Medium and small states in the time of multipolarity

Three developments this week underscore that the growing multipolarity in the world order is inexorably loosening up established alliances that provided underpinnings previously for the United States to preserve its global hegemony through the past century. Given the magnitude of the domestic crisis in the US, it is not going to be able to reverse the weakening of its control over its alliances.

The spat between the US and Turkey at the virtual meeting of the foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) last Tuesday was an extraordinary development. The NATO member countries have had differences over specific issues. Germany and France’s reservations over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a case in point. But The US-Turkish spat last Tuesday is qualitatively different but potentially far-reaching. 

The outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at Turkey accusing it of stoking tensions with fellow allies in the Mediterranean and of giving a gift to the Kremlin by purchasing a Russian-made anti-aircraft system. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian backed up Pompeo, saying cohesion within the alliance would be impossible to achieve if Turkey mimicked Russia’s aggressive interventionism. 

For sure, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevutoglu fired back at Pompeo, accusing him of phoning European allies and instigating them to gang up on Turkey, of siding blindly with Greece in regional conflicts, of refusing to sell Ankara US-made Patriot anti-aircraft weapons and of backing Kurdish “terrorist organisations” in Syria. He maintained that the US and France fuelled the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh by backing Armenia in a war that Azerbaijan won with Turkish military support. S-400 air defense system from Russia is activated for testing at the Turkish Air Force’s Murdet Air Base on Nov. 25, 2019

Factually speaking, Çavuşoğlu spoke the truth. The US increasingly feels frustrated that Turkey has switched gear to pursue an independent foreign policy that often undermines Washington’s Middle East strategies. In reality, Ankara is deepening its strategic autonomy by exploring the potentials of multipolarity in the international situation. 

Pompeo and Le Drian were polemical, since Turkey is also pursuing policies that ruffle Russian feathers in regional politics stretching from Ukraine and Crimea, Black Sea to Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia and from Libya to Syria in the Eastern Mediterranean. (here, here, here and here.) Paradoxically, in this regard, Turkey is also serving the US interests and the NATO’s consolidation in the Black Sea and future expansions plans in the Sahel region of Africa (for which Libya is a gateway.)  

A second development last week of immense significance to the transatlantic alliance also surfaced last week when the German shipping authorities issued an innocuous advisory for the Baltic Sea area warning vessels to avoid a certain zone from December 5-31. 

Meanwhile, the ship-tracking website also showed Russian pipe-laying ships Fortuna and Akademik Cherskiy moving towards the same area. Clearly, in consultation with Berlin, Moscow is pressing ahead with the resumption of work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that was suspended an year ago because of US sanctions in late 2019 threatening asset freezes and visa restrictions for the international consortium involved in the project (which includes European players such as Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper groups, the Dutch-British giant Shell, France’s Engie and Austria’s OMV.)

The US president Donald Trump had accused Germany of being “a captive to Russia” because of its energy policy. The US envoy to Germany Robin Quinville told business daily Handelsblatt on Saturday, “Now is the time for Germany and the EU to impose a moratorium on the construction of the pipeline, ” which would send a signal to Russia that Europe was not willing to accept “its (Russia’s) ongoing malicious behaviour… The pipeline is not only an economic project, but also a political project that the Kremlin is using to bypass Ukraine and divide Europe.”   

Pipe-laying Russian vessel Fortuna left a German port on Dec. 5 to resume construction of Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline.

The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 project, led by Russian state energy company Gazprom and more than 90% complete, will double the amount of natural gas that Germany can import from Russia, delivering up to 55 billion cubic meters annually once completed. Access to cheap Russian gas is crucial for German economy as its moves away from nuclear energy and coal. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to take a political call — whether or not to succumb to American threats and bear the heavy economic costs for German economy; and, whether to join ranks with the US and regard Russia as a threat. 

Compared to the above developments, the parliamentary elections in Venezuela on December 6 fall in a different category but they also highlight the fault lines symptomatic of a multipolar world order. The election’s backdrop is poignant. The Trump administration’s robust push for “regime change” in Venezuela has failed. More importantly, the proxy figure that Washington recognised as Venezuela’s“president”, Juan Guaido stands hopelessly discredited in his own country. 

Sunday’s election will only consolidate further President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power and leave Guaido out in the political cold. Maduro’s camp is poised to gain control of the National Assembly, the only institution not yet in its hands. A confident Maduro told an election rally this week, ”I know that we are going to have a great triumph. I know it! We are going to solve the problems we have with the new National Assembly. The opposition, the extremist right, has no plan for the country.” 

No doubt, the defeat on Sunday will potentially leave the opposition out in the political cold. Guaido has lost the plot. Analysts say the Guaido-led opposition lacked direction and erred by putting too much emphasis on its quest for western support. Guaido called for increased sanctions from the US and EU, even though polls showed 71 percent of Venezuelans oppose crippling sanctions.

In geopolitical terms, the victory on Sunday will provide Maduro with important validation in the eyes of his foreign allies, helping his regime circumvent US and EU sanctions. Maduro wants China to feel there’s an institutional framework that can provide backing for agreements such as those on oil or infrastructure; his other allies such as Russia, Mexico, Turkey and Iran will feel similarly reassured.

Some European countries are already becoming concerned about giving Guaido “carte blanche” for an interim role ad infinitum. They feel that recognition, without elections, without validation, is like naming an emperor. We may expect Biden to soften US rhetoric towards Venezuela and probably ease some of the economic sanctions initiated by Trump. 

Indeed, Maduro has congratulated Biden and said he is ready for dialogue with the US. Under a Biden White House, US-Venezuelan tensions may ease and the parties may start searching for a platform for talks. Fundamentally, Maduro astutely exploited the multipolarity in the world order to defeat the Trump administration’s project to overthrow him. 

Venezuelan defence minister, Vladimir Padrino López, second left, greeting the arrival of two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 long-range nuclear-capable heavy supersonic bombers, Caracas, December 10, 2018 

The financial support given by China and Russia became his lifeline. The Kremlin showed readiness to display that support, too. On a Monday morning two years ago, on 10th December 2018, Russia landed two nuclear-capable “Blackjack” bombers at the Simón Bolívar international airport near Caracas as part of a joint training exercise. It was designed to showcase Moscow’s intention to shore up the position of Maduro. 

The symbolism was profound: Monroe Doctrine lies buried under the new world order built on multipolarity. A resurrection of the Monroe Doctrine has become impossible under these circumstances. Small states such as Venezuela and Ecuador are diversifying their external relations far beyond the Western Hemisphere. 

As for the transatlantic alliance, Biden has stated his prioritisation of transatlantic relations, but the terms of engagement will need to be redefined. Merkel said recently, “We must define our own European interests, and this also includes common ground on foreign policy, on economic policy and digital policy and many more.” 

Turkey has not gone to the extent of rubbishing the NATO as “brain-dead”, to borrow the words of French president Emmanuel Macron. But it has flagged in no uncertain terns that it can be at fierce odds with other NATO allies for years and has proven to be the most militarily assertive member of the western alliance today, and particularly adept at achieving its objectives with hard power.