Global geopolitical change

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Return of Cold War puts world on edge

The Fall of Rome a good case study for today

For now the highly dangerous threat posed by a planned American-led military intervention in Syria has been averted, thanks to a Russian diplomatic initiative. But that does not mean that the world has suddenly become a safer place.

As the Cold War-type tactics and rhetoric of the three decades following on World War II are increasingly making a reappearance, the global geopolitical environment is in the process of undergoing dramatic change. With the single polar US dominance of the geopolitical scene fast crumbling on many fronts, uncertainty is on the up as various major powers and power blocs are jockeying for strategic advantage.

At the same time the relationship between the US and its “Western” allies, as most strongly symbolised by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), is at its lowest ebb since World War II. This was the main contributing factor for the US-president Barack Obama coming off second best in a diplomatic game of chess against Russia’s president Vladimir Putin over the Syrian affair.

It is likely that the Syrian affair will in history become known as the episode that changed the global geopolitical balance of power forever, with Russia given the opportunity to punch well above the weight of its actual power. It was an opportunity well used by Putin, even taking on Obama in his own back yard with an op-ed in the New York Times.

As an article in Stratfor puts it: “The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management.”

Impact of financial crisis

To add to this dangerous geopolitical environment of uncertainty, a renewed global financial and economic crisis in recent weeks was averted when the US Federal Reserve (Fed) announced that it would not end its so-called quantitative easing (QE) just yet.

But, almost immediately afterwards rumour had it that the outgoing chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, is about to indicate that the Fed is ready to announce the beginning  of the end of QE, which has seen the Fed pumping a massive $85bn (£54bn) a month into global financial markets.

This rumour alone was enough to see uncertainty return to the financial markets and stocks moving lower.

These two elements, political and economic uncertainty, alone can already form a lethal geo-strategic  mix, as history has taught us.

The decline of the Roman empire remains an instructive reference point in this regard. As one account of that decline, some 16 centuries ago, puts it: “In the economically ailing west, a decrease in agricultural production led to higher food prices. The western half of the empire had a large trade deficit with the eastern half.

“The west purchased luxury goods from the east but had nothing to offer in exchange. To make up for the lack of money, the government began producing more coins with less silver content. This led to inflation.

“Finally, piracy and attacks from Germanic tribes disrupted the flow of trade, especially in the west.”

The extent to which the economic realities of the present day world – in which the US and its European allies have allowed themselves to become “addicted” to seemingly cheap debt — are impacting on the reality that the US had allowed its “diplomacy” to become militarized  is reflected in the battle over its attempt to put budget cuts into place.

Again echoing what happened in the Roman empire,  top US military officers and senior defence officials warned in separate hearings last week that across-the-board spending reductions of $50 billion are “forcing them to cut back in ways that leave much of the military poorly trained and unready to respond in a crisis”.

General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told lawmakers that if the military has to fully implement nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade as envisioned, the army may not be able to fight a long war.

Religion and other factors

But, as the US with its “War on Terror” after the 9/11-attacks allowed itself to become involved in a number of conflicts in the Muslim-world across the globe, another factor also present in the decline of Rome, is increasingly coming to the fore: religion.

As one source puts it: “One of the many factors that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire was the rise of a new religion, Christianity. The Christian religion, which was monotheistic ran counter to the traditional Roman religion, which was polytheistic (many gods). At different times, the Romans persecuted the Christians because of their beliefs, which were popular among the poor.”

With the US withdrawing from deep involvement in the Muslim world, and with the Europeans in institutional disarray, the attack on a shopping mall in Kenya last week illustrated the near futility of attempting to go into battle with religious fundamentalism.

Last week in Kenya an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, which most experts were sure were a spent force and thoroughly beaten in Somali, kept the world on tenterhooks. Among the attack force there were reportedly an American and a British citizen, illustrating that normal rules of war do not apply when it comes to deep-seated religious convictions.

And, even Putin in his New York Times article played to American religious sensitivities, writing: “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Besides the geopolitical power shifts, economic  and religious factors, in this modern epoch another factor is playing a bigger role than ever before: technological dominance. That even on this front things are changing is illustrated by the fact that, driven by Brazil, irked by US internet spying on its president, the Brics nations Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are moving towards breaking US-dominance of the internet.


Few if any countries will be left untouched by this turbulent epoch in human history and the various fronts on which it is playing out, including South Africa.

This is well illustrated by an article last week in The Telegraph in Britain, which reported:

“A UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) study argues that, five years since the onset of the financial crisis, the global economy remains in a structural crisis and it is, therefore, not possible for countries to pursue pre-crisis growth strategies, including export-led development policies.

“In fact the Trade and Development Report 2013 argues that export- led strategies – mainstay policies for countries such as China, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, South Africa – are no longer viable. Instead, more balanced strategies, geared towards generating a greater role for domestic and regional demand, should be pursued.”

There is no arguing that the global geopolitical scene is in the process of radical change, but those expecting it to happen in single dramatic “events” will do well to remember that the decline of the Roman empire played out over a period of some five centuries.

Many episodes – such as  the case with Syria – most likely still lie ahead.

by Piet Coetzer


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