Russia is antagonising the EU, while Putin and Trump are best friends. From Europe to the US to Israel, the far-right is now a formidable force. And Turkey, a US ally and NATO member, participated in a summit with Russia and Iran to discuss Syria.
US President-elect Donald Trump lost no time establishing contact with world leaders after winning the election on November 8. A week later, he was on the phone with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The phone call comes in a broader context of often baffling geopolitical shifts. The newly elected Trump had months earlier declared NATO obsolete, while the very reason that NATO had been created was to counter Moscow’s influence.
The two mega powers, once bitter enemies during the Cold War era, it seems, were exploring the possibility of becoming friends.
According to a statement issued by the Kremlin on November 14, Putin and Trump agreed to improve what they called the currently “unsatisfactory” relations between the United States and Russia.
“Mr Putin and Mr Trump both spoke of the need to work together in the struggle against the number one common enemy – international terrorism and extremism,” the Kremlin statement reads. “In this context, they discussed issues related to solving the crisis in Syria.”
But would the ascendancy of Trump really signal a new era in Russian-American relations in particular, and world politics in general? The past few years have seen the rise of the far right in Europe, with some countries reluctant to follow quotas set by the EU to take in refugees. Britain shocked many in 2016, including some of its own citizens, by voting to leave the EU after the “Brexit” campaign.
The far-right has become a formidable force across much of continental Europe. There are allegations that Russia is backing the far-right in Europe. Israel has followed the trend as well; US Secretary of State John Kerry last week described Benjamin Netanyahu as presiding over the most rightwing coalition in Israeli history. Turkey, meanwhile, a historical US ally and NATO member since 1952, has cosied up to Russia and Iran, sitting down to discuss Syria at a summit with the two powers.
But do the startling changes amount to a new world order? After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States was increasingly seen as the dominant world power, a protector and the epitome of democracy by example. Since the 1990s, however, the world order has undergone many changes. The US wasn’t even invited to last week’s talks on Syria.
Indeed, Robert J Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in his first column of the year that 2017 will be the year that answers the question of “whether we’re witnessing the gradual decay of the post-World War II international order, dominated by the economic and military power of the United States.”
Some conservatives were critical of the growing love between Trump and Putin even before the election. “The ‘Putin-likes-me’ attitude of Trump is a fatal conceit,” wrote Paul Kengor, a Reaganite Republican, in the Conservative Review last August.
“Well, all I can say [is] that schizophrenia that you see is a little bit disturbing to me,” Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican senator who ran in the 2015 Republican primaries, told CBS This Morning in October, questioning Trump’s mental acumen: “I see Putin as a dictator. He’s destroyed every semblance of democracy in his own country.”
And Republican senator John McCain, without explicitly naming Trump, warned Washington in November against trusting Russia’s stated intentions of improving relations with the US: “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbours, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
Kremlin’s statement says Putin “was ready to develop a dialogue of partnership with the new administration on the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.”
Yet interference in the United States’ domestic affairs is exactly what US intelligence agencies recently accused Russia of doing, specifically in regards to the presidential election process itself. Dubbed “Grizzly Steppe” in a joint analysis report by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, the Russian operation allegedly began in the summer of 2015.
In Europe as well, there have been allegations of Russia supporting various far-right movements.
In France, the far-right National Front has a relationship with Russia that dates back to the mid-1990s. The party has supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has reportedly received money from Moscow.
For Cameron, suspicions around the relationship between Nigel Farage, the main backer of Brexit, and Moscow, is one glaring example of the Kremlin’s active interest in the UK leaving the European Union. Farage also openly backed Russia during their 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Bulgaria’s Ataka party, labelled as a “neo-Nazi” group by the media, has likewise taken a pro-Russian stance. In Austria, too, the far right Freedom Party was criticised for signing a “friendly pact” with Moscow in 2016.
All this has led analysts to label Russia as openly backing anti-EU political movements.
