Around 1,500 BC, a group of nine asteroids crashed on the island of Saaremaa in Western Estonia, incinerating all kind of life-form within a radius of six kilometres and the native inhabitants who settled in this cold part of the world in 10,000 BC.
Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, it is impossible to know who took over the Estonian lands after the crash, but we know for sure the new settlers have been under the rule of foreigners from the Russian Empire, the Teutonic Order, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.
Because of the tormented past of the Estonian nation, it is impossible to tell if the contemporary citizens are more Nordic (Denmark, Sweden) and German (Teutonic) than Russian. Estonian identity is probably more of a spectrum with Saaremaa people having more ancestors coming from Sweden and Denmark compared to the people in Tartu who have been influenced by the Holy Roman Empire and the Teutonic Order. By contrast, the citizens in Ida-Viru County (Eastern Estonia) are “Russian with a twist”.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the recovered national autonomy, the Government of Estonia had to take political decisions following the geography and aspirations of most of its citizens to integrate the Euro-Atlantic society. Based on the past and the Nordic-Teutonic identity, the Government of Estonia embraced the idea of joining the European Union, NATO, and later on the Eurozone.
Both Germany and Austria (former parts of Holly Roman Empire) have recognized the Germanic background of the Estonian people when the Nordics – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Denmark) – have denied the Nordic identity of Estonia because of the Russian minority and various political reasons.
Moscow adopted an ambiguous relationship with Estonia when the Soviet troops became the Russian troops and stayed on the national territory between 1991-1994. As of today, the Estonian society is divided regarding the Soviet past, and some are calling the soviets “invaders” when others prefer to see them as “liberators”. Contrary Georgia (Abkhazia and South-Ossetia), Moldova (Transnistria), and Ukraine (Crimea and the Donbas), the Russian minority in the Ida-Viru County agrees on staying under the Estonian influence while remaining attached to Orthodoxy and Russian language.
From an economic perspective, Estonia is nowadays one of the most developed countries on the European continent with a nominal GDP of €29,800 per capita, HDI 0.87 (30th worldwide), and attractive to international businesses. The Estonian government also settled the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn and changed the country into one of the most digitalized society in the world with e-Governance and e-Residency.
With the current crisis going on in countries with Russian speaking monitories and the relevance of cyber-diplomacy in our societies, Estonia might be an example to follow when it comes to the good bilateral relationship with Moscow and the future of e-Governance.
Geopolitics of Estonia: Know your opponent (The Art of War, Sun Tzu)
The territory of Estonia consists of a mainland and 1,500 islands in the Baltic Sea covering a total of 45,227 km2 with a humid continental climate and 50 meters average elevation. In such a context, the highest mountain Suur Munamägi (318 meters) is the birthplace of many myths, and the flat land and islands make it easy for invaders to occupy the territory and settle outpost on the islands. Nowadays, Estonian lands are impossible to defend and any fighter jet can fly over the territory in a couple of hours.
Due to the Soviet past and American soft power in the country, the Government of Estonia established strong relationships with NATO during the ’90s and integrated the Alliance in 2004. However, it would be naïve to assume the Estonian Ministry of Defence relies exclusively on NATO’s recommendations to ensure the national safety, the key to Estonia’s successful and peaceful relationship with Russia coming from bilateral foreign relations between Tallinn and Moscow.
From David and Goliath to Baltic brothers: Estonia-Russia relationship after the Cold War
With only 1.3 million inhabitants – 68% Estonians, 24% Russians, 8% others, – the Estonian ethnicity almost disappeared during the Soviet times and still struggles to survive in a globalized world.
Contrary to many countries with an important diaspora, the Estonian identity could disappear in case of a conflict between NATO and Russia. Besides usual national matters, the Riigikogu (State assembly) is responsible for preserving the Estonian language – spoken only in Estonia, – and the History and traditions of the Estonian nation. This responsibility must be underlined because the threat of disappearing partly explains the reluctance to accept Russia as a state language. It also pushes the Riigikogu to pursue good governance and to provide high-level living condition and education to citizens, in order to avoid young Estonians moving and staying abroad. Demographics are the main concern of the Estonian leaders ahead of any hypothetical conflict with Russia.
When it comes to the relationship with Moscow, Tallinn has adopted a mixed strategy combining a pro-NATO/EU diplomacy and pragmatic bilateral relationship with Russia based on mutual understanding and shared interests in the Baltic Sea. Russia is often presented in the Estonian media to be the main threat to national security and NATO partners are afraid to see another Crimea crisis happening in eastern Estonia.
In such a context, the Kaitsevägi (Estonian Ministry of Defence) is welcoming NATO troops on the national territory, developed quality relations with nuclear powers (France, Great Britain, the United-States of America) and with non-NATO countries such as Sweden and Finland.
Should Russia (or anyone else) attack Estonia, the Riigikogu will immediately ask for the application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith”
However, article 5 does not take into consideration the principle of asymmetric warfare (e.g. support to an eventual separatist movement in eastern Estonia).
Theories and practice are two distinct things and some of the NATO member states might also be reluctant to attack a nuclear power. Finally, such reply will need the approval of all NATO member states and some have quality relationships with Moscow (e.g. Turkey) and not ready to risk the lives of soldiers for a country of 1.3 million inhabitants.
Estonian leaders are aware of NATO weaknesses and in order to avoid such conflict scenario by strengthening Estonian soft power in the eastern part of the country and are relying on bilateral cooperations with Moscow more than NATO infrastructures.
The Estonian education system has been the main asset to establish bilateral relationships with many academic programs related to Russia at the University of Tartu, the University of Tallinn, and the Baltic Defence College (military-oriented institution). Russian students are invited to study in Estonia, and the University of Tartu – a German-speaking university in the Russian Empire – is now welcoming Russian citizens. Last but not least, learning the Russian language is not a taboo like in the late ’90s and Russia is the third language (after Estonian and English) in libraries and considered to be an asset in the public administration.
Besides the academic world, Estonia is welcoming Russian entrepreneurs and tourists with a particular focus on Saint Petersburg. Estonia has changed in the past decade, and Tallinn is nowadays more of a destination like Helsinki with high-prices, hipster and vegan places, attracting high-tech Russian entrepreneurs interested in settling in the European Union. Looking at the past, the Bronze soldier event seems far away both in Estonian and Russian minds.
The Russian speaking minority in eastern Estonia can be considered to be a geopolitical asset nowadays. Contrary to Ukraine, the Estonian government became more tolerant following the integration in the European Union, even if some improvements must be done to recognize the Russian language at least in regional political institutions (e.g. like in Switzerland).
