When the Soviet Union was in terminal crisis in 1990 and the prospect emerged of the United States establishing long-term domination of the international political system, the influential Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer sought to capture the character of the unfolding geopolitical era. The term he used became a buzzword in then-emerging neo-conservative circles, and subsequently far beyond: “unipolarity”.
A decade on, after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist revisited his thesis. “When I first proposed the unipolar model in 1990”, he wrote, “I suggested that we should accept both its burdens and opportunities and that, if America did not wreck its economy, unipolarity could last thirty or forty years. That seemed bold at the time. Today, it seems rather modest. The unipolar moment has become the unipolar era.” Yet Krauthammer also concluded his essay at the time of 9/11 with a cautionary paraphrase of Benjamin Franklin: “History has given you an empire, if you will keep it” (see “The unipolar moment revisited”, National Interest, Winter 2002).
But “history” does not respect any foreseeable logic; world politics can never be managed, or channelled in a single direction. The idea of unipolarity, buttressed by the doctrine of pre-emption during the presidency of George W Bush that was inaugurated in January 2001, represents an attitude towards reality rather than reality itself. A decade after it was reformulated for the era of “war on terror”, the strategic context of what the late Fred Halliday called “greater west Asia” has indeed radically shifted - but far less in accordance with the deceptive certainties of unipolar order than with the complexity of multipolar disorder.
A strategic blowback
The strongest evidence of this shift is that the United States’s early military “victory” in Iraq proved a mirage and the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan is strategically lost (as Paul Rogers consistently and rightly has argued in his openDemocracy column). In effect, these two wars have ended the unipolar moment. Instead, the wars have engendered a regional order which is both far from the US’s strategic preferences and presents a challenge to policy-makers and analysts alike.
The US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - as well as Israel’s against Lebanon (July-August 2006) and Gaza (December 2008-January 2009) - have had damaging strategic consequences for their architects in four broad ways.
First, the large-scale destruction and deaths involved in these campaigns (especially of civilians) have been a gift to Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah (whose actions are nonetheless tempered by their “national” political ambitions in Palestine and Lebanon respectively) but also to al-Qaida-type groups divorced from any regulatory context.
The growing incidence of suicide-bombing and other terrorist incidents - especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also (it seems probable) in cases such as the Kampala explosions on 11 July 2010 - is the most tangible example of how these wars have knock-on effects and of how violence has effectively been “globalised”.
Second, the extension of Afghanistan’s war into Pakistan - reflected in the escalation of US drone-attacks on Pakistani territory - has contributed to the “hollowing out” of Pakistan’s state sovereignty, thus compromising Islamabad’s ability to subdue domestic fundamentalist (and pro-Taliban) movements. The fact that the United States overtly demands Pakistan’s support in the war against the Taliban means the Pakistani government is not seen to act in its own interest. The spillover of the conflict to Pakistan has turned the country into one of the most volatile “quasi-states” in the world, with the government seemingly unable to prevent atrocities committed against its own citizens (for instance the twin suicide-attacks in Yakaghund on 9 July 2010 where over 100 people were killed in an operation claimed by the Pakistani Taliban).
Third, the Afghan insurgency has now been transformed into an Islamo-nationalist resistance war against the “west”. The insurgents’ ability to represent their campaign as “anti-imperialist” resistance enables them to appeal both to Afghan nationalist and pan-Islamist sentiments, and thus to attract fresh recruits. There are many existing reasons for the war to continue, not least that a conflict now approaching its tenth year has created yet another generation of victims for whom it is a way of life; the “blowback” effect of the US-led coalition’s own military strategy on the Afghans themselves is one of the most important.
Fourth, the pursuit of the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan has over time helped to make the international politics of greater west Asia far more regionalised, and correspondingly to reduce the United States’s diplomatic leverage. Washington has contributed to its own marginalisation here, in that its regional diplomacy does not encompass popular movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah (even though they are significant factors in their respective national polities). The US’s strategic aim of neutralising-by-ignoring these groups has backfired, as many in their broad constituencies perceive them as agents of a muqawama (resistance) axis stretching from Gaza and Beirut to Damascus and Tehran.
A Turkish lesson
Turkey’s repositioning within the greater west Asian area is the most prominent example of this emerging regional order. True, the reorientation of Turkish foreign policies towards the Arab and Muslim worlds has a lot to do with domestic changes within Turkey, primarily the emergence of a new middle class that is sensitive to issues affecting the umma (Islamic nation). This is the constituency that in 2002 brought to power Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP).
But three broad regional trends have also “dragged” the modern Turkish state away from its historic orientation towards US strategic interests:
* the transnational threats of Kurdish separatist movements, which have provoked the Turkish armed forces to repeated incursions into northern Iraq by in pursuit of PKK militants
* the human suffering of the Palestinian population in Gaza, which has become a rallying-point of Turkey’s Islamist media. The Israeli commando-raid on the aid-flotilla bound for Gaza on 31 May 2010, in which Turkish activists were killed, is only the most high-profile incident reinforcing Turkey’s engagement with the Palestinian cause. It is notable that prime minister Erdogan has repeatedly designated Hamas both the democratically elected government of Palestine and (as in a speech in the traditionalist city of Konya) a “resistance movement” (see Kerem Oktem, “Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings”, 10 December 2009).
* the unresolved crisis over Iran’s contested nuclear plans, which both frustrates Turkish efforts to forge even closer business links with Tehran (especially in the hydrocarbon sector) and encourages Ankara to pursue closer and more sympathetic dialogue with its eastern neighbour. Erdogan joined the presidents of Iran and Brazil, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in an attempt to pre-empt a further round of United Nations sanctions; their “Tehran declaration”, announced on 17 May 2010, is clearly a rebuff to the United States (see Mariano Aguirre, “Brazil-Turkey and Iran: a new global balance”, 2 June 2010). Today, it is Erdogan even more than Ahmadinejad who challenges Israel on the issue of Palestine.
The Turkish case is but one example of how the “greater west Asian” area has its own regional dynamics that go beyond the unipolar logic. This has both strategic and analytical consequences (see A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism [Columbia University Press / C Hurst, 2010]).
In strategic terms, it means that the United States can assert its diplomatic authority only as one player amongst many. The foreign-policy preferences of the country are not the determining factor of what is happening in the area.
In analytical terms, it requires a shift of attention to the realities “on the ground”: including the people, movements, activists and intellectuals who affect the mindset and political culture of their societies far more than those from a far distance can do or claim to do. It is “they” who have so far won the fight for hearts and minds. So let “us” start to listen and learn more carefully.