Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a sense of optimism prevailed across Europe and the world. The West had won and the US, the sole remaining superpower, was the leader of the free world. The 1990s and 2000s saw a fundamental shift towards globalization. As the US and its allies started promoting democracy and free trade in every corner of the world, organizations such as the IMF, WTO, and the World Bank expanded their influence globally.
Global institutions and the liberal order dominated the globe, but now it is obvious that wasn’t everyone`s dream. Most countries were willing to participate in globalization, expecting to get rich, but the political change was seldomly welcomed and far less prominent. Outside the Western world, political power mostly remained within ruling elites, rarely including the wider population. Unfortunately, after only thirty years, we have come full circle, once again into block politics. Currently, the battle is heating up, two blocks are emerging, and we are yet to see if modern autocracies will win.
What will happen to countries caught in the crossfire? Is there a place for the nonaligned in the divided world? Does every nation have to decide as once put by former US President George W. Bush in the statement “you are either with us or against us?”
At the apex of globalization and US power, the 9/11 attacks across the US happened, triggering the global war on terror. Washington received worldwide support. Even nations such as Russia and China rallied behind and showed compassion. However, a multitude of missteps, gaffes, and blunders, especially later in Iraq, caused countries to withhold support and distance themselves from it. The war on terror ended two decades later, in 2021, by the mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan, tarnishing the US’ image in the process.
A superpower, like any other nation, can lose focus of its priorities, and that has happened to the US. Washington has shifted its emphasis from strategic priorities, while adversaries, such as China and Russia, started gaining ground and support.
The wake-up call came in 2014. with the Russian invasion of East Ukraine, but even then, President Obama wasn’t that concerned and keen to intervene. Russian President Vladimir Putin went further and interfered in the 2016 and 2020 US elections. With a resurging Russia and a rising China, Cold War-era spheres of influence started to reemerge. Furthermore, data from the Pew Research Center in March of this year show that most Americans now see Russia as an enemy, and animosity towards China is at a historic high. Keeping this in mind, the electoral base will not allow any backdown.
This year’s invasion of Ukraine has helped NATO and the US to once again rally under one flag, but the situation is slightly different compared to the Cold War-era. Globalization brought a lot of wealth to members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and ASEAN countries, but not that much democracy. ASEAN now represents more than six hundred and fifty million people. None of them placed significant sanctions on Russia.
The other global powerhouse is SCO, covering approximately 60% of the area of Eurasia, or 40% of the world population, and more than 30% of global GDP, with China as its leading member speaking out against the sanctions. Call for caution is another member of the SCO and the world’s largest democracy. India’s tacit support for the invasion by abstaining from sanctioning Russia, and rising oil purchases, demonstrates that some of the US allies will try to exploit the clash between blocs for individual profit.
Another prominent example is Israel, one of Washington’s major non-NATO allies, which abstained from sanctions while condemning Russian aggression in the process saving good relations with both. In the same vein, Turkey resisted joining the West’s sanctions and used the urgency for NATO expansion into Scandinavia for its benefit.
Countries are rediscovering the art of pitting big powers against one another for their gains, shunning the world built on liberal norms and values. In his inaugural speech, US President Joe Biden made the notion of “democracies versus autocracies” as the main principle behind his foreign policy, however, this notion now seems outdated. To achieve his administration’s strategic goals, the EU, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia need as many allies as possible, mainly countries from ASEAN and India, as well as the UEA and Saudi Arabia. In a divided world, those nonaligned can get many benefits from choosing sides.