By Professor Birol Akgün
The world system that was established in the aftermath of World War II under the political-economic realities of the time has been going through a radical transformation in recent decades. As part of the globalization process production, technology, trade and growth have been moving toward the non-Western world, especially to East Asia. Concerning world hegemony, the U.S. is gradually redefining its international role from interventionism to isolationism. Europe has been turning into a sick man of the world since 2008. A handful of emerging actors such as China, Russia, Turkey and also such marginalized powers as Iran, display growing willingness to fill the power vacuum in their regions to maintain order with their own values and methods. As a result of the global power shift and decline of the West, today, the global governance system frequently fails to work, geopolitical fault lines are shaken, confidence into the system is lost, established norms and values are eroding, politically motivated violent groups easily destabilize fragile states, and all these developments contribute to a growing uncertainty and systemic anarchy in the word system. Are we ready to face such a turbulent era?
One of the basic issues of international relations is how global peace and order will be established, and if stability is achieved, how and by what means it will be maintained. A ghost of instability has been hovering around the globe in recent years. Developments triggered by 9/11 in particular, have reached a climax. There is a serious upsurge in global acts of violence in a time when people were expected to use more “peaceful and civilized” methods. The world is in the grip of a new and hysteric wave of violence and instability from the Occupy movement to widespread street movements that destroyed the post-colonial order in the Arab world. At the global level, these do not seem to be temporary political hiccups. New political waves leave permanent political effects in countries that they hit. Their shape and scope change continuously like a dangerous computer virus and spread quickly by cloning themselves.
The waves of social unrest that struck Turkey and Brazil in the summer of 2013 have now hit Ukraine, north of the Black sea, Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans, Thailand in South East Asia, Venezuela in Latin America and Central Africa. We should not forget the ongoing low-intensity internal conflicts in Syria and Egypt in the Middle East and the bombs that have become common in Iraq and Lebanon. Is the world on the brink of chaos? Are social conflicts cyclical and temporary/incidental incidents or are deeper shifts coming to the surface? Is the world entering a new period of violence, uncertainty or anarchy? If this is the case, what are the socio-political dynamics feeding this instability? Confidence in liberal values is shaken.
On the other hand, the global financial crisis that started in 2008 hit the U.S. and Western countries significantly hard. Forums like the G-20 are not sufficient to meet the demands and expectations of rising powers. New pursuits and different groups have begun to be formed. The deep crises that free market economies based on neo-liberal values was deeply dragged into shook the belief in economic development and stability model based on market capitalism that was fetishized in the wake of the Cold War. The authoritarian administrative and development models based on the absolute control of policies in China and Russia began to be found more reliable in terms of political and economic stability. In other words, the way for developing and trying different economic policies other than the Washington Consensus has paved the way for developing countries.
Meanwhile, masses turned toward successful charismatic leaders in an environment of crisis and economic uncertainty. This is likely to be one of the main reasons behind strong public support for Putin in Russia, Merkel in Germany and Erdoğan in Turkey. In China, this support appears as support for the communist party.
Political neo-liberalism is another value that has lost credibility in an environment of increasing uncertainty and crisis. The point that should be stressed here is people’s wish for democracy as a political regime. However, both Western countries and political elites in developing countries do not insist as they used to in the past that this democracy must be liberal to protect freedom, security, order and stability. The West’s failure to openly criticize the military coup in Egypt, its hesitating support for democracy in Arab Spring countries, and insensitivity toward governments in countries like Ukraine and Armenia that want to integrate with the West are typical examples of this stance. Besides, Western institutions like Freedom House emphasize in their reports that in recent years that neo-liberal democracy has lost momentum on a global level and democracy has entered into a contracting period.
Balance of global power changes
Another reason for increasing uncertainty and tensions on a global level is the rapid change in the balance of power. Many books and articles are currently being written on these power shifts. Europe and the U.S., which played a dominant role in the global system in the past few centuries, have now been seriously shaken due to the ongoing political/ economic crisis. And this power vacuum creates room for newly rising powers to maneuver. Within this context, associations like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia) can be perceived as platforms of solidarity formed in the environment of a power vacuum and uncertainty in the global system by the disintegration of the global hegemony of the West. Leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama are aware of this power shift in the global system and serious discussions are taking place between U.S. political elites on what kind of foreign policy is to be pursued in this transition period. For instance, topics like U.S.-Iran rapprochement and the future of U.S.-Israel relations have deeply divided the U.S. Congress and security elites.