Russian speakers are enjoying higher salaries in Estonia compared to Russia and good infrastructure to visit their relatives on the other side of the border. Riigikogu and Kaitsevägi are divided when it comes to the approach to adopt regarding the Russian minority, despite the fact Kaitsevägi is following the recommendations of the Riigikogu. One the one hand, giving favourable living conditions to the minority in Estonia pushes them to stay in the country and can be a source of tensions with 24% of the population having a specific relationship to Russia. On the other hand, pushing the Russian minority to leave the country might create tensions with Russia and weaken the national economy. Overall, the national policy of Estonia is more of a “wait and see” when it comes to Russian speakers.
The reason why the Russian speaking minority is less often in the public debate is also due to the recent emigration of Ukrainian workers – 1.8% of the inhabitants in Estonia – and Finnish people coming to find a job and leaving Finland because of the Nokia crisis. Having a look at the current ethnic groups in Estonia, the next threat to Estonian identity might be foreigners from Southern Europe and Finland coming to settle in the country more than the Russian speaking minority.
Global warming is also a threat as people and companies from Southern Europe are interested in settling in Estonia to enjoy the almost unlimited water resources required in the agriculture and industrial sectors.
Nordics identity versus Estonian e-Civilization
Estonia is the missing piece in the Nordic history and the concept of Estonia as a Nordic nation was first introduced by Toomas Hendrik Ilves. The Viking Age, the Danish and Swedish Empires have played an important role in the construction of identity and Estonia would like to be recognized to be Nordic-based on the language (Finno-Ougrian), religion (10% Lutheran Christians) and the geographic location close to the Arctic circle. 53% of the Estonian youth consider belonging in the Nordic identity group and the President of Estonia prefers to used the expression of “Nordic Benelux”. At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Investment Agency are advertising the Nordic identity of Estonia abroad.
The lack of recognition by the Nordics is mostly due to the German past (Teutonic Order) and the Soviet past, the Russian minority – 24% of the citizens, – the number of Orthodox Christians – 17% of the population, – and the lack of cooperation with other Nordic countries during the Cold War.
Due to the quality of High-Tech and Cyber-defence infrastructures in Estonia, the lack of recognition is diminishing the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) expertise when it comes to cyber-defence.
Moreover, the wish of recognition by the Nordics has pushed Tallinn to adopt a stereotypical policy to be recognized as such. The proposal of a new national cross flag as early as 1918 is still supported in some political spheres, while renewable energies, good governance, e-Governance have developed more than in any other country in the European Union.
The Nordic policy implemented by Tallinn has considerable effects on the “Baltic Tiger” with a GDP increase of around 4% per year and GDP per capita of 12,100 euros in 2010 versus 29,800 euros in 2018. Paradoxically, the Nordic policy of Estonia makes it even more competitive than the Nordics themselves, and Tallinn ranks 3rd in the Business Bribery Risk Index in front of Denmark. The same goes for the energy sector and renewables have grown to over 13% of production whereas they were less than 1% in 2000. As such Estonia is one of the countries to have reached its EU renewable target for 2020 already.
Overall, Nordic countries can emphasis the fact Estonian GDP if lacking behind. Nonetheless, Estonia has an overall unemployment rate of around 4,5% – 7% in Finland and 7.5% in Sweden – and provided job opportunities to Finnish citizens after the Nokia crisis.
Nowadays, 0,6% of the whole Estonian population is coming from Finland, and start-ups from other Nordic countries are settling in Estonia leading to an increasing demand for employees speaking Nordic languages. According to the Centre d’Études Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales projections, the GDP per capita could rise by 2025 to the level of the Finnish economy. Following the same projections, by 2050, Estonia could become the most productive country in the European Union, after Luxembourg, and thus join the top five most productive nations in the world.
The relationship with Nordic countries is a major issue in Tallinn because the national public policy has been based on the Nordic model since the end of the Cold War. In such a context, Estonian identity might have to re-invent itself if the Nordic model is outperformed in the future, which is already the case when it comes to e-Governance and Cyber-diplomacy.
Estonia is at the intersection of the Nordic, Russian, and German (Teutonic Order and Baltic Germans) identities. To the Estonian people, the land is not as important as language and culture, which explains why the concept of e-Governance is nowadays widely developed.
Estonian people have embraced the idea Estonia is not the land but the people, and the diaspora in Finland, Canada, and the United-States of America remains to participate in the political and economic life of Estonia. A typical Estonian citizen living abroad for decades can vote online during the election, pay taxes and register a company without coming to Estonia, read the local news online, and graduate from higher education not showing to the university.
e-Governance and e-Identity are not the only aspects of Estonian uniqueness, and besides the Estonian language, the neopaganism (Estonian native faith) plays an increasing role in society. Taaraism was founded in 1928 by members of the intelligentsia to reaffirm traditional Estonian culture and identity. Viewing Christianity as a universal and foreign religion brought by the Germans, they turned to indigenous religion with its many deities. Taaraists hold a monotheistic worldview in which all the gods are aspects of one only pantheistic reality, which they identify with the god Taara (a deity connected to Indo-European deities such as the Germanic Thunor, the Gallic Taranis, and the Hittite Tarhunt).
Based on the Montevideo convention signed in 1993, Estonia does not belong to the Russian, German, or Nordic worlds and could be recognized for its uniqueness. Moreover, if we focus on the definition of civilizations “the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced” Estonia can be seen like the first e-Society or e-Civilization (according to the contemporary definition of civilization) based on the accomplishments in the field of e-Governance and cyber-diplomacy in the past two decades.
The three slim blue lions and the conquest of cyberspace
The History of e-Diplomacy in Estonia starts in 1965 with the first school computer in the USSR, when Ural-1 was set up in the town of Nõo in Tartu County. Mass usage of computing networks first came with FidoNet, the first Estonian node of which appeared in 1989 and the first internet connections where introduced in 1992 at the University of Tartu and the University of Tallinn. As early as 1996, the Estonian President started a four-year program Tiigrihüpe to computerized the schools.
In 2005, Estonia introduced a digital ID card system and local elections were held with the possibility to vote online, becoming the first country worldwide to offer such an option. In 2008, NATO established a joint cyber-defence centre in Estonia to improve cyber-defence interoperability and provide security support to all NATO member states.
Nowadays, 99% of the services in Estonia are online, 98% of the citizens have a digital ID-card, and 47% are using internet voting. The Estonian government introduced e-Tax (2000), i-Voting (2005), Blockchain (2008), e-Health (2008), e-Residency (2014), increasing the technological gap between Tallin and NATO/EU partners relying on paper and materialized public services. In Estonia, patients own their health data and hospitals have made this available online since 2008.
Today, over 95% of the data generated by hospitals and doctors have been digitized, and blockchain technology is used for assuring the integrity of stored electronic medical records as well as system access. e-Health solutions are allowing Estonia to offer more efficient preventative measures, increasing the awareness of patients and also saving millions of euros. Each person in Estonia that has visited a doctor in medicine has his or her online e-Health record, containing their medical case notes, test results, digital prescriptions, and X-rays, as well as full log-file tracking access to the data. The banking system has already dematerialized with less and less physical banks and cashless society is a reality to many Estonians for almost a decade.
