The Shape of the New World Order: ISIS, Russia and China
This is the shape of the New World Order: a rising China, a defiant Russia, and the resurgence of the Islamic Movement through ISIS
A few years ago, I wrote an article highlighting how the world was and would be from 2008. I chose to see it in the perspective of three factions: Russia, Al-Qaeda and China. At that time, Al-Qaeda was at its peak, using the Iraq War as an outlet for international jihad, and having inspired a series of attacks all throughout Western governments in the 2000s. This was the year of the troop surge, and the reorienting of the alliances within the Middle East. It was actually a year before the decline, not of course with a great tragic blow dealt by the West, but small actions that ultimately led to Al-Qaeda losing its spiritual primacy in the 2000s.
In 2008, also, China hosted the Olympics, in a spectacle that would have been the envy of Roman Emperors. It was a showcase of its power, opulence and magnificence, as if to introduce to the world its next master. I mentioned that Russia almost stole its thunder with an invasion of Georgia, using the breakaway Ossetia to expand its existing sphere of influence.
Fast forward six years later. Al-Qaeda is no longer in the limelight; in fact, its spiritual leader Usama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 barely received recognition from the world, if not to provide a sense of closure to those still living the spectre of 2001. But another movement, ISIS, has taken the helm, in a movement that transformed the years that followed.
We see China “creep” in several places: it now regularly places troops in the region it disputes with India, it has moved naval units within East Asia and the South China Sea like chess pieces in a grand game for mastery of Asia. And as of this writing it has reaffirmed its control of Hong Kong, revealing their view of “guided democracy” that they’ve used for the mainland is the same—if in a slightly different implementation—with the island region.
And finally, to finish the parallel, we see Russia march towards another former Soviet state, the Ukraine, in much the same “Ossetian” formula as Georgia. Russia, of course, is trying to test how far it can go before being pushed to the brink of confrontation with NATO and America. While the West has been more wary and active in its position to Russia, Crimea’s annexation and the possible breakup of Ukraine between East and West reveals the strong hand Russia still holds.
From what we can gleam of the parallels between 2008 and 2014, we can see that America, while on a limited offensive against the Al-Qaeda successor ISIS, has little in the way of action against the other aggressors China and Russia. This is because, as in 2008, America’s weakness is revealed: it is strained to hold the world with its limited, albeit extensive, force, and it has buckled against the weight of its responsibilities.
While Al-Qaeda did not win against the Americans in its jihadic “War on Terror”, it has nevertheless won a spiritual victory in Iraq. America is now largely wary of entering a ground war in Iraq—or any country for that matter—relying on air strikes and proxies to fight its battles. And while it faces the same enemy—an Islamic movement—the enemy has taken a different form and nature. Al-Qaeda, while it was an inspiration to various factions, lacked a core aspect for it to be recognized: a sense of legitimacy. It could not capture recognition from Islamic states and the authority of the Islamist groups who retained a sense of independence. It relied on attaining primacy through the use of “terror”, or attacks on “soft targets” while leaving the states largely unchallenged. Predictably, the Middle East dismissed it as another movement and it declined.
Then came the Arab Spring. It was 2011, and a memorable immolation and rebellion later, the Middle East was aflame with popular revolt. Mind you, this was not a “Western” democratic movement championed by the popular class. This was a democratic, Islamic movement, that challenged the Western secular states. This was the transformation of the Movement’s aim towards legitimacy. This was a first step, but it was a step in a new direction. It directly attacked the political institutions, preparing to replace it with the Movement’s own government.
The Arab states mostly rallied, but when it failed, it failed in spectacular fashion. And that was enough. While Egypt’s Islamist movement was quashed by a resurgent military, Qaddafi’s Libya was soon succeeded by Islamist groups now at war with a counter-movement military. Assad’s Syria resisted the onrush of popular unrest, but could not stop the fracturing of its state to several rebel strongholds.
Enter ISIS. The movement saw an opportunity to capture legitimacy and leadership of Al-Qaeda, and fashioned a state from the regions lost by the Syrian government. It started out as a regional rebel group, but had loftier ambitions. Its conquests and brutal executions remind this author of the 14th century conqueror Temur, who styled himself as the “Sword of Islam” and also committed horrific atrocities across the Middle East, Central Asia and India. ISIS was not shy in declaring its objective, reestablishing a caliphate following the establishment of a “start-up empire” straddling Syria and Iraq.
This was a solid act of seizing legitimacy, creating a state to shelter its movement, gaining a reluctant fait accompli among its Arab neighbors, and gaining the leadership of the Movement. There are of course other Islamic states, but none of them has challenged ISIS’ declaration of authority. In fact, some—like the Islamic Emirate of Benghazi—recognized its leadership.
