Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Resume: The macro changes in the world economy and politics, developments in the Greater Middle East, and actions (or inaction) by old great powers make further plunging of the region into conflicts almost inevitable.
The macro changes in the world economy and politics, developments in the Greater Middle East, and actions (or inaction) by old great powers make further plunging of the region into conflicts almost inevitable.
I am a bit surprised that the press keeps ignoring the growing probability of a big war, or a series of wars, in the Middle East. Observers and analysts, following in the footsteps of the Western mass media from which they primarily get their information, discuss one crisis after another, without trying to blend them into one picture.
Many factors from macro geopolitics and macro geo-economics indicate an impending war. These include, above all, an unprecedented rapid redistribution of power in favor of new leaders, especially Asian ones.
The last two decades have also seen a dual energy revolution – major changes in the balance of power and wealth in the energy sector, which have exacerbated the general tendency still further. In the 1990s, when the West was celebrating its victory in the Cold War, it failed to notice that control over an overwhelming part of the world’s energy resources moved from its multinational corporations to extracting countries and their companies. Later, in the 2000s, the growth of newly industrialized countries sent energy prices soaring – and the world GDP poured into extracting countries, including Russia. By the second half of the 2000s, OPEC countries alone had begun to earn about one trillion dollars a year, several times more than a decade before.
Now we are witnessing a growing degradation of institutions of supranational political and economic governance: the UN, the IMF and others have become increasingly feeble. The G8 has turned into a parody of a world government, and the G20 is obviously following suit. Organizations like BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are in no hurry to compensate for their weakness.
International relations are being renationalized. Sovereign states are now coming to the fore, rather than supranational governance bodies, multinationals or non-governmental organizations, as was predicted earlier. Yet their capabilities have been impaired by the economic and informational globalization, and they cannot fill the governability vacuum.
Something very strange is happening, namely re-ideologization of world politics. The West, temporarily losing the competition with new leaders, has not only stepped up efforts to proselytize democracy but has also begun to back them with arms. The re-ideologization is proceeding along religious dividing lines as well, especially between the Muslim world and other cultures and civilizations.
This situation is seriously aggravated by ideological confusion. The old powers and their intellectuals are unable, or unwilling, to explain what is going on, while the new ones are not yet ready to do it, or unable to, either. Discussions about the state of the world economy and politics contain unusually large amounts of high-sounding pretentious nonsense, understatements, or outright lies.
Add to this the systemic crisis that has predictably hit the EU, the sharp fall in the United States’ prestige after its two military-political defeats, and the weaknesses of its economic model (still the strongest, though), which were graphically revealed by the world crisis – and the picture becomes almost unequivocal.
A New Conflict Is Inevitable
There are all prerequisites, even more than required, for predicting the possibility of a new world war. And it would be most certainly unleashed but for the mysterious horror inspired by the existing giant nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States and smaller, yet still terrifying, arsenals of other countries.
But if a new world war is almost ruled out, the probability of a major war or a series of wars in the Greater Middle East, on a vast territory from the Indo-Pakistani border to the Maghreb, is visibly growing. Now it is beginning to seem inevitable due to the aforementioned and other macro prerequisites. But even regional prerequisites alone are more than enough. Pakistan, which is losing competition with India, is already seriously concerned that another provocation (like the attack at a Mumbai hotel) would force New Delhi to respond. In what ways, other than nuclear weapons, Islamabad would be able to prevent its military defeat is unclear.
Nuclear-hungry Iran, which has become much stronger due to the Shiitization and weakening of its former rival Iraq, is scaring its traditional rivals in the Sunni kingdoms of the Gulf. Israel, despite its strong nuclear potential and armed forces, is almost in panic, only fueled further by the “Arab Spring” and a series of falls of troublesome yet relatively stable regimes, with which it could have come to agreement. These regimes are being replaced, one after another, by less stable governments that are more vulnerable to public opinion and, therefore, to anti-Israeli sentiment.
So far, Israel has refrained from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, realizing that it would not benefit much from such an attack but that the probability of it causing turmoil in the region would increase dramatically. Iran has great possibilities to destabilize the already unstable region still further. Another factor holding back Israel from attacking Iran is Washington which, having lost two wars, does not want to be involved in one more war on the eve of presidential elections. Theoretically, an Israeli attack could be prevented if Tehran agreed to stop at the nuclear threshold. However, the outside world shortsightedly has offered Iran no guarantees except sanctions. The ruling elite in Iran is torn by growing differences, and it seems that part of it is provoking an attack in order to consolidate the country against an outside threat.
But there is a limit even for the moderate and cautious part of Israelis. When they come to believe that the region is plunging into the abyss of war and destabilization, an attack against the enemy, even if only for its temporary weakening, will seem to be the best way out of the worsening situation.
