x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Careful what you wish for: an unstable world as US declines

In one short decade, US hegemony has given way to an uncertain world order.

Alarmed by the unchecked global dominance of Washington in the late 1990s, France's then-foreign minister Hubert Vedrine described the US as a "hyperpower" whose influence needed to be checked for the greater good. This would be achieved, he suggested, by the construction of a "multipolar" world order, in which US influence would be balanced by the emergence of a number of different power centres.

As 2011 draws to a close, there can be no doubt that "multipolarity" is upon us, and then some: Washington has found its abilities limited to influence the dramatic political events unfolding across the wider Middle East and beyond. The US in 2012 faces a wave of crises that could have profound consequences for America's well-being, yet with dramatically weakened levers of influence to shape the outcomes to those crises.

Today, decisions made in Ankara, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Riyadh and even Doha are having an effect on international affairs that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago. A quick glance at a few of the crises currently on the boil suggests the "multipolar" world may be a more unpredictable place than Mr Vedrine imagined.

President Barack Obama pulled the last US troops out of Iraq saying that it could become a "model for the entire region", but the bloodbath visited on Baghdad by car bombers in the final weeks of 2011 was a grim reminder that Iraq may still be headed down the abyss of sectarian bloodshed. The attacks come against a backdrop of sharply rising sectarian tensions as the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki appears to be systematically removing leading Sunnis from the political scene, raising fears of a renewed insurgency.

But there's precious little the US can do to shape Mr Al Maliki's behaviour - that much was obvious even when there were 140,000 American troops in Iraq. He may be Iraq's single strongest leader, by virtue of controlling the security forces, but Mr Al Maliki is no Saddam: he's unable to rule on his own and depended on Iran to broker the intra-Shiite deal that got him re-elected.

If Iraq descends into chaos in 2012, Republicans will blame Mr Obama. Ironically, his best hope for avoiding disaster there may be if Iran decides to rein in Mr Al Maliki, recognising that his antagonisation of the Sunnis threatens the gains Tehran has made in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam.

The US is also caught in a bind on Iran policy: its sanctions appears unlikely to change Tehran's behaviour, and the Pentagon is clearly opposed to starting a potentially catastrophic war to prevent Iran from attaining the means to make nuclear weapons. But negotiation and compromise appear politically untenable in Washington and in Tehran, both of which are starting election seasons that militate against diplomacy.

But the Israeli government and its backers in Washington insist that a moment of crisis is approaching, and the latter berate Mr Obama for failing to be more confrontational. The Israelis also threaten to take matters into their own hands, while the likes of China, Russia and Turkey push back against new sanctions and demand dialogue.

Libya was also hailed as a model of limited intervention by the US, but the mounting chaos as rival regional warlords stake out turf against a weak national army suggests trouble ahead - trouble that Washington may need the likes of Qatar, Turkey and the Europeans to sort out.

In Egypt, the US may find itself thrust back into the quandary it faced in February, caught between backing the generals it has supported for years who may be reluctant to cede power, and a civilian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which the US has traditionally viewed with hostility.

As hopes dim for a peaceful transition in Syria, western powers that have urged the opposition to avoid violence face a dilemma: the more the regime can force the opposition onto the military terrain, and the more sectarian the terms of battle, the easier it becomes to portray President Bashar Al Assad to Allawite and Christian communities as the alternative to chaos, while outside powers hesitate to intervene. More may depend on the choices made in Ankara than those made in Washington in shaping Syria's outcome.

And while the US would prefer to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian file in an election year, and after it has become clear that there's no chance of voluntary agreement for a two-state solution, Palestinians on the ground - and the radical Israeli settlers who live among them - may not be content to wait. Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly likely now that the peace process is unmistakably dead.

Mr Obama's prospects for avoiding a high-stakes North Korean provocation may depend on China's willingness to rein in the new leadership in Pyongyang, but the administration has made strategic competition with China a focus of its national strategy.

In Afghanistan, the US finds itself more at odds than ever with Pakistan, which appears to hold some of the key cards and is pursuing its own agenda, increasingly challenging the US on its war effort, and expressing its displeasure by choking off Nato supply lines to Afghanistan.

And the economic turmoil in Europe, which threatens cataclysmic consequences that could once again rock the US banking system, is beyond Mr Obama's control - instead, his fate is in the hands of squabbling European politicians unable to agree on the basic steps to address the crisis. Economic and financial interdependence and the globalisation of risk have not been accompanied by the equivalent globalisation of economic governance. We may all be in the same boat, but nobody seems to have the wheel.

Increasingly, the same may be true on the geopolitical stage. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying Multipolarity. Please fasten your seat belts, we're expecting turbulence ...


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York.

Follow on Twitter @TonyKaron