While perennial debates regarding the efficacy of the United Nations were persistent in this year’s plenary opening of the 72nd General Assembly, what is frequently overlooked is what the UN has accomplished. The UN allows a global audience to hear the positions, examine the attitudes and observe the approaches of every nation on Earth. Events like a General Assembly opening are particularly illustrative of such a point.
It was during such events that Yasser Arafat introduced the cause of Palestine to a wider audience outside of the Arab world and those who closely observed Arab politics. It was at the UN Security Council that Colin Powell laid out the “case” for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. It was at a subsequent General Assembly meeting that Hugo Chavez called George W Bush “the Devil”, and it was this year that Donald Trump and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho exchanged rhetoric that will not be forgotten any time soon.
It is a great pity that mainstream media outlets do not have the UN General Assembly opening on 24/7. It is not only educational from an obtuse perspective but it is deeply informative from a deeply acute aspect. If citizen engagement in world affairs matters, then watching the UN matters.
When one does such a thing, certain trends become extremely clear. First of all, while the world is now multipolar beyond a shadow of a doubt, within this manifold framework, blocs of nations based on common interests, fears and aspirations are very apparent, even if they are less uniformly defined than the broadly ideological blocs of the Cold War.
In this sense, while some were scoring points between the US and North Korea, the US and Iran and to a degree US via-a-vis Russia and China, it is more important to look at the positions of the nations of the UN in terms of their needs and desires.
Most countries, though apparently not all, have a desire to avoid war at all costs. This is a natural feeling among most small and even medium-sized nations, as in an age of interconnected proxy wars that hold the specter of leading to a WMD-driven world war, small nations simply cannot compete in the “war market”.
When it comes to the three superpowers, Russia and China are deeply averse to war. This is true of Russia because of its experience in the Great Patriotic War and in respect of China because of its experience of Japanese invasion prior to the formal beginning of the Second World War.
The United States does not share this aversion. Historically, the US mainland has been totally remote from conventional war with a foreign adversary, and since the Spanish-American War of 1898, most American wars have either been colonial successes or, in such cases as those in Vietnam or Iraq, abject failures that nevertheless still did not touch the US mainland. The absence of conscription in America’s wars post-September 11, 2001, make the very idea of war’s negative attributes all the more negative.
The US is unique in this sense, and “unique” is merely a polite word for “isolated” in this context.
Because of this, the majority of the world’s nations find themselves in opposition to US foreign policy, even if their engagement with conflicts involving the United States is minimal. Much of this has been the result of a US foreign policy dictated more by Defense Department goals than by the compromising language of diplomacy that ought to come from the State Department.
Likewise with trade, the vast majority of the world rejects both models presented by the US. The neoliberal model, whereby the financial markets are the engine of the manufacturing market, is incompatible with the vibrant producers of the wider global East. But it is also the case that Trump-style protectionism is alien to the wider global East and South, which want a form of globalism based on cooperation in trade rather than submission to the paper-pushing engines of Wall Street, Frankfurt and London.
In this sense, the Western world is somewhat divided against itself even as en toto, it is divided against much of the wider global East and South.
In this sense, it helps to consider the world in the shape of a bell curve. In a traditional bell curve, the majority of any statistical sample group is in the fat center while extremes are on the narrow edges on either side of the curve.
When this is applied to the general trends in geopolitics, the countries that are most enthusiastic about projects like One Belt One Road, and which see diplomacy in terms that are either more Russian or Chinese than American, are in the center. Such nations include obviously Russia and China but also Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and increasingly also Egypt and other secular Arab states.
Crucially even countries that have disputes with one another and are still far from a position of national aspiration are in the fat center of the bell curve. This would include India and Vietnam, which diplomatically are close to Russia but not China, although they nevertheless fit in with the broad needs of economies that are nevertheless tied to the Chinese economic engine.
From an ideological perspective and increasingly from one of economic cooperation, even traditional US allies in the Arab world are close to the center. The Arab countries of the Persian Gulf are increasingly interested in doing petro-deals with countries such as Russia and Turkey.
With scant exceptions, most of Latin America and Africa are also in the center.
Off-center are countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. These countries, while seemingly ideological allies of the US, realize that their economies too are increasingly as Asian as their geography.
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed cooperative efforts in Northeast Asia, this was the tripartite proposal that Vladimir Putin made at the recent Eastern Economic Forum, something that ought to be called “Two Koreas One Road”. Likewise, Singapore’s address to the UN called for greater Asian unity, and the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte is becoming fully Asianized after decades of being the geopolitical version of an American lost in Asia.
On the narrow extreme to the left one sees the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but even this is deceptive. North Korea, in spite of sanctions, has actually expanded its horizons with the outside world under Kim Jong-un, even if the diplomatic optics suggest otherwise. Likewise, while the nations of the fat center of the bell curve don’t speak or think like North Korea, they too reject America’s provocations of Pyongyang.
In this sense, the DPRK is not as far from the center on the narrow end of this bell curve as one might expect. The side of Kim Jong-un’s period of rule that is rarely reported in the international press is that the economy’s growth rate is nearly 4%, making it one of the fastest-growing in Asia, in spite of being ostensibly more isolated than most countries in the region.
Who then is on the other narrow end of the bell curve? It’s an increasingly lonely club that Southern Europe is trying to leave. This leaves only Northern Europe, Trump’s United States even further to the extreme, and Israel even further out than the US. While the Western media are increasingly censoring even the most polite debates about Israel and Palestine, hardly a speech at the UN went by without a head of state, prime minister or foreign minister expressing regret that Palestine has yet to receive restored statehood.
If one read this and thought that the conclusion is that the US and its shrinking group of comrades are insignificant, this would be incorrect. Isolation is different from lack of importance. What it does mean is that America’s hegemony in no way reflects global opinion, and in this sense, America’s unilateral actions do not reflect anything close to global consent or approval.
By contrast, the bloc of nations engaged in One Belt One Road do increasingly represent a solid quorum of international consent and public opinion. Even among members of the wider global East that are feuding, the same holds true. India, even if it never finds common ground with China, will be in the position of trying to be the next China rather than the next United States; even Prime Minister Narendra Modi will admit that.
Against this background, it is not difficult to see why the US resorts to using its military to achieve its goals. Unless America modifies its geo-strategic modus operandi, its military is all it will have to counter the war for hearts and minds that it has already lost.