The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I

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With Russia-Ukraine and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, 2014 seems to be the year of international crises.  Beginning in late 2013 with chemical weapons used in Syria, global crises seem to arise routinely lately.  This is nothing new, international crises have existed since even before the establishment of the nation-state.  However what is different about this current series of crises is the lack of an international response.

This is comparable to western Europe’s appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The world was recovering from the Great Depression and the United States was apathetic to Europe’s troubles, having embraced isolationism.  The burden fell to the western democracies of Britain and France who were weary of reliving another world war, and thus did nothing.

80 years later, the world is recovering from the Great Recession in a highly globalized and interconnected world.  The world is in a phase where countries largely keep to their own borders and are reluctant to act outside them.  This is why despite Europe’s outrage with Russia going back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the continent’s response has been lukewarm at best.  As with Syria, the US is trying to muster international engagement in a community of nations that currently pursues national interests above international norms.

But what distinguishes this situation from previous crises is the shifting balance of power.  This trend of globalization and ‘geopolitical isolationism’ is happening against a backdrop of changing polarity.  Which leads me to conclude the world is in a unique situation–a composite akin to pre-WWI and pre-WWII.

Part of the US’ difficulty in mobilizing an international response to global crises is the rise of other powers challenging American hegemony.  Russia, India, China are rising powers who not only want a ‘piece of the power-pie’ but whose national interests lead them away from the West.  The US does not agree with their actions, but cannot intimidate them either.  Despite Britain controlling 25% of the world’s population, in 1914 Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire shared power.  The fear of losing power and the desire to gain power caused the tensions that resulted in World War I.  A century later the US is trying to maintain its influence as other countries such as the BRICS demand shared power.

 The world before WWII was one where countries largely kept to themselves, so fearful of another global conflict and out of economic self-interest.  Likewise the world today is jaded by the international interventions that dominated the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is also still recovering from the Great Recession.

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Is Asia like pre-World War I Europe?

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Between the international headlines about the East China Sea and comments made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week, it is very clear that China and Japan are not getting along.  The two countries have a history, which leaves many wondering if the two are on a collision course yet again.  China and Japan seem to disagree on everything, from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, to each country’s investment in Africa, to both countries investing more in their respective militaries, the list goes on.

At the World Economic Forum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared the testy relationship between China and Japan to that between Britain and Germany which in part, led to the outbreak of World War I.  As someone endlessly fascinated with the Great War, I agree that the geopolitics of Asia is looking startlingly similar to that of Europe 100 years ago, but I disagree with the Japanese leader that China-Japan of today is Britain-Germany in 1914.

1002px-Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svgBritain’s inability to handle Germany’s rise was one of the major issues that resulted in World War I.  Beginning in the 19th century, Britain was the preeminent power in the world and controlled 25% of the world’s population with its superior navy.  Yet with the unpopular Boer war, Queen Victoria’s death and Kaiser Wilhelm’s no-so-hidden desire to establish a German Empire on par with the British Empire, Britain was insecure of its status. The fear of Germany overtaking them led British leaders to seek out an alliance with France, it’s 1000 year rival; and Russia, which was largely seen as a backward autocracy.

China’s_Critical_Sea_Lines_of_CommunicationA century later the world is in the same situation.  The United States, after being world’s preeminent power in the 20th century, in the 21st century faces losing that status.  At the moment China leads the way with an economy that is estimated to become the world’s largest before 2020, and other BRICS nations vying for power on the international stage.  However China’s rise has been met with skepticism, not just from the United States but from its neighbors.  Although its leaders insist on a peaceful rise, many argue its actions say otherwise, case in point being the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  China recently set up a defense zone around the islands, leaving Japan and South Korea anxious.  Although Japan has shaky relationships with its neighbors in its own right, many are putting that aside to counter-balance China.

Recently PM Abe was a guest of honor in New Delhi on India’s Republic Day on Saturday. This after Japan’s defense minister was in New Delhi for talks on expanding bilateral defense ties.  The Japanese leader has long felt that India can provide a crucial counter-weight to China and so seeks to expand Japan-India ties.  India and China have a rivalry also, dating back to 1962 over a shared border.  Japan (and India) are also expanding their relationships with African countries, with both attempting to distinguish themselves from China’s widespread influence on the continent.

PM Abe is right that a war in Asia would spell disaster for the world. The rivalry between Britain and Germany was that between a longtime empire and an rising power–just as the tension between the US and China is today.  However as much as I understand PM Abe’s fear, I can see the seeds of war being planted already.  Japan is investing more into its military, solidifying alliances with other countries in the region and seeking to outdo China in Africa.  What is more startling is that Japan is not alone.

History has a way of repeating itself but never in the exact way.  So although there are some differences between Europe a hundred years ago and Asia today, the major themes remain the same.  The leaders of today will face the same decisions as leaders a century ago.  That leaves the question, can the world avoid making the same mistakes of the past?