Tim Marshall

In a multi-polar world, picking sides becomes ever more vital

Ray Davies and the Kinks had it about right: “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world


Anna Botting and Tim Marshall in Baghdad

April 15, 2021 12:06

Ray Davies and the Kinks had it about right: “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”. And that was in the easier to understand bi-polar world of the Cold War. Now we are well into a multi polar world in which some Arab states put the future ahead of the past, the south east Asian countries watch America’s every move for signs of retreat in the face of a resurgent China and many sharp elbowed second tier powers attempt to create new realities ahead of what might become a new Cold War.

My new book Power of Geography looks at this multi-polar world through the lens of geography, then layers on history and current events to try and understand how we got where we are and where we are going. It includes chapters on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Sahel, the UK, and Space. All are impacted by these uncertain times, a period we may look back on as being between two Cold Wars.

Underlying trends can take years to break through to popular consciousness. Some analysts of Middle Eastern affairs knew support for Palestine among Arab governments was weakening year by year. The 2008 financial crash, and then the Arab Uprisings and wars from 2011 meant they had other priorities. For years the UAE had allowed Israeli businesses to carry out low profile work there, so it was not a shock when their rapprochement became official in 2020.

The peace deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco are not because the Arab countries suddenly discovered they loved Israel. They are the product of the passage of time and the new geopolitical map. An energy self-sufficient USA is trying to slowly leave the Middle East but simultaneously ensure its stability. Many Arab countries are anxious that without the Americans in town, the Iranians will project power into their countries more easily. An American offer of state-of-the-art F-35 jets helped the Emiratis to go public. For decades many Middle East analysts had argued that the Arab states would never make peace with Israel without the creation of a Palestinian state. Instead, time and hard realities caught up with the lip service rhetoric of the Arab governments’ support for Palestine.

Saudi Arabia may follow suit. It is Iran’s biggest rival in the region and a deal with Israel would signal to Tehran that even if the Americans prefer to sit out a conflict, Riyadh may not be alone.

The Saudis have read the future in another way as well. Their oil will eventually run out or the world will wean itself off fossil fuels. The change is underway and will accelerate. So, the Saudis will spend the next decade trying to diversify their economy, partially by using another source they have in abundance: sunshine. But America will not defend Saudi Arabia to protect its solar panels, another reason to make friends with Israel which is the region’s most powerful military and has technology skills in desalination and making the deserts bloom.

Much of what is happening in this realignment is because, after the Cold War and the brief uni-polar moment of American “hyper-power”, there is no longer a “world policeman”. In its absence it is normal that countries seek to police their own neighbourhood and equally normal that not everyone in the neighbourhood can agree who should be the sheriff. This brings us to Turkey.

Turkey sees the multi-polar world as a jungle and itself as a lion. President Erdogan is a “neo-Ottoman” who believes Turkey’s destiny is to emerge as a global power. He’s projecting power back into many territories of the old empire. The Turkish military is now fighting in Iraq and Syria and has been heavily involved in Libya. Erdogan supports the “Blue Homeland” – a return to the territorial boundaries before the settlements of the 1920s. He has been pictured in front of a military map showing large areas of the Aegean as being Turkish even though legally most of it is Greek territory. The Turkish navy has also been deployed to guard Turkish ships exploring for oil and gas in Greek and Cypriot waters. This has led to confrontations with the Greek navy exacerbating tensions between the two NATO members

When Turkey bought the S-400 ground to air missile defence system from Russia it infuriated its NATO allies, especially the Americans. The Turks then tested the system using its F-16 fighter jets which it had bought from the USA. Washington kicked Turkey out of NATO’s F-35 Stealth Fighter jet programme and Ankara is becoming a semi-detached member of NATO, a position which has weakened the alliance.

During the Cold War this purchase of Russian weapons would not have happened. If we do return to a Cold War, this time between the USA and China, then increasingly countries will be forced to take sides when it comes to security issues. We saw an early example of this last year with American pressure causing the UK to reverse its decision to allow Huawei into the 5G mobile phone network.

Australia had already made that decision two years previously. Canberra suggested that as Beijing ultimately controls Huawei, there was a risk the Chinese Communist Party would have the ability to shut down power networks and other critical infrastructure that will soon rely on 5G technology. China insists Huawei and the CCP are separate entities.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison dared to call for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, the Chinese government was incandescent at the impudence of Canberra and soon took revenge. Punishing tariffs were slapped on Australian wine and barley exports and there were restrictions on Australian coal, beef, and other products. Given that China accounted for more than a third of wine exports and half of barley exports, these were heavy blows.

Behind all this looms China’s increasingly aggressive and expansive approach to foreign policy. Until just a few years ago Beijing limited the range of where it pushed outwards to the South China Sea and the India/China border. Now it is venturing beyond the ‘

“First Island Chain” (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines etc) and down to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

So does Australia stay closely allied to the USA, start leaning towards China or attempt neutrality? All the signs are that it is betting that the Americans are not going to retreat from the Western Pacific and will stand by Australia’s push back against Beijing. The US has a Marine base in Darwin and a satellite intelligence gathering station near Alice Springs. It is the only country capable of keeping the international sea lanes open in the face of challenges but it also needs friends. Along with Japan and India, the two countries are members of “The Quad”, an informal strategic alliance destined to grow in importance. Officially “The Quad” promotes democracy and a free, open Indo-Pacific. Unofficially it hopes to prevent China from dominating the region.

The UK is making the same bet as Australia, that the USA is not a spent force. Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden both seem to be interested in the idea of a “League of Democracies” sometimes called the D10. It’s worth noting who Mr Johnson has invited as guests to the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June – India, South Korea, and Australia. Seven plus three equals….

What of the Americans? Two decades of exhausting foreign wars have ushered in one of its periodic bouts of partial isolationism although as a global power it cannot fully withdraw from that world. It just wants its friends to do more - notably its NATO friends. We have seen years of self-doubt and internal strife before. Post-Watergate and Vietnam, many analysts wrote America off, especially in the Carter years. For better or worse it came roaring back. It always has. It might again.

Tim Marshall is the author of ‘Power of Geography’ to be published by E&T books on 22 April

April 15, 2021 12:06

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