hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 5 March 2012

Big Weekend for the Big Brothers

Alphen, the Netherlands. 5 March. This has been a big weekend for the big brothers. President-elect Vladimir Putin somehow managed to get himself ‘re-elected’ in Russia. He should next time try to become EU President as the system is by and large the same. China announced a paltry 11.2% increase in defence expenditure, whilst at the same time highlighting ‘disappointing’ economic growth figures of 7.2%, the lowest ‘for decades’, which is never a good combination. Meanwhile, President Obama, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said that the US “will not hesitate” to use force to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, but says diplomacy could still succeed. All three events imply a rocky road ahead.

What is also interesting is that all three events take place against a backdrop of change at the top of world affairs. Indeed, four of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council are either in the midst of election campaigns (France and the US), or handover campaigns (China and Russia). The only one that is not is Britain. However, Britain today cuts a rather forlorn figure of a Permanent Member with a government in London patently running out of both ideas and steam leading a country that due to self-inflicted decline is losing influence by the day - both in Europe and the wider world. France is locked into the Eurozone crisis and increasingly a surrogate of Germany, Europe’s only real power of influence, albeit power of a distinctly soft nature. So, what does this moment of change imply for world peace?

President Putin claims to have won over 64% of the vote this weekend but amidst allegations of vote rigging the figure is probably nearer 50%. It is clear that Putin has lost a lot of support across Russia and his term could face significant challenge from an increasingly vocal big city opposition. Like many a previous Russian leader he seems to be leaning towards nationalism as a means to shore up his regime. Two weeks ago Putin wrote that “For Russia to feel secure and for our partners to listen carefully to what our country has to say,” Russia will about $775 billion by 2022 for new armaments and a more professional military. That will be a heavy burden for the Russian economy to bear but the intent is clear.

Beijing’s announcement this weekend that it will grow the Chinese defence budget by 11.2% in 2012 (although slightly lower than the 12.7% in 2011) is but the latest double digit increase. Indeed, China has been growing its military at that rate since 1989 and the official figures are probably ‘conservative’. What makes this year’s increase interesting is the timing. It is likely that Vice-President Xi Jingping will succeed President Hu Jintao when he steps down in 2013. Xi is known to be close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and his accession will doubtless strengthen the influence of the forces and with it their sustained access to investment. Worryingly, during Xi’s recent visit to Washington the Americans tried to interest him in new military-to-military exchanges. They were met with a flat ‘no’.

President Obama’s weekend warning to Iran comes in the wake of Israeli President Shimon Peres saying that Iran “was a danger to the world”. What makes Iran particularly worrying is that Teheran is also in the midst of what passes for democracy in the Islamic Republic and with it an implied power struggle between the clerical elite and radical elements around President Ahmadinejad. Worried that Israel might be tempted to launch a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites President Obama said, “Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment – I have a policy to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon”.  Cue confrontation - soon!

It is not simply leaderships that are changing (well, sort of). Russia, China and the US are also changing their respective strategic orientations. Russia is increasingly looking east towards China.  Expect and increase in the Kremlin’s anti-Western rumblings and tensions in the High North and with Ukraine over the coming years, not to mention another stand-off with NATO as it tries to update its collective defence structure.

China is beginning to move beyond the Strategic Harmony which has driven its growth-friendly foreign policy for many years. Beijing is also beginning to use the wealth it has generated to begin to assert itself both in its own neighbourhood and beyond. With the PLA now ascendant one can expect a more techy relationship between Beijing and its neighbours and, of course, with Washington.

For Washinton real difficulties lay ahead.  The US is drawing down both its global military and diplomatic footprint even as forced obligations expand. Rather like Britain in the 1930s, which could no longer defend its Eastern Empire, the Suez Canal and the home base, Washington is being forced into hard choices. Implicit in both Beijing’s and Moscow’s defence hikes are efforts to make America’s choices just that bit harder. Were they up to the task the UN’s two other Permanent Members, Britain and France, would realise the game that is afoot and re-discover true strategy. It is vital London and Paris assist the US by exploring ways to take the pressure of an over-stretched America by leading efforts to maintain stability in Europe and its neighbourhood.

Tragically, it will also mean that 'in-between' places such as Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, together with a host of others, will see little concerted humanitarian action as big brother politics again paralyses the United Nations.

Julian Lindley-French

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