We turn to Russia. In an early article, I wrote that in the “New Eastern Order”, Russia’s largely out of the picture. Yeltsin’s Russia was weak, riddled with corruption, criminal elements who held the country in a stranglehold, and subservient to prevailing political winds. Even as Vladimir Putin ascended the Presidency and took the steps towards becoming Russia’s “democratic czar”, the world saw Russia’s sphere of influence further loosening following Kosovo’s breakup from Serbia, an old Russian ally. But between Georgia and Ukraine, Russia is slowly reestablishing its old Empire.
Of course, where Russia is now, China was years before. Russia is still struggling to reestablish its empire, the way the movement—through ISIS—is trying to establish its Islamic empire. The current situation in the Ukraine, while revealing the power Russia still holds, is also a sign of its continuing weakness. Ukraine was supposed to be in Russia’s orbit, and Russia had to take a firm action to keep it within that orbit. Rather than keep an indirect, hegemonic hold on the country, Russia is poised to take it by force (at least, parts of it; Georgia and the Ukraine cannot be taken outright. It has to fall to their hands slowly).
And China, oh China. It has been many decades since the Cultural Revolution and the apparent self-destruction of the country. So many decades have passed since they struggled for their own sense of legitimacy, the way Russia and the Islamic Movement has done. And they are the ones most ahead in this sense. Their investments in Africa translate to a hegemonic hold and influence in the continent. They are recognized as an economic power. They have control over “satellite nations” in Asia—using economic and politico-military power to impose leadership on its neighbors. Its South China Sea actions are in fact political gestures aimed as the act—if not the final act—in establishing its dominance, and hegemonic primacy in Asia. The act itself is not relevant, but like the movie 300’s Persia asking for “earth and water”, this is China demanding token gestures from the rest of Asia to recognize its predominance and leadership.
China, legitimizing its actions through historical precedence, has largely been unchallenged. While nations like Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and other states protest and sometimes show force, they have largely been unable to resist China’s power. And China, with its sense of “imperial entitlement”, shows it. Its citizens do not champion a “jingoistic White Man’s burden” point of view, but one that entitles them as “citizens of The Empire”. They are everywhere declaring that China is dominant, superior to all, that all should be grateful of China’s leadership, that everyone should proceed to “kowtow” to China’s figure. This comes out as arrogance to many nations, and it presents a bad face to the hegemonic power, but as much as the government tries to assuage national egos, the nation itself cannot but express itself as not the “next-in-line” power, but the present one.
The apparent arrogance, and the repressive, terrifying way it governs its people, would be the critical sticking points for nations to resist recognizing China’s primacy. The Empire cannot be dissuaded of this fact, as they consider these acts as “legitimate exercises” of its authority. This is the old argument of Freedom vs. Stability, and their “democracy” provides the stability enjoyed by its citizens. But having enjoyed the freedoms introduced by the West, this author simply cannot reconcile himself with the prospect of a hegemonic Empire that imposes an ideology that, for the sake of security of its citizens, would control every aspect of their lives. This is, of course, normal for them, as their culture emphasizes obedience to authority, but one hears of “land barons” impressing themselves on helpless homeowners with the “apparent acquiescence” of the State, and the application of political pressure against such groups as Christians within the country. The Empire that will control lives will sometimes control it against its will, and it will be terrifying. And that is, I believe, is a belief and fear shared by Western and Westernized states and citizens alike.
But I digress. ISIS and its declaration of the legitimacy of the Islamic Movement under its helm, Russia and its show of force to regain legitimacy and influence as the Russian Empire, and China and its… well, de facto legitimacy as the new Hegemonic Empire, have all one thing in common: they are struggles for the leadership of a post-American world. Someone I know termed it well—the War of American Succession. America now stands as the Roman Empire did in the AD 300s: wracked by politico-cultural strife, unable to resist external forces that challenge its borders, and having lost regions of influence and territory to other factions. This is the America we now have. Even the present government recognizes this—it is no longer the “Global Police” but the world’s “Partner in Democracy”. It no longer has significant influence and political authority with the world at large. It has failed economically, again paralleling the Roman Empire’s bankruptcy. It is still at the helm, but at a reduced capacity. And like the Roman Empire, the states it once called allies remain nominally this, but are largely alienated.
The United States is poised to decline, though not immediately. It is becoming apparent as it is no longer in control of the forces it once swayed. But its fall from international predominance can still be delayed, if strong leadership takes the helm, as Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine attest with the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, how it reacts to the three main struggles for international primacy will reveal how the world will be reshaped. The transformation has already begun. They can only try to adjust to it.
There is a parallel between what I wrote in 2008 and 2014. It is almost as if Acts in a continuing Drama, and a movie that we can see all too well as unfolding in a way we predict it will.