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Playing the World

With Łukasz Fyderek on complicated political, economic, military and cultural conditions influencing international relations talks Tadeusz Wróbel.

In recent months, the attention of the world has been focused on the Middle East. Why is the political situation in this region engaging the biggest powers?

Łukasz Fyderek: In order to understand modern political processes, it is good to know the history of the Middle East. For the majority of the 19th, and the entire 20th century, it was a region penetrated by western powers. First, France and Great Britain took advantage of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and Persia in order to increase their influence there. In the second part of the 20th century, they were replaced by the USA and, to some extent, the Soviet Union. The break-up of the USSR began the time of American dominance, which ended during the presidency of Barack Obama. That was when Americans started to withdraw from this part of the world. The created geopolitical gap gave rise to new rivalry for influence in the region among local powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. On top of that, Russia unexpectedly joined the competition in 2015 as an old/new player, and although it has a weak hand, it is playing it very well.

The relation between Turkey and Iran, which have been striving for dominance in the Middle East for ages, seems very interesting. Both countries are engaged in the conflict in Syria; they stand on opposite sides, but they avoid direct confrontation.

The conflict in Syria is characterized by very complex interrelations. This explains why conflicts existing between certain countries don’t really get in the way of their cooperation. They may compete, dispute in some areas, but at the same time cooperate in others, just like the mentioned Turkey and Iran. Although their sympathies and interests in Syria are different, they are very actively engaged in mutual trade. Turkey has been, for example, a big beneficiary of the economic opening-up of Iran. Being dependent on energy cooperation with Tehran, Turkish diplomats strived to ensure that Americans made Turkey an exception when imposing new sanctions on Iran; and they were successful.

Why isn’t Egypt, the most populated Arab country, taking part in this Middle East competition?

After 2013, Egypt’s policies became very much dependent on Saudi Arabia. The process began at the beginning of the 1970s, after concluding peace with Israel. Authorities in Cairo could count on economic support of Saudis, but also American military assistance. The situation changed after the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak after the Arab Spring and assuming power by the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, in 2012, Egypt began to tighten relations with other countries sympathizing with this stream of political Islam – Turkey and Qatar. However, for many Arabic monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main political enemy. Apart from that, the Persian Gulf monarchies see the Egyptian army as the key force in the event of war with Iran, because they are not certain if their own land forces are worth much or if their allies, such as Americans or Pakistanis, will provide support. Riyadh is also alarmed by the possibility of closer relations between Egypt and Iran. As a consequence of all the above, Saudi Arabia supported the military coup that led to overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and has been consequently supporting the government of Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi with generous donations.

Why are the relations between Riyadh and Ankara so tense?

Saudi Arabia is a young country, but the traditions of the royal family go way back. Some of the tensions have historical background, because members of the House of Saud used to organize uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. Others arise from their rivalry to be the leading power in the world of Sunni Islam – Turkey supports the mentioned Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia propagates the Salafi Doctrine. All the tensions resurfaced with the murder of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. The words uttered by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that the suspects should be extradited to face trial in Istanbul reminded the Saudis about their former dependence on imperial Turkey.

Not everything can be justified with historical determinants, though.

We need to keep in mind that one of the conflicts consuming the Middle East is waged in the name of ideas that form the basis of exercising dominion in this part of the world. On the one hand we have countries such as Turkey, ruled by a party rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, trying somehow to adjust Islam to modern times. On the other hand we have conservative monarchies, such as the Saudi one. The interpretation of Islam proposed by them sometimes becomes a ground for the development of extremist movements. At the same time, they are absolute monarchies, and their model of authority can’t be transplanted to other countries in the region. That’s why Saudis are ready to support other governments that are against the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine, including the secular military authorities in Egypt.

In this context, what is the geopolitical position of Israel? It is the most modern country in the Middle East, with a very efficient army, but it’s weakness is demography and – after the cooling of relations with Turkey – lack of allies in the region.

I think it’s good. The position of countries such as Israel is not only determined by what they can do alone, but also by the influence they can have on their big partners from outside the region – in this case American policies. The activity of Donald Trump’s administration in the Middle East is in a large extent compliant with the national interest of Israel outlined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government. Israeli people have a very effective lobby in Washington and can efficiently use the media to get American acceptance of their stance in matters that are most important to them, such as the conflict with Palestine. On top of that, there are the weaknesses and divisions among Palestinians. The biggest challenge for Israel is nevertheless the growing power of Iran in the ruined Syria and Lebanon, that is on the northern borders of the Jewish state.

