With the end of 2019 and the beginning of the new decade, spreading proxy wars have overtaken the area from Ukraine to Libya and from Iraq to Yemen.
Thirty years after the end of the ultimate proxy war, known as the Cold-War, the spheres of influence, which had initially been drawn at Yalta and calcified by the bipolar system have once again contested in 2020. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought euphoria and uncertainty to the region before overtaken by American hubris, flirting with the presumed hegemony of the “indispensible nation.” Successive American administrations from Clinton to Obama exercised a neoconservative vision, from Kosovo in 1999 to Iraq in 2003 to Cairo in 2009. The inability by the United States to sustained this “Sicilian Expedition” destabilized the region defined by the geopolitical fault line from Eastern Ukraine to Bab el Mandeb. The seismic destruction of the authoritarian regime structures in the region, which had acted as strait-jacket stabilizers, unleashed various intra-national and supranational forces, some of which were democratic looking to the west for support. Nonetheless, the inability of the United States to properly gauge the effects of the day after has greatly contributed to the ushering in of a new era of geopolitical competition.
In the meantime domestically, the “reluctant and introspective” America has displaced the “neoconservative universal deliverance of democracy” United States, seeking for ways to limit its global scope and responsibility. At the same time, the United Kingdom is finishing its century-long transition of exiting and departing as it retreats toward becoming England. For Great Britain, this has been a prolonged and exhaustive process, which began after the end of World War I at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The establishment of the Kemalist Turkish republic was a defeat of British ambitions in the area, especially if we are to factor in Gallipoli. The British retreat continued after Yalta in 1945, with the Truman Doctrine in 1947 in Greece and Turkey and culminating with the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. One can argue the same trajectory for the United Kingdom continued globally in India, Iran, Asia, Africa and culminating in Hong Kong in 1999.
By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the retreating or “pivoting” United States, especially since the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, has created a vacuum in this historically volatile geopolitically significant region. As it is law of nature, contenders who seek competitive advantage are filling the resultant void. Although the process is disorienting, as it is a momentous restructuring, it has been inevitable and predictable. What has been unpredictable or not accurately assessed, is the number of actors and the scope of interests at play. This is quite dissimilar to the shifts defined and predicted by MacKinder, Mahan and Spykeman in the 19th and 20th century. The geopolitical competition of the last two centuries has focused states like the United Kingdom and the United States on maintaining or gaining advantage vis-à-vis “the periphery” and “the world island.” The “great game” played in succession since the 19th century has pinned the master of the world island of Eurasia (Russia/USSR/Russia) against Anglo-American naval power. In 2020 this is no longer the game, while the area loosely defined from the Ukraine to the Indian Ocean with the epicenter the Eastern Mediterranean, continues to be the ultimate prize.
The major difference is that the nation-state is no longer the only actor at play and that there are at least four layers of actors who seek zero-sum dominance, while paradoxically trying to access the liberal free market global system. This a loose typology but the four layers of actors include: Regional state actors with an imperial history and past in the region, Turkey, Russia, and Iran; Retreating “occidental powers”, which up to 1979 that title was limited to France, the UK and maybe Italy, but now includes the United States; New actors, which include state and non-state actors, such as China, the German EU, and a variety of multinationals, primarily energy conglomerates, most of which are aligned with state interests; and Smaller nation-states created over the last two centuries as a consequence of the previous geopolitical shifts, confrontations and rebalances. It should be noted that the later the nation-state formation, the greater the level of fragility and vulnerability to external interference. This includes the entire Arab world, the southern Balkans including Greece and east to Ukraine and Israel.
The break-up of Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabach and Chechnya in the 1990s, the NATO and EU enlargements of the early 2000s as well as Iraq and Afghanistan should be considered part of the same process. The “victorious” United States implemented its universal vision of liberal democracy, without necessarily calculating, neither the impact of execution nor the full costs of unraveling the status quo without a strategic alternative or plan. The Eurozone crisis of Greece and Cyprus and the domestic Israeli politics should be viewed within the same regional framework, which includes the collapse of the Arab model of nation-state from Syria to Yemen. In this environment of fragility, the interaction of the different levels have sought to engage using local agency, taking advantage of the malleable framework from Ukraine to Bab El Mandeb through proxy wars and surrogate armies. In the Red Sea alone, there are nine non-regional states that are currently present, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia, the United States, China, Japan, France, Israel and Iran.
At the beginning of 2020, the entire region is being remade as the Anglo-American peace of the last seventy-five years is clearly over.
* Petros Vamvakas, Associate Professor of Political Science; Department of Political Science and International Studies, Εmmanuel College Boston