When the Cold War ended in 1991, it was heralded as “The End of History” and the victory of liberal capitalism. The bipolar world order was replaced with a new unipolar one, anchored on the United States, with its Trans-Atlantic allies in Europe. Over the last few years, however, the rise of China has disturbed that equilibrium and begun to shift the geopolitical center of gravity back to the east, to the Indo-Pacific. What does this paradigm shift entail? What are the characteristics of this new management system? And how can Armenia, a state in self-doubt as it is going through a challenging moment in its history, navigate the transition and find its place on the world stage?
A World in Motion
This global upheaval came about first through laziness. The West found itself unable to leverage American hyperpower in the wake of its 1991 victory. Incapable of capitalizing on the dividends of this victorious and democratic peace against totalitarianism, the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union (itself born out of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty), inefficiently spread the fruit of their success under the mistaken belief that a democratic push, anchored in capitalism and international cooperation, would ensure Western global domination.
The 1990s were characterized by intellectual inertia in terms of international relations, motivated by a fatalism, a new Manifest Destiny, that assumed the last remaining holdouts would eventually find their way to liberal democracy. The Bush Sr./Clinton and Mitterrand/Chirac years in the run-up to 2000 were about passive power projection. With the United States having consolidated its power in the Persian Gulf, and the European Union its economic power by 1992, their capacity to attract did the rest. Little was done to preempt a world in gestation, other than flooding Asian markets with western products and capitalist know-how. China would emerge as a privileged market, which the West hoped it could reform from within. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre was viewed as a warning to the Chinese authorities that a failure to engage in reforms would invite a fate parallel to that suffered by the USSR.
The current global upheaval is also the result of major blunders. The surge of American hyperpower from 2001 to 2021, embodied through the Afghanistan campaign, ended in major disillusionment and an accumulation of setbacks. The result was a two-decade-long fiasco, caused by callow and foolhardy interventionism. This fiasco was first and foremost a strategic one. The concept of a “War on Terror” is a nonsensical one, since one cannot defeat a choice in tactics. It bogged down the United States in a quagmire of endless deployments, spawning delusion and a boomerang effect, halting its momentum just as China’s began to accelerate.
Yet the fiasco was also political. These wars were declared in the name of liberty and spreading democracy in the face of totalitarianism. But what was the result? The West sold out its own democratic principles, employing torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, while masking it with Newspeak terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Democratic values came under question, its values contested and ultimately democracy declined across the world, opening the door for China to export its own ultra-liberal model, initially in its own neighborhood, then to Africa, Latin America and even Europe.
Finally, the fiasco was also ideological. Occidentalism is in full retreat, the values of human rights are still touted, but economic interests ultimately prevail. Between 2001 and 2021, after 20 years of fighting terrorism, Western powers find it difficult to admit defeat. Nevertheless, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan with their tails between their legs, and the French have been humiliated in Mali and the succession of coups d’etat in the Sahel. The end of Western interventionism is reflected in boundless cynicism on the part of those in power; cynicism around the Kurds, the Armenians and perhaps soon with the Ukrainians.
This end of Western interventionism does not mean the end of armed interference. Quite the contrary, this time, emerging powers are engaged militarily beyond their borders. Russia has intervened in Georgia, Crimea, Syria and everywhere else; though it often employs private mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group, to do its dirty work. Turkey has intervened in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Caucasus. Iran, too, is zealous in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, seeking to weave a web of influence. These interventions are not spontaneous; they are directly tied to American disengagement, whose origins date back to Bush Jr., followed by Barack Obama and accelerating with Donald Trump.
Globalization, a process that promotes interdependence, mobility and inclusion, also restructures decision-making processes. The empowerment of civil society, especially in democracies, gains greater weight in the organization of power and the architecture of international relations. Even if governments do not appreciate these intruders, born out of civil society, they have little choice: the stability of States, regimes and societies depends on the inclusion of their voices in the process of international regulation. Democracies are struggling; they must reinvent themselves while the alternative model promoted by illiberal States (China and Russia first among them) enjoys a real chance to seduce the world. It offers material prosperity without basic political freedoms. The two models are now in a very real competition; turmoil can be expected until one is able to establish its dominance over the other.
A New Paradigm
A new dialectic has gradually found its place in the world order. It starts with new rhetoric about bipolarity between the established power, the United States, and the emerging power, China. Like the transition from a Trans-Atlantic world to an Indo-Pacific one, these new Sino-American tensions are not yet systemic. Will they be one day? Capitalism has secured its place as the only viable economic model, but competition is now between the liberal of the West and the state-controlled capitalism of the East. Communist in name only, China still champions the capitalist model. Just two years ago, as the pandemic was beginning, Xi Jinping came in person to Davos to defend the principles of free trade.
This new dialectic is also part of a struggle over international standards. For centuries, it was the West that institutionalized a narrative based on values, predictable norms and rules. In other words, to control the world is to impose your standards upon it. However, since the emergence of China on the world stage, these Western standards, that had become international, are now being contested. And this contest unveils a normative struggle between two opposing conceptions of law: substantive law, which places the individual at the center (democratic regimes), against formal law, which is built around States (authoritarian regimes). This struggle for the domination of norms, and therefore of the world, sheds light on the spectrum of Empire. From Moscow to Beijing via Ankara or Tehran or even New Delhi, the imperial concept is finding new meaning.
