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Rife uncertainty on the global chessboard

Almost a decade ago, the political scientist Joseph Nye thought of the global balance of power and the changing game of international relations as a 3D chessboard. His underlying idea was that international power is shared between three imaginary ‘chessboards’ in an era of globalisation. The upper chessboard is set aside for military might. The US has been calling the shots in this respect over a considerable period. The middle chessboard is all about the economy. Here, several great powers are the important players at present. The third board is hardest to define. Power at this level is generated across borders and revolves around issues that are not directly connected to governments; ‘fuzzy power’.

The power on the lowest board is divided among many players and it is unclear who has the most influence. Positions, moves, rewards and players tend to change often. States increasingly need to reckon with the players and topics that matter on the third chessboard. Owing to globalisation and the information revolution, this ‘grassroots’ chessboard has steadily gained importance in the past ten years.

If anything, the games played out on the 3D chessboard have intensified, while the political, financial, economic and military connecting threads are so convoluted that the ensuing maze resembles a combination of the Rubik’s Cube – with panels that are constantly shifting so that every twist and turn can change the face of the cube – and the Whack a Mole game, with rodents popping up at unexpected moments and in unexpected locations.

In this complicated, chaotic, gigantic web of interests, parties and erratic connections, the world’s leader – still the US – finds it increasingly hard to run the show. Militarily, the country is still way ahead of the pack but China and the Eurozone players are now operating at a similar level from an economic sense. Nevertheless, America’s financial power continues to outflank the competition due to the dominant role of the dollar and the open, deep and broad financial markets. However, the US has lost its leading edge in other respects – and President Trump isn’t helping matters.

Stability, order and chaos

The world continues to hover between stability, order, chaos and disorder. Roughly speaking, order used to dominate the world in the past decades. Unfortunately, the scales now seem to be tipping the other way, due to:

  • The (aftermath of the) financial crisis and the subsequent credit and government debt crises.

  • The crumbling stature of the US and the associated emergence of a global system consisting of multiple power centres and non-state actors.

  • Trump’s policies.

  • Putin’s nationalist, authoritarian, revanchist and xenophobic course.

  • Political, economic, cultural, historic and military tensions in Asia, with China as an awakening giant with larger-than-life ambitions.

  • Geopolitical, territorial, social, sectarian, religious and ethnic tensions across the Middle East.

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote at the end of 2014 that, “The question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.” An actual war seems fairly unthinkable at this stage, many would say. Not according to US Professor Graham Allison, who has been writing about the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ in recent years, which implies there is a high chance of war during a period when a rapidly evolving power starts to compete with a dominant great power. There have been 15 such situations in the past 500 years and war broke out in 11 cases; often triggered by the interaction between assertiveness and fear.

Many in the West would love to go back to the post-Cold War period when quite a few Western leaders and observers believed that an international order had been firmly established that prioritised human rights, international law, collaboration, global institutions, peaceful conflict resolution and free trade, the “new world order” as former US President George H. W. Bush called it then.

However, as law professor Eric A. Posner wrote, “The liberal order that was born with the Soviet Union’s collapse rested on a fiction: that all nations were equal and submitted to the same rules because they reflected universal human values. In reality, of course, the rules were Western rules, and they were enforced largely by the United States, which was no one’s equal. Today, the fiction has been exposed, and the world order looks increasingly like the one that reigned during the 19th century.”

In other words, Putin is not alone when he tries to reintroduce 19th century geopolitical power balance thinking in the 21st century. Putin is not travelling back in time but is a man of his time. The West, on the other hand, often tries to hang on to a period that is on its last legs.

Under this brand new order, the great powers will eventually start to balance each other out. And whereas the US will continue to be the key actor for the time being, it can no longer unilaterally mould the world to its will.

The new order has not yet taken a definite shape by a long shot. A structural, painful transformation of the international system is ongoing, as evident from the Ukraine crisis, clashes in Asian waters, and the ‘proxy wars’ in the Middle East.

It would be a mistake to think that the power games will play out in the same way as they did one or two centuries ago. The global game board has changed fundamentally, power is exercised very differently and more variations, individual nation states, and non-state actors add unpredictability to the mix. As a result, it has become harder to foretell the outcome of the geopolitical chess game. And there is no guarantee – whatever some experts may say – that global economic intertwinement will be enough to limit the risks of chaos, instability, and violence.

Europe’s new order

Europe is clearly struggling to define its role in the new order. Yet, it is undoubtedly in better shape than before.

  • After the inward-looking years when it was forced to fork out hundreds of billions on propping up the economy and financial sector, Europe can again afford to spend money on military, political and other initiatives that should safeguard its position. Although progress is slow, change is definitely in the air.

  • Whereas the survival of the Eurozone was largely achieved through panic measures in the past years, there is now a larger focus on strengthening the European structures.

  • Europe also radiates more confidence when dealing with the rest of the world. It no longer seems fragile, uncertain and divided (even if it has deep-seated problems).

  • The member states and the EU aim for sustainable peace and stability. A ‘social contract’ between citizens and the states is underpinned by the EU as it strives to protect security, prosperity, freedom and equality for the European citizens. Perhaps the protection and social security that most European countries offer their citizens has a larger chance of success in the long run than the everyone-for-themselves model that is prevalent in the US.

Nevertheless, we should not be taken in too much by the European euphoria:

  • Brexit means that the EU will lose its second economy and most important military power.

  • Theoretically, the social welfare net should enable Europe to weather the next economic storm in better shape than the US but it remains to be seen if future savings and earnings will allow European countries to pay for pensions and social welfare as needed.

  • Several Eastern European states – especially Hungary and Poland – are dismantling the democratic cornerstones of the EU.

Regardless of these critical comments, it will be clear that Europe is considerably better off than many predicted a couple of years ago.

In the US, the worries about Team Trump’s chaos are slowly having an effect. However, they are mainly connected to a dearth of economic stimulus including infrastructure investment and tax cuts. Once the markets really start to pay attention to the (additional) unravelling of the Western structures and the risks associated with the ‘Thucydides Trap’, we may well see large-scale volatility.

America is more likely to thrive in a brave new world (at least, for the time being) compared to Europe. After all, its economy is relatively self-supporting, it has retained a dominant military position, and it is – despite all its problems – more united than Europe.

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