Three issues will dominate international relations in 2011: the United States’s relations with Europe, the emerging powers, and various countries of the global south; the ongoing international financial crisis (particularly acute in the north Atlantic area); and violence both along acute fracture-lines (such as the Pakistan-Afghanistan and Mexico-US borders) and within various states (such as Yemen and Somalia).
The powers that commanded the international stage since the 1950s - especially the United States, Britain, and France - no longer have the ability to lead (and in the case of the now defunct USSR, no longer exist). The WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic documents show that these powers continue to exert a great deal of influence; at the same time, many other governments - from Iran to the Ivory Coast, and including Israel, Venezuela, Sri Lanka and Sudan - are now becoming active decision-makers in ways that further reduce the control of the traditional powers.
Among the many reasons for this geopolitical change is the different policy routes followed in the United States/Europe and in the emerging countries. The former chose the route of debt and deregulation; the latter opted to use their cheap labour to attract investment, instigated a strict fiscal policy, developed technological skills, and promoted their international-trading capacity as a means of opening up negotiations with other countries in order to gain access to resources, ranging from oil to food.
In these and other ways they have set the economic and political foundations for regional leadership. Brazil, India and China are at the forefront, followed by Turkey, South Africa and Indonesia. For its part, Russia has brought several of the former republics that composed the Soviet Union back within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
The big shift
These changes affect the global order in two ways: it is shifting from west to east (in particular because of China’s growing international clout), and it is becoming less unipolar. In 2011, the emerging countries will continue to defend their national interests, gain diplomatic space, guarantee access to resources (oil, foodstuffs) for their populations, act in their own interests within multilateral organisations, and attract new alliances and support from other governments - just as the major powers have always done.
Some of these states will take more daring diplomatic action along the lines of the Brazil-Turkey initiative in May 2010 over Iran’s nuclear programme, or of Turkey’s redefinition of its relations with Israel (see Kerem Oktem, “Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings”, 10 December 2009). But their new capacities do not mean that the ensuing decisions will be fair or democratic, nor that the emerging powers will revive the non-aligned movement or instigate policies that are based on solidarity with the south.
The European Union’s combination of problems - economic weakness, divisions between its governments, loss of legitimacy and the blocking by several members of an active foreign and security policy - will translate into a diminished international capability.
In relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Barack Obama’s efforts early in his presidency to pursue a multilateral and dialogue-based approach already faced severe problems; now it will be further impeded by his weakened position in Congress following the mid-term elections of November 2010. The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is already warning that it will deny the president funds or support for specific actions such as reinforcing the Palestinian Authority’s institutions.
Many bilateral relationships will remain tense, including the US-China, the US-Russia, India-China and India-Pakistan. The commercial and financial differences between Washington and Beijing, on display during Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US in January 2011, will mean an absence of global consensus over the environment, international food production and responses to regional or national crises. These divergences will also become part of a broader renegotiation of world power, mediated through and reflected in financial and multilateral organisations (see Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order", 4 December 2008).
The war in Afghanistan, for example, requires negotiations at both domestic and regional level. The Afghan government will push Washington to reach an agreement with the Taliban; but in the absence of regional diplomacy there will be more emphasis on counterinsurgency, with uncertain results. More generally, international diplomatic interventions, including the sending of peacekeeping forces, will be less likely in crises such as those in the Ivory Coast, Yemen, the possible secession of South Sudan (if this results in violence), and Somalia.
The current international trends with regard to conflict are in two directions: fewer internal or inter-state wars, but higher levels of violence being inflicted by non-state actors. In the latter case the perpetrators are often terrorist groups or organised criminal networks (such as Mexico’s drug-traffickers), which in some cases are linked to governments (as in Kosovo). Here too, the lack of consensus in international organisations will make it difficult for a multilateral approach to be adopted.
The United Nations will continue to have little room for manoeuvre over important decisions. Its weakness stems from three factors: the establishment of new regional organisations at the instigation of the emerging powers; the strengthening of the G20, which is seeking to take responsibility for decisions that were traditionally under the UN’s purview; and the split in the Security Council between (on one side) the US, Britain and France and (on the other) China, Russia and the non-permanent members; many of the latter are increasingly defending their own interests without necessarily seeking a consensus.
The global transition
The Palestinian Authority is hoping that several countries (including some European) will in 2011 press the case for a Palestinian state at the United Nations. The absence of any agreement with Israel will make this more likely. If the US proves unable to secure a declaration on a Palestinian state, this will be another failure for President Obama which will deepen further the differences between the west and the Arab world.
The popular revolt against and fall of the autocratic regime in Tunisia will reverberate across the Arab world. From Rabat to Cairo, Sana'a to Tripoli, governments will try to secure their positions in face of challenges - existing and feared - from below. But the acute problem of a generation of young people without jobs and facing a bleak future will continue to generate instability.
In Lebanon, the verdict of the commission investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005 could cause a political explosion, while another war between Hizbollah and Israel cannot be ruled out.
Iran will remain one of the most dangerous zones in 2011, and the most difficult for Obama. The terms of the deal struck by Brazil and Turkey with Iran allow Tehran to enrich uranium under the supervision of other countries; but the United States continues to be strongly opposed to this option and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is intransigent in turn (see "Brazil-Turkey and Iran: a new global balance", 2 June 2010).
Even were the Obama administration to take a more flexible stance, it would be fiercely criticised by the Republicans and pressure-groups such as the Tea Party.
The negative result of the international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in Istanbul on 21-22 January 2011 suggests that a diplomatic solution is still remote. In these circumstances a military outcome remains conceivable. For Obama, to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would be the last resort; and if the US does not take that step, Israel might conclude that it should (see Paul Rogers, "Israel vs Iran: rumours of war", 2 December 2010).
But if in the medium term Iran is able to acquire nuclear weapons, other countries in the region - from Saudi Arabia to Turkey - will follow in its path. Israel’s monopoly over this sort of weaponry in the middle east would then be over, and a regional nuclear-deterrence system established.
The international system is in transformation. The lack of consensus is part of this process. Perhaps in the medium term there will be a gradual return to multilateralism, but until then the prospect is a long period of case-by-case negotiation. In any event, 2011 will be yet another year in the transition towards a new global order.