‘Revanchism’ and the Shaping of Geopolitics

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 11 March 2016

In a certain sense, geopolitics seems to have become pulled directly into the crucible of the Middle East. For Russia and the US, the path which is taken by either, or both, parties during the next stages of the Syrian conflict may well determine whether these two states will be heading to renewed confrontation (quite likely), or whether a more positive dynamic will take hold in their relations. This outcome may well determine the future course of the global order.

For China, the events in the Middle East will be crucial. As the Chinese ‘outreach’ eastwards is being constrained – or at least attempted to be limited by the US (through the ‘pivot’ policy) – China, in reaction, is pushing out financially and economically in the opposite direction: westwards, towards Eurasia.  The One Belt, One Road strategy has many aims, but one of these is to consolidate the Renmimbi as a global reserve currency, and for China to acquire strategic economic depth.  At a time of geo-financial conflict (oil wars, currency wars, trade wars, sanctions, and the ever looming sword of US judicial global reach), that ‘depth’ will be vital.

But the One Belt, One Road passes inevitably through the the fragile, complex region of Central Asia. And that region, from Xinjiang Province through to the Mediterranean, is subject to the same ills as those besetting the Middle East. It is vulnerable to the insertion of radical Sunni Islam –  Wahhabism – into the combustible Sunni sphere (just as was done in Chechnya).  This is the external ‘spanner in the works’ that has the potential to wreck the One Road project, or at least make its path highly problematic. Hence, the outcome of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-led 4+1 military experiment in Syria will likely have substantive import for Central Asian security too, eventually.

Europe too dances to the Middle East puppeteer’s strings. The refugee crisis has already fractured the European polity, transforming it into hostile factions. And any fresh spike in the influx of refugees from the Middle East over the coming months has the potential to further deepen these schisms, and perhaps swing the British referendum – and lead to the first real exit from the ‘European Project’.

In sum, events in the Middle East will profoundly shape our geo-politics, for better or for worse. So, what – in brief – are likely to be the ‘forces’ shaping these events?  Most obviously, it is fired-up Sunni radicalism. Jihadism is not just political violence: it is a cultural revolution also, and standing behind it – as stand behind all these armed groups – are nation-states. Sunni ‘Revanchism’ (an English word derived from the French: revanche, or revenge) means the political manifestation of a will to reverse political losses (standing/leadership/self-esteem) incurred by a state or a people, often following a war or social movement.  Revanchism is then, as much a psychological state, as a reasoned strategy: it is about anger, resentment, and a sense of entitlement and right, usurped by others.

Erdogan’s Turkey has shown it feels the losses of the Ottoman Empire territories (to Syria and Iraq), and Saudi Arabia fears for the erosion of its leadership of the Sunni world, and the fragmentation of the Sunni sphere.

Of course, these feelings of a diminished standing and fragmented identity, precisely have been magnified (but are not generally the fault) of a resurgent Iran – an Iran which is seen seen somehow to be coming together, just as the Sunni world feels that it is coming apart.  Yes, there are proxy wars (and some direct wars) being fought across the Middle East stage, but these proxies are not just proxies – they are used by states, and in their turn, they do not hesitate use their patrons, without qualm. The armed movements too have their constituencies (often the rural dispossessed). They have their own agenda. They represent an old orientation within Islam that will not totally disappear.

But more than anything, it is the rout in the price of oil and raw materials that will shape the MENA region. Squeeze oil, and you squeeze the entire regional economy. If this price level has some longevity, some existing leaderships simply will disappear altogether, and war-lordism and local militia will increasingly shape societies – particularly in North Africa.

And then there are the physical forces of competing security architectures supposedly countering these armed ‘movements’. There is the 4+1 coalition in Syria, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the Saudi-led (Sunni) anti-terror coalition, the EU ambition for a ‘grand coalition’, and the (likely ill-fated) ‘Libya coalition’, which may well end by de-stabilising North Africa further.

What, in all this cat’s cradle of the Middle East, is likely to shape geo-politics?  Well, firstly, it is the success and effectiveness of the Russian and Iranian-led coalition in Syria. This took the West by surprise – there was a serious cognitive failure.The US and its European allies thought (perhaps hoped), that Syria would become Russia’s Vietnam.  But it is now recognised in the West (although the conflict is far from over) that Damascus will not fall, nor will President Assad be ousted.  Reality is harsh, but this is understood in Washington now. But why is this so key?