Ongoing projects are the Data embassy which makes it possible to the Estonian administration to continue operating even if local data centres have been stopped or disturbed due to natural disaster, large-scale cyber-attack, power failure or anything else. Cross border data exchanges, healthcare 4.0, digital transformation in education (by 2020, all study materials in Estonia will be digitized and available through an online e-schoolbag) are a few of the current innovations.
In the future, some Estonian embassies should be fully replaced by the online system doing the work of physical embassies, the same for any state institution. State employees will be able to perform the usual work from anywhere in the world.
As of today, Estonia is the country with the lowest GDP debt in the European Union (8.4% in 2019) and with digitalization is the first nation to save a large amount of paper and time in the administration, diplomatic services are provided immediately without any need for people to move, and e-Services are going hand in hand with savings for the government.
However, the concept of e-Society is challenging to Estonian identity. In such a context of digitalization, nobody knows if Estonian identity will be defined by blood, language, religion, passport, or anything else in the future.
From our partner RIAC
Formation of the Political West -from the 18th century till today
The 18th – a century of change
In 1776 the American colonists threw off the British yoke and many people proclaimed with satisfaction, if somewhat relieved and anxious, the Independence of the American people, although they primarily came from Britain. Those who were against Independence made their way northwards to what became Canada. Following the loss of the American colonies, Britain had to quickly find a replacement to put its ne’er-do-wells and unhanged criminals, thus the rediscovery of Australia was timely.
It was the eve of the Industrial Revolution, which is generally acknowledged to have started with James Watt’s 1783 invention of the condenser for the steam engine. Apparently, Watt was walking across Glasgow Green to his office at the University when he had his ‘Eureka’ moment. He was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, which had been running for a few decades and featured such luminaries as David Hume, philosopher, and Adam Smith, who famously wrote the ‘’The Wealth of Nations’’, the ‘bible’ on economics. He was enticed back to Glasgow University from Oxford and, when asked why, he replied because it involved ‘less drinking and more thinking’!
Also, a few decades earlier Frederick the Great (Friedrich II) of the Hohenzollern family and a cousin of George I of Britain, was King of Prussia for about 46 years in the middle part of the 18th century, from taking over in 1740 until 1786. He was a highly intelligent man and able ruler, loved music and philosophy, corresponding with the distinguished French philosopher, Voltaire. He embraced the enlightened new ideas of the day. He was also a clever military strategist, improved the art of war, won the 7-years war against the Hapsburgs and expanded the boundaries of Prussia, by taking Silesia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and parts of Poland and Lithuania. He also improved the system of agriculture significantly, and bemoaned the fact that his land was generally poor. This was part of the European enlightenment, running in parallel with the Scottish and Frederick was a key figure of it. At the end of his days, he saw the major changes brought about by the 1776 American War of Independence and the ructions pending in France, the French Revolution as well as the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
The middle class was growing in Vienna towards the end of the 18th century, life was changing, such that Mozart tried out a new genre from the church music of Bach and Haydn. He felt that the people wanted the music to represent life more and he produced such wonderful works as the Marriage of Figaro to great acclaim. This was overshadowed by the exploits of Napoleon but when all is said and done it is the beautiful music that Mozart, and his successors such as Beethoven, wrote that has stood the test of time.
It was a time of great upheavals. The bloody French revolution, a revolt of the people with the end of the monarchy, which alarmed neighbouring countries, most notably Great Britain and the Hapsburgs in Austria. The rise of Napoleon, Emperor, whose troops conquered much of the land of Europe, dominated political affairs for two and a half decades. He attempted to conquer Russia in 1812, but he risked his supply lines for a comparatively short campaign and forgot these would be badly strained if extended, and was also caught in a terrible Russian winter. He had to retreat in a disorderly fashion back to France. He escaped from captivity and gathered his troops for one further showdown which took place at Waterloo in 1815. He narrowly lost the battle, thanks to a last-minute intervention by General Blucher of Prussia, which gave the victory to Wellington. After Waterloo, Napoleon was captured and exiled to the island of Elba where he died.
Early 19th century
The treaty of Versailles of 1815, which followed, coincided with the biggest volcanic eruption for 73,000 years at Tambora in E. Indonesia which redefined the landscape and left 36,000 dead and more. Two years of no summer and lost harvests and famine in China, N. Ireland, and northeast of the USA were three of the disasters which the eruption affected in many places across the world.
After the Treaty of Versailles, a number of definitive developments took place. It is an unfortunate aspect of war that some of the most significant advances are developed during a major campaign. From the Napoleonic wars, scientists and engineers had opened their minds to civilian possibilities from matters learned. That plus the follow up to Watt’s invention of the steam condenser, the first steamship in the world, called the Comet from Haley’s comet of 1809, made a successful maiden voyage in the same year on the River Clyde from Port Glasgow. Discussions took place from 1816 that the military requirements for revetments and buttresses and for better roadways and so on would have a growing civil use and a small group of British engineers got together and formed The Institution of Civil Engineers in 1819.
This was the first professional body in the world and gave rise to what became a major discipline. It was granted a royal charter in 1829 and the University of Glasgow began teaching the subject about the same time. In addition, in 1825 Robert Stephenson’s steam engine, the Rocket, successfully ran for 30 miles between Stockport and Darlington in the north of England, the first use of steam for land transport by rail. From then on, there was no stopping developments, their improvements, and new inventions. Railways and shipbuilding expanded exponentially. Glasgow grew to become the second city of the British Empire and for a century was the shipbuilding capital of the world.
The Americans still had a Civil War to go through in the mid-1850s before it began to see itself as one nation, the United States of America, although there was still quite a divide in attitudes between north and south, which has not been entirely resolved to this day. Great Britain meanwhile was at the peak of its Empire days, the biggest empire the world had ever seen, supported by being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. By the middle of the 19th century, several events had taken place. A young Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India and a great display of scientific and technical advances was held at an Exhibition in London in 1850 in a specially designed building, the Crystal Palace.
Medical advances were also taking place, but arguably the most important ‘discovery’, despite the perceived wisdom, was that cholera and typhoid were not miasmas, air borne, but were water borne. The building of piped water to the cities from upstream fresh water lakes commenced, the first in Britain being to Glasgow from Loch Katrine, which still operates to this day with some of the original pipework. This significantly added to the growth of cities across Britain.
The expansion from the Industrial Revolution saw the emigration of many poor Irish and the Scots Highlanders, which took place mostly in the first part of the 19th century and flooded the expanding USA and Canada as well as the cities of Glasgow and Liverpool. The bases of some of the other major cities in Britain was founded then and expanded rapidly as new ideas with technological advances were encouraged, unfettered by the politicians ostensibly looking after the people’s interests! That would come later.
