by Gordon M. Hahn
A cornerstone of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has been the effort to construct a multipolar structure for the international system. But beware of what you wish for, the saying goes. As a general, though not hard-and-fast rule, a bipolar international system is likely more stable than a multipolar one. Although the number of ‘experiments’ or cases hardly suffices as a thorough test of the hypothesis, the limited evidence thus far supports it. The highly politically polarized (i.e., antagonistic) bilateral system of the Cold War avoided any major regional or world wars. On the other hand, the multipolar system led to the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, World War I, and World War II. Typically, in those centuries, Great Britain endeavored to balance the correlation of power on the continent—the World Island in McKinderian geopolitical theory—so no single power could come to dominate it and then challenge London’s superpower status.
Chaotic Multipolarity in the 21st Century
Today, the U.S. maintains a somewhat similar policy but rather than seeking to create a balance on the continent, which now tends to include the United Kingdom off the continent per se, it has attempted since the end of the Cold War to organize the entire mega-continent of Eurasia under a dominant force controlled by it and its European allies through NATO and the EU. This strategy was initiated in the early 1990s on the assumption that the U.S. possessed a hegemony of power along with its European allies (and even without them) and could enforce, machinate and otherwise maintain a unipolar world under its supervision.
However, American hegemony turned out to be more short-lived than originally thought. It ended with the rise of China, a somewhat resurgent Russia, several international organizations under joint Sino-Russian leadership (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or SCO and the BRICS association), and the emergence of the global Islamist jihadi revolutionary movement. With the rise of the global jihad, one of the poles in the international system for the first time is based on a non-state actor—in reality, a movement and sometimes coalition of Islamist and jihadist networks and alliances.
The present system’s structure is even more problematic when one looks at the regional level. For example, the Middle East has become exceedingly multipolar and is part and parcel of an equally multipolar and chaotic Muslim world. The Middle East now includes the Shiite axis of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Bahraini and Yemeni rebels. It is faced by a Sunni groups of states, which Saudi Arabia is not trying to gather into a 34-nation alliance allegedly to counter the Islamic State or IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. Thus, the region is at least tripolar, with Israel and perhaps some moderate secular or modernizing Islamic states such as Egypt and Jordan loosely allied with it, at least on certain issues. In addition, these poles are allied with elements in the broader Muslim world and the larger international system.
A multipolar system is even more unstable when there is poor coordination and political distance between the system’s poles. It tends to become chaotic, which leads to over-reaching in order to protect one’s security or advance one’s goals. In such a system, individual great powers or alliances/poles act in defiance of other great powers’ or poles’ interests. The United Nations, which was supposed to provide the coordination and a forum to resolve differences and thus reduce polarization between great powers and alliances, is not performing its functions. Indeed, at times it has been used and ignored to undermine one of the pillars of any international order, regardless of structure—the principle of state sovereignty.
The Demise of State Sovereignty in Eurasia
One of the manifestations of the emerging chaos is the collapse of the principle of state sovereignty. As great powers and alliances such as NATO pursue their self-interest without coordination with other powers and poles in the system and in the process ignore the other units’ interests and security, they have tended to use or ignore international law dictated by whether or not abiding by or ignoring said law will hinder or aide them in achieving their goals. The principle that has suffered most from this malady is that of state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of their borders. This has been compounded by the collapse of multinational states with ethnonational administrative territorial units such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the resurgence of Russia, the permeability of borders in a globalized system and the rise of powerful non-state actors like Al Qa`ida (AQ) and IS.
Looking at the first two factors, for example, the U. S., under the William Clinton administration willfully violated the principle in March 1999 when it decided to undertake a major bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and Slobodan Milosevic regime without a UN or Yugoslav mandate. In addition to violation of international law represented by the NATO bombing campaign, it also violated the NATO-Russian Founding Act upon which the NATO-Russian Council was established. Devised in Washington and Brussels as a way to mollify Moscow as NATO expanded, the founding act was essentially a charter for NATO-Russian relations attached to the NATO-Russian Council. However, much like the council, which amounted to little more than a casual talking shop providing Russian with no influence whatsoever on the future course of the ever-approaching military bloc, the founding act was a dead letter in a unipolar geopolitical world, where the West thought it could make the rules or break them as it wished in the presence of a seemingly weak Russia. The Act committed NATO and Russia to refrain “from the threat or use force against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and with the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States contained in the Helsinki Final Act.” Similarly, the Act pledged both parties to “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents” (“Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation, signed in Paris, France,” NATO, 27 May 1997, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_25468.htm). NATO’s willful act of carrying out a major military operation in defiance of the UN’s rejection of a resolution approving such an intervention clearly constituted failure to refrain from the use of force and to respect the inviolability of borders.
