Through the new Cold War, and in crises like Crimea, developing countries are rediscovering their relevance.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989 and the Soviet Union disintegrated towards the end of 1991, those who rejoiced the most, and for good reason, were the people of East Europe. The rest of the world was broadly divided into two categories. The countries of West Europe and North America regarded these events as the triumph of their free-market ideology and celebrated the “end of history”. They too had good reason to feel vindicated. For the developing and non-aligned world, there were mixed feelings.
The end of the Cold War had to be a good thing and they said so in varying words. At the same time — and this was most evident in the Delegates’ Lounge in the UN building — there was a widespread sentiment that the international community had lost “balance”. It was recognised that the world had entered a period of transition, but no one was clear how long the transition would last, how it would end and what kind of new world order would emerge. Most delegates believed the new order would be unipolar and were apprehensive at the prospect.
One significant event during the two-year period between the collapse of the Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the Two-Plus-Four conference in 1990, which brought about the reunification of the two Germanys and the simultaneous admission of the unified Germany into Nato. The Soviets were most worried about the prospect of a unified Germany as a member of Nato, emerging as a threat to it and its eastern “empire”.
To allay Soviet concerns, some Western statesmen, in particular then German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his American colleague, then US secretary of state James Baker, sought to reassure the Soviets by promising that Nato would not seek any eastwards expansion, specifically mentioning Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in this context.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding this “commitment” by the West, with the West disowning any such commitment. In a comprehensive article dated November 26, 2009, the German Der Spiegel concluded: “…there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that Nato membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.” In a telephone conversation with the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, on February 10, 1990, Genscher assured the latter: “one thing is certain; Nato will not expand to the east”.
Baker too gave a similar public commitment. One ought to remember that the Soviet Union was still intact at that time and was a superpower; as such its concerns had to be given due weight by the West.
When the Soviet Union became Russia, it lost its clout, particularly during Boris Yeltsin’s time. The West felt emboldened to pursue its agenda of weakening Russia and isolating it. It adopted policies that it dared not during the Soviet days. Previously, the West recognised spheres of influence in Europe. The Soviets ruthlessly suppressed the revolutions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the West did nothing more than pass condemnatory resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly. The pathetic Western response was not solely due to the deterrence theory; it was also due to the acceptance of the Soviet need to have a protective barrier, their “Monroe Doctrine”.
During the past two decades, the West has occupied space in Russia’s “Near Abroad”, much to the latter’s consternation. Nato has relentlessly expanded eastwards — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 2004; and Croatia and Albania in 2009. The Europeans are also reported to be negotiating different kinds of agreements with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. From Russia’s perspective, all these moves are disconcerting.
Its prestige and dignity declined. Vladimir Putin stemmed the rot in 2012 during the Georgian affair and won huge popularity at home and perhaps grudging respect from the developing world. The non-Nato and non-European states have economic interests in the developed world and feel obliged to criticise Russian actions in the Ukraine crisis. Some of them may have irredentist problems of their own and would naturally oppose Crimea’s annexation by Russia, but most of them would prefer not to get involved in this East-West conflict.
The two decades since the end of the Cold War have justified to a considerable degree the apprehensions of the developing world. The West has used its monopoly of military and diplomatic prowess quite effectively to further its agenda of bringing about regime change in several countries, particularly regimes deemed to be anti-West and anti-Israel. Saddam Hussain has gone, as has Muammar Gaddafi; these two were regarded as hostile to Western and Israeli interests. Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali lost out despite Western affection for them; they were friends of the West, but could not be saved due to the phenomenon of the Arab Spring. Bashar al-Assad, another anti-West dictator, has survived against all odds because he enjoys genuine support from a significant section of society and because of the diplomatic and material backing of Russia and Iran.
Syria is still an unfinished agenda. Sudan has been broken up in two. As Egypt cosies up to Russia, with the purchase of billions of dollars worth of defence equipment, it will come under huge pressure from the Americans and their allies to fall in line. The resistance of the Muslim Brotherhood to the military has at least their political support. The terrorists in the Sinai peninsula are posing a serious threat to the Egyptian state; they receive material support from the Brotherhood that has astrong base in Gaza because of Hamas, which continues to draw sustenance from Qatar.
America and Israel would like, and have been trying through sanctions and other means, a regime change in Tehran. Iran has been realistic enough to put forward a moderate face, enter into serious negotiations on the nuclear issue, thus easing the pressure of regime change.
The consequence of all these developments is that developing countries are rediscovering their relevance. The contestants in what is emerging as the new Cold War will need allies, not in the military sense, but politically and diplomatically. The new Cold War is not an ideological conflict; but then, nor was the old Cold War, strictly speaking. It too was a rivalry for power, for raw materials and for political influence. The inclination of developing countries today is not to get involved in this renewed East vs West conflict. Hence, they are not supporting the campaign to destabilise Syria, nor are they vocal in condemning Iran.
In the latest crisis concerning Crimea, the non-allies of the West are witnessing its inability to reverse Crimea’s annexation and will slowly conclude that it is not worthwhile to take sides. China is a category in itself. Given its strong attachment to the principles of territorial integrity (Xinjiang and Tibet) and sovereignty (Taiwan), it could have supported the Western resolution at the UN Security Council, but abstained for geopolitical reasons. It is not surprising that Putin thanked China because he knows Beijing could easily have voted against him. But if Russia tries to grab more land farther afield, for example in Transdniester, it should expect stronger disapproval from many developing countries.
India’s posture has been that of classic non-alignment. We made both sides equally happy or unhappy, Russia by recognising its “legitimate interests” and America by emphasising the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Some would argue that it would be better to cast our lot entirely with one side — and they have America in mind — but our natural and national inclination is not to get involved in other peoples’ quarrels. Kashmir could have been a factor in our calculation, but it need not have been; only an India lacking in self-confidence would worry about Kashmir in this context. India has already been practising non-alignment in the serious game between Saudi Arabia and Iran, though it is premature to say whether we are equally pleasing or displeasing both sides.
Non-alignment is dead; long live non-alignment?
The writer is India’s former permanent representative at the UN, is adjunct senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group.