The Irish were forced to depart by a disastrous potato famine, with no sympathetic assistance from the British government, the lack of action resulting in great bitterness over the disaster, which has lasted to this day although more muted now. The Scots Highlanders were driven off land, which they had held for generations and replaced by sheep, more profitable use of land. Again, some bitter resentment but more directed to the landowners. The Irish mostly went to the US and the Scots to Canada and, for instance, gave rise to the province of Nova Scotia (New Scotland), a few, the more enterprising, taking some of the more developed aspects of the Industrial Revolution with them. The politics in Britain were changing, in response to the needs of new industries and systems they were generating.
2nd Half of the 19th Century
Meanwhile, the several independent principalities/states that occupied the lands of Germany finally were persuaded by Prince Otto von Bismarck of Prussia that they should amalgamate and form one country of similar peoples; hence Germany was born and Berlin became the agreed capital. The Kaiser, Wilhelm I, of Prussia, close relative of Queen Victoria, his aunt, was made titular head of the new Germany, which incorporated Prussia.
The German states really embraced the Industrial Revolution and quickly developed industries that were leaders in their field. At the same time so did the USA where there was a steady influx of Europeans getting away from poverty, persecution or simply hardship, as well as the Irish, to a chance for a better life. And the US thrived.
Prussia were at odds with the French and went to war in 1870. The French were expected to win but were unexpectedly trounced, which gave the ‘modern’ German army with its Prussian aristocratic leadership a boost to its confidence. One factor that was very important for subsequent events, such as the First World War, was that, in the amalgamation of states that led to Germany, the Prussian army was not controlled by the Bundestag, the civilian government in Berlin, but was solely answerable to the Kaiser in his role as King of Prussia
Come the 1890s, Bismarck was getting old and Hindenburg and Ludendorff were promoting the strength of the army, persuading the ambitions of the Kaiser, now Wilhelm II, who had succeeded from his father, Wilhelm I. Wilhelm II, whose favourite aunt was Queen Victoria, suffered from mood swings and was quite malleable in the hands of the army. A sideshow took place in S. Africa, except from the British viewpoint. This was the Boer War at the end of the 1890s; one ugly development during the war was put into later tragic effect by the Nazis, the concentration camp.
First half of the 20th Century
New ideas were stirring at the start of the new century. Women were restive and were pushing for recognition through the vote. In Britain they were called suffragettes. The new Germany was becoming more aggressive with the Kaiser in the hands of and influenced by the Prussian/German army. Germany was increasingly industrialising and thereby becoming a force in Europe. Queen Victoria died after the century dawned and her son, Edward VII, came to the throne as a middle-aged man and lasted for a decade. Karl Marx had published his principles of socialism, which appealed to the growing and better educated working class.
In the Far East, Japan, following the restitution of the Meiji dynasty in 1868, were also industrialising and signed a close cooperation treaty with Britain in 1903, arguably the most serious European power with Far East interests. (Grandfather, Scott Younger was appointed by Emperor Hirohito as the Hon Japanese Consul for Glasgow & W of Scotland, 1911-31). Meanwhile, the US had been recovering from the mid-century Civil War and been expanding and growing. The first decade of the 20th century saw Theodore Roosevelt as President and he embodied the ‘go get ‘em’ spirit, anything is possible.
Then we come to 1914-18, the First World War, started by the assassination of Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. After some political jockeying Germany mobilised its armed forces and moved against Poland which had a back- to- back treaty with France in turn bringing in Belgium and Britain. Four long years of senseless slaughter followed, those in authority not getting to grips with what had to be done, fighting a 20th century battle with tactics back in the 19th century. More deaths were caused by disease- rat-borne typhus- than bullets and then followed by the flu pandemic which ensued in 1919 and caused 20 million deaths. Europe was exhausted but it is worth looking at what was happening to the principal actors in the drama.
The US had adopted an isolationist stance, said it was totally a European fight and only joined the Allied cause when a leaked document showed that the Germans were trying to incite the Mexicans to take up arms against the Americans. The US involvement, in the last year of the war, tipped the balance in the Allies favour. Germany capitulated and ‘the war to end all wars’ concluded in November 1918. At the peace negotiations which followed much squabbling ensued, none of the protagonists showing much leadership. Onerous reparations were demanded of Germany which constrained their recovery and within a comparatively short time gave rise to the Nazi party and Hitler. The Japanese were treated poorly and the ultimate insult was the US insistence that the British rescind their 1903 treaty with Japan in 1923 which caused a big loss of face. The Japanese then started to look at the European powers that had colonial interests in the Far East at a time when prominent citizens of those colonised countries were questioning why they had to put up with their colonial masters. The European powers were surprisingly thin on the ground.
The US were running into domestic problems with a great economic depression and were not greatly interested in foreign affairs through the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile, socialism was taking root in Europe; in Russia, with the murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin, a disciple of Marx and following a short interregnum, was busy preparing the way for the communist form of socialism, which lasts to this day.
The societies of the other main protagonists of the Great War as it was called, Britain and France, were going through a change, socialism’s ideas were gaining ground along with a determination that they should not countenance such a disruptive war again with such a loss of life. Women were finding a voice, particularly since they had had to undertake many jobs, that were formerly the preserve of men, during the war because the men were away fighting and dying. They were not going to be just housewives any more. That and the Labour movement with the ideas of socialism and the economic depression in Britain was leading to significant changes in society. Domestic issues prevailed in Britain as well; little attention was given to what was happening in Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
The Allies had placed strict rules on German rearmament, but with all that was going on domestically and the changes taking place across Europe little attention was paid to what the Germans were doing. Hitler took advantage of this and from the mid-1920s, entrenched as Chancellor, with a nod of approval from Hindenburg, embarked on a rapid rearmament programme. He tried to see what reaction he would provoke by carrying out sorties in the Sudetan land of Czechoslovakia and finally annexing it. No adverse response! His planes were also active on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, a forerunner to WWII. Hitler was ready to expand the territories of the 100- year Third Reich.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had gone to a war footing having beaten the Russians off Vladivostock, and had successful interventions into Manchuria, northern China in 1931 and more notoriously at the city of Nanjing, where many of the citizens were massacred in 1937. Come the end of the 1930s they were ready to expand into Southeast Asia and this was triggered by the USA slapping a trade embargo on them, particularly with regard to oil, in 1941. This would have stifled their economy and their unspoken aims for expansion.
The USA, as stated above, through the 20s and 30s were absorbed by the Great Depression and mainly internal affairs and certainly did not want to be drawn into another world war of European making. They did not enter, only joining the Allies in early 1942 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese on 7 December 1941, Day of Infamy! Before this they had supplied Britain with food and armaments, but that was all. It was the action by the Japanese which triggered the US response.
