Crimea should snap the EU out of its paralysis of complacency. Europeans, individually and collectively, got fat and soft assuming the US would always be there. Those days are over, and rest of the world isn’t willing to play nice.


  1. The problem with the revival of Great Power diplomacy is that if we look at it in terms of 19th century geopolitics, the Russians are “us” (Putin is only doing the sort of thing Palmerston used to do), the Chinese are the French (Obsessed with imposing “mother country” culture on subjugated peoples), the US are the Austro-Hungarians (fading but still capable of putting a force in the field) and Europe is the Ottoman Empire (collapsing, bits falling off it, but nobody has quite worked out how finally to partition it yet). There are other things that look rather familiar (Great Power realises it’s losing influence in an area it once dominated and panics – the Pacific in the US case, Germany in Austria’s, the margins of Russia for Europe and the Ottomans).

    As well as that, all round the world second- and third-level states are arming themselves while we carry on narrowing our defence capability further and further. What has happened is that the Western (and particularly UK) foreign policy “Establishment” has swallowed the nonsense originating with Fukuyama about the “End of History”. However, we now find ourselves not at the “end” of anything, but back again at the start of what looks like a loop.


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