In the past, Europe used to deal the cards in the Middle East. Why do we now get the impression that it doesn’t have any policy ideas regarding this region?

It’s true that Europe is currently not an active player in the Middle East, but rather a recipient of the consequences of the region’s instability, such as terrorism and mass emigration. However, there is a paradox hiding in this passive attitude – if Europe started to more actively shape the policies in that region, using various political, economic or military means, it would again become an empire stabilizing its peripheries. Engaging in such extensive policy requires appropriate resources and a clear objective, which the Old Continent is missing. Europeans don’t act, they only react, and their military presence in the Middle East is very limited. We need to emphasize, though, that despite the lack of spectacular interventions, Europe has had a long-term economic and cultural influence on the region. The EU is the richest economy in the world, around which some Arab countries orbit.

Is the unstable Middle East a danger to European security?

In the South, there are demographic and cultural problems, which in consequence influence cohesiveness of societies and identity of Europeans. On top of that, there is also terrorism, which is a threat to internal security.

All in all, it seems that the influence of the situation in the Middle East on global security is not that significant, at least in the military sense. What regions are therefore the most important from the point of view of global policy?

I can see four regions that are the core of global economy. They are Europe, Eastern Asia and both coasts of North America. An outbreak of a military conflict in any of those places would have global repercussions.

Is it possible that the position of the EU, with its lack of common foreign policy and divergent interests of its members, will continue to weaken, leading to its gradual marginalization on the global arena?

In my opinion, Western Europe is not losing military or economic power in the absolute sense, although it is getting weaker in comparison to new Asian powers. In the economic sense, we can even see progress. Besides, Europe has enormous cultural influence on a part of the Arab world – for example France is still a benchmark for Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian elites. On the other hand, the general position of Western Europe in the world is weakening, because Asia, China in particular, is growing stronger, bringing with it a new, alternative civilization model. Some Arab intellectuals, for example, have started negating the term “Middle East” as imposed by Europeans and having colonial connotations.

As you have mentioned, control over natural resources is an element of competition in the Middle East. Can other parts of the world also be influenced by rivalry in this area?

Of course. China is already very active in Africa, which is rich in natural resources. France and the USA also maintain a clear presence there. In the Horn of Africa, on the other hand, we can witness rivalry between Saudi Arabia with its allies, and Turkey and Qatar. I don’t think, however, that competition for access to oil, gas or metal deposits will lead to war any time soon. On the other hand, conflicts regarding water might.

Although there is surely enough water in the Arctic, this region might become the world’s dangerous trouble spot.

In the Arctic we can also see many different political, military and economic dependencies. If due to global warming the sea route between Asia and Europe becomes available for shipping, it will significantly speed up transport of goods, which will be extremely beneficial to China. Moscow perceives the opening of Arctic waters as a security threat. That’s why it is developing its military capabilities in the region. All this started an Arctic race of arms, in which other interested countries, mainly the USA, China and Canada, are trying to respond to Russia’s actions. Apart from new possibilities regarding transport and projection of power, the Arctic gives hope for exploiting its resources. The possible opening of the Arctic marine shipping route is also important for the countries that are situated on the currently used trade routes – Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are trying to have as many reloads as possible at their ports. For them, transferring some of the transport to the new shipping route in the north will mean significant economic losses.

Another threat for the countries situated on the main shipping route between Asia and Europe can be the overland route which is being prepared by China within the Belt and Road Initiative.

The project, referred to as the new Silk Road, also includes maritime investments. In Europe, its land and sea routes are perceived as equally important. For the Chinese, though, due to strategic trade interests, sea transport is much more significant, considering the costs and type of exported products. Railroad transport between China and Europe is very expensive and has to be subsidized by regional governments of cities, such as Chengdu, Wuhan or Chongqing. Subsidizing each container from public money will help Beijing to reach two important goals: internal, which is the development of its central and western provinces, and external – increasing influence in post-Soviet Central Asia and acquiring new markets for its infrastructure investments.

Why did the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, two authoritarian regimes, evolve in such a different way? China has become a global economic power, while Russia plays a marginal role in this sphere.

