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The turn of the wheel: 2010 and the return of old security problems

Commentary, 3 January 2010
Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, International Institutions, Terrorism, Europe, Pacific, Central and South Asia
As the effects of the global recession begins to be felt, this year will emphasise some new political realities in the international order. They will form the backdrop to the return of some traditional security issues.

2010As the effects of the global recession begins to be felt, this year will emphasise some new political realities in the international order. They will form the backdrop to the return of some traditional security issues. Professor Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI, previews the year ahead.

A turn of the decade naturally prompts a sense of historic change; though the last two decades did not coincide so neatly. The dramatic dates were 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall, and 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, 2001 with the 9/11 attacks, and 2002 and 2003 with the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The years 1990 and 2000 were surprisingly lacking in drama, given the fundamental changes going on at the time.

The world will do well to get through 2010, however, without some considerable drama on a number of critical fronts. The world may be coming out of global recession this year but that emergence will not be uniform from one economy to the next, or even within national economies. More importantly, the political and social effects of this latest turn of the wheel of global capitalism have only just begun to be felt. The financial crisis triggered a worldwide recession - a decline in output of around 4 per cent - that will not be restored by the same economies that were producing previously. The shift in economic power towards Asia is almost certain to be boosted as the recovery is led by Asian production, and consumption. This will emphasise some new political realities. In a world of fragmentation and disorder, relations and tensions among the great powers may be making a comeback as the drivers of international security, or otherwise.

The year of China

As the major international players debate how to put which parts of the global economic system back together, they are actually debating which economic model should be adopted for the world economy in the next era. In this, China will be the determining factor, not in the debate itself - it has been surprisingly reticent to become involved - but in the ultimate viability of whatever model the world eventually tries to operate. China can play the role of co-leader, part-arbiter or single spoiler of just about any model for financial and free trade stability it is possible to devise. Chinese leaders give little indication of the role they think they should play in reshaping the post-recession system and are evidently preoccupied with domestic economic development and nationalist pressures in Xinjiang. Chinese reactions to climate change negotiations in Copenhagen were largely introspective, whatever the rhetoric in Beijing.

For Western countries, the task in the coming decade is a more urgent version of that in the last decade; to engage with China in such a way that Beijing buys in to the evolving rules of the global system, economic, political and legal. Energy politics in central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, however, all militate against this desire as China concludes urgent and sometimes reckless bilateral deals in the immediate search for sources of energy. A number of potential diplomatic clashes in Asia and Africa in the near future have the potential to divide China from the western powers more than unite it within an international consensus. It is not that China is looking for strategic conflict. All the evidence is that, with the exception of the Korean peninsula, it is more short term and reactive in its approach to global issues than proactive or aggressive. It deals bilaterally with key regional players more easily than it takes a regional view as such. The effect, however, is that a partnership the world badly needs between China and the major Western powers, led by the United States, is failing to take shape at a time when 'strategic consensus' is the only antidote to a world of increasing disorder. If the immediate challenges of 2010 - climate change negotiations, nuclear proliferation, regional stability in central Asia and the Middle East, or co-ordinated national economic management - do not provide the focus for a strategic partnership, then major opportunities will be lost and opportunity costs are likely to be severe.

Weapons of mass destruction

China's attitude to the growing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - particularly over nuclear weapons in Iran, North Korea and the possibility of Weapons of Mass Destruction elements in the hands of terrorist groups - has loomed large for a number of years now, but 2010 will pose a more basic and immediate challenge. The Non-Proliferation Treaty regime has been one of the most successful international regimes of modern times; but it is now in deep trouble. The 2000 and 2005 NPT Review conferences were, in treaty regime terms, failures. The 2010 Review Conference is the last reasonable chance to get the international non-proliferation regime back on track. It matters to global order, as much as to nuclear non-proliferation itself. Are the great powers prepared to put their faith once again in an international treaty regime, ahead of narrower bilateral interests China and Russia may have with countries such as Iran, and instead of narrower unilateralist approaches the US finds more reassuring than faith in a United Nations-led regime?

These are long-term, grand strategy questions, but they will be crystallised before the year is half over in the outcome of the Review Conference and in whatever progress the US and Russia are seen to have made on strategic nuclear arms reductions. And if progress is made on these two fronts, China will find it increasingly difficult to remain disengaged. Its diplomatic bluff will be called and it will have to begin responding to the positive developments it claims to have been waiting for. Conversely, failure in 2010 will condemn the powers to a broken-backed diplomatic track on non-proliferation, while the window of opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War to grasp the nuclear nettle once and for all will close within a very few years.

The test of Obama's multilateralism

For the same reason the coming year will tell us a great deal about the reality of President Barak Obama's approach to foreign and security policy. He has declared his intent to create a new multilateralism in US policy. This has been immensely popular with media and publics in most developed countries. But so far, leaders in Iran and Israel have outfaced him, Moscow has remained cool, he is preoccupied with economic and health policy at home and he has embraced what has become 'Obama's war' in Afghanistan. He has to show at least a good trajectory of progress in that conflict by the mid-term elections in November 2010 and certainly by the presidential round in 2012. For the first half of 2010, it is inevitable that there will be more fierce fighting in Afghanistan as the US troop uplift begins to take effect. If the strategy to protect and develop Afghan communities and to peel away layers of less committed Taliban supporters is successful, then by the middle of the year it is possible that there could be a perception that a corner has been turned in the conflict. But that is by no means certain and there are many contingencies that could knock such a strategy off course - not least developments in the worsening civil war in Pakistan.