With the USA fully involved from 1942 with the Allies the odds had dramatically changed. It merely became a question of time before Germany would have to capitulate. Russia, who had originally ‘secretly’ joined the Nazis in 1939 until the Nazis turned on them at the end of 1940, were an ally of the Western powers, being supplied in part by them, originally so that they could keep the Nazis occupied on the eastern flank. Hitler had to win quickly over the Soviets. He didn’t, and the siege of Leningrad has gone down in history as an epic piece of resistance. Hitler had made the same mistake as Napoleon over a century earlier, trying to conquer the sizable Russian army in the middle of winter with unacceptably long lines of communication. Thereafter, it was a question of time once the US entered the war.
The US, with good numbers of troops, took charge of the Pacific arena, where they had been attacked by the Japanese and felt they had a significant score to settle. Japanese had run over most of Southeast Asia and were trying to get into India. They were stopped at Kohima, in W Burma, in 1944 on the way to India by a British/Indian army group, which successfully held a siege line for months and signalled the end of their expansion goals. Lack of food and long supply lines finally, after several months of trying, made the exhausted Japanese retreat. The dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1946 brought the Pacific War to an end and thus ended WWII.
The war in Europe had ended some 16 months earlier and the first stages of the Cold War boundaries between the Communist regime of Russia, henceforward to be known as the USSR, and the western powers had been drawn up, after a fashion! Russia had overrun much of Eastern Europe and these countries were absorbed into a USSR hegemony until the 1980s when many of these countries, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, were given their liberty from the USSR yoke. In time they were granted membership of and integrated into the European Union.
Berlin was divided into 4 parts in 1945, each run by one of the four Allies, USA, Britain, USSR, and France. The east Germans hated the USSR domination and the communist rule and escaped to the west in significant numbers across the border dividing East Germany from the western powers, until the communist government of East Germany became very alarmed and built a wall, the Berlin wall, to stop the brain drain. This stayed in place up till 1989 when the USSR retreated, the Russians regime having changed, softened, earlier in the 1980s, and the reunification of Germany was enacted. The Russians had realised that they could not keep up with the US economically.
Back to the end of the WWII. The western powers did not make the same mistake as they had after WWI, when they had demanded reparations from the Germans for the damage and losses sustained, feeding into an underlying resentment. The USA had resources and offered $13 billion under a European Recovery Plan to the economies of Western Europe, effective 1948. The architect of the plan was Secretary of State George Marshall. The USSR was similarly offered but rejected it and did not allow any of its satellite states to participate either. They thought that communism was the right approach to government and considered that they would succeed over the western powers.
The USA, in particular, were strongly opposed to communism and feared its spread, which coloured its thinking for the following decades, and it realised that it would have to take the lead on this important political issue and would need the western allies to support. Consequently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed to counter the spread of communism. It was a time when the UN was formed also, the successor to the League of Nations, the unsuccessful attempt after WWI to launch such a body, and the World Bank. The US was hence fully engaged with the world and this was signified by their hosting these organisations in New York and Washington respectively.
Back in the rest of the world, particularly the Far East, time was running out on colonialism. The US did not like colonialism, although they had slaves for over a century to run their tobacco and cotton plantations, not the same thing perhaps. Also the self-government movements that had been taking root and growing were vociferous in their demands, particularly in India and Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), helped by the interregnum of the Japanese involvement in many countries during the war years. Thus, in a short period after WWII the Dutch and British had started to grant independence, from 1947, particularly with respect to the Dutch East Indies and India, respectively. The French followed in 1955 in Vietnam, after their loss at the battle of Dien Bien Phu to the N. Vietnamese.
2nd Half of the 20th Century- from 1950 onwards
China had also embraced communism after the defeat of Chiang Kai Chek by the army of Mao Tse Tung. Chiang Kai Chek with his forces took flight to and set up a government in Taiwan, in 1949. Communist China over the years became a force to be reckoned with.
Gradually the newly independent countries settled down but there were still two wars to be fought, the Korean in the 1950s and the Vietnam in the 1960s into the early 1970s. Mao Tse Tung became the President of the Chinese communist party and leader of the country. He believed to really follow the communist path that he had to (re) educate the populace and so he moved the people – The Long March, in which millions died. In fact, more people died because of Mao, 20 million, last century, than died at the hands of Stalin or Hitler, each of whom did not care for human life if it got in the way of their plans.
The US were very concerned with the apparent power and rise of the USSR and initially, to a lesser extent, China. They gave full support to the S Koreans and the western allies joined them. The war was the first serious encounter between communism espoused by China and the western democratic countries, led by the US. With no obvious side winning a truce was agreed in 1955.
President Eisenhower’s 8-year tenure was in the 1950s and he was very familiar with Europe and the pressure and threats of communism having been the General in charge of the allied troops during WWII. He was pro NATO and fully realised the importance to that organisation of US involvement. He knew that to avoid the spread of the communist movement, either through the USSR in the west or China in the east, that the leadership of the US was essential. Similarly, the US spent a lot of effort preventing unwanted communistic ideas taking root in S. America, which they saw as their own backyard.
The US became increasingly involved in Vietnam, taking over from the French, throughout the 1960s but could not find a way to win, frustrated by the N. Vietnamese, Vietcong, with their series of underground tunnels. When General Westmoreland asked for additional troops, the US Congress realised that something was wrong and pulled the plug after a decade of increasing involvement with no end in sight. They withdrew the last troops leaving in somewhat of a shambolic fashion from Saigon in 1972; a strategic withdrawal it was not.
The US had fought this war for the then fear of communism spreading throughout Southeast Asia. President Soekarno of Indonesia, head of the largest of the Southeast Asian nations, as a result of his imbuing socialist ideas when in Europe in the 1930s, was sympathetic to communist China, but he was forced to resign in 1967 through poor management of his country, and the army, in the form of Soeharto, took over. The US were much relieved and this signalled henceforth a pro-western change of direction for a key country and arguably the end of the threat of the spread of communism – at the moment anyway.
The end of the1950s/ start of the 1960s saw some significant inventions which led to major leaps forward on several fronts. For instance, Baird’s 1930s invention of television had made great strides commercially, both the USSR and the US had successful first moves into space with the Americans being the first to put a man on the Moon, and the discovery of the properties of the silicon chip heralded the advent of commercially available computers leading to the digital age. Scientific advances were henceforward dramatic with computers. Society also changed. There were generations growing up who had not been directly touched by WWII. Pop music became a reality! The Beatles became a cult creating a step change just as Mozart had created a step change in music two and a quarter centuries ago.
