Buckle Up: “New Normals” Are Coming


The post-Cold War period is usually subject to an analysis which breaks it up into different periods or stages, with a variety of authoritative sources and scholars attempting to base these upon qualifying criteria, events or even personalities. Some of these attempts are fairly convincing, but others fail to live up to even the most superficial scrutiny. But is it not somewhat premature to attempt to define a period of nearly 30 years from the retrospective heights of historical analysis? To operate precise cuts according to geopolitical calculations? This could well be the case. The human temptation to jump to conclusions is a trait we hold from the majesty of nature, and our quest to untangle knots, however clumsy or inopportune it may seem, is always uppermost in our minds, and always pressing us to perceive and express near-absolute terms.

A New “Break-up” Mode?

What our world is currently facing is sometimes referred to as a New Cold War. But this is perhaps a futile attempt to bridge the blurring contours of our times based upon what we have known and experienced during the decades which followed the end of the Second World War. Besides, this attempt is either a gross mistake in recreating parallels, or a deliberate failure to admit that we are miles away from the “comfort zone” of rules we became used to during the era of containment, and are now forced to play a new game which we often find hard to control. Dividing up the decades which have followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union into several periods—pre-2007 or 2008, then until 2014; and from 2014 to now—seems a plausible method of grasping the geopolitically seismic events which have been shaping the world of late (and will continue to shape it into the next decade at least).

We still believe that Putin's speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference began a new era of transforming the remnants of the bipolar globe into a world marked by a pre-nascent statist approach to nationalism. His speech was indeed prophetic: “no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.” And while many saw the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 as an aberration from established patterns with admittedly no critical attention to its long-term fallout, the impact of Putin’s statement is plain to see these days. Numerous dissatisfied large and medium-sized powers seek to challenge the strategically meaningful post-Cold War international liberal order, whose equilibrium was strongly shaken as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded. The latter crisis did indeed herald a major disruption of the old modus operandi and massive discontinuity by smashing the rules of the game we were accustomed to following through the lens of containment and post-containment: the corrosive dysfunctionality of the (seemingly) welfare state, the erosion of the middle class, the massive accumulation of wealth within ruling elites, the dramatic effect of automation on labor markets and rising poverty… This chain of unhappy developments has led some to question the coherence of representative democracy and, eventually, of the liberal order and its American and Western guardians. Next, the events of 2014 in Ukraine blocked the faint breeze of liberalism by overtly and assertively reintroducing “spheres of influences” in Europe and Asia. A new era of revisionism has been proclaimed, with easily recognizable setbacks to globalization in the face of state extremism, newly fueled populism, and further proof of a direct link between stagnant political systems and unequal distributions of wealth. Electoral processes in a number of democracies are supporting the premise that certain aspects of “normality” are coming to an end, and that elements of a “new normality” are now buckling up, but this time in the driving seats.

A “G-Zero” World

A plethora of developments permit us to unreservedly state that each country will in the end be tending its own garden and that the whole world is entering an era of “G-Zero”—in other words, a world of every country for itself. This is another blow to multipolarity, not to mention the bipolar system, signifying the emergence of highly fractured asymmetries with fluid economies (and in technological flux, to boot). Topped by the mounting resurgence of regional conflicts through proxy wars, we may all be coming round to the need to accept the presumed aberrations of the past decade as the new central objectives of a largely modified operational structure. Besides this, we are witnessing a clear renaissance of 19th century tools of statecraft such as corruption and political sabotage, mutating through new forms of information war, cyber espionage and the Trojan horse of geoconomics (to name but a few). Nevertheless, major fault lines continue to cut across nexuses of bilateral stand-off, which, alongside their key stakeholders, are worth mentioning again in order to identify the gravity of tensions and self-reliance in the new world to come.

An Emergent Civilizational Clash?

Many of the changes which would presumably be beyond any control of the United States, are mainly to take place in the south-east and south-west Asia region and Indian Ocean basin. And this is about a “great game” between the US and China; and it is also about China, on one hand, and India and Japan, on another, to a varying degree. While it is quite premature to speak about the global hegemony of China, and that is not due to its shaky economic fundamentals only, the rivalry would mostly be accelerating in a near term on a regional scale. With the US trying to preserve both unrestricted passage on seas and its commitment to the allies in that region, the Chinese policy would predominantly be driven by replicating the Monroe Doctrine but with an Asian veil. And that confrontation may be unravelling not by virtue of the logics of the Thucydides trap alone, but due to fundamental distinctions resulting in civilizational incompatibility with American individualism opposed by the Chinese “know your place” in the communal hierarchy. This exceptionalism in the regional context may not last too long, however, with spiralling next into the global context. That said, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is rightly viewed these days as not about economy but about cultivating diplomatic (including military diplomacy) and political influence along the OBOR route. At this point in time, the megaproject is mainly focused on using I Track channels, public connections and economic inducements, but both the land and maritime components of the Silk Road are increasingly accompanied by improving the ability of militaries in relation to rescue and disaster relief operations and opening navy overseas logistical bases in near and remote places from mainland China. All in all, the current policies of China in the context of the BRI is arguably reminiscent of Mackinder's Heartland Theory whereby the control of the heartland is vital to control of the world and the heartland itself comprises all of Europe and Asia, both making the World Island. This encroachment into Eurasia is commonly understood as part of China's grand strategy and may conflict with that of the United States, provided that that the latter does not abandon his role of the heavy-weighter on the World Island. In terms of these discussions, it is also a helpful reminder that the US still remains the sole power capable of projecting its power both on seas and land, thus addressing not only that of Mackinder's but other mainstream geopolitical theories too.

Again on Reconciling Irreconcilables

The Eurasian area is witnessing yet another vivid example of balancing on the verge of a “situation of strength” and that balancing act is by Russia. Although many of us in Georgia would rightly contest this by stating that the verge has been crossed already as a result of the 2008 aggression (the same goes for Ukraine, when speaking about the grab of the Crimean peninsula). As Russia is adamantly pursuing a zero-sum worldview, the US will most likely attempt to pool all resources available to restore a balance when it comes to hybrid warfare. At the same time, either track I or track II channels should clearly be maintained as there is a range of sensitive interests which require unflinching cooperation by both parties. Besides, and in Eurasia in particular, the triangle of Russia-China-US is something which the world has not witnessed before and it will be equally exciting and precarious to watch to what extent those divergent interests reconcile and confront. Most likely, whole reconciliation would be present on matters of tactical meaning, as strategies are hard to converge for the reasons mentioned already. Not surprising, since the US, Russia and China each belong to a category of their own.

We are also waiting for the reaction from various powers with a key regional impact, such as Germany, Poland, UK, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, which may lead to forging new (ad hoc) alliances and the prevalence of closed systems over open ones. But that is a subject of extensive deliberations in another article.

And About Us

In these torrents, the same question repeats: where is Georgia's security anchor? We are surely present in various discussions, however, that bears a rather cyclical character when surfacing: dipping and then coming up again. The impression is that our presence on the radars is not sustainable. It is also true that there is no lack of novel toolkits by international scholars for addressing the problems we are externally facing (e.g., O'Hanlon at Brookings, Coffey at Heritage). However, there is still a nagging feeling that the gist of intellectual workouts on Georgia's possible access to NATO and EU is mainly hinged on “not now, but not never.” And that facilitates having a stable vicious (if not, perilous) circle insufficient for a decisive break. Stability is good, but not when it goes into flux. Besides, everything seems stable until it is not.

Victor Kipiani

08 March 2018 15:40