Power shift increases uncertainty
The main topic that should be dwelled on is how uncertainty and tensions created by the transformation process in the global system be reflected in the domestic and foreign policies of regional powers. Can the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, protests in Brazil, reflection of discussions on “the EU or Russia?” in the streets in Ukraine, unending civil war in Syria and clashes in Central Africa be perceived as repercussions of political quakes in the balance of global power? We hold the view that they can, and moreover, that this matter requires serious analysis.As academics like Gilpin generally mention transforming wars to explain hegemonic transformation in international relations, writers like Ole Holsti attach importance to technological advances or certain major incidents as harbingers of transformation.
Today, changes in communication technologies have resulted in a major revolution in the methods of communication. Social media has become a global phenomenon and created new accession and interaction opportunities in the political sense. On the other hand though, it offers governments a new opportunity for power in the sense of controlling the private lives of people, it seriously weakens the legitimacy and administrative power of governments and allows mass manipulation as observed in the Gezi park protests. It is sufficient to remind of the influences of new social media like Twitter and Facebook and old media forms like TV with its influences news channels like CNN and Al Jazeera in the sudden social explosions in the Arab world.
On the other hand, hegemonic weakening and the flow of the balance of global power, weaken political stability and increases fragility in countries where cultural, ethnic and sectarian divisions are taking place. An upsurge in economic and political uncertainty in the global system paralyzes the absorbing capability of external shocks in developing countries, the economic and political institutions of which are already weak.
Therefore, social fault lines activate rapidly. Ideological and sectarian polarization created in society by the “Gezi phantom,” which still affects Turkish politics today, should be seen from this viewpoint once again. Legal arrangements made by the government to maintain control on the Internet, an arrangement made by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) as a counter measure against unpredictable operations against politics by parallel structure type organized groups within the judiciary and police bureaucracy and legal arrangements to increase powers of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) can be regarded as measures taken by Turkey against increasing uncertainty. Although the arrangements in question are criticized in terms of democratic freedoms, they should be perceived as a response of politics to increasing uncertainty on a global level and increasing security risks in the area around Turkey.
Hegemonic disintegration triggers geopolitical fault lines
Regional repercussions of tensions caused by global hegemonic disintegration and conflicts can lead to results that are more serious from the standpoint of affecting international peace and security. The main issue that I am trying to emphasize here is that due to the U.S. keeping its hands off the global system and the U.N. being non-functional, interstate competition becomes fierce and risks of conflicts gradually increase in areas that can be defined as the world’s fragile geopolitical fault lines. As realists say, today the international system is evolving into a more anarchic situation compared to the past. Furthermore, weakening of the West also weakens values such as democracy and human rights – the political values originating from the West. Unfortunately, the understanding of administration based on brute force of authoritarian regimes like Russia and China has begun to be more influential in relations between states. Could the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad still remain in power but for his powerful authoritarian friends like Russia and Iran’s policies of ignoring world public opinion, international law and diplomatic practice? How could massacres carried out with chemical weapons be disregarded? Could China put into practice its new air defense concept that it declared unilaterally disregarding objections of its neighbors? Could governments in countries like Ukraine and Armenia give up their pro-EU policies so easily and agree on Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian project without Russia’s “power politics?” Could the Muslim minority in the Central African Republic be subjected to such ruthless attacks in front of the French army?
It is possible to say that the most intense conflicts in future years are likely to be in the areas where geopolitical fault lines are fragile and between the powers that try to maintain order and stability according to their values and interests by controlling the areas around them. Possible fragile regions that have the risk of turning into hot conflicts are as follows: North and northeast of the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan), northern China and Central Asia, North Africa.
Interestingly, most often these regions are at the same time locations where people/nations representing different historical civilizations and cultures and sociologically meet. Unfortunately, it will not be that easy to establish and protect regional and global peace over the next few years when non-Western civilizations seek to play more legitimate roles on a global level. It will be more meaningful to perceive, once again, Turkey’s efforts to rebuild Anatolia and the surrounding area with a spirit of plurality and justice through its current opening and reformist policies.
Unfortunately, the world entered the second decade of the 21st century with uncertainty and tensions. The global governance system is losing its functionality and legitimacy, which is increasing economic fluctuations. Confidence is shaken and more doubts about the fundamental assumptions of neo-liberal policies and the ideal economic system are dragging humankind into uncertainty and increases the risk of mental, economic and political anarchy. If a good inference is made into this environment of crisis, it is as follows: opinions originating from the West are losing their monopoly and will perhaps accelerate the return of political and economic values of other non-Western countries to the stage of history. However, in any case, the world will become a stage for serious competition in all fields over the next decades. We should get ready for a turbulent future.