It is because Mr Putin is playing three dimensional chess: at one level, the Russian leadership is trying to stem the urge (which is strong in the US and Britain) towards giving President Putin a ‘bloody nose’ for his presumption in challenging American hegemony – and for cornering America into his Syria strategy. Putin is trying (still) to lure the US and America into a partnership with him to defeat the jihadist forces, and out of this co-operation, forge a new relationship with the US.  Without this, the global order will continue to erode.  Secondly, he is playing to Europeans who do not seek escalation with Russia, but rather would see Russia inside the broad European tent. And finally, he is intent to land a searing, strategic defeat on Salafi-jihadist forces – and not let Syria subside into another ‘frozen conflict’, but to emerge as a strong state capable of continuing to defeat radical jihadism.

President Putin may well not succeed. Sergey Lavrov’s relationship with Secretary Kerry may be warm; but clearly the heads of the CIA and the US military are seething at America’s ‘humiliation’ at having been cornered into the cessation of hostilities agreement (which has worked better than expected).  What has slipped out into the open – in the Wall Street Journal – has been been the massive internal row that Secretary Kerry’s cessation of hostilities has provoked in Washington.  President Obama, it seems, has gone to ground on this argument – leaving Secretary Kerry to ‘fly solo’, and take the heat from internal Administration opponents.

The other potentially geo-strategically significant conflict is that in Yemen. It has been a disaster for Saudi Arabia, and may yet become an existential crisis for the al-Saud. Can America – which claims some sort of guardianship role towards the Sunni sphere – let such an outcome (the humiliation of the al-Saud) stand?  Would this be a ‘humiliation too far’ for the US to bear?  Will the hardliners in the US be set on getting even with President Putin and his Iranian ally, just as they inflicted war in Afghanistan on Russia, in revenge for Vietnam? In short, will the 4+1 alliance, with Iran, (incorrectly) viewed as patron of the Houthis, become to be seen as an archetypal anti-western architecture (which they are not), and become the butt of a new Cold War?  China stands on the wings in terms of Syria, but has a profound interest in the success of the 4+1 coalition.  Will it be drawn into any prospective new polarisation as it looks to the stability of Central Asia?

Probably ‘yes’ – for, behind these geo-political tensions, stands a looming financial crisis. The Bank of International Settlements (BIS, the Central Bankers’ Central Bank) warns us of a gathering [global debt] storm that has been building for some time.  And this further warning by the BIS comes at a time when the Central Bankers’ tool box of quantitative easing (QE) and zero or negative interest rates has exhausted its credibility, or at least their impact in stimulating asset prices is coming to an end, at a time when global growth and trade are sinking fast.  There is more than a whiff of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis in the air.

Why might this drag China into the crisis?  Well, as the scion of the ancient banking family, and practitioner of geo-financial statecraft, Lord Rothschild, recently wrote: “not surprisingly, market conditions have deteriorated further … So much so, that the wind is certainly not behind us; indeed we may well be in the eye of a storm.” 

Lord Rothschild continues: “There’s an old saying that in difficult times, the return of capital takes precedence over the return on capital.”  And that’s exactly what we are likely to witness.  At times of stress in western financial and credit markets, bringing back ‘home’ capital is essential to keeping oil lubricating the Wall Street ‘wheels’.  Is it a surprise then, that both the Renmimbi and the Rouble are under attack on foreign exchange markets – with the result that massive capital outflows from both countries are seeking safety – where? In the US dollar and Wall Street, of course. 

What we are talking about here is an America concerned about the very survival of the US dollar reserve status, and ensuring this objective – the return of capital – may require both China and Russia to be in crisis (and weak) — and the Middle East and Central Asia happens to be quite good loci in which pressures can be applied

China may stand ‘balanced’ and aloof in terms of Middle East politics, but the geo-financial and the geo-political are now interwoven – as China clearly recognised when it intervened to support the rouble on 15 and 16 December 2014 when its collapse threatened a Russian debt default. Indeed, the two strands of geo-politics and geo-finance are wholly inter-dependent. So any American perception of the US being politically ‘weakened’ in the Middle East, inevitably – at a time of deepened financial anxiety – will prompt the US Treasury to be more assertive in defending its global financial hegemony.  It will be harder for China to stand aloof from that.

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