The problem of all stable authoritarian regimes is a very limited ability to adapt to the evolving environment. This happens because usually they lack the mechanism of changing over the ruling elites, which is a natural thing in democracy. That’s why I would say one of the sources of China’s success is the political system that managed to prevent such situation. China is one of the few authoritarian countries that have developed an effective elite changeover mechanism through the Communist Party of China institutions. It is not certain, however, if it will not erode soon, since the current leader of the communist party, Xi Jinping, is concentrating more and more power in his own hands. If this system stays in its current form, though, China will keep focusing on economic development, at the same time minimizing the military component. I am basing the thesis on superiority of economy over the military sphere on my observations of the approach to promotions represented by those in power. Contrary to the Russian elites, they are aware that currently the power of the country is not determined by whether it expands its territory by a few kilometers or not. In China, there is a hierarchy of promotions – you must go through all the lower levels of power in order to reach the top. Thanks to this, the rulers, despite being politicians of the communist party, know the mechanisms of capitalist economy very well. Administration of regions in a way that allows them to achieve economic success is a condition to be promoted to central politics. Such system does not exist in Russia, where a significant part of the elites is recruited from institutions of force.

Are you saying that the different directions of development chosen by the Soviet Union and China have been determined by people’s mentality?

Apart from political institutions mentioned before, natural resources are of utmost significance. The Soviet Union, and now Russia, similarly to Iran and several Arab countries, belongs to a group of authoritarian rentier states. These regimes have enormous amounts of natural resources that are easy to sell. They are also, to a large extent, isolated from social problems, because they can buy their peace by transferring money to key groups – from uniformed services to pensioners. The consequence is that they are not motivated to introduce any changes, to adjust to the challenges of global economy and build a strategy that would take into account developing economic potential. According to my observations, rentier regimes are also more prone to using military force in international conflicts. This makes them less predictable than authoritarian countries with diversified economy, such as China, which have to cooperate with other states, be able to adapt to market conditions. They are also less reliant on military strength in their foreign policy.

What is your opinion on relations between Russia and China?

They are advantageous for both sides, but with a low level of mutual trust. Additionally, the benefits arising from the cooperation are not evenly distributed. In the political sense, it is very important to China that the rivalry with Russia draws the USA’s attention away from areas that they consider the most significant, and in the economic sense – that Russia delivers gas and oil in good prices. At the same time Beijing is very persistent as regards economic cooperation. The gas deal, which is a perfect example, had been negotiated for years, but Chinese conditions were unacceptable for Russia. However, when in 2014 Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, it was forced to accept Chinese terms.

What is the reaction of the countries of South-Eastern Asia to the growing power of China?

China is more of an economic than military power, but its neighbors from South-Eastern Asia feel the growing strength of this country in both these areas. Territorial conflicts on the South China Sea are the most dangerous. They are the reason why countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and even Indonesia, are tightening military relations with the USA. On the other hand, China is increasing its influence in mainland countries of the region – Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.

Why is Latin America, located on the other side of the Pacific, practically excluded from world politics?

According to some researchers, it results from the dominant position of the USA in the region. Only Cuba and Venezuela have tried to radically oppose the domination of their northern neighbor, but they had to pay a high price for it. Some South-American politicians perceive China as an alternative to the USA. However, the example of Venezuela shows the limitations that await for countries from this continent in cooperation with alternative powers: Russia and China. Obviously, most Venezuelan problems don’t arise from its foreign policy, but have economic character. It is an example of a rentier country struggling with economic crisis and erosion of national structures. The inactivity of South America also results from the fact that Brazil, regarded as a regional leader, is too focused on its internal problems: political, economic and social, to influence regional policy.

Are Donald Trump’s “trade wars” going to have long-lasting consequences?

The changes will not be extensive enough to be referred to as wars. The connections between particular countries are too strong and too beneficial for all parties to allow for a radical break in trade relations. However, the changes in the American trade and monetary policy will have long-term influence on markets and the global power balance. Trump’s administration is basing its actions on the conviction that advantages arising from trade are not evenly distributed among all branches of American economy. The sectors suffering losses, such as the heavy or automobile industry, found their advocate in president Trump, while the developing sectors, like those connected with IT industry in the Silicon Valley, traditionally support democrats. The actions undertaken by Trump’s administration have some unexpected consequences, though, also for American economy. For example, steel industry gained from the last increase of duties on steel and aluminum, but the prices of many products increased, and the competitiveness of many industries using these raw materials, for example automobile or machinery producers, deteriorated. The result seems to be the opposite of what president Trump has forecasted, that is increased export dynamics. The awareness of such consequences of changes in trade policies will, among other things, have an inhibiting effect on the decisions taken by the administration.

Łukasz Fyderek , PhD, is a political scientist, assistant professor at the Institute of the Middle and Far East of the Jagiellonian University. He specializes in the area of the Middle East, authoritarian states and states undergoing political transformation.

Translated by Dorota Aszoff

Rozmawiał Tadeusz Wróbel

autor zdjęć: Michał Zieliński

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