The 20th century world of “blocs,” i.e., rigid, hierarchical alliances that really were blocks, is passing; the 21st century world is emerging as a layered, networked, and very flexible world. Those countries aspiring to be leaders in the dramatically new 21st century will need to adapt to benefit from this new structure, which is the result of fundamental economic and technological drivers that old-fashioned decision-makers will resist only at their peril.
World affairs in the 20th century was at core simple: fascist vs. anti-fascist, communist vs. anti-communist, imperialist vs. national liberation, poor vs. rich. These simple distinctions into two blocks worked well to explain global divisions in political, economic, and geographic terms. One knew which side one was on, and the situation could remain fixed for decades. The 21st century is turning out to be vastly more complicated, with both antagonists and opportunities appearing with disconcertingly little warning…except to those who look far into the future. More, one will be disappointed if one looks for emerging blocs; rather, one will need to focus on layers, with an economic alliance on one level not necessarily matching the political alliance operating on another level, raising the question of which layer may contain the real driving forces. Will economics drive politics or politics drive economics? Will we find friends via racial, religious, and ideological ties or at the end of a cross-continental gas pipeline that took a decade to build?
A structure of layered alliances with an economic alliance structure at one layer very different from the political alliance structure at another and both very different from geographical proximity will of course not exist without links, resulting in a network. Add a new flexibility resulting from the potential for politics, economics, or geography as the primary driving factor to a much greater degree than during the 20th century, and the result is a highly flexible network rather than the extraordinarily hierarchical situation during the bipolar Cold War. The result will be to require far more sophisticated decision-makers with a vastly greater level of understanding of global processes than was required to be successful in the 20th century world. Successful strategic planners will need to see emerging ties resulting from a wide variety of long-term economic pressures decades before they become obvious.
The Sino-West Asian Development Zone. One may say that no such animal as a “Sino-West Asian Development Zone” exists, but the explosion of trade over the last decade among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and China [see Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation, for a valuable analysis] plus the many political arguments for closer ties among this odd group make the case for predicting the emergence of this new economic cooperation zone, with closer political ties surely to follow. Iran, malevolently marginalized by the U.S.-Israeli axis, and Iraq, ruined by the U.S. invasion, desperately need markets, while the rapidly developing Chinese and Turkish economies need energy. Solidifying plans for China to build nuclear power plants in Turkey [Financial Times] symbolize the long-term nature of this emerging alliance. Sino-Turkish trade growth over the past decade has been very rapid; China is now Iran’s leading trade partner [Free Beacon]. Iraq is Turkey’s second largest trade partner. China is poised to replace the U.S. conqueror as Iraq’s largest trade partner, a shift emblematic of China’s cautious but profitable foreign policy at the expense of a far more violent and erratic U.S. With European-Russian tensions over Ukraine drawing attention to European dependence on Russian natural gas and the winding down of U.S. economic warfare against Iran, Turkish interest in moving forward on a new gas pipeline from Iran into Turkey and on to Europe is rising [Today’s Zaman 2/9/14], in what may become a crucial factor for the potential of a Sino-West Asian development zone. Although potential political roadblocks are legion (e.g., Israeli efforts to provoke U.S. war against Iran; Iraqi nervousness over Iranian influence; Baghdad’s dislike of tight Turkish relations with Iraqi Kurdistan; clerical ideological extremism in Iran), with U.S. influence in the Mideast on the wane, economic reasons for cooperation appear likely to dominate relations among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and China.
The Sino-Saudi-Pakistani Triangle. What is there not to like about a partnership between a rich oil exporter, a rising superpower with endless energy needs, and a marginalized country that needs a friend and owns the Islamic bomb? Indeed, this triangle has been sputtering along for decades, held in check only by U.S. power. But U.S. ties with the Saudis are not quite what they were before the global war against Saudi Salafi extremism, while U.S. ties with Pakistan are imperiled by the U.S. drone attacks and the winding down of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, worsened by U.S. reluctance to step up to the plate and provide Pakistan with desperately needed economic aid. With Sunni conservatism arguably intensifying in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, China now essentially Pakistan’s only friend, and burgeoning Sino-Saudi trade ties, this is one 21st century alliance where the political and economic layers dovetail nicely.
In brief, any Western decision-maker who imagines that “Iran is an outcast,” “Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally,” “N.A.T.O. member Turkey is in the Western camp,” or “China is a long way from the Mideast,” may be in for a big surprise.