The Vulnerability of the Middle East
Meanwhile, fundamentalist Sunni kingdoms of the Gulf, which have sucked up billions of petrodollars over the last decade, have predictably begun to try to convert their financial power into political influence. They have launched an offensive against secular and/or Shia states in the Middle East. Their main target is Iran, which is growing stronger despite sanctions, and which can become even stronger in case of its nuclearization.
These secular states are highly vulnerable because of inequality in their societies, half-starved masses, and total corruption. It was not the glorified social networks, which Arabs almost did not have, but Qatari and Saudi money and Qatar’s Al Jazeera that were behind the “Arab Spring” riots.
It is quite obvious that the uprising in Syria largely rests on Sunni petrodollars and a desire to undermine the secular al-Assad regime, which gravitates towards Shiites and which is an ally of Iran, although there are also many internal reasons for the discontent in Syria.
An important part of this landscape is Afghanistan. The yet another war lost by external forces in this country may make it an even more dangerous exporter of instability if Afghan tribes and clans are not played off against each other, so that they busy themselves and not project their problems outward. For the time being, I do not see a willingness to do that. NATO members, who keep talking about a democratic and stable Afghanistan, are trying to flee for their lives from the country. China is overcautious and is mostly worried that Americans may leave the military infrastructure in the country. Iran will do anything to weaken the West. Russia might be the leader of a new policy towards Afghanistan. But will it want and be able to become one?
And here we come to one more factor that is increasing the probability of a big war or a series of conflicts in the Greater Middle East – this is the role of the West. I am far from seeing its hand behind the “Arab revolutions,” especially as this hand is nowhere to be seen either in Egypt or Tunisia. Their results are simply monopolized by Western politicians, who are thus trying to compensate for their geopolitical weakening.
But sometimes the West does play a negative role. The systemic crisis which it is entering forces it to look for distracting tactical maneuvers abroad. European political and intellectual elites, which are losing the current round of international competition, have begun to defend democracy promotion even more vehemently, even if it works against their medium-term interests. Russian readers of this article may still remember the “More socialism!” slogan in Gorbachev’s times.
But democracy is not dying. On the contrary, it is on the rise. Information transparency has given nations and people unprecedented and ever-increasing freedom. It’s just that the growth of democracy no longer coincides, as was expected, with the strengthening of positions of the cradle of modern democracy – Europe and the United States.
Liberal elites are naturally outraged by massive human rights violations in Arab countries and Iran. But then follow less justifiable motives. The war in Libya, for all the indignation over the Gaddafi regime’s outrages, was a classical “small victorious war,” at least for Paris and London at the time. However, the stake on it did not work. The “victory” over Gaddafi, which the West was very proud of, was immediately washed away by the waves of the economic crisis. Now it prefers not to recall the country which is going to pieces in the throes of a smoldering civil war and which has become a source of instability in the region.
The pressure on al-Assad, in addition to ideological and humanitarian sentiments and considerations, conceals the same, absolutely obvious desire for a “small victorious war.” And even more – a desire to weaken Syria, which is an ally of Iran.
In the past decades, the West tried, even though inconsistently, to be a stabilizing force in the region. Now it does not want, and is unable, to play this role. Many countries, subconsciously and contrary to their declared policies, are trying to justify their inability to cope with the crisis by external factors.
Such sentiments can also be found among Russian elites that are not ready for a long-overdue volte-face. To prevent this change, they are trying to find non-existent external threats – or not to counter their emergence from the South, especially as it has no capabilities to do that.
Russia is warned that it may lose its positions in the Middle East. Simultaneously, it is repeatedly told that future developments in Syria depend only on it, and it is urged to interfere. I am not going to give unsolicited advice as to whether or not al-Assad and his government should be saved, if he and his regime fail to cope with the uprising.
The South on Fire
I want to say another thing: due to the objective situation and external factors, the region has crossed the line of profound destabilization. It is all burning or smoldering: India and Pakistan, Afghanistan, nuclearizing Iran, Iraq writhing in convulsions, Syria, Lebanon, Israel encircled by enemies, degrading Egypt and Tunisia, and Libya falling to pieces. This is why it would be immoral and stupid for Russia to follow outside advice and get involved in the developments in the region, no matter on which side – al-Assad, Iran or the West, or start playing Afghan games again. And it would also be stupid to listen to others.
However, geography will not allow Russia to move far away from the region. We and our closest neighbors are vulnerable ourselves. So in the decades to come we will have to maneuver, limit possible damage, deter potential aggressors with the threat of force, and sometimes actively defend ourselves.
And the last thing. The economic strategy of the country, its corporations and people will have to be built on the basis of the new reality – the probability of decades of wars and conflicts in the vast region south of the Russian border. This reality will not only affect oil prices or pipeline prospects, but also the global economic environment, changing the structure of world demand for many goods and services. The easiest things to predict are the shrinking of real estate markets in the region, a multi-million redistribution of tourism flows, and a dramatic increase of migration, religious and terrorist pressure from the South.
One thing is clear: a profound destabilization of the Greater Middle East will require structural changes not only in politics but also in the economic behavior.