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Brazil, Europe, Iran, US, Saudi Arabia – The return of national sovereignty: heading toward one ultimate stand?

The European Laboratory of Political Anticipation is happy to present you the public review of Its monthly publication GEAB (Global Europe Anticipation Bulletin). For more information on this April 2016 numero, please visit us @ geab.eu 

GEAB n°104

For nearly 10 years now, the global systemic crisis has been composing an impressive symphonic « canon »[1] in which the financial crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis, the political crisis, the ideological crisis and the geopolitical crisis, all of them of a global dimension, play similar melodic lines sequenced one after the other.

We’ve been repeating it for months: it’s the political aspect of the crisis which currently dominates the global agenda in an increasingly worrisome manner. The weakening of states as a result of these political crises, combined with geopolitical or economic shocks suffered by these states, leads to national retrenchment and hardening that does not bode well for democracy, from a domestic point of view, or for peace, from an international point of view. We’ve already seen all this in detail. However, we should analyse carefully the characteristics of this multi-directional national retrenchment.

Serial political crises and the weakening of states, to begin with

The most emblematic of these political crises is currently provided by Brazil and the second attempt by the country’s political class to impeach their democratically elected president[2]. Such a situation, though in this case it concerns a modern and important country, is far from being singular. Quasi-simultaneously, another attempt of impeachment, in the end aborted, struck Jacob Zuma, the South-African president[3]. Before that, though based on more popular dynamics, we witnessed violent political questioning of leaders like Erdogan in Turkey[4] and Putin in Russia[5]. Of course, the case of Yanukovych[6] in Ukraine must be placed in this category of impeachments or impeachment attempts on elected heads of State. Even Europe has its case with Italy, a country governed by a non-elected leader since Enrico Letta was compelled to resign in 2014[7] (outside any popular demand, in this case). These disturbances find their model in the Arab springs, even though it appears clearly that expelled leaders are anchored in less and less arguable democratic systems…

In general, this trend must be related to the obligation of transparency conveyed by the internet, as well as to the imperative need to reinvent democratic methods, something which we often highlight in these pages. Indisputably, at the age of the internet and of ultra-connected and globalised social fabrics, the former system of democratic validation of political leaders by means of periodical elections is no longer efficient in creating the legitimacy needed to govern. Many intellectuals are working on this reinvention of the tools of political legitimation worldwide, but at this stage nothing impressive is to be seen, apart from new parties emerging, elected leaders being overthrown, and meaningless referenda taking place[8]. The reform expected on this major issue goes much further than that.

Hardening of states, and withdrawal from democracy and openness, as a second step

With no solution in sight, increasingly severe political destabilisation provides perfect conditions for a hardening of states, withdrawal from democratic principles and subduing, by local interests or not, of national societies. Between foreign tutelage and old-style nationalism, people are far from having a say in the public debate for the years to come in those countries where upheavals take place at the top of political pyramids.

On the side of nationalism, we find Putin or Erdogan, leaders toughened by the crises that struck them. On the side of tutelage, we find the Ukraine, Egypt…

South America: US tutelage in sight or stepping into the 21st century?

Looking back to Brazil, at least a year ago we anticipated in these pages that South America, after having gotten rid of military dictatorships in the second half of the 20th century, might also have to turn the page of its popular revolutions, in order to look calmly toward the future. Of course, worry is justified that the US might be extending their hand over the sub-continent once again when Cristina Fernandez in Argentina[9], Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Nicola Maduro in Venezuela[10]… are subject to violent attacks. However, it is a fact that all of them have in common to be heirs of these revolutionary lefts, backed by an unquestionably glorious past, but also anchored in a history that has become outdated.

Somehow these countries will find it difficult to take the global position to which they are entitled, as long as this heritage can be used against them. When Dilma Rousseff, in a pure act of modernity, strives to strengthen MERCOSUR or to contribute to the reform of global governance via the BRICS, it is a bit too easy for her opponents to accuse her of being basically anti-American.

