In Other News – A View from Abroad

Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

In a time of great geopolitical upheaval, nations are hedging their bets and opportunities for new alliances abound. With two active and influential wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and a battle for competition among global superpowers, the world has entered a new geopolitical reality. China’s heightened global posture and Russia’s aggression have led to a renewed impetus for NATO in the West and encouraged enhanced relations among the United States, European Union, Japan, South-Korea and Australia. But China and its subordinate Russia have also enhanced the BRICS format with six additional states, strengthened their security collaboration within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and increased their respective economic and military activities in Africa.

During the Cold War, ideology was a dominant and decisive factor in geopolitical alignment. Countries closely linked to the Soviet Union, and China, adopted communist state and economic systems, while countries associated with the United States and Western Europe generally adopted more democratic and capitalist systems. But in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the strict ideological divide has blurred and eroded, and for most nations it’s no longer a matter of simply choosing sides. While there is still an element of democratic versus autocratic systems, this difference does not define the foreign policy choices countries make. Instead, most nations are now hedging their bets based on a narrow definition of their national interest “Staatsräson”- the interest of the State.

These national interests are being driven by factors like geographic proximity to United States or China – and to a lesser extent Russia, economic prosperity, security considerations and transactional profitability: “what is in it for me?” This calculus is visible in the actions of Saudi Arabia and UAE – who are pivoting in their foreign policy away from Washington towards China, and the renewed focus of Latin American countries towards China. Many countries in Africa and the Caribbean have also made very clear pro-China choices in exchange for huge financial investments. Some countries make these choices quite explicitly, while others try to remain as invisible as possible, recognizing that “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

Some countries are also trying to work both sides to their advantage, as demonstrated by Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Traditionally, Central Asian countries naturally focused politically on Moscow, as many are former Soviet Union republics, and others focused heavily on Beijing for economic opportunities. With Russia’s current pre-occupation with Ukraine, however, and the Kremlin’s power seriously reduced, Central Asian nations have an opportunity for political maneuvering.

Outside powers are also recognizing that Central Asia is fertile ground for new partnerships. Germany has been investing in enhanced economic ties in the region, and French President Macron visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the end of October, focusing on energy relations. An October EU meeting in Brussels also concluded with the EU Central Asia Roadmap for deepening ties between the EU and Central Asia, as well as the agreement on the 2024 EU Central Asia Summit in Uzbekistan.

For its part, Washington is also looking to deepen ties in the region. President Biden hosted an inaugural C5+1 summit with Central Asian heads of state during this year’s UN General Assembly in September, and US State Department officials visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan last week to build upon the success of the summit. Another key regional player, Japan, also recently organized a meeting with regional leaders to focus on the supply of oil, gas and minerals. Moscow looks at these new ties with concern, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has remarked that “the West is trying to pull Russia’s neighbors, friends and allies away from it.”

For many countries, linking political friendships with economic advantages and playing the United States and Europe against China and Russia, will be an attractive strategy in the years to come. This will have direct implications- especially for European foreign policy. The EU member states will have to make a balanced decision whether their own external policies, heavily dominated by human rights and value related considerations, should take precedence over their own naked financial and security self-interests.

Indeed, while it might have been straightforward for Washington and the EU to support Ukraine because of their shared values – including an adherence to democracy, human rights, and international law, this calculus is not always so straight-cut. In regions like the Middle East and parts of Africa, for example, where the West might want to maintain alliances for security and economic purposes, these political relationships will be challenged by a divergence in ethical standards that isn’t easily resolved.

At the same time, however, smaller states in these regions ultimately profit from the protection of the international legal order. And during times of political upheaval like the present, there exists a real opportunity for Western democracies to play into the national self-interest of smaller nations via economic and political outreach. Taking this into account, in the coming months we’ll be keeping a watch on regions like Central Asia, to understand how effective this burgeoning outreach might be and what it might indicate regarding the future geopolitical landscape.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.