Are we facing a new global game, or is it the same old game being played under a new guise? Before trying to answer this question, it might be useful to recall another question that a journalist put to George W Bush at a news conference in Madrid, the first stop on the US president’s first trip to Europe a couple of weeks ago. The journalist asked: “You say the scientific evidence isn’t strong enough to go forward with Kyoto. So then how do you justify your missile defence plan when there is even less scientific evidence that it will work?”
Bush avoided answering the question directly. But scientists argue that the president and his top officials, notably Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they cite the lack of conclusive research on climate change to argue against the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming and, on the other, they are eager to push ahead with the development of a national missile defence system despite even greater scientific uncertainties.
Bush’s inability to answer the journalist’s highly cogent question only confirms that the arguments he uses to justify his policies in both cases have nothing to do with science and everything to do with self- serving short-term interests of a political and economic nature. Bush has flown in the face of international public opinion, alienating even America’s closest allies, for purely domestic reasons. At stake is a looming recession in the US economy, which his decision to renege on the Kyoto Protocol is designed to stave off by removing any environmental constraints on industrial enterprises, while his decision to push ahead with the controversial missile defence system, a huge multi-billion dollar project, is expected to invigorate the military-industrial complex and hence the national economy.
The use of arguments belonging to the realm of science to justify decisions that are informed exclusively by political considerations is just one of the paradoxes displayed by the US president. Another is the confrontational attitude he adopted towards America’s allies in the European capitals he visited versus the extremely cooperative language he used in his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Discussions stumbled on all issues raised with US allies: not only global warming and the national missile defence project, but also on peace-keeping in the Balkans, the peace process in the Middle East, and on implementing the death penalty. While still in Europe, Bush had harsh words for Russia, but the tone changed completely following his face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Before meeting the Russian president, Bush declared that he wanted to extend the member countries of NATO in Europe to those directly bordering Russia, such as the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; to Slovakia and Slovenia; and possibly also to one or two other central-European states. This declaration prompted Putin to ask: “NATO is a military pact. And you are extending it to the point of reaching our borders. Why? And how can you expect us not to feel threatened?”
Before meeting Bush, Putin met in Shanghai with the leaders of China. A Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was created, which consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the so-called Shanghai Five, as well as Uzbekistan. All six members in the Alliance regard the violent separatist movements supported by Afghanistan’s Taliban and Pakistan-based militant groups a major threat to regional stability. Thus, before the first joint meeting between Bush and Putin, Bush met with Europe’s leaders and Putin with the Chinese. Bush continues to declare that problems still obstruct normal American-Chinese relations, but whatever these problems are, a new world architecture seems to be emerging.
The issue of Russian-Chinese rapprochement was initially proposed by Evgeny Primakov when he was prime minister of Russia just before Putin took over. Primakov proposed the creation of a tripartite bloc in face of America and the West that would include China, India and Russia. But appearances seem to indicate that India is keen on maintaining an independent course, and that it is building relations with the West which do not coincide with Primakov’s view of the threat represented by the US national missile defence project. So what was originally conceived as a tripartite Eastern bloc has been reduced to a bilateral bloc that includes only Russia and China. The Bush administration still views China as a potentially hostile state, but, according to Bush’s statements in the presence of Putin, not Russia. This statement was highly appreciated by Putin who considered it a major achievement of his first encounter with Bush.
Are we witnessing a new form of unipolarity based on the merger of the two previous poles of the bipolar world order? Are the two erstwhile enemies in the process of forging a new relationship of cooperation and complementarity to replace their previous relationship of hostility and antagonism? In an age marked by the decline of ideology, the growing need for technological complementarity (as graphically illustrated by US-Russian cooperation in space) as well as the growing need for the conservation of the environment, such a relationship would make perfect sense.
But to what extent can fundamental differences between America and Russia be smoothed out? For example, could NATO be extended to include not only Russia’s immediate neighbours but also Russia itself? There will be a NATO meeting in Prague in November of next year which is expected to look into a total overhaul of the organisation. Can its restructuring go as far as to include Russia? And what about Russia joining the World Trade Organisation? This is an issue already on the agenda. The European Union is even recommending that China become a member of the WTO.
Moreover, Bush does not deny the need to face the issue of global warming, but believes that the way this issue has been tackled in the Kyoto Protocol is neither balanced nor realistic. As to the issue of developing missiles capable of neutralising invading missiles, establishing a common language between the US and Russia need not be an insurmountable task. Even the strongest critics of Bush’s missile defence project admit that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that will have to be scrapped if the project is put in place is no longer adequate to serve as the cornerstone of global stability in the present circumstances.
But the assumption that this new form of unipolarity is getting the upper hand is more likely to be a monumental fraud. Indeed, in the context of the present balance of power between America and Russia, Bush is not compelled to court Putin as warmly as he seems to be doing. In practical terms, he has made no concessions whatsoever on any of the issues of substance that have been raised. The niceties he has uttered could be aimed at lulling Putin into a false sense of security and inducing him into accepting to join a common front against terrorism. America fights terrorism backed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia fights terrorism related to the Taliban in Chechnya, and China fights terrorist organisations attributed to the Taliban. The term “terrorism” could become the basis for a common pact against radical Islam. This could help Bush convince Putin not to support Islamic (and Arab) states in the Third World that Washington describes as “rogue.” It could also strengthen Bush’s hand in dissuading Moscow from selling arms to Iran or from opposing Washington’s stand on sanctions against Iraq.
That would eventually mean a resurgence of bipolarity, albeit in an unconventional form — bipolarity based on the great powers (whatever the differences between them) as one pole and the so- called “rogue” states as the other pole. Such a perception will be particularly damaging for the Islamic (and Arab) states of the Middle East. Sharon and his provocative policies could eventually be used to deepen the image of the Arab-Islamic countries as not playing by the rules of the new world game.
But Putin does not seem to have fallen into the trap. Bush’s honeyed words have not deceived him. On the morrow of the joint press conference, he reiterated that if the United States proceeds on its own to construct a missile defence shield over its territory and that of its allies, Russia will eventually upgrade its strategic nuclear arsenal with multiple warheads, reversing a key achievement of arms control throughout recent decades. Putin added: “We stand ready to respond to any unilateral US move even though Russia does not see an immediate threat from a missile shield — at least for the coming 25 years.” But this is the only answer possible for unilateral action involving weapons of mass destruction.