Chasing power and influence

Not long ago the world was divided into two neat groupings: those with power, and those without.

Identifying who belonged in which pile was easy.

In the wake of the Second World War, the U.S. and Soviet Union rose to global pre-eminence, both financial and ideological, as the rest of Europe, as well as Japan, slowly rebuilt themselves from the ashes of war. For nearly half a century that followed, the world was divided along an axis dividing the US and the USSR, the first and second worlds.

But with the bankruptcy and eventual fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, the once bi-polar world of superpower regimes fall to a uni-polar one led by the near-hegemonic United States of America. Europe and Japan had long since rebounded, and while they grew to hold a large share of power and influence in the 1970’s and 1980’s, neither held the resources to dictate global affairs to such an extent as did the US.

Free-market and liberalist doctrines were thus de jour. The Washington Consensus ruled economic development. American culture and influence exuded soft power. American supremacy was unquestioned.

Yet fast forward two-decades and American economic decline, military over-extension and political divisiveness have left it looking a lot like the pre-collapse Soviet Union. A fragile house of cards seeking to spend its way out. Perhaps Obama is to the US, as Gorbachev was to the USSR: a Trojan horse of unavoidable decline.

Such (naïve?) comparisons aside, what is even more important is that the power and influence held by individual states is no longer divided on a simple axis of first and second powers. Instead global power and influence has become increasingly diffuse with a series of new powers quickly emerging to garner influence in global affairs. And while this topic is most often associated with Brazil, India, China and Russia, emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran are increasingly influential.

Their increasing voice in international affairs is pushing Western power aside, and allowing regional power to determine regional issues. While this may sound innate, not long ago affairs of the Middle East, the Security Council and global governance – and their local impacts- were represented by the voices of the West. Today, all three are much more tied to the rise of these new emerging and middle powers.

For example, Turkey is now a central player in the future of Afghanistan and the entire Middle East, and is seen as an increasingly confident and assertive regional leader. The country’s strong economic growth of six per cent GDP growth over 2002-2007 has seen it become a regional hub for both inward and outward FDI. This growing economic influence explains the subsequent decline in popularity of possible EU ascension, especially given the policy conditionalities required for EU membership. Instead, Turkey has confidently exploited its role as a bridge across the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia and as increasingly independent economic and political actor.

Since 2007, Turkey has played an integral role in building peace in Lebanon and Iraq, and in ‘engineering’ direct talks between Syria and Israel. It is now using its diplomatic clout to broker talks between the West and Iran. And more recently, Turkey organized the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan – seeking once again to use its growing influence to bring about stability in the region. This latter program includes promoting direct talks with the Taleban, a strategy long-ignored by Western forces.

Just to its south, Iran is home to the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves, and as a result, a burgeoning resource economy. Its subsequent energy-related popularity has shielded it from stricter UN sanctions related to its ongoing nuclear program. China, for example, imports up to 15 per cent of its oil imports from Iran, and has continually obstructed sanctions against Iran at the Security Council. In addition to oil sales, China has invested aggressively in Iran’s natural gas fields and infrastructure, further enabling Iran’s economic and political independence.

Moreover, with the fall of Saadaam Hussein’s Sunni leadership in Iraq, and the subsequent rise of a Shia government in its place, Iran has greatly expanded its sphere of influence in the fertile crescent. And this influence goes well beyond Shia majorities. Its support of Hezbollah against Israel has increasingly garnered Iran cross-factional support from across the Middle East.

And there are other emerging powers who may soon play larger international roles, notably South Africa as the cornerstone of a continent of 1 billion people, and small states such as Qatar and Singapore who have sought to use their wealth as a means of influencing the global agenda.

All of these emerging powers contribute to an increasingly multi-polar world of global governance. Economic growth breeds economic influence, which inevitably breeds political influence. And with the simultaneous decline of European and American financial generosity and influence, has allowed a political space for these new emerging rule makers and shapers.

The recent Copenhagen Summit on climate change offered a first-hand glimpse into this new world. While US President Barack Obama was the headline media attraction, substantive negotiations on what environmental cooperation would like were primarily controlled by a new group of world powers: China, India, South Africa and Brazil. America had to squeeze into the conversation.

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman penned an illustrative column on the topic a month or so ago, noting that “Four of the biggest and most strategically important democracies in the developing world – Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey – are increasingly at odds with American foreign policy. Rather than siding with the US on the big international issues, they are just as likely to line up with authoritarian powers such as China and Iran.”

And so goes the new world of multi-polar power and influence.

Economic power amassed by newly industrializing nations has endowed them with the political capital necessary to provide alternatives to two decades of rather unilateral Western doctrine. China, Brazil and India hold the fastest growing currency reserves in the world, leaving them increasingly able to influence both regional and global governance. And while the three still represent a small share of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, their recent purchase of over $100 billion in IMF bonds were a direct attempt at change.

Be it related to the environment and economic growth, or the control and direction of the international governance institutions, money talks. And as that money is increasingly held outside of the traditional confines of Western influence, we’re left with a profound question as to what happens to our biased systems of trade, growth and governance when someone else holds it.

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