The pandemic has, among other things, particularized global security and human security to the detriment of national security, which is the responsibility of States. The virus attacked humans, not States. And since this ordeal is specific to all humanity, more and more voices are being raised to affirm that human security must take priority. It is up to States to adapt to this new situation, not to humanity. The common good of humanity is no longer limited to peace, but it also includes a healthy planet. For two years now, humanity has become aware that it no longer wants war. The latest interventions have worn out minds and hurt souls to the point that indifference has taken hold of the world, even if a world at peace is not a world without conflict. This is the uniqueness of this new world: violence has changed parameters, it is no longer rejected outside the Empire, nor monopolized by the State; it coexists with societies. And they have to get used to it.
This new dialectic has a purely military aspect: strategy, alliance, enemy and war. With regard to strategy, the Eastern strategy of avoidance gains credence over the Western strategy of frontal shock that prevailed during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Cunning trumps strength. Ulysses gets the upper hand over Achilles. Sun Tzu smothers Clausewitz. With regard to alliances, the new world foreshadows the end of alliances in favor of partnerships. The lack of trust that plagues the entire international system gives pride of place to partnerships that are more flexible, less sacred than alliances based on immutable common values and interests. The partnership is reversible; the alliance is not, even if it has been compromised for some years between France and Greece against Turkey or even the United States against Turkey or the case of the cancellation of the sale of submarines to Australia from one side, and Armenia facing Russia and the CSTO on the other.
Behind this question of alliance and partnership, hides that of the enemy. Who is the enemy? Within the framework of an alliance, the enemy is identified and structured. It was communism during the Cold War in the 20th century. But in the more flexible framework of partnership, is there really an enemy? The answer is less clear. Also, the new world brings out that old 19th-century idea of the sphere of influence. Russia and China, but also India, Turkey and Iran, would like to have a security belt around them. This principle is totally ignored by Americans and Europeans, hence the convulsions between the West and Russia in Ukraine. In a globalized world, the sphere of influence enables its guarantors to prevent any importation of Western ideas. In contrast, for the West, the absence of zones of influence is a guarantee that their ideals can penetrate beyond their first concentric circles of security. Finally, the last military component: wars have become increasingly hybrid (conventional warfare and irregular methods) and easy to wage (cyber operations, drones, special forces).
The new global paradigm confirms a key principle: there is no more victory in wars. No power wins in the classic sense of victory (military victory, political victory, inclusive and lasting peace agreement, non-use of force in the event of new tension). Even Azerbaijan is deprived of a political victory at this time, just as Armenia could not fully savor its victory in 1994. It lacked the political component of its military victory.
Armenia Must Adapt
Deprived of the fruits of victory in 1994, Armenia entered this new world in uncertainty and fragility. Uncertainty, because it questioned its ability to meet strategic, political, technical, economic, health, social and ecological challenges. Fragility, as it goes through a losing streak. Caught in this pincer movement of doubt and rout, how can Armenia recover? Everything must now be based on Armenia as a State, not as a “homeland” but as a Republic. It needs an institutional and normative framework, with draconian, decisive choices. A state cannot be built on amateurism, approximation, provincialism and fetishism, nor destructive imagination and excess. This qualitative leap and maturation refers to the primacy given to education. Without education, there is no future. Without education, there is no elite. For this, it is up to the Armenians to push their “political elites” to come out of the double denial of reality: the Armenian state cannot be based on the dangerous dream of a Greater Armenia. The neighborhood of Armenia is as it is. Armenia is not a community, but a State. Armenia does not need to be Armenianized. The diaspora is not a state but a network; the diaspora is not synonymous with community income. The diaspora cannot serve as a receptacle for the impotence of the “Armenian political elites”. The diaspora is not a single body. It is uncontrollable; it must be allowed to organize itself.
The other priority is the economy. It is time to build a strong state on a tertiary (service) economy and not on markets dominated by oligarchs, who still have a grip over the secondary (industrial) economy. The best guarantee of Armenia’s development is to open the economy to the full force of the world. Open all borders, starting with Turkey, as part of normalization and not reconciliation, for which the conditions are not yet met. Education, Economy and Demography: here is the triptych of salvation for the Armenia of tomorrow. As long as the Armenian state is not strong enough, the power in place has no choice; it has no control over its security. We must first strengthen the economy of Armenia, in order to stem emigration and envisage a future with more serenity. But right now, Armenia can look to the West, but also India and China. But this means that the Republic of Armenia cannot base its future on territorial law at a time when power no longer rests in the territory. The law of nations must take precedence over territorial law. As long as Armenia is based on territorial rights, it will remain a pawn in the hands of Russia, but also a target in the eyes of Turkey. The West is indifferent to Armenia’s past and openly hostile to territorial claims. In the modern day, wars are no longer won, especially not on the basis of territorial claims. We need to get back to reality, realism and pragmatism. The first priority is to keep the Armenian state with its soft power (in the diaspora but also beyond). If Armenians do not succeed in breaking the spiral of defeat, set in motion in 2020, as quickly as possible, future generations will be marked by disaffiliation, indifference and the conviction of failure.
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