Whatever national news you watched last week, bit by bit international coverage was dominated by the daily messages to which you were accustomed for some years now. The civil war in Iraq against ISIS is still ongoing (the fight for Mosul is now very prominent) and the civil war in Syria is also ongoing (Aleppo resembles more and more a pile of debris). Meanwhile, in Afghanistan two US soldiers were killed and in Venezuela people are still rallying against president Maduro. However, you might have only shortly took notice of events that further indicate a shift in diplomatic relations and power balance between the West (here: US and Europe) and the rest.
First, let us have look on the bilateral meeting between Russian president Putin and French president Holland. Or let’s say the meeting that did not happen because Putin duped Holland. On the 19th October Putin should have arrived in France in order to inaugurate a Russian orthodox church. Both state leaders should have met at this occasion before subsequently the quartet talks on Ukraine commenced (to which also Poroshenko and Merkel were invited). However, Putin decided to cancel the meeting and arrived a day later after Holland announced that he only wants to see Putin in order to talk about Syria. Overall, it seems that continuous French (and Western) condemnation of Russian (and Syrian) bombardment of Aleppo did not have the desired effect (admittedly there is a short cessation of air strikes for a brief time but it is hardly due to Holland’s critique). In fact, this month Russia vetoed a French resolution on Syria at the UN Security Council on the 8th October (which angered the Élysée Palace), whereas the UNSC did also not vote in favor for a Russian draft resolution in turn (a blame game with no results). Whereas cancelling a meeting against this backdrop rings not the bell of demise for the West, it just shows that Putin is definitely back on international stage and he is able to set the stage and pace for Syria and Ukraine, no matter how loudly Western leaders shout.
Second, let’s have look on Africa and its special relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Once heralded as an instrument to bring war criminals to justice from otherwise internally instable states which would not be able to prosecute leading perpetrators, the ICC became in the eyes of African states a tool of the West to control politics in Africa in a neo-colonial fashion. Furthermore it is claimed, that the provisions in the Rome Statue would interfere into attempts of countries in Africa to engage in conflict management/resolution between each other. Nevertheless, it would not be true to say that the ICC is only a Western invention (for instance, many African states backed the Rome Statue at the beginning and contributed to the final legal texts). But since the only countries which have experienced official investigations and convictions were African so far, there has been tremendous resentment on the continent. This culminated in the open refusal of South Africa to detain Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir during an African Union Summit in Johannesburg in 2015. This week Burundi and South Africa announced their withdrawal from the ICC within the obligatory one year period in which they have to stay as members. Those are the first states to withdraw from the ICC at all and it could trigger a domino effect. It seems that Western ideals of global justice crumble. Western soft power loses its appeal and persuasion and the teeth to enforce justice lose strength.
Third, another remarkable event happened in China just a few days ago. On the 20th October Philippine’s president Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States during bilateral talks between him and Chinese officials. Additionally, he remarked that the next worthy partner to consult will be Russia. Whatever “separation” means in reality (this still has to be seen), it is evident that the newly elected president is on an intensive anti-US drift and the upcoming five and half years of his tenure will be fraught with headache for the West. His remarks go far beyond those that are typically used to increase bargaining leverage over “allies”. Furthermore, so far a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy is the claim over the South China to become an exclusively administered domain of China. Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on Philippine’s behalf, Duterte does not seem to be willing to capitalize on this international “legal” ruling. In contrast, it seems he is driving a strong bandwagoning course towards China, leaving balancing with the US aside. Concrete actions over the next years will illustrate how far Duterte is willing to go to severe ties with the US. How much this will disrupt US influence in Southeast Asia and how to respond not to lose a key ally will be a big task for the next US president.
There are several other issues which could be brought up, but these three cases illustrate in combination the weak diplomatic leverage and appeal the West seems to have. Will the West be able to change the tides? It does not seem so. People in the United States appear to be very vigorously discussing more the sexual propensities of a potential new president as well as the ability to handle an email account of another potential new president than the important details of foreign policy that could shake up the international order tremendously in its disfavor. ISIS is currently not a threat for the geopolitical order, but it occupies almost the entire attention span of people.
And Europe? From the point of view of international relations, most saliently Europe is right now fighting an internal struggle between those who endorse the free trade agreements CETA and TTIP (and thereby wish more economic unity between Western countries) and those who think that the treaties are worse than the box of Pandora. Unfortunately, while protesters fight an imaginary battle to prevent product standards from lowering (Canada and the EU Commission already offered representatives from Wallonia to enshrine it into the treaty so that it receives law-like status, but somehow people are still protesting), they do not realize that their fear of American and Canadian product standards (and joint arbitration courts) will lead Europe in 15-20 years to the point in which the EU will have to accept Chinese standards once Germany, France and the rest will be beseechingly begging for the permission to export manufactured products that consist of those rare earth metals which China will benignly allow to export to the EU in the first place.