The U.S. and its European allies followed up this violation of international law, such as it is, by recognizing the independence of Kosovo and thereby violating key UN resolution 1244 on the Kosovo crisis, which stipulated the inviolability of Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity. This was perhaps the cruelest blow of the Yugoslav wars for Russia and one that would have long-lasting influence on Russian actions in the Georgian and Ukrainian crises to come. Washington’s and the entire West’s violation of the UN Resolution 1244, which ended the Kosovo conflict by setting up the UN Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK), was adopted on 10 June 1999. In putting Kosovo under UNMIK administration and UN peacekeepers’ protection, 1244 affirmed three times the “principle” of, and “the commitment of Member States” of the UN to “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Under the resolution’s mandate Kosovo was to be granted only self-government and autonomy, not state independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (“Resolution 1244 (1999)” – NATO’s Role in Kosovo, NATO, 30 June 1999, www.nato.int/kosovo/docu/u990610a.htm). However, rather than preserving Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity, the Kosovars used the UNMIK protectorate to establish not just broad autonomy from Belgrade but to prepare for its full state independence from Yugoslavia. This involved intimidating the remaining ethnic Serbs, destroying most of the region’s Christian Orthodox Churches, and consolidating various illegal smuggling syndicates and networks abroad before repeating its 1990 declaration of independence on 17 February 2008. The Kosovo parliament had acted not just in defiance of Belgrade but UN Resolution 1244 approved by the Western powers, Moscow, and the entire international community under the aegis of international law. Nevertheless, the next day Washington recognized Kosovo’s state independence (“US Recognizes Kosovo as Independent State,” U.S. Department of State, 18 February 2008, http://2001-2009.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/02/100973.htm), and the International Court of Justice ruled in July 2010 that the Kosovar declaration of independence was legal. In September 2012, the Western-led UNMIK handed over administration to Prishtina, recognizing de facto Kosovo’s independence. Western countries led the way in recognizing Kosovo’s independence – 108 UN member-states and Taiwan have recognized it – further alienating Russia from ‘rules of the game established by the West’ as well as violated by it in cases when that coincides with its interest.
These two U.S./Western violations of international law—long before any such Russian violations—undermined simultaneously the principle of state sovereignty and ensured that a resurgent Russia would have little compunction from refraining in doing the same. Russia came to certain conclusions, and those were made clear in the wake of the August 2008 Georgian-Ossetiyan-Russian war, when Russian not only stepped in to protect is ethnic allies in the Caucasus but recognized the independence of both South Ossetiya.
In the winter of 2013-14, U.S. efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO and EU culminated in the overthrow of the freely elected legitimate, if highly corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally more or less. Among the U.S. efforts were many that violated the principle of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Tens of millions of dollars were pumped into Ukraine to essentially propagandize, convert, and recruit pro-democracy activists. Despite the benign appearance of such activity, it in fact constitutes a dual-use political technology that can produce reform from above, regime-opposition talks and transition, or a revolution—including a violent one from below. This dual-use democracy promotion political technology is on the border between compliance and violation of the principle of state sovereignty and the Helsinki Final Act cited below. When Yanukovich reneged on signing the EU association agreement he had been promising Ukrainians he would sign for some two years, demonstrators occupied Kiev’s central square setting off protests that would last through winter.
As the Maidan demonstrations became increasingly infiltrated by neo-fascist elements and thus more violent by January, the ill-fated Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was set to travel to Moscow for discussions on Ukraine’s possible involvement in the Eurasian Economic Union and a desperately needed financial rescue package from Moscow. In response, Washington stepped up its involvement in the Maidan protest and would-be revolution. On Wednesday, December 12th, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Kiev Jeffrey Pyatt encouraged the demonstrators to stay the course by walking through Maidan Square and handing out cookies. In a press conference during her visit, Nuland said she had a “tough but realistic” conversation with President Yanukovych and believed it possible to save Ukraine’s “European future” if he showed “leadership.” At the same time, the US government began to threaten and prepare sanctions against the Yanukovich regime. US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki suggested the US might impose sanctions on Ukraine, and the US government-funded think tank Freedom House called on Yanukovych to resign immediately and declare early elections as “the only non-violent way to end the standoff with demonstrators.” Like Nuland, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle toured the Maidan protest camp with two Ukrainian opposition leaders and asserted that “Ukraine should be on board with Europe” (Fred Weir, “Russia cries foul over Western embrace of Ukraine’s demonstrators,” Christian Science Monitor, 13 December 2013). The Polish Foreign Ministry set up a tent on Maidan Square, according to some reports (“KYIV BLOG: Yanukovych backed into corner as EU suspends talks,” Business New Europe, 16 December 2013).