So yes, to begin with, regime change in these countries will create a strong feeling of uncertainty and going back in time, quite justified admittedly. But today’s America and that of the 50s have little in common. China is nowhere near going back home soon nor to the internet lastingly disappearing. As to the political hardening these countries will experience, it will be similar to what many of us will go through worldwide in the coming years. All the Macris and Temers[11], though best friends today with big money and the Americans, will soon realise that their sponsors’ pockets and brains are emptier than they thought. Italy provides a good example in this regard: Matteo Renzi, placed into power in the middle of the Euro-crisis, within a move certainly backed by transatlantic interests, didn’t wait long before becoming a vocal critic of the sanctions against Russia[12].

Iran: Heading to a similar fate?

Nevertheless, the toughening of political systems in reaction to the risks of disorder conveyed by so many crises striking around is a good reason to worry. Let’s consider an example of potential political questioning that would have dramatic consequences. Iran’s reformist leader, Rohani, despite his February electoral victory[13], could be less solid than it seems. Today, he’s enjoying popularity linked to his success in lifting his country’s sanctions and the propects now open, but the current sluggish implementation in lifting these sanctions on the part of the US[14] is creating a feeling of betrayal in Iran. The problem is that the ultra-conservatives are still around. If Rohani’s successes as regards Iran’s economic opening cast blows on their influence, the contrary would also be true. So it is important that the US does not contribute to a return of influence of the conservative camp by lingering with the sanctions. There is no need to specify that these would be the exact circumstances pushing Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US to feel entitled to attack Iran, which Russia, China and India would most probably support, thus triggering an extremely dramatic domino effect in the Middle East and beyond. If Obama’s America proved capable of understanding that this kind of mistake had to be avoided, Clinton’s or Cruz’s America might not be so clever.

Europe: Super-state or place of harmonisation of national policies?

One last word on Europe, which is increasingly shielding itself behind its frontiers and beliefs, and desperately clinging to the national model it invented two centuries ago. In Europe, however, the use of the harsh tools of sovereignty (army, police, frontiers) is taking place at two levels: the national level and the European supra-national level, creating a mix of objective alliances and fights between the two levels of the unique political system of Europe. Thus, the continent wavers between two paths:

– one of which consists in transferring the tools of sovereignty to the European level, suggesting the creation of a super-State endowed with all the attributes required to take part in the unfolding global confrontation
– but another one, far more interesting, is at play too: the European level becomes the guardian of European values (those of post 1945, hopefully) while letting national levels run a show merely coordinated from the European level.

For instance:

. in the case of the Italian banks, Europe simply produced a rule, a legitimate and understandable one furthermore, that consisted in prohibiting state aid to the banking sector[15]. On this basis, countries are required to manage problems the way they want. Thus, Italy created a rescue fund endowed by banks instead of tax-payers’ money[16] . as regards frontiers, some MEPs are currently suggesting that the new border forces are put under the control of the EU Council (member states) instead of the European Commission; however, the European level decides rules such as authorising a neighbour country to rebuild its frontiers in case one country refuses to shut its own[17] . in the field of pollution, current failings in the Baltic Sea justify an incendiary report from the European Court of Auditors, putting pressure on border countries to apply the common decisions[18]

In these three cases, Europe produces strategic orientations and rules/laws, and member-States use their tools of sovereignty to apply them. At both ends of this chain of command there is work to do: on one end, to strengthen Europe’s authority as regards enforcement of rules; on the other end, to invent the mechanism of democratic legitimacy of the strategic orientations decided upon by the European level, an essential function that the European Parliament, in its current state, can’t fulfil.

In the first case, we have a Europe monopolizing the national tools of sovereignty, thus betraying the original project of invention of a new political model. In the second one, the path opens to a Europe founded on its member-States and responsible of their harmonisation – which doesn’t mean that they are prevented from democratising the European level.

As we always say, the path that Europe will opt for in the end will influence the path the world will take, in particular as regards risks of global conflict. Today, our team estimates that the national level is the most worrying (rise of xenophobic movements, abandonment of democratic principles, increase in military spending…), while the European level seemingly is contributing to staying the course of its founding principles[19].

