For much of the ‘Third World’ the Cold War was the Good Old Days

 

Nonaligned Meeting

When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.

The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.

There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.

In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.

In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.

When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.

With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.

Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.

In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.

Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.

 

There’s One Thing I Haven’t Heard Yet About the U.S.-Iran Deal….

US-Iran deal

You can hear the discussions and the debates already: ‘A Major Middle-Eastern Re-Alignment’, ‘The Dawn of a New Era’, ‘From Foes to Friends?’ and on the litany of predictable headlines goes. And it is true, no matter what the future holds this was a big moment in the relations between two countries who have oscillated from low-intensity Cold War to outright hostility and back and back again numerous times since 1979. But now both sides realize the commonalities of interest outweigh the still substantial disagreements and there will at least be an attempt to deal with it. Whether or not it will be successful only time will tell. But hopefully it will be. Both nations share an enemy in combating Sunni extremism, which has much more global appeal and violent credit to its name than any corresponding Shi’a movement. In fact, last month U.S. airstrikes supported Iranian backed Shi’a militia offensives against Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq. Nothing like an even scarier foe to bring to former enemies together.

The question will be if this rapprochement is temporary or long term. Iran also wants more diplomatic options, an end to sanctions, and greater levels of flexibility than to be forced into becoming a junior partner with Russia. The U.S. on the other hand no longer has the will to bluster about constant large scale conventional intervention and also needs more options in the region-particularly if it is going to downplay its presence in order to focus on the far more important (to Washington) Asia-Pacific and possibly even European spheres of interest. It may also be desirable to remind the Saudis and Israelis who is boss in the relationship with Washington, but good luck getting anyone to acknowledge that in any official capacity. Both sides have a lot to gain and even more to lose. Nothing is settled yet but the gamble just might be worth it. After all, look at Yemen. A Saudi led coalition as well as (allegedly by some but unproven so far) an uninvited Israeli guest are stepping up bombing runs on Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who are making gains at the expense of the government. Now this is a wild card for both parties as it introduces independent action from their allies separate of their own negotiations. It is so convoluted that it actually has captured a fair amount of media attention relating to the talks-as it should.

But one thing I am so far not seeing mentioned, except in passing, concerns less about new-found chumminess in Iraq against a common foe or even the dangers of the situation in Yemen, but rather the still ongoing and far more deadly than either of those examples Syrian Civil War.

When the war began there was no question as to whose side Iran would stand on. Syria under the Assad family was a die-hard Iranian ally, all the more important for really being the only one. Naturally, this meant that the United States and its allies jumped on the rebels bandwagon (this was of course those dark and far off days of 2011). Syria also of course had close ties to Russia (The Tartus Naval Base in Syria being Russia’s only external military installation not in a part of the former U.S.S.R.) and a quite obvious minefield of ethnic and sectarian divides. All of this made direct intervention a la Libya not an option. But short of invasion or no-fly zone, the U.S. and Iran went to work on a proxy conflict as the once sealed Syrian state splintered apart.

The problem of course was that so did Saudi Arabia. In fact, nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar were much more gung-ho about such an intervention than even the U.S. seemed to be (neoconservative fantasies of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aside). The extreme form of Islam often championed by elements within these states, coupled with the fact that the Assad regime had long since made alliances against the majority Sunni population of their nation with many of the various other minorities basically guaranteed a particularly nasty division of society. Something that the Iraq War should have given the U.S. foreign policy establishment much more pause when contemplating entering the fray.

Once it became apparent that the Syrian government would not fall quickly-or perhaps at all-radicalization within the rebel movement was pretty much a guarantee. Gradually, the Islamist elements became a larger and larger part of the Syrian opposition, to the point where any hopes of a moderate-only victory became about as likely as a Green Party candidate winning the American presidency.

I remember watching the early stages of the Syria conflict unfold as a doctoral student familiar with Syria’s general demographic makeup. My first thought was ‘if the government doesn’t crumble in a month or two this is going to be nasty on all fronts-how I hope the U.S. doesn’t interfere!’ But so it happened. How much of an effect this had on the war is debatable, but once the war was guaranteed to be long it very much served U.S. interests to hope the regime-yes the Assad one-would be the faction which emerged triumphant. Rebel victory increasingly looked like a scenario where the price of getting rid of one family and their nepotistic gang would demand a terrible price for ethnic and sectarian minorities alike, not to mention the empowerment of religious fanatics who respected no borders. And yet, the American foreign policy establishment still hedged its bets with the rebels who at best could deliver only the most questionable gains in the form of Iran having to spend money and arms on aid to Damascus.

Perhaps the United States realizes its errors on this issue. Perhaps not. But this brings us back to the recent Iran-US talks. Iran and Russia are the only state level external actors that pull weight with the Syrian regime. It would be wise-if the U.S. wishes to take back its Syrian mistakes-to be using those secret talks in order to negotiate something on Syria, namely to agree to stop any indirect support for the rebels in order for something else.

Considering the way things can go in such negotiations, it would hardly surprise me if that ‘something else’ was acknowledging Iranian influence in Syria and maybe even assisting them against Daesh there (where they are even more entrenched in than in Iraq) in exchange for Iran agreeing to make its Shi’a militias in Iraq loyal to the Iraqi government at least once the current conflict is over. Or it could be for Iran to have its proxies hold off from hostility with the Kurds. This is of course speculation, but its the kind of deal I would strike. If it is not that, one suspects Syria still comes up, and that the U.S. could very well be looking for a face-saving way to distance itself from that country or for further collaboration between all parties opposed to Daesh-something Iran could very likely provide.

Simply because this is the one issue being sidelined by the media covering the US-Iran talks makes it by far the most interesting one to me. If indeed this is being actively discussed the ramifications of it could be as big as any nuclear program or shift in alliance networks.

Anyway, have a pretty jumpin’ propaganda song.

 

Edit: 4/13 to clarify that the claims of Israeli involvement in Yemen are so far unsubstantiated.