The decade of the 1970s saw an unforeseen rise in the birth rate, such that the 3 billion population of the late 1960s grew to approaching 9 billion today. China caught onto it and reacted to the problem that a fast birth rate would cause in terms of demand outstripping food production. It forcibly introduced a one child policy, which led to another problem later on, an imbalance of the sexes. Indonesia with improved management of the economy under Soeharto, who rightly knew that the economy had to be handled by experts and allowed the Berkeley trained economists, the mafia as they were called, to get on with it. There was a steady acceptable growth rate, and the population was gradually lifted out of poverty, one benefit being increased longevity. The Indonesian government of the day advised its adults to restrict its families to two children – dua anak cukup. Notwithstanding, the Indonesian population, through sensible policies, had doubled to 200 million and the average longevity increased from a low of 47 years to 70 years over the 30 years leading up to the turn of the century.
The UK at last joined the European market on 1st January 1973, when Ted Heath was Prime Minister for a few years, an interregnum between Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. The 1970s were very difficult for the UK. It started when the price of oil went up by 4 times overnight and the economy was strapped. Heath instituted a 3-day working week, the miners went on strike and a general election was called with the catch phrase ‘who ran the country, the unions or the Government?’ The Labour party was elected but by a very narrow margin and with no overall majority. It called for Wilson to hold another election at the end of the year to increase the Labour vote. Heath resigned to make way for Margaret Thatcher and Wilson stepped aside for Callaghan. The economy remained in a mess. Europe was not foremost on people’s minds, although Europe had to contend with the oil price as well.
The years of Callaghan’s Government were very difficult, ending with a call on the IMF, which was greatly embarrassing. The Labour government had struggled with the economy and lost the election of 1979, which brought Margaret Thatcher to the fore, the first female prime minister in UK history. She served for the next decade.
Meanwhile, come 1980 Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and peanut farmer, had been defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan, a B movie actor who was re-elected to complete a stint of 8 years in the White House. The most significant issue in Carter’s years was his signing of an agreement with Deng Xiao Ping of China in 1979. The signing of the agreement was meant to bring a closer cooperation between the US and China. Reagan’s years were deemed a good term of office and he had a good working relationship with Margaret Thatcher.
Nearly 3 years into office, Margaret Thatcher had a small war to contend with when the Argentinians tried to take over the Falkland Islands with force, the Malvinas, as Argentina called them. She handled this firmly, had the support of the US, and earned another term in office, which was being questioned because she had taken on the trade unions and was pushing a mandate to privatise several of the industries which the Labour governments had nationalised. She got on well with Reagan, as stated, each was all for government underpinned by capitalism and the private sector. Reagan completed his term of office in 1988; Margaret Thatcher had lost the trust of many of the senior members of the Conservative party and was forced to resign, making way for John Major, largely her protégé.
Much to people’s surprise he managed to win at the next General Election in 1992, possibly because John Smith, the Labour leader, had died, giving way to a largely unprepared Neil Kinnock, which meant the Conservatives were in office till 1997. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton had regained the presidency for the Democrats and was resident in the White House for 8 years till 2000, surprisingly beating the incumbent George Bush, Snr.
In the Bush Snr 4-year term of office started in 1988 when he took over from Reagan. Well into his term he began the US engagement in the Middle East, at the behest of the Saudis, when Sadam Hussein attacked and temporarily annexed Kuwait in 1991. The neighbouring countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, were concerned and sought US help. This brought the US into the problems of the Middle East and they have been there to this day albeit latterly they have indicated they want to withdraw.
But first we must look back at the complex structure of the Middle East, but we shall restrict this to post 1948, when the State of Israel was mandated. The history of the Middle East should really go back several millennia, to Babylon and earlier, and the subsequent interaction of the three main monotheistic religions.
Another sign that matters were changing came in 1956 when Col Nasser took over in Egypt and his attempt to take over the Suez Canal from the Anglo-French consortium that had run it for many decades, having built it. The French with British help sent in the troops and asked for American assistance. It was somewhat of a shock when it was not forthcoming, a warning that one had to get permission first when the Americans were to be involved. It was another lesson for the British and French that their influence in the Middle East was declining rapidly.
The Palestinians were less than happy when they were cut off from Jerusalem and even resorted to war. In 1967, the Arabs were confident about winning the 6-day war which erupted but were soundly beaten. The Palestinians lost some territory but, most importantly influence among the other Arab nations. The US had always supported Israel and this has been strengthened with the passage of time.
In Europe the USSR had been crumbling by the 1980s, Stalin was long gone. By the end of this period the Berlin Wall had come down, 1989, leading to the reunification of Germany, and most of the other satellite countries in the USSR hegemony were released from their ties to Moscow. Although Yugoslavia had not been under Soviet control it was a country that was made up of 3 separate parts, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. With the relaxation of any lingering Soviet threat, the three parts started to quarrel amongst themselves. It became quite serious in 1992 and lasted for three years, as neighbours who had lived comfortably side by side for years under Tito’s Yugoslavia, turned against each other because of background and/or religious belief. The Serbians were Greek orthodox Christians, the Croatians Catholic while Bosnians were followers of Islam, from the days when the land was run by the Ottomans, but with a significant number of people who considered themselves Serbs or Slavs.
This was a job for the UN to keep the peace, but they only had a mandate as peacekeepers. They went in with instructions not to interfere and watched while the combatants competed bitterly, no quarter given. The genocidal massacre at Srebinica by the Serbians was the last straw and the UN were then given the mandate to act with force, using units of the British and French armies. Peace was restored. The US was not involved except from the side lines and the subsequent peace process.
In the Far East, the nations of China, ASEAN, S Korea and Japan had been prospering. That is until 1997 when the Asian Economic Crisis struck, first in S Korea and spread to several countries most notably Indonesia. There the effect was dramatic, bringing about the end of the 30-year rule of Soeharto and a change in direction of the way Indonesia was governed to a more democratic manner. Vietnam was showing signs of opening up to western ways of governance although still espoused a single party state. It took the better part of five years to throw off the setback of the Crisis for Indonesia to recover to a growth rate of 5% but none of the countries of the Far East was affected to the same extent when an Economic crisis hit the US banks and financial institutions in 2008, spilling over into Europe, to a significant extent.
As stated above, before that the Middle East had embroiled the US, with forces from the allies, when Sadam Hussein of Iraq had attacked Kuwait in 1991. The regaining of Kuwait under UN mandate cleared the Iraqis but they were not pursued at that time beyond their border till much later. The US had become engaged and US forces presence in the region would continue.
The US and China in the 21st Century
In the 21 years of this century, the main protagonists have firmed up to be China and the US, the two largest economies in the world, the first following the dictatorial one-party communist path and the latter the US espousing the western democratic precepts of government.