Multi-polar world: From a world formed of large integrated regions to a world of national super powers

Apart from Europe, which presents the most advanced regional integration process in the world (despite its failure on political grounds), the hope of a multi-polar world based on large regions incorporating everyone, is disappearing from sight. A multi-polar world does emerge, but it is made up of super-States conducting increasingly hegemonic regional policies:

. the US, of course, is trying to regain control of its two backyards, Europe and South America;
. Europe as well, at least a certain Europe, is dreaming of a huge area of influence consisting of alleging countries ready to offer themselves to Western European companies in exchange for visa-free deals… and of eternally disappointed promises of EU integration (Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine [20]);
. Russia, inevitably, continues struggling to maintain its historical influence in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Turkish-speaking republics – namely with a view to push as far away as possible the encirclement inexorably created by NATO since the fall of the Wall;
. China (as discussed further in this GEAB issue) is situating itself in this world and in need of establishing its safety zone and ensuring the required roads to supply its one and a half billion citizens;
. Saudi Arabia, which, under the radar, has been moving its pawns forward for many years now; this country has transformed the Gulf principalities into free zones and has extended, by pouring in petrodollars, its ideological influence throughout the poor Arab world, whose social fabrics have greatly suffered from this polarization between Western modernity and Saudi archaism, a choice in which the local aspirations are struggling to find their place[21];
. South Africa, at its own level, also presents hegemonic characteristics, few reported in our media, but quite real and documented for that matter[22].

From a strengthened nationalism to the return of ideologies

This strengthening of national rather than regional poles is accompanied by a gradual “ideologue formation” of these mega-players, heralding the next dimension of the global systemic crisis, already showing its face: the ideological crisis. The “multi-giga-nation-polar” world is also being gradually created along the lines of cultural specificities in a movement of complete rejection of the dominant Western model to which the whole planet had to swear allegiance for decades. Russia now claims the legitimacy of its leadership model, Saudi Arabia claims its religious model, the United States has a version of the Western model increasingly diverging from the usual acceptance, China is developing its specific model anchored in a 3000 year history, and Europe, Europe… still promotes its universal and impassable values, a paragon of the good, easily forgetting the Inquisition and Nazism.

As we can see, the emergence of super-States, having openly competing interests and building polarizing ideologies, does not bode well, and there is no need to elaborate on it. The game of aggressive postures and entrenchment was launched in 2014 with the Euro-Russian crisis, still unresolved by the way. Camps hardly interact anymore. For example, it is unbelievable that ongoing negotiations between the Balkans and the EU, particularly with Serbia, continue to be bilateral, failing to invite Russia to the table, thus running the risk of a conflagration at any time in this region.

New world governance: Reasons for hope, nevertheless

In 2014 the world made the wrong move. Yet, there are ways to channel changes in less frightening directions. Everything will depend on the ability of these States and super-States to work together, to rebuild forums for dialogue and cooperation. We have often spoken of the work made by China and the BRICS regarding the reform of global governance.

Currently, our team has high hopes in the conference of oil producers taking place in Doha on April 17[23], and aiming at an agreement among 17 countries on a production freeze. This conference will bring to the table possibly the least friendly countries: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, Mexico[24]… To avoid a general conflagration at least until 2020, the multi-polar world should accept its differences, recognize the legitimacy of the constraints facing each State and look for agreement areas. The success or failure of the Doha Conference will encourage optimism or pessimism on the potential reinvention of new global governance mechanisms.

War or peace, the US pivot  

That said, the United States is opposing this conference and wishes to see it fail. We must ask ourselves why a supposed oil producing country may not wish the success of such an initiative[25], but beyond the fact that our article is not intended to particularly explore this, it is clear that all needed global efforts of reorganisation are being thwarted by the United States. As long as this situation persists, global citizens will have to worry.

There are, nevertheless, reasons for hope and optimism when seeing some progress in America’s awareness of its place in the world. Among these improvements, there is the fact that the Fed finally stopped talking about raising its rates and made that decision based on an understanding of the global situation. It is quite reassuring that Yellen finally produced a responsible decision, consistent with the status of the international reserve of its currency, the dollar[26]: it is not wise at all to go on clinging to the international status of the dollar and, at the same time, manage this currency in a provincial manner, merely targeting a national inflation rate of 2%.

