Today, reading any news item focused on geopolitics has become an exercise in intellectual frustration. Nearly every prominent news outlet in the West can be counted on to follow an exasperatingly predictable editorial line. Random speculation about unverified intentions is rife. Among the celebrity pundits whose job is to analyze the news, insight into systemic relationships, long-term trends and the deeper dynamics of history routinely go missing.
“Nearly 90 Percent of the World Isn’t Following Us on Ukraine” is the title of an article Newsweek, an otherwise reliably establishment outlet, dared to publish. The authors are two high-level former American diplomats. David H. Rundell held the post of Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller was senior political advisor to General David Petraeus from 2008 to 2010. Gfoeller even participated in two of the famously secretive Bildenberg events said to be the place the powerful consult, if not conspire, on the governance of a globalized world.
Neither of these men can be thought of as a bitter loser, a radicalized opponent of the established order or a disabused lackey with an ax to grind. These two diplomats go well beyond the now established trend of reporting the news as a contest of wills or a zero sum game between two ideologies or styles of political organization. Instead, they are keenly aware of a stunning tectonic shift in history itself. The implications go far beyond any single border.
Most editorial boards have been doggedly treating the struggle in Ukraine as a kind of media-friendly but exceptionally violent Superbowl pitting two teams –the world’s two most imposing nuclear powers – against each other in a proxy war whose outcome will result in the crowning of the 21st century’s imperial champion, destined to reign over humanity for the coming decades.
Rundell and Gfoeller focus on the significance of the quintessential tool that the currently reigning – but clearly waning – global power has used to exercise that power: economic sanctions. They focus on the blowback that the USA’s strategy of constant intimidation, if not overt aggression has ultimately provoked. “Economic sanctions,” they observe,” have united our adversaries in shared resistance. Less predictably, the outbreak of Cold War II, has also led countries that were once partners or non-aligned to become increasingly multi-aligned.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The equivalent in diplomacy of quantum uncertainty in physics, describing a geopolitical reality that defies simple dichotomies and acknowledges permanent non-determination.
In a world supposedly regulated by a “rules-based order based on the idea of a simplistic opposition between what is licit and illicit, nations were forced to decide whether they were for or against their preferred dominant power. The concept atavistically prolonged the logic of feudalism, in which everyone and every grouping was subject to a Seigneur: a lord or king. In contrast, a world of multi-aligned nations fluctuates like quanta between two indeterminate states, as either a particle or a wave, or both at the same time.
Rundell and Gfoeller maintain that the system known as the neoliberal order – taught in schools and accepted by economists and politicians across the globe as a set of natural laws governing humanity’s collective behavior – may not be the actual source of the supposedly “natural” laws that govern the political economy. Nature is more complex than we are encouraged by our institutions to believe. Because a sense of morality remains a persistent psychological component of our collective behavior, the perception of equity can sometimes trump or at least disturb the cynical economic “realism” on which we have been taught to believe the neoliberal order has been founded.
“Globalization,” the two diplomats write, “can function only if most participants believe it advances their interests.” The defense of self-interest defines the starting point of any value system. When power is concentrated, self-interest may be obscured, as the need to align becomes dominant. But even in such cases it is wrong to neglect the role of perception by those subjected to a power that claims the authority to define the rules. The authors make this simple point, of deep historical significance: “If the rest believe the West is unfairly using the system for its own benefit, the rules- based international order falls apart and alternatives will emerge.”
So how does that perception play out in today’s real world? At a joint press conference conducted last week with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, India’s Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar offered some delicately worded hints. While diplomatically insisting on the quality of India’s dialogue with the US, the minister made it clear that there is now room for some quantum uncertainty in international relations. Clearly contradicting the US approach to the global economy, Jaishankar put it brutally: “India does not believe that the efficacy or indeed the quality of democracy should be decided by world banks.” The rules-based order has always been a dollars-based order. (The State Department’s transcription read “word banks” instead of “world banks.” Could this be a voluntary mistake?)
Jaishankar offered another mild reminder of Indian dissent. Concerning the Ukraine war – which the US is committed to prolonging despite the disastrous consequences for much of the world, including the people of the United States – the minister insisted that India has “always advocated that the best way forward is to return to dialogue and diplomacy.”
Perhaps just as telling was Jaishankar’s remark concerning the tenor of talks with UN’s Secretary General, António Guterres. “So there was some discussion with the UN secretary general as well. I don’t think it would be right for me to kind of go into specifics at this time.” Not in a friendly exchange with Blinken, in any case. The minister clearly shares an appreciation similar to that of Rundell and Gfoeller and Guterres himself, that the refusal to acknowledge the needs and desires of a majority of the earth’s population cannot be a productive policy.
“These concerns,” Rundell and Gfoeller write, “are generating considerable anti-Western sentiment across much of the Global South.” In the article’s final sentence, concerning the war in Ukraine, they offer this obvious insight, identical with Jaishankar’s: “Our most promising solution to this dilemma is likely to be some sort of diplomatic compromise.”. Just as obviously, that orientation is at odds with that of a Biden administration committed to conducting a proxy war “as long as it takes.”
At the core of quantum mechanics we find “the wacky behavior of photons, electrons and the other particles that make up the universe.” It seems wacky to us, but that is how the universe works. The elementary physical units scientists cannot simply decide whether they are particles or waves.
The political history of the past three quarters of a century, at least as promoted in the West, has consistently relied on a logic in which nations were pressured into making a definitive choice. Particle or wave. Capitalist or communist. Democratic or authoritarian. Choose your side and be prepared for a struggle against the other side.
The original Cold War created a culture of binary choice designated as alignment. For complex historical reasons following its independence in 1947, India somehow managed to define and maintain its position as a non-aligned nation in a geopolitical world governed by the logic popular in the US: “You are either with us or against us.” On its current website, Jaishankar’s ministry proudly recounts India’s historical role, stating that the “Movement of Non-Aligned Countries has played a fundamental role in the preservation of world peace and security.”
In the context of a binary Cold War, India and other third world countries successfully imposed, at least in theory, a third choice: non-alignment. The seismic shift in geopolitics we are witnessing today is proving to be qualitatively different. A multi-aligned position better corresponds to the reality of an increasingly multipolar world.
Having lost its control of what appeared to be a unipolar world born of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US may grudgingly accept the kind of bipolar world that characterized the original Cold War. But, as the basis of a globalized economy, a multipolar world of multi-aligned nations would actually be far more coherent and respectful of a diverse political reality. It would also mean the end of “the American century.” Will any US president allow this to happen? Joe Biden’s commitment to a prolonged proxy war in Ukraine may be the clearest sign that the US will continue to resist..
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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