China has been increasingly robust in internal affairs, for example its heavy-handed, sometimes brutal, handling of the Uighers and its dealings concerning Hong Kong where they have overridden the agreement signed with the British in 1997; one country two systems, which was supposed to last 50 years. They are showing signs of flaunting their disregard of international opinion for their actions in the S China sea where they have created islands in the building up sand banks, then claiming that these islands are China’s territory and establishing military bases on them. They pretend to take exception to when a foreign military vessel or airplane ventures close to the islands. These actions worry some ASEAN countries, especially those depending on the S. China Sea, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The US was shocked when the landmark building, the 100 storey Twin Towers, was subjected to a suicide attack with highjacked airliners on 11th September 2001. The world looked on in horror as the towers came crashing down and thousands of people lost their lives. The shock was made more appalling because it was the first time that the US had been successfully attacked in their homeland. However, the US quickly picked up the pace to reply, and responded with some force. They arranged support from the UN on the basis of weapons of mass destruction which they claimed the Iraqis had produced, but was unproven. It was not long before Saddam was caught and hanged. The US built up the troops and propped up the replacement government. The end of Saddam led to instability between the two main factions of Islam, the Sunnis and the majority in Iraq, the Shias. This widened as the years went on, the US not fully understanding the requirements for peace in an increasingly complex situation. The troops were withdrawn by 2011 just as Syria went into conflict and widened the base and the number of interested parties, particularly the Al Qaeda/ISIS extreme religious faction. In 2014 the Americans came back, although its main focus was on Syria and increasingly on Iran.
The first two decades the US were fully involved in the Middle East except for the three years they up wound their operations in Iraq after 2011. Syria became embroiled in civil war in 2011 when pro-democracy insurgents tried to overcome the government of Bashar al Assad which brought in ISIS and Al Qaeda and other factions, the Kurds, for instance. The United States was brought in and placed sanctions on the government. The conflict has created a huge refugee crisis, not yet resolved.
The main thrust of US actions, however, was in Afghanistan because of Al Qaeda and their involvement in the Twin Towers. They threw out the Taliban government in 2011, but the Taliban were patient, waiting until the US were ‘tired’ of their role as policeman, foregoing the development programmes that were running in the country. This came about in August 2021 when the Americans pulled their troops, much to the shock of the Afghan people and somewhat the surprise of the American people The country is left in disarray in the hands of the mediaeval religious Taliban and no future, until either they are deposed or an acceptable compromise is found that is suitable for all the people.
The Chinese see that the US is not focussing on world affairs, after a 4- year term of the unusual Trump presidency – a genius from his own perspective!!- followed by the occasionally forgetful Biden. The pandemic has not helped. Expect the Chinese to make use, from their own expansionist aims viewpoint, of this rather weak period of US government. They may try to take advantage of the situation with regard to Taiwan risking UN protests on the way.
Final thoughts of the day
These are of some concern. The issues are from a political point of view i) China is flexing its muscles and might risk a conflict escalation over Taiwan and beyond. They feel strong enough to test the US which is dangerous. ii) the US may not show the leadership qualities we in the western world have come to rely on, and become embroiled in domestic affairs. They have a tendency for isolationism. China is watching this carefully. iii) Europe is somewhat lacking in direction following Brexit, changes at the top, and the difficulties it faces in dealing with some of the new members to the east of the union. Perhaps the headquarters should be more central for the size of the EU as it has become rather than Brussels in the early days. iv) Britain remains divided after Brexit, dreams of a future in a trans-Pacific trade partnership – unlikely, and looks back to the glory days of the past, where they will remain, iv) ASEAN will need to deal with the Myanmar problem and the creeping dominance of China in the S. China sea; worrying. v) The Middle East, the home of the three monotheistic religions, will rumble on for a good number of years, leading to more refugee crises. vi) Afghanistan: The Taliban are trying to create a mediaeval/ archaic religious state- will they be allowed to do this’ll? vii) Sub – Saharan Africa; a lot to do in terms of aid, not just money, and another billion in population forecast by the end of the century. The younger generation are eager. viii) Australia: they are concerned that China/Chinese is/are buying so much property. China not happy with them that they have signed a pact with Britain and the US in recent days- AUKUS.
The issues from an environmental point of view can be put in two interacting headings, namely population and the planet. The population of the world is given in the following table from the 18th century onwards:
1700 – 650 million
1800 – 1,00 billion
1900 – 1.85 billion
1970 – 3.00 billion
2021 – 8.50 billion
2051 – 10.00 + billion
It can be seen that the human race went on an astonishing expansion spree in the late 1960s, and we have almost reached what some scientists believe is the maximum that the planet can safely hold, without upsetting the environment irrecoverably. This feeds, no pun intended, into the climate debate which is very much on everyone’s mind. But the question of population, which was of concern 10-15 years ago, has dropped from prominence and been replaced by what the population is perceived to have done and do today to the climate.
It is interesting to note that for 170 years of the Industrial Revolution, till 1960s, when the fuel of choice was coal, the CO2 in the atmosphere had barely increased from 310ppm to 340ppm. It then increased to 425ppm in 60 years – as a result of human population growth and activity? We must always remember that CO2 is a building block of life; should it fall below 150ppm then all life will die off.
The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is a high-level body steering governments towards addressing the issue of climate change. They are political in scope and with a goal that brooks no inconvenient information. Their agenda is set. However, they have stated that the Climate is a chaotic system and may remain out of reach! They have taken an average global temperature for their global climate change models (GCMs) because of the sheer computing power required; however, the world does not turn on an average global temperature and we certainly don’t live in one.
One way to divide the world is according to regional climates and the 200+ countries of the world will see how they fit and the type of pollution they must address. In this way, their contribution can be directed to their climate and they can address matters of environment close to home; population, urban v rural, waste and pollution, land and sea (if relevant), water supply, (de) forestation, energy – type and efficiency, and so on. Small countries or groups of countries working together can make a significant contribution in this way. In terms of sustainable development, this falls in line with the bottom up principle1 and all can see what they have to do. The larger countries, which have a major part to play should divide their countries up into areas of similar climate and examine what best to do in each part. This would apply to Russia, the US, China, Brazil for instance, and the EU can group nation states together. Something has to be done.
Looking to the Future
Imagine this is 2050. The millennial generation will be in the onset of early middle age, assuming the trend of longevity and that we have mastered the need to put a brake on population growth. For someone born today, last century will just be ’history’. The millennial generation will be at an age where they are mature and expected to take on responsibility. What will be the tools that will be available to them?
Today we accept that we have entered the digital age and it is extending to many walks of life. It is also the early days of artificial intelligence, something that would only have been considered a fantasy 70 years ago when we had not properly entered the computer age. Artificial intelligence is real but can we turn robots to think like human beings; will they have emotional intelligence? What will be their needs? Very exciting but fraught with obvious dangers.
Then there is space and the need for the enquiring mind. It has taken 60 years from the first men up in space, but hundreds of satellites circling the globe checking everything we wish from weather events and so on. NASA use the satellites to monitor climate, giving us the most accurate data to date. But a select few of the world’s billionaires are trying out commercial flights. Will it be the precursor to daily flights to the moon or into space for the more well-to-do?
