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Russian resilience, US overconfidence and Chinese calm: The West versus the rest

The recent Abu Dhabi summit confirms the emergence of a new world order, with massive geostrategic implications
US President Joe Biden speaks at the UN General Assembly in New York on 21 September 2022 (AFP)

“We continue to rely on the United States for our security, but we would also like to have normal economic and trade relations with all other countries.” This is, in essence, the key message that Anwar Gargash, senior adviser to Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed, conveyed during the recent Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate.

The debate is an annual strategic forum organised by the Emirates Policy Center. The latest edition had two main merits: highlighting the dynamics at play concerning a new global order that should replace, or at least integrate, the current US-led one; and framing the debate away from the usual western intellectual terms of reference.

It can no longer be taken for granted that most of what the Global West perceives as problems or challenges are shared by the Global Rest

It was thus possible to discuss the war in Ukraine; the US vision for the world; the roles of Europe, China and Middle Eastern countries; the geoeconomics of strategic competition focused on food and climate change; the geostrategy of energy transitions; and the race to hegemony in the digital sphere, with the contribution of experts from any continent.

The message conveyed by the host country perfectly encapsulated the ongoing dialectic of a new world order, which, oversimplifying, could be seen as a Global West versus Global Rest affair.

The first encompasses the western democracies aligned with the US, and organised within the well-known triad of the G7, Nato and the EU. The second is a narrowed variation of the better-known Global South. It includes all the countries that do not automatically subscribe to the Global West’s views and narratives - or, at least, would prefer not to be forced to adopt them. 

The Global Rest is something of a re-edition of the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, except that back then, the world system had a bipolar configuration: US versus USSR. The 21st-century situation is more kaleidoscopic; frequently, Russian and Chinese views are shared by the Global Rest, to say the least.

Cognitive gap

The Global West perceives the current moment as an inflection point in history, where democracies must be mobilised to resist the assault of autocracies, with Russia and China playing the role of the main villains. There is a frantic attempt to align as many countries as possible behind a policy that aims to isolate the first and compete with, and/or restrain, the second. This policy, so far, has been unsuccessful.

The Global Rest fears military escalation in Ukraine and Taiwan, along with the widespread economic consequences of these tensions that could compromise global growth, especially after the heavy disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This attitude is not built upon hostility towards the Global West, but simply upon a desire not to be sucked into what appears to be an increasingly uncontrolled spiral.

From the Global Rest’s perspective, the Global West does not wish to give up its centuries-old primacy, making it highly skeptical towards a multipolar world order. For its part, the Global West still struggles to understand (or to accept) the Global Rest’s position. This might be an innocent cognitive gap, but it could have a severe impact on global power dynamics.

Firstly, it can no longer be taken for granted that most of what the Global West perceives as problems or challenges should be shared as such by the Global Rest. For six decades, the disentanglement of many Asian and African countries from western colonialism remained conditioned by an attitude that still assessed the world through western intellectual prisms. No more.

Emirati diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash, pictured in January 2020, says the UAE does not intend to pick sides between global powers (AFP/File photo)
Emirati diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash, pictured in January 2020, says the UAE does not intend to pick sides between global powers (AFP/File photo)

Much of the Global Rest is assessing the war in Ukraine differently. It deplored (not condemned) the Russian invasion at the UN General Assembly. It also did not join western sanctions against Moscow. There is enough, then, to induce the two shores of the Atlantic to review some of their assumptions.

Secondly, there is no doubt that human rights protections and respect for international law must be top global priorities. Yet, a large part of the Global Rest views the first issue as a topic weaponised by western states for specific political interests, and the second as a vivid example of how often the Global West shows a gap between its principles and practices.  

Thirdly, Global West financial domination is perceived with increasing resentment. The repeated preference to weaponise the dollar and shut certain countries out of the global financial circuit are considered unfair. Alternatives to the western-controlled Swift system for financial transactions, and to the US dollar for trade exchanges, are being considered. While these attempts are still embryonic, and it is far from certain that they will succeed, they signal a widespread and increasing uneasiness.

It could be easy to conclude that such positions conceal a lack of empathy towards the Ukrainian people’s suffering, embarrassing human rights records at home, egoism, indifference, or a general anti-Americanism or anti-westernism. Such a conclusion would be wrong.

Mental liberation

The Global Rest wants to maintain good relations with every nation. It does not like to be embroiled in confrontations, and above all, it wishes to shrug off what it sees as western intellectual domination over international politics. This juncture in history is also a sort of liberation from a mental cage.

The latest Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate reflected this mood, as well as Russian resilience, American overconfidence, Chinese calm, European bewilderment, and, above all, an alleged miscalculation on energy transitions. Scholars considered to be close to President Vladimir Putin emphasised Russia’s resilience, but also acknowledged a miscalculation on Ukraine, and asserted that Moscow has taken a conscious decision to self-isolate as “Fortress Russia”, away from the Global West, for at least the next decade.  

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American panellists were visibly relieved by the US midterm election results, showing renewed confidence. The widely anticipated red wave did not materialise, and thus, the message followed that US foreign policy should not change. One panellist proudly confirmed that unipolarity and exceptionalism would continue to be the polar stars of Washington’s foreign policy.

European panellists represented the hard dilemma between the heavy economic pain imposed by the consequences of sanctions against Russia, and the necessity to honour Euro-Atlantic shared values, which requires punishing Moscow and supporting Kyiv. This dilemma is charging a huge price to the European economy.

Chinese experts, meanwhile, showed calm and confidence. They gave the clear impression that time was on their side, considering the country’s sheer numbers with regards to the world economy and its relative supply chains, not to mention military improvements.

The most worrisome message, however, came from some energy experts, who maintained that the energy crisis started a year before the war in Ukraine and has been fuelled by hasty policies to accelerate the green transition. De-investing excessively from fossil fuels will create a gap that renewable energies cannot promptly fill. The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia further complicate this crisis, and the cap on oil prices will only exacerbate that.

The sad conclusion is that Putin’s reckless move has delayed Europe’s energy transition for years - and that oil and gas, at least for a while, will continue to accompany the birth pangs of a new world order. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

his article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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