A series of international crises erupt: Crimea secedes from Ukraine, possibly to be followed by other provinces in that country’s east and Moldova’s Transnistria region. China engages in increasingly aggressive rhetoric and actions over its claims to huge areas of the South China Sea. Western and pro-Western governments complain about violations of international laws and treaties, from the Chinese “de facto occupation” of the Scarborough Shoal to the Kremlin’s blithe disregard for the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Russia, the US and the UK promised to “respect the sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”. But their admonitions are backed by little in the way of effective action.
An already cautious American president presides over a population weary of ill-fated foreign military intervention. Meanwhile, in Europe, David Cameron was plotting to exempt the City of London from sanctions against Russia even as he condemned its role in Ukraine, and Angela Merkel’s strong words were somewhat undermined by the fact that one of her predecessors, Gerhard Schroder, not only sits on the board of the Russian giant Gazprom but celebrated his 70th birthday with President Putin in St Petersburg last month.
Many commentators in the West fail to join the dots, believing that solutions to contain Russian and Chinese expansionism can be found within the old frameworks. But those frameworks are failing and will continue to fail.
What we are witnessing currently is not just some short-term disruption to the global order created by the liberal democracies but the beginning of its sundering. This is the dawn of the multipolar world.
Many have been predicting its arrival for years, but when one could justifiably ask of the “Leader of the Free World” whether there was any red line whose crossing would force him to act, the West’s bluff has been called.
It is headed no longer by a self-confident superpower. Perceptions of a decline in US hegemony, it turns out, were correct, and the truth of those perceptions will feed a real decline in influence and power. The Americans always knew they could never count on the Europeans, but who now in Manila, Tokyo or Kiev sleeps easy in the belief that the US cavalry can be relied on to ride to their rescue?
And in this new multipolar world, the rules have changed, even if many in the West haven’t noticed or believe the old rules still apply.
The latter was most evident in the Western reaction to events in Crimea. It was simply unimaginable that Russia would so flagrantly welcome the disruption of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Does anyone now believe that President Putin cares a fig for such diplomatic niceties?
Far more important to him is his country’s sense of its historical destiny, its rightful power, and the reclamation of its sphere of influence.
Any who doubt that the Chinese leadership shares similar sentiments would do well to recall the words of the then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ conference in Hanoi a few years ago.
Addressing regional concerns over his government’s vast claims in the South China Sea, he retorted: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Russia and China don’t respect the sanctity of international laws and treaties that they view as having been set up during the periods of US or colonial dominance. In the past they may have paid lip service to them, today they see no reason to do so. The implications for the many boundaries that they have never accepted – such as the British Raj era McMahon line that divides China and India – are immense.
There are many instances of Western hypocrisy or inconsistency that Russia and China can point to: the US condemns Russia’s claims to its “near abroad” when the Obama administration only repudiated the Monroe Doctrine that all the Americas were its sphere of influence last year, after nearly two centuries. The West approved Kosovo’s right to self-determination, but not Crimea’s. Far more important, however, in shaping the rules of a multipolar world will be Russia and China’s repudiation of Western-style liberal democracy and human rights.
Their view is similar to that of the former Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed. “Western writers,” he has said, “hold that all values are universal and their values are the universal ones. I believe otherwise ... There are also strong and well-grounded Asian values which contribute to Asian customs and traditions that affect their behaviour.”
Moscow and Beijing need only substitute the words “Russian” and “Chinese” to concur. Peoples have always disagreed about values – the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, for instance, clearly differs from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but the West has always insisted on the supremacy and universality of its values. Those claims will no longer go unchallenged.
We’ve lived under an architecture based on the West’s rules in the non-Communist world for a long time, and those rules applied to an even greater part of the globe at the peak of Western hegemony in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But now we are seeing the arrival of what the US academic and former White House advisor Charles Kupchan calls No One’s World. It’s going to be an unsettling prospect, as many of the old certainties crumble or vanish. But if the West doesn’t even accept we have entered a new era of competing multipolar powers and values, it will be a positively dangerous one too.
Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based editor and commentator