Exploiting the end of the American era

The first major global conflict of the 21st century broke out in the Middle East. It didn't involve Iran. IS...

Posted: Aug 10, 2018 3:33 PM
Updated: Aug 10, 2018 3:33 PM

The first major global conflict of the 21st century broke out in the Middle East. It didn't involve Iran. ISIS wasn't a factor. Surprisingly, even Israel found itself on the sidelines.

The initial volley of shots in the battle for the post-US period came from Saudi Arabia. The power struggle was caused by Washington's withdrawal from the world.

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This week has seen two incidents which suggest the Kingdom's conduct is less constrained by Western ways. First, Canada's ambassador had a fairly common critique following the detention of a women's rights activist. Instead of issuing their own statement, Riyadh simply cut off ties. Second, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that killed dozens of children. Instead of apologizing, the Saudis defended the airstrike, calling it a legitimate military operation. The message seems to be: we no longer feel the need to conform to external expectations.

President Trump had surrendered the United States' role as a principal source of global stability. No longer was the country going to honor alliances, treaties or traditions. No more would its foreign policy be guided by a set of values and an inclusive vision of the world. America First has left other nations, like Canada, to fend for themselves.

Criticism of its human-rights record should be nothing new for Saudi Arabia. The US badgers them, they bristle and then it's back to business as usual. So, when the Canadian ambassador decried the detention of a women's rights activist in a tweet last Friday, Ottawa expected a similar reaction.

Instead, Riyadh unleashed the diplomatic equivalent of its nuclear arsenal. Not only was the ambassador expelled, trade was cut off and even Saudis hospitalized in Canada were moved to other countries.

This was about more than a tough tweet. The kingdom's leaders want to recast its relations with the world. They know the United States is unlikely any longer to rush to the defense of human-rights activists or allies. Such a disproportionate reaction sends a strong message to other nations that would consider criticizing its conduct.

Saudi Arabia realizes that the rules are being rewritten. Influence is being reapportioned. The oil-rich nation saw its opportunity and seized the moment.

America has stood by and watched. It told both countries to work it out among themselves. That's diplomatic speak for you are on your own, Canada.

Out of pride and principle, Ottawa may take a stand and protest against bullying and bad behavior. But ultimately, Canada is likely to lose this scrap.

We are entering an era in which might more often will make right. No single nation will be able to effect tectonic shifts in the global order. Instead, regular tremors will disrupt and inflict damage on international institutions, as well as ideals for which they stand.

Canada, France -- and perhaps even someday again the US -- can push back against these trends. They can try to lead by example. But others will exploit the benefits of the geopolitical shift.

Western sanctions against nations breaking the rules won't be strong enough in the future. Their enticements will have lost much of their luster. The West simply won't have the power to impose its will on the world.

Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and other emerging powers will play by their own set of rules.

They will have on offer their own prizes and be able to pull out their own penalties. Many of the conditions and concerns that came with Western engagement will be cast aside. It may not replace a Washington-dominated world, but it will certainly be able to contest for influence.

So, what should leaders like Canada's Justin Trudeau and France's Emmanuel Macron do at this stage?

First, they need to lay out a much more compelling case for our shared values and a vision of the world they can create.

Second, that case needs to become much more pragmatic. Vague values like human rights and democracy are a tough sell these days. Instead, they should focus on the tangible value they create. It's a world that brought you the internet, the iPhone and the next major innovation coming just around the corner.

Finally, the West needs to go on the offensive. We spend far too much time reacting, responding and repairing the damage. It's time that we more aggressively defended ourselves. It's time we put those who would endanger our way of life on the defensive.

Other countries -- and our own citizens -- took a lot for granted in the era of American global leadership. Our leaders could be counted on to do what was right. As that period comes to a close, power is diffused not only across to other countries -- but downward.

The US government may not come to Canada's aid, but its people can. Individuals and institutions can speak out. We have witnessed the incredible power of citizen-led social and political movements in recent years. It could be mobilized, especially on an issue like women's rights. That might well significantly change Saudi Arabia's calculus.

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