We’re almost half-way through 2018 and the international political landscape is as volatile as it will ever get. This year has been marked by events that seem to advance the idea that the entire political spectrum has returned to its Cold War origins – a collapsing Middle East that seems to have no bright future ahead, a looming trade war between the United States of America and the rest of the world combined, an increased Russian and Chinese presence in virtually all geopolitical aspects of the world, an European Union that seems to be crumbling from the inside out. Everything is on the table yet again and the concept of realpolitik seems to be the only way forward for the major players out there.
First off, what is realpolitik? To put it short, it’s politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises. It combines realism and pragmatism and it brings it to another level, where the countries act in a malleable way, constantly shifting their policies as to catch their counterparts’ off-guard or to simply address the issues that are most important at the given time. Is this way of doing politics viable in 2018? It might not be, but it definitely is necessary when looking at the international scene.
The Middle East seems yet again on the brick of war, with Israel and Iran revving up their war machines in a stand-off that might prove disastrous for the entire region. While up to this point this frozen conflict has been characterized as a continuous shouting match between two arch-enemies, with the sudden withdrawal of the US from the Iran accord and the subsequent move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the whole thing might turn bloody quite fast, given the animosity displayed by both sides involved.
The interesting part in this conflict is, however, the newly found friendship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as other Arab nations that seem to be rejecting Iran’s proposed pan-Arabic alliance against “western imperialism”. Realpolitik has played a huge role in this case, as it allowed Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu, to successfully outplay the Iranians in most encounters, as proven by the recent Israeli attacks on Iranian military bases in Syria. Moreover, it allowed Israel to develop close relationships with Arab states that were previously aggressive towards the Israeli cause, a thing that was deemed close to impossible a couple of decades ago.
With the election of the Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, as President Elect of the United States came a totally different face of the country that was once known as the “bastion of the free world”. The bellicose and aggressive manner in which President Trump has approached the state of international affairs have left his allies completely baffled and even shocked, up to the point of many even ruling in that the US can no longer protect the interest of its allies. This, however, might be the farthest from the truth.
Coming from a business perspective, what the US is doing under the Presidency of Trump is nothing else but political bullying at an international level, bullying that seems to be working in the case of many. Simply put, President Trump is playing both the good cop and the bad cop in order to achieve his campaign promises and his constantly shifting way of doing international politics have left his opponents and allies alike one step behind at all times. Sure, it might upset the status quo, but it seems to be in the betterment of the United States, no matter how loud and angry the establishment gets when it comes to the approach style.
In the cases of China and the European Union, what President Trump is doing is nothing else but smoke in the dust in the eyes of the US, but not in the eyes of the rest of the planet. By threatening to impose extra tariffs on products and resources from various places across the globe, the US is actually reinforcing their might as a superpower, as well as reshaping the already existing economical treaties that in the eyes of many have been disadvantageous to the United States up to this point. As we’ve seen in the last week, the looming trade war with China was suddenly transformed into a lucrative partnership between the two nations, but not before the US threatening China with billions of dollars of tariffs that would have made trade between the two nations near impossible. Realpolitik at play, at the highest level possible.
China and Russia
Albeit partners against the hegemony imposed by the United States, both Russia and China have been playing the geopolitical system to their own advantages, either as a way to develop economically or to stay relevant on the international scale when it comes to power projection. While China was one step away from a trade war with the United States, Russia has been affected by international sanctions for quite some time now, as well as being implicated in the Syrian civil war as a way to maintain its Mediterranean presence. Both of these countries have been very active on the international political spectrum, but to what avail?
Even though China sees the United States as one of its biggest opponents, realpolitik dictates that diplomatic channels should always be opened between the two mammoths, as the economic interests will always surpass the military ambitions of the Red Dragon, especially when the United States is the biggest export market for the Chinese products. One without the other, there’s no such thing, therefore the back-and-forward attitude displayed by the two superpowers that eventually led to renewed trade accords.
In the case of Russia, everything is complicated. The former superpower is on its way at reactivating its status on a global scale. Its military spending has sky-rocketed in the last couple of years and its military assets have been deployed to various regions across the globe, as to serve the Russian geopolitical interests. In the same time, President Putin has made it clear that the Russians will not bow under pressure – as a matter of fact, even though the country has been hit by sanctions that might have crippled its economy, Russia has continued to function quite good, thanks to diplomatic channels that have prevented major economic losses between the European partners and the Russians themselves. As a matter of fact, from all of the nations involved in this global game, Russia might be the top dog when it comes to realpolitik, especially when looking at the way Putin has cultivated his economic interests in various European countries, such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece or France.
The European Union
The old continent has been engulfed in a state of political instability that seems to have no end in sight. Cohesion between member states is at a historical low, populists are gaining traction at a pace never seen before and a constant state of fear and paranoia has characterized the European population ever since the migration wave has hit the continent three years ago.
While the smaller countries from the Eastern European block seem to be excruciatingly threatened by the Russian menace (except a few isolated cases, such as Hungary), the other big players such as Germany, France or Austria have been focusing their efforts as to please all sides involved, be it the United States or Russia itself. This can be easily seen when looking at the economic projects developed in partnership between these countries and the fact that major political parties from across the continent have already called for a more relaxed stance when it comes to Russia and the sanctions that have been imposed against the neighbour from the East.
Pragmatism and self-interest is what characterizes Western Europe the most as of now and a fracture has appeared between the underprivileged East and the heavily industrialized West. The recent emergence of the populist parties have made this very clear and now the European continent finds itself for the very first time with countries that have elected far-right or Eurosceptic political parties, as seen in the cases of Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania or the Czech Republic. Realpolitik dictates that the ideology doesn’t matter anymore, but what happens when the two ideas are applied at the same time?
The upcoming years are not only very interesting in the eyes of the people that pay close attention to what is happening in the world, but also quite dangerous as the status quo that has kept the world in a state of peace is slowly disintegrating, leaving place to a wasteland of ideologies, interests and individuals at play that will do everything to get into power. 2018 is the year that marks the real return of realpolitik, on a state never seen before.
This isn’t the Cold War whatsoever, this is a completely different world. One based on economic factors, international political bullying and a shock factor never seen before. Welcome to Earth, which side are you on?