Along the same line, it would be good for the Americans to show a little more coherence with their recent arrival among the oil exporters[27] and, therefore, participate in international meetings to harmonize policies in this area.

Regarding Iran, finally, to be credible in the supposed role they played in lifting international sanctions, the United States needs to be the quickest to implement the lift. Otherwise, some uncomfortable questions will arise: Who was actually leading this sanction-lifting operation? What influence does the United States actually have at the international level, or at home by the way?

Obama has largely contributed to making his country aware of its international responsibilities and of what it actually meant to be a global power in a world where they are no longer alone, but the danger exists of a big backlash: retreat and final provincialisation of the US, retreating from the international game by dropping an iron curtain over itself, in a long and sinister rattling sound echoing worldwide.

Today, their “establishment”, like many others around the world, is highly divided on the future paths that the country must take. As we will discuss later in this GEAB issue, this division is made visible by the complete chaos of the presidential election primaries. Those who can predict what America will look like at the end of the year are very clever, knowing that the Clinton option is far from being as benign as we might believe.

Facing this huge uncertainty, the world gets ready, everyone gets ready… and this year will definitely continue to be rich in all kinds of events…To read more, log in or Subscribe to the GEAB 


[1]    Source: Wikipedia
[2]    Source: Reuters, 15/04/2016
[3]    Our team has been following both impeachment attempts; one of them, in South Africa, affects a far murkier character than the other, in Brazil. We speculated that, ironically, it could be the murkier one who would escape impeachment and not the other. In this issue of the GEAB, we won’t know for sure if we were 100% right, but we already know we were 50% right. Source: BBC, 05/04/2016
[4]    Source: Al Monitor, 02/06/2013
[5]    Source: CSMonitor, 06/05/2013
[6]    Source: KyivPost, 22/02/2014
[7]    Source: The Guardian, 14/02/2014
[8]    The Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine economic trade agreement gives a beautiful example of this kind of disappointment: citizens get mobilised, they have a referendum, run a campaign, spend a great deal of energy, obtain the minimum requested percentage (30%)… all this for nothing, since the European democratic system is in fact unable to take any account of the result: the decision concerns Europe, but the approach is national; a large half of a third of the Dutch people said « no », so what? The totally illegitimate institutions signing this agreement have it easy sweeping aside these democratic initiatives. We are definitely far from knowing how to bring out our collective interests. Source: NLTimes, 07/04/2016
[9]    Cristina Fernandez, who left her chair in respect of the Constitution, is currently accused of corruption, while her competitor, Macri, in power now, is reported in the Panama Papers… Source: StraitTimes, 08/04/2016
[10]  Source: Washington Times, 10/02/2016
[11]  Michel Temer is the potential successor of Rousseff in case she is dismissed. Source: Bloomberg, 29/03/2016
[12]  Source: Reuters, 16/12/2015
[13]  Source: BBC, 28/02/2016
[14]  Source: Step, 21/01/2016
[15]  Source: Irish Times, 07/04/2016
[16]  Source: Financial Times, 12/04/2016
[17]  Source: EUObserver, 12/04/2016
[18]  Source: EUObserver, 12/04/2016
[19]  The remarkable reaction of the Belgian media to terrorist attacks, questioning their system instead of vituperating Islam (contrary to French media for instance), fuels our feeling that Europe (of which Brussels is also the capital) contributes to cushioning the reaction to events. Source: Le Vif/L’Express, 08/04/2016
[20]  Source: Visa-free.eu
[21]  We are not speaking here about the two other regional super powers, currently out of the game, namely Iran and Turkey. But behind the known domination of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world, we see the profile (at regional level) of the emerging multi-polar Middle East around these powers, and of which we need to carefully analyse the evolutions.
[22]  Source: South Africa’s Symbolic Hegemony in Africa, Chris Alden and Maxi Schoeman, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan
[23]  Source: GulfTimes, 14/04/2016
[24]  Source: Financial Times, 14/04/2016
[25]  Source: CNBC, 12/04/2016
[26]  Source: Bloomberg, 29/03/2016
[27]  Source: Wall Street Journal, 13/01/2016

About Marie Hélène

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