There will be, however, a billion or so still in poverty. A blight on mankind’s endeavours! What would Frederick the Great and the other distinguished luminaries of 18th century life think of life 3 centuries on? They would understand poverty but they would have been amazed at what mankind had achieved and what he was still aiming to do. The Sun, which is our main source of heat, is supposed to last another 1 billion years which gives us plenty of time to find alternative accommodation for ourselves provided we find ways to develop sensibly.
Afghanistan: Centre stage of the UN General Assembly
As each September, except last year’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of heads of government and state arrived in New York City to deliver grandiloquent speeches at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
And although this year some decided to stay at home and sent pre-recorded statements, almost a hundred world leaders met in the huge UNGA Chamber to dissect the planet’s most pressing challenges and threats.
Afghanistan itself did not take the podium, as the representative of the former government of Ashraf Ghani, who still holds Afghanistan UN seat, withdrew his name just before he was scheduled to speak.
Since the ‘World Cup of Diplomacy’ took place only weeks after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and as the Spanish Prime Minister put it, “all eyes [were] focused, obviously, on Afghanistan.”
The gathering, held between the 21 to the 27 of September, provides a great deal of insight about what key global leaders think, intend and seek out of this new chapter in Afghanistan’s troubled history.
President of the United States, Joe Biden
For starters, Mr. Biden did little to hide his satisfaction for having led the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. “We have ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan … we’ve turned the page,” boasted the American president.
After that moment of pride, he acknowledged the humanitarian agony endured by millions of Afghans, indicating Washington’s and its allies’ intention to relief it, with a caveat. “The UN Security Council adopted a resolution outlining how we will support the people of Afghanistan, laying out the expectations to which we will hold the Taliban when it comes to respecting universal human rights,” reminded the 78-year resident of the White House.
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov
Mr. Lavrov used his address to denounce what, on his view, are the West’s disastrous state building enterprises. “The chaos that accompanied [the US’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan] is a further demonstration of the rules [with which] the West is going to build its world order,” mocked the Russian Foreign Minister.
“In Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and in other hotbeds, all external actors must show an understanding of the cultural and civilisational specifics of society, reject politicisation of humanitarian aid, and assist in the creation of broadly representative bodies of authority that would involve all major ethnic, religious and political forces of the relevant countries,” warned Mr. Lavrov.
President of the European Council; representing the European Union (EU), Charles Michel
The former Prime Minister of Belgium voiced a degree of mea culpa on behalf of the EU.“The new situation in Afghanistan is a failure for the international community. And lessons must be learned from it. But one thing is certain: the end of military operations is not the end of Europe’s commitment to the Afghan people.”
“We want to avoid a humanitarian disaster and to preserve as many of the gains of the past 20 years as possible, in particular the rights of women and girls,” emphasized the Brussels diplomat, stressing the EU hopes for the future of Afghanistan.
President of China, Xi Jinping
In a pre-recorded video message, and without referring to Afghanistan once, the Chinese leader rejected state building adventurism. ”Recent developments in the international situation show, once again, that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm,” pointed Mr. Xi Jinping.
“We need to advocate peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom which are the common values of humanity,” he went on to say, using again the term democracy, a concept that the Chinese President would certain define differently that most dignitaries at the UNGA Chamber.
Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan
As the country with more at stake of developments in Kabul, Afghanistan’s uncertain future was also one of the central pieces of Mr. Khan’s UNGA speech. “There are two paths that we can take. If we neglect Afghanistan […] this will have serious repercussions not just for the neighbors of Afghanistan but everywhere. A destabilized, chaotic Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for international terrorists – the reason why the US came to Afghanistan in the first place,” stated the former cricket star.
In his address, the Prime Minister of Pakistan showed a considerable degree of trust on the pledges made by the Taliban since coming back to power. “What have the Taliban promised? They will respect human rights. They will have an inclusive government. They will not allow their soil to be used by terrorists. And they have given amnesty,” said Mr. Khan, even if in many instances the Taliban have not lived up to their word.
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi
On his first speech to the UN, Mr. Raisi told Western powers away from foreign adventurism.“What is seen in our region today proves that not only the hegemonist and the idea of hegemony, but also the project of imposing a Westernized identity have failed miserably. The result of seeking hegemony has been blood-spilling and instability and, ultimately, defeat and escape. Today, the US does not get to exit Iraq and Afghanistan but is expelled,” vented Iran’s new president.
But the Iranian leader also exhibited scepticism and concern about the new Afghan rulers. “If an inclusive government having an effective participation of all ethnicities does not emerge to run Afghanistan, security will not be restored to the country,” said Mr Raisi referring to the country’s third larger ethnic group, the Hazaras, a mostly Shia minority in Afghanistan long persecuted by radical elements of the Sunni majority.
India Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi
Mr. Modi sent several indirect messages to Islamabad, a common neighbour of India and Afghanistan. “Countries that are using terrorism as a political tool have to understand that terrorism is an equally big threat to them. It is very important to ensure that the soil of Afghanistan is not used for spreading terrorism and terrorist attacks,” said Mr. Modi.
The Indian Prime Minister urged action to tackle the lamentable humanitarian situation in the embattled country: “the people of Afghanistan, the women and children there, the minorities there, need help, and we have to discharge our responsibility.”
President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
As most of his non-Western counterparts did, Mr. Erdoğan used the UNGA podium to scold the countries involved in the Afghan invasion and its ill-fated outcome.
“We witnessed in Afghanistan that problems cannot be solved by imposing methods that do not take into account the realities and the social fabric on the ground. The people of Afghanistan have been left alone, abandoned to the consequences of instability and conflicts that last more than four decades,” vented the Turkish President.
Amir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani
Given the oversized role of the tiny but affluent State of Qatar in Afghanistan, the UNGA speech of the Amir generated a substantial amount of attention. And similarly to the Turkish leader, Mr. Al-Thani sent an unambiguous message to the US and its allies: “Afghanistan is not a matter of victory or defeat but rather an issue of failure to impose a political system from outside. Regardless of intentions, efforts made, and money invested, this experience in Afghanistan has collapsed after twenty years.”
On the human rights-humanitarian aid question, the Emir encouraged the world to hurry up, no matter what. “We emphasize the importance of the international community’s continued support to Afghanistan at this critical stage and to separate humanitarian aid from political differences,” warned the ruler of Qatar.
During his speech, UK’s Boris Johnson did not refer to developments in Afghanistan, as his talk was entirely devoted to global warming and the November COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
Yet, the Italian-led G20 virtual meeting of foreign ministers about Afghanistan in the sidelines of the UNGA showed that the perilous humanitarian and human rights situation in the country, as well as Kabul diplomatic limbo, are today one of the top geopolitical priorities for leaders worldwide.
International Relations Amid the Pandemic
We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.
At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?
COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.
At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.
The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.
Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.
Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.
In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.
Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.
Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.
Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.
However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.
Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.
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