In the days that followed, the demonstrators and barricades that had been disappearing from the square returned. On Sunday, December 15th, a rally of some 200,000 supporting Ukraine’s ‘European choice’ was feted by two US Senators – Chris Murphy (Democrat from Connecticut) and former Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain (Arizona), well-known for his anti-Russian and bitterly anti-Putin. His words seemed calculated to whip up an anti-Russian sentiment. McCain declared: “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe. We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe. We…want to make it clear to Russia and Vladimir Putin that interference in the affairs of Ukraine is not acceptable to the United States. People of Ukraine, this is your moment. The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you.” Warning Putin not to interfere in Ukrainian politics from Maidan Square in central Kiev seemed blatantly hypocritical and designed to antagonize Moscow (The Guardian, www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/15/ukraine-protesters-return-central-kiev-eu-campaign; Fox News, www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/12/15/senators-mccain-murphy-join-massive-ukraine-anti-government-protest-threaten/; Reuters, and http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/15/ukraine-idUSL6N0JU0BV20131215). While in Kiev McCain also met with ultra-nationalist Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnibok, whose followers had been and would continue to play a leading role in the violence on Maidan and the ultimate coercive seizure of power in February. Russian officials in fact expressed their dissatisfaction with this American interference (Weir, “Russia cries foul over Western embrace of Ukraine’s demonstrators”).
Taken together or simply in its essential parts, the above seems or could arguably be interpreted to constitute nothing a violation of the Helsinki Final Act’s clauses banning the interference of member-states of the OSCE in the domestic politics of its other member-states. The Final Act’s Section VI on ‘Non-Intervention in Internal Affairs’ reads: “The participating States will refrain from any intervention, direct or indirect, individual or collective, in the internal or external affairs falling within the domestic jurisdiction of another participating State, regardless of their mutual relations” (Helsinki Final Act, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Helsinki, 1975, http://www.osce.org/mc/39501?download=true, p. 5). It would seem that the politics, indeed the crisis politics on the Maidan in those days, would constitute the “internal affairs falling within the jurisdiction” of Ukraine and not that of the US or its officials. Nuland, Pyatt, and McCain clearly failed to “refrain from any intervention, direct or indirect, individual or collective,” in Ukraine’s internal affairs. One would reasonably deem their intervention as rather direct.
The Budapest Memorandum much cited by Western officials and pundits after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 to prove Putin had violated international law and the ‘rules of the game,’ pledged Russia and the U.S. to a “commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” (www.cfr.org/arms-control-disarmament-and-nonproliferation/budapest-memorandums-security-assurances-1994/p32484). Thus, the West had violated not just the Helsinki Final Act but very arguably the Budapest Memorandum as well—one of the pillars of Ukraine’s state sovereignty—by encouraging revolutionaries to continue their demonstrations, helping to fund those same revolutionaries, and backing their illegal takeover after the fact as a ‘democratic’ development. For Moscow, this was a green light to reunite the Crimea, which had become part of the Ukraine SSR on the whim of the Soviet communist regime the new Ukrainian regime itself so bitterly rejects and where an overwhelming majority of the population wanted to be Russian citizens.
Russia then upped the ante and engaged in its own violation of international and Ukraine’s state sovereignty and territorial integrity by occupying, annexing, and reuniting Crimea with Russia. It then went further and violated Ukraine’s state sovereignty in the Donbass intervening militarily and firing artillery from Russian territory into Ukraine during the Ukrainian-Donbass civil war to shore up the faltering force of the Donbass separatists. With all of the above, the principle of state sovereignty in European and international affairs was fully debilitated and on its death bed.
The Collapse of State Sovereignty Across the Muslim Arc
At the same time, all of the above was unfolding, the rising pole and non-state actor of our time—the global Islamist revolutionary movement and its various networks and alliances—increasingly has been undermining of the stability of the international system and the principle of state sovereignty. The global Islamist revolutionary movement has set great states, great powers and alliances against each other. It has polarized internal politics across the West and elsewhere. It has sparked and hijacked separatist movements, willfully crossing increasingly porous borders and finding refuge in geographically peripheral black spots to carry out heinous terrorist attacks intended to completely wipe away state borders in the making of the global caliphate.
