A previous version of this essay was published in the Huffington Post on March 18, 2014
When the history of the early decades of the 21st century is written, it may well be called the era of multiple clashing hegemons. The most recent global crisis, triggered by President Putin’s decision to invade the Ukrainian region of Crimea on the pretext of protecting Russian interests, is a reassertion of a Russian hegemon seeking to regain the influence that dissolved with the Soviet Union. Putin, the cagey former KGB official, is again testing the resolve of the American and European hegemons to prevent the reassertion of Russian influence in an independent Eastern European sovereign power—one which was formerly the breadbasket of the Soviet empire and hosts the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimea.
The March 16 referendum in Crimea, which resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of annexation by Russia, was clearly orchestrated by Putin. It was regarded as illegal under international law by the U.S., the EU, Canada and the overwhelming majority of the international community. By formally annexing Crimea to the Russian Federation, Putin has raised the stakes on who will eventually be holding most of the winning cards in this dangerous episode of clashing hegemons.
Behind these growing clashes of regional and global hegemons is a struggle to define the geopolitics of the 21st century.
Putin may have been emboldened by the fact that he also sent his forces into Georgia without major repercussion from the West, again on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in that country. Add Putin’s desire to create a vast economic and political bloc called the Eurasian Union stretching from China to the borders of EU, and we have an aggressively expansive hegemon.
In the Middle East, the implosion of Syria into a miasma of atrocities committed by both the Assad government and the rebels (now infiltrated by foreign jihadist militias) barely hides a larger clash of hegemons in the region. The first-level clashing hegemons in the Syrian conflict are as follows: Iran is carrying the banner of the Shia Islam communities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain; and Saudi Arabia (assisted by the enormous wealth of the Gulf States) carries the banner of the Sunni communities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the far flung Caucasus, where some of the most hardened jihadist fighters have entered the bloodbath in Syria. Indeed, Iran’s participation in this clash has even led to inserting some of its own Republican Guard soldiers into the Syrian bloodbath, while Saudi and Gulf State money and arms may be finding its way into the most fanatical of the jihadist fighters. Equally worrying is that the most extreme of those jihadist militias are Al Qaeda-affiliated, and are carrying this fight into Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, the Sunni towns of Fallujah and Ramadi are threatened by the Al Qaeda-linked militia ISIS, which wants to create a Sunni Islamic state of Iraq, Syria and possibly Lebanon.
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At the second level, with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and America’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, Russia decided to harass the retreating U.S. while protecting its Syrian interests and naval facility in Tartus. It engineered the chemical weapons dismantling program to prevent any excuse for U.S. intervention while Putin keeps on arming the Assad killing machine.
This 21st-century clash of the hegemons may well be long drawn-out and disastrous for innocent civilians while the international community and the UN Security Council slumbers in its moral coma. With Russia and China holding veto powers in the Council, the rest of the international community will have to seek coalitions of the willing to prevent more mass atrocities.
In another part of the world, there is another potential serious clash in the East and South China Seas between China and Japan (likely backed by the U.S., which is also backing its other allies in the area against China’s claims). The flashpoint for these clashes is not only the islands claimed by many of the nations in the region but also the potential for 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, along with the fact that one third of the world’s crude oil passes through the South China Sea. Based on contested historical usage, China claims almost all the islands and waters and asserts its exclusive control, including over military activities of other nations in an Exclusive Economic Zone that covers most of the contested area. Ramping up the chances of a potential clash that could be even more disturbing to global security, China has unilaterally declared a one million square mile Air Defence Identification Zone over the area. Other allies of the U.S. in the South China Seas who are contesting China’s claims to the islands and territorial waters include the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia.
- Peter Jones, Europe Will Wake Up, and Putin Can Expect a Harsh Response
- David Petrasek, Russia’s Crimea Caper: One More Nail in the Non-Intervention Coffin
China has started intercepting U.S. surveillance flights, and the possibility of a conflict between Japanese and Chinese military vessels is increasing in the area. A military clash between a Chinese and U.S. vessel or aircraft is possible amid in this growing tension.
Behind these growing clashes of regional and global hegemons is a struggle to define the geopolitics of the 21st century. It is a struggle over who will be dominate political, economic and military spheres in their respective regions—and extend their influence globally in the corridors of power and influence around the world. The rest of the world, from the individual countries of the European Union, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the Americas (including Canada), must determine which hegemon is closest to their values and interests and establish their foreign policy accordingly.