“Vladimir Putin’s Russia has never really wanted to be of Europe, because the continent is now defined in political terms by the European Union and its rationale, norms, and processes,” Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in 2015.
The rise of the right-wing — and the undermining of the political hegemony of the brand of Western liberalism that rose to dominate global politics in the 1990s — is not limited to Europe and the US.
In recent weeks, Israel, long a key ally of Western powers in the Middle East, has taken the dramatic stance to criticise the very countries that have supported it for decades.
“President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failed so completely to understand each other,” writes Raphael Magarik in Israeli daily Haaretz, “Partially, perhaps, because Obama was initially baffled by the very idea of a right-wing Israeli.”
Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, an “alt-right” leader with a reputation of being an anti-Semite, as senior counselor. Yet like Israeli domestic politics, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the US, is increasingly viewed by US liberals as having been taken over by the Israeli and US right. Both Netanyahu and AIPAC’s silence over the appointment of Bannon was the latest sign for many progressive Jewish Americans that AIPAC has effectively become “the Netanyahu lobby”.
The return of multipolar politics?
After the Soviet Union broke up into satellite states post-Perestroika in the 1990s, the competing US-USSR paradigms collapsed, leaving the field open for US hegemony and the rise of liberalism as the dominant philosophy.
“The new world order has been in the making since the [US-led] invasion of Iraq in 2003,” Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS.
According to Adib-Moghaddam, the “disastrous” results of that invasion “heralded the end of the short, unipolar moment when the US dominated world politics without any strategic conception about the future world order.”
“We are encountering a new strategic configuration now that is increasingly characterised by multipolarity,” Adib-Moghaddam argued. A recent example of the multipolar nature of world politics took place on December 19 in Moscow. The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey came together to discuss the Syrian conflict, leaving out a key player: the US.
Mustafa Akyol, author of the book: Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and columnist for Al Monitor said that Turkey’s position in Syria has changed due to changing realities on the ground. The realisation that the “Assad regime is here to stay,” Akyol says, has brought Ankara “to a more realistic position compared to its more ‘idealistic’ position it had in the past.”
Rather than the emergence of a new world order, Akyol thinks Turkey is leaning towards Russia and Iran for a few reasons: A lack of prospects for a solution in Syria, the relative disengagement of the Obama administration despite its rhetoric of waging war against Daesh, and the empowerment of the Russian-Iranian axis, the countries he calls the “patrons” of the Assad regime.
“After solving [the crisis caused by Turkish forces downing a Russian fighter jet in November 2015] and especially after the military coup attempt [in Turkey in July 2016], I think there is a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow independently from Syria,” Akyol says.
He believes it’s “because the current Turkish government is quite disillusioned with the West in general — that includes the European Union and the United States — and is looking out to have other powerful friends in the world.”
The ambivalence towards the West is compounded by Turkey’s complicated relationship with the European Union. The European Parliament has recently voted to suspend Turkey’s EU ascension talks. Many Turks, indignant, seem to be on the fence about joining the bloc, while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticised the EU for, in his view, not showing enough support to the country after the military coup attempt in July.
“I think Turkey realistically tries to assess the situation and it sees that the cooperation with Russia and Iran on a trilateral basis would actually provide better outcomes for Turkish interests in the region than Turkey’s cooperation with NATO allies, especially with the United States,” Emre Ersen, a lecturer at Marmara University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations.
So is Turkey shifting away from the US and the West? Nursin Atesoglu Guney, Political Science and International Relations professor at Yildiz Technical University, doesn’t think so.
“What [Turkey is] doing very lately is trying to diversify its relations,” Atesoglu Guney says. “This doesn’t mean that [Turkey is] departing from the West that she has established relations back since the foundation of the Republic [of Turkey].”
In an increasingly messy, multipolar world, the US can no longer claim to be the dominant world force. As the many surprises of 2016 demonstrated, little in international relations can be taken for granted anymore, and that looks set to continue in the year to come.