Consequently, the rise of AQ and IS, in particular, combined with reckless American ‘revolutionism’ in the form of support for the dual-use technology of democracy promotion and color revolutions anywhere and everywhere has undermined a whole host of states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Usually referred to as the Arab ‘Spring’, this has been an Islamist winter spreading across the Muslim arc from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Most recently, it has led to a likely illegal Western military intervention in Syria and Turkey’s intervention into Iraq. Even Moscow’s technically legal military intervention in Syria reflects this problem, since the legitimacy of the Assad regime, which called Moscow into the fray, has a rather marginal level of ruling legitimacy. The ‘everyone for himself’ conduct of foreign and security policy in today’s multipolar chaos guarantees that there will be more such interventions and the growing threat of major wars.
A Return to Stability
There are two main tasks for a return to stability in the international system. First, the principle of state sovereignty must be restored and the conflict between Russia and the West over spheres of influence and the frozen conflicts it and the Soviet collapse have produced need to be resolved. Second, the most dangerous pole in the multipolar system—the global jihadi revolutionary movement—needs to be neutralized. It has the potential in the mid- to long-term to throw the international order into complete anarchy. It is already creating tensions between the other poles and some of the major powers, and this in turn plays into the movement’s hands.
In order to achieve both of these goals, responsible and assertive American leadership, not hegemony, is required. Although no longer the global hegemon, the U.S. remains the indispensable power—the leader—if it chooses to lead. The Barack Obama administration’s strategy of ‘leading from behind’ is both by definition and in practice absurd. By definition, the leader is out front, not behind. This does not mean that the U.S. has to have the majority of global power or carry the majority of any particular security effort, but it does require a plurality of global power, which the U.S. still possesses, and American assumption of a plurality of the burden in any major security effort. That burden does not necessarily have to be a plurality contribution in terms of boots on the ground or of even the overall military effort. Intelligence, financial and technological support could makeup the majority of the U.S. role.
To lead in restoring the principle of state sovereignty, the U.S. should call for and propose an agenda for a European conference on security in order to establish a new architecture for security in Europe. Participants would include all NATO and CSTO member-states and others interested in European-Eurasian security. The agenda should include issues such as the various frozen conflicts (most importantly Ukraine), NATO-CSTO cooperation, and ways of shoring up the principle of state sovereignty and preventing and resolving any future separatist conflicts in the region, putting limits on immigration from jihadi-plagued countries. A key goal should be the restoration of some minimal level of comity between Russia and the West.
In leading the effort to confront the Islamist challenge, the U.S. must lead but not dominate the mobilization, organization, and operation of a grand alliance or well-coordinated coalition of alliances tasked with searching out and destroying all jihadist organizations and any non-violent Islamist organizations that aide and abet them. The grand anti-jihadi alliance or coalition of alliances should involve all the more or less responsible state actors and non-Islamist poles comprising the international system. To date, there are now three alliances: the Russian led quasi-alliance with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah; the U.S.-led alliance centered around but not limited to NATO; and the new Saudi-organized Arab/Sunni alliance. Before the advent of the Arab Sunni alliance, the Russian and Western alliances were working at cross-purposes from each other, as demonstrated tragically by the Turkish downing of the Russian jet fighter in November.
Specifically, the U.S. should propose at least the following measures. First, formation of a powerful ground force to clean out the Levant. Defeating IS and jihadists in the Levant will require extensive ground operations, including the occupation of territory and the policing of borders, cities, and villages; air operations in support of the Kurds, Syrians, and Iraqis is unlikely to be sufficient without an extensive train and equip program involving 100,000 troops or more. Time does not allow for such an effort. Ground operations should be planned by the grand alliance or alliances and must have at its disposal ground forces numbering at least 200,000 troops in Iraq and Syria. Local forces should play a major role in each theater. No foreign state should have to provide more than 5-10,000 troops, since the alliance(s) would include some 80 countries, including but not limited to the member-states of NATO, the EU, the Collective Treaty Organization (CSTO), and SCO.
Second, there must be a ban on all such organizations globally. The list is long and would include generally non-violent and non-terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Hizb ut-Tahrir Islami (HTI). There should be no more HTI conferences in the U.S., for example. All groups which continue to maintain ties to these groups after the ban comes into force should also be closed down.
Third, an international conference on combating the global jihadi Islamist movement should be convened, but this should not be a prerequisite for beginning the formation of the grand alliance and establishing a methodology for gathering, coordinating, and early deployment of ground forces.
Fourth, an international center for counter-jihadism intelligence and analysis should be created for the duration of the war against jihadism in the Levant.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct, www.russia-direct.org; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. His website is http://www.gordonhahn.com.