Why we need to keep track of the pivots and poles
Opinion: We now have a Russian pivot to Asia in the form of a gas deal signed by Vladimir Putin on a visit to Beijing
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping attended a signing ceremony last month. Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom earlier signed a long-awaited gas supply agreement with China. Photograph: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Pivots and poles are images widely used to describe changes in international politics. A pivot is a pin on which anything turns while a pole is the end of an axis. Both terms are used to describe geopolitical change as the balance of global power shifts in a more multi-polar world.
Thus Barack Obama’s 2011 “pivot to Asia” is one of the defining moves in his foreign policy. It has recalibrated the US military presence in east and southeast Asia, reinforcing alliances to take account of China’s emerging power in these regions.
His recent visits there reaffirmed US defence commitments to Japan, South Korea and the Philippines just as maritime disputes over islands and oil drilling flared and as Japan embarks on the most ambitious shift in its defence policy since 1945.
We now have a Russian pivot to Asia in the form of a gas deal signed by Vladimir Putin on a visit to Beijing. It echoes Putin’s Eurasian Union strategy, having just signed agreements with Belarus and Kazakhstan designed to create a free trade zone competing with the European Union.
Ukraine’s eschewal of such a deal after the crisis provoked by its association agreement with the European Union provides the wider setting for this initiative. Russian has pressured Armenia and Moldova to turn down similar EU agreements.
Putin’s disenchantment with conventional European values sees him embracing alternative ones. They draw on ideas put forward by Nikolai Trubetskoy and Petr Savitsky in the 1920s who suggested that maritime (Euro-Atlantic) and continental (Eurasian) civilisations were fundamentally different in their values and habits, and were bound to compete.
Russia represented a unique civilisation with a mission to unify the huge space of Eurasia and to withstand the attempts of maritime (Atlantic) civilisation to encircle and crush it. Such ideas were suppressed in the Soviet Union but became part of underground dissident thought from which they have been revived by Alexander Dugin, sometimes described at Putin’s brain.
China’s backyardChina too is repivoting. Its leaders are anxious to avoid being locked into a privileged but dependent relationship with the United States and therefore seek other partners. Many of its international relations theorists believe the US is a declining power unable or unwilling to assert itself as before. They say it should set its sights nearer home.
The fine performance of the John Adams opera Nixon in China in Dublin recently reminded me of a previous Chinese repivot, away from the Soviet Union and towards the US. It is usually presented from the US point of view, as practised by Nixon and theorised then and now by Henry Kissinger, portrayed in the opera, probably unfairly, as an opportunist and playboy in contrast to Nixon’s more thoughtful characterisation.
‘Epochal event’Adams’s subtle treatment of the subject reflects his belief that Nixon’s 1972 trip “was in fact an epochal event, one whose magnitude is hard to imagine from our present perspective”.
He examines it from both points of view, giving his work an abiding relevance for a period in which both powers are now coming to terms with a global era when there is a greater pluralisation of national interests and diffusion of power than is encompassed by notions of bipolarity, unipolarity or even multi-polarity with which analysts try to understand these changes.
They involve a “significant shift of power to countries in the east and south”, as the draft national risk assessment document from the Taoiseach’s Office puts it in the section on geopolitical risks – along with changes in the EU, uncertainty over the UK’s relationship with the EU and the outcome of Scotland’s vote on independence “which could introduce an element of instability into Northern Ireland”, and terrorist incidents.
Kissinger’s recent book On China attempts to get inside its official mindset, sometimes uncritically, from a classical realist perspective. Obama’s speech on US foreign policy two weeks ago also comes from a realist direction, tempered by a realisation that these global changes limit its capacity to use military power and reinforce the need for multilateral action.
From China’s point of view these changes in the polarity of power require repivoting: towards its neighbourhood, towards Russia – and towards Europe on trade, reserve currency and multilateral issues.
Theorists of polarity in international relations regard power transitions such as the present one between the US and China as dangerous, possibly leading to war. However imperfect the imagery of pivots and poles, they are necessary tools of analysis in the midst of such far-reaching change.