What do Moroccan arms sales to Ukraine, a transnational Russian Iranian transit corridor, and US assistance in developing a Saudi national strategy have in common?
Together with this week’s Russian-Iranian financial messaging agreement and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s December visit to Saudi Arabia, they are smaller and bigger fragments of a 21st-century world order in the making that is likely to be bi-polar and populated by multiple middle powers with significant agency and enhanced hedging capabilities.
So is the competition between rival US and Chinese technologies for which the jury is still out.
For the two likely dominant powers, the United States and China, the building blocks are efforts to line up their ducks in a bipolar world.
For Russia, they involve hanging on to its pre-Ukraine war status, in part by deploying its Wagner Group mercenaries to the Sahel; devising ways to circumvent sanctions; and hoping that time will work in its favour in what was supposed to be a blitzkrieg but has turned into a drawn-out slugging match.
For middle powers, the name of the game is carving out their own space, leveraging their enhanced influence, and seeking advantage where they can.
The result is that weaving the 21st century’s tapestry amounts to a patchwork in which some fragments will have long-term effects while others may not even register as a blip on the radar.
Take, for example, Morocco’s decision to give Ukraine some 20 refurbished Russian-made T-72B battle tanks. The deal made Morocco the first African, if not the first Global South nation, to militarily aid Ukraine.
The move, almost a year into the Ukraine war, is likely to have been motivated by short-term considerations, including Russia’s close ties to Morocco’s arch-rival Algeria and US recognition of Morocco’s claim to the formerly Spanish Western Sahara, rather than long-term 21st-century world order considerations.
Even so, Morocco’s breaking ranks with much of the Global South serves the US goal of sustaining the current world order in which it is the top dog, even if its power diminishes.
It doesn’t fundamentally affect China’s goal of rebalancing power in the existing order to ensure that it is bi- rather than unipolar.
The loser in the deal is Russia, which, like Iran, wants to see a new world order in which the United States is cut down to size.
The tank deal may not be a significant loss for Russia, but it does suggest that horse trading is a critical element in weaving the fabric of a new order.
So is mutual interest.
Like the arms sale, the agreement between Russia and Iran to create a financial messaging system that would allow their banks to transfer funds between one another and evade sanctions that block their access to the global SWIFT system is unlikely to have a major impact on the structure of the new world order.
Russian and Iranian efforts to link Europe with the Indian Ocean, centred on 3,000 kilometres of rail and sea and river shipping, are potentially far more significant.
The transport corridor would help reshape trade and supply networks in a world that seems set to divvy up into rival blocs. Moreover, it could shield Russia and Iran from US and European sanctions as they forge closer economic ties with fast-growing economies in Asia.
Russia and Iran are not just looking at India, which sits at one extreme of the corridor.
They also expect to capitalise on their links to China. All three are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and China and Iran are close to becoming members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) free trade zone.
Of a similar potential impact on a future world order is US assistance in Saudi Arabia’s development of a first-time-ever long-term vision for the kingdom’s national security, an essential building block in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to modernize his military.
Saudi Arabia expects to disclose its strategy later this year. It would codify “the kingdom’s strategic vision for national security and regional security,” according to Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, who is advising his Saudi counterparts.
Shaping Saudi strategy as well as military modernization may be the United States’ best bet to imbue at least some of its values and complicate the establishment of similar defense ties with China or Russia. Moreover, it would enhance the kingdom’s ability to absorb and utilize US weapons systems.
“The Saudis, under MBS’s (Mohammed bin Salman’s) leadership, now recognize (their) deficiencies and seem, for the first time, determined to address them in partnership with the United States and to a degree with the United Kingdom,” said political-military analyst and former Pentagon official Bilal Y. Saab.
That will undoubtedly register on the geopolitical chessboard, even if small moves also count for something.