AMERICA made a crucial mistake during its triumphant mood in the 1990s. Spurred by spurious academic cheerleaders, it began to believe that because Russia had diminished, America had risen. This misconception was corrected in Afghanistan and Iraq, where America misplaced its nerve.
President Barack Obama spent eight becalmed years in the White House, hypnotised by the price of conflict. Donald Trump’s vocal belligerence stopped short of action. It was Trump who invited the Taliban back, through talks in Qatar.
America still has an estimated 800-plus bases in more than 70 countries, at an annual cost of around $200 billion, but its boots seem frozen in the mind. (Russia, Britain, France and China together have less than 40.) American strategic mobility seems to have been transferred from the Pentagon’s tank commanders to Washington’s think-tank commanders. Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s Secretary of State, was an advocate of the Creative Chaos Theory, an ornate phrase meaning that a new polity could rise only on the ashes of the system it had replaced. Change required total destruction and the resultant chaos. Someone else’s eggs had to be broken to make an American omelette.
‘Greater Middle East’
George W Bush dreamt of a big omelette. At the G8 Summit in 2004, he spoke of a ‘Greater Middle East’ that included Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan living cosily in the happy fold Pax Americana. What the ‘old’ Middle East learnt from Iraq and the Arab Spring was that Washington could not be trusted as principal guarantor of stability.
This set, albeit initially in slow motion, the stage for the ‘dragon butterfly effect’. The wings of this species flutter to the timbre of Chinese music. When Xi Jinping spoke of change of a kind that has not happened in a hundred years he could have had China’s diplomatic coup in West Asia in mind. For the first time since the end of World War I in 1918, a Western power was not the primary arbiter of events in the Arab world.
On March 10 this year Saudi Arabia, Iran and China issued a joint statement restoring relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The venue for the historic handshake was Beijing, not Camp David in America. President Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud left America blindsided. The implicit message was that Washington had kept the two apart at serious cost to the neighbourhood.
This pirouette might never have happened if America’s Democrats had not alienated and even humiliated the Saudi-heir for reasons of domestic politics. When history recovers from media soundbytes, Joe Biden will have to answer the question he currently evades: What price is America paying for his treatment of Mohammed bin Salman?
No sudden change
Riyadh has not suddenly turned pro-Beijing or anti-American. Bin Salman is establishing, for the first time in many centuries, strategic autonomy, weaving it out of dependence.
His conference on Ukraine in August, in which China was present but Russia excluded, was one more example.
China is less concerned with cause and more with effect.
Its current focus is on an axis from Beijing to Riyadh, while a second curves from the Gulf to include the principal regional military powers, including Iran and Syria. Syria, Iran and Russia are linked by complementary interests. On March 19, UAE’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan received Syrian President Bashar alAssad in Abu Dhabi with full state honours.
On the same day Riyadh invited Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to Saudi Arabia. These are still early days, but this could be the beginning of a radical shift away from the bitter confrontation that has trapped the region since 1979.
Energy market rules
High on the agenda is a desire to rewrite the rules of the energy market, find alternatives to the dollar, and establish partnerships in renewable energy, digital economy, artificial intelligence, cyber security, and the industrial internet. China has even proposed a plan for Palestine, which may be a quest too far. Political graveyards are full of reputations clutching a peace plan for Palestine.
The Saudi initiative on Palestine could lead to better results, not least because it seeks incremental steps rather than solutions. Riyadh has made any revaluation of relations with Israel contingent upon Israeli concessions in Palestine.
The broader framework is bilateral and regional. In June, the Saudi ambassador to America, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, said that her country wanted a thriving Red Sea economy with a prosperous Palestine and a prosperous Israel as part of her leader’s Vision 2030.
Aggressive language is a measure of China’s current confidence. On July 5 this year, ‘wolf warrior’ Wang Yi, the now revived Foreign Minister and father of wolf-warrior diplomacy, told Japan and South Korea to foster “strategic autonomy” and “revitalise Asia” as a counterpoint to the West. Speaking at a trilateral forum in Qingdao, he said: “No matter how blonde you dye your hair, how sharp you shape your nose, you can never become a European or American, you can never become a Westerner… We must know where our roots lie…” He told the two American allies to free themselves from the “coercion of bullying and hegemony”.
He has given no such lectures to Delhi. At least, not yet!