No one doubts President Obama's personal commitment to a more multilateral approach, and few regard the unilateralism of the first Bush presidency as a better alternative. The fact remains, however, that in some of the key relationships in the Middle East, with leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Beijing and Moscow, quite apart from some Atlantic Alliance maintenance work that is necessary around NATO's 'New Strategic Concept', the Obama Administration needs to demonstrate some manifest success in the approach on an issue that really matters. The Copenhagen climate change conference was not a good omen of new US leadership and President Obama will be looking to his reliable and closer allies to back up what might come to seem like a 'muscular multilateralism'. This might be tested in Europe sooner than the Administration would have expected.

Insecurity returning to Europe

In Europe, the economic effects of the recession have not been as severe as they might, but the political effects may turn out to be more destabilising than previously imagined. The worst economic effects among the European Union states have been mitigated because the Eurozone did not collapse under the pressures of the crisis. No matter that Greece has broken all its rules and will continue to do so; the Eurozone will keep functioning and has acted as an important umbrella to protect the weaker economies of eastern Europe and discourage capital repatriation back to the rich core economies of the EU. Those eastern economies not inside the zone, however, are far more vulnerable and isolated as a result of the recession and political turmoil has already been exacerbated in key countries, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia already uses economic pressure and differential energy pricing as an effective means of influence in the old soviet space, and of outright control in the case of Belarus. With a growing political crisis in Ukraine and the inevitable backtracking on NATO relations with Georgia, the conditions are ripe for Prime Minister Putin to make a dramatic bid to reassert influence and power over these former territories. His desire to do so is beyond question and he may calculate that western powers will be too pre-occupied to regard even a major crisis over Ukraine as a strategic priority. Though the Russian economy is not in good shape, the willingness of present Kremlin leaders to sacrifice economic growth for political grandeur still outclasses the scope of Western politicians to do the same. In these conditions any political disagreements could blow up into major European crises over Ukraine or Georgia in the next couple of years. For all that the EU talks about reaching out to its neighbours, the political effects of the global recession are almost certain to emphasise the differences between those inside and those outside the organisation. And at least for the immediate future, we can anticipate more politically resurgent behaviour from Moscow on all fronts, in the absence of any means for the Western powers to recognise the 'special claims' to power that Russian leaders habitually make.

The jihadist challenge to global order

International terrorism is hardly the greatest challenge to global order in the face of all this, but it looks set to take on new dimensions in the near future which make the most of the fault-lines in the international community. The ungoverned spaces of Yemen and in many parts of east and west Africa offer alternative centres of jihadist organisation as they are squeezed by the civil war in Pakistan. The decentralisation of the jihadist challenge, long heralded but slower to evolve, looks now to be taking place, along with an evolution in terrorist tactics. If the last decade was moulded around the way the US reacted to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the next may well be shaped similarly by how the US and its allies respond to a second wave of international terrorism; whether they allow it to have strategic significance, whether they make it their test of relations with other governments; whether they give it free rein to play on alienated youth in societies around the world.

It is foolish to guess when or how new terrorist outrages might be perpetrated, but it is prudent to assume that there will be some successful attacks on Western interests or symbols sooner rather than later. The political reaction will be more significant than the event and this, too, will become a test of the viability of Obama's approach. If the US is no longer pursuing a 'war on terror', how successfully will the Administration be perceived to be protecting its citizens when its moderation is sorely tested?

The UK Defence Review: not a parochial issue

For the United Kingdom, the coming year will be dominated by the General Election and the long-heralded Strategic Defence Review. That review will take place, however, against a backdrop in which the UK has important interests in all these global order issues as they arise during the coming months. It is not a comfortable time to conduct such a review, but it has been forced on the Government by both financial and strategic circumstances. Moreover, this review will have to make a more explicit judgement than its recent predecessors over how the UK wants to define its role in relation to the big global order issues; it will have to be genuinely strategic.

There is a problem of timing and political rhythm here. The reality of review processes is that however 'strategic' they claim to be, however much they insist they are not merely cost-saving exercises, the fact is that once reviews get underway there is little time or energy available for strategic thinking and an enormous concentration on the price of everything. If the big strategic questions are not publicly addressed now - before and immediately following the General Election - they will certainly not be addressed later. The launch of the Government's Green Paper on future defence in a few weeks time will represent the key test, and the best opportunity, for the UK to agree on how it should orientate itself to the future world: what it wants to achieve, how it should go about it, and how much it is prepared to pay for it. All previous defence reviews have claimed to do this but in the past the answers have been implicit in the questions themselves. They did not require too much agonising on the part of politicians or officials and certainly not the public. There was a great deal of continuity to rely upon. This is no longer the case.

The world economic crisis is the most dramatic break in such continuity. In truth, these now pose themselves as fundamental questions the UK has not genuinely had to face since the 1930s. Facing squarely up to them is not the least arduous test of UK defence and security policy for the coming year.

Author

Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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