Ghassan Salamé: The birth pangs of a new world order

In an interview with Al Majalla, global statesman Ghassan Salamé cites climate change, economic crises, and the use of nuclear weapons as his top three global concerns

Diplomat and former Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame poses for a photo session at the Palais Brongniart during the fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, on November 12, 2022.
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Diplomat and former Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame poses for a photo session at the Palais Brongniart during the fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, on November 12, 2022.

Ghassan Salamé: The birth pangs of a new world order

Paris: This year the world faces complex challenges, new opportunities and tough questions. Some of these questions surround the relationship between China and America, the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war and the future of a potential new world order.

Other lingering questions relate to the relationship between great powers, ambitious regional countries and a post-Covid world.

Al Majalla presented these questions to former UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, to draw on his rich expertise in the international arena and get valuable insights into links between global developments of today and putting them into historical context to predict the future.

I travelled to Paris to meet Salamé, who was also former Lebanese Minister of Culture and a professor of international relations. Our first meeting was in a Parisian café where we recalled our memories of Damascus and Beirut and what is left there — remembering the Fertile Crescent and the past decades.

Our second meeting took place the next day at Salamé's house. Near a wall lined with history books and files of his political, diplomatic and international missions, Salamé, who had just overcome a health scare, sat down in the folds of his comfortable chair, ready to share his wisdom.

Al Majalla publishes here a summary of the interview that was published in the print edtion of February. Tomorrow we will publish the full text of the interview.

As Salamé cited three of his biggest worries for the world, the Parisian sun that pierced through the window into the salon could not comfort us.

As he calmly sipped his coffee, he explained his fears over the trivialisation of the use of nuclear weapons, adding that ever since the war broke out in Ukraine, a day hasn’t passed where the term “nuclear” wasn’t mentioned.

Trivialisation of nuclear weapons use

He called this trivialisation “dangerous” and something that the world should not take lightly, particularly as it is in the throes of a new world order.

“We are experiencing the birth pangs of a new world order. These aches indicate a change in the structure of the world order, but right now it is difficult to see what this order will look like,” Salamé says.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Salamé was battling a disease which he thankfully overcame. At the same time, the world was also “sick”, and had to adapt to the pandemic in every sense of the word.

But when the world emerged from the deathly grip of the pandemic, it was confronted with a series of disturbing crises and confrontations. Salamé’s list is long, but he narrows it down to three main concerns.

Climate change

He says that climate change is not just a scientific hypothesis, but a fact. The source of concern here is political in nature, and if climate change is mostly caused by human activity, then countries and governments must address this phenomenon.

It started with the Kyoto Protocol 30 years ago, and then it moved to the conferences and accords of the Paris Agreement, but, in all cases, serious implementation has not happened for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that it is costly. Perhaps Europe can transition to an economy that does not accelerate climate change, but many other countries are financially unable to do so.

To make matters worse, public opinion is still not entirely convinced of the issue, and, hence, it does not press in this direction. Additionally, there are influential companies that do not want these policies to be implemented, so they finance lobbyists to obstruct such efforts.

But most importantly, wars and other emerging global problems have delayed action on this matter.

The Germans, for example, were on the verge of closing three nuclear plants, but with the war in Ukraine and the cessation of the flow of Russian gas, there has been a return to the use of nuclear power, and to coal as well.

Most importantly, wars and other emerging global problems have delayed action on climate change. The Germans, for example, were on the verge of closing three nuclear plants, but with the war in Ukraine and the cessation of the flow of Russian gas, there has been a return to the use of nuclear power, and to coal as well.

Ghassan Salame, International diplomat

With the Ukraine war and the cessation of the flow of Russian gas, there has been an extension of the life of nuclear plants and a return to the use of highly polluting coal.

So, while China is producing half of the global production of green energy, some developed countries are being forced to pause their programmes.

Global economic downturn

Salamé's second cause for concern is economic and financial in nature.  

He says that we are on the threshold of a downturn in the global economy with a decline in growth rates in various countries, including China, whose growth rate may not exceed three per cent this year — a third of what it was a few years ago.  

Potential repercussions of this downturn could include social unrest in such countries and a decrease in the volume of investments in poor and developing countries — particularly with the erosion of food and medicine aid provided to poor countries.

This is also starting to worsen because public opinion in wealthy countries — with the rise in prices that we see in Europe and the US, for example — will be stingier in aid or less supportive of investment abroad, which means they will be more inclined to pursue isolationist economic policies that could deal a blow to the dynamics of globalisation. 

Moreover, the International Monetary Fund does not hide its concern that the new year will be "crueler" for several countries, some of which are in our Arab region.

The use of force

The third factor is more political than the previous two issues, which is the use of force, and comes as we are approaching the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi examines buildings destroyed by shelling during his visit in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on January 24, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the past five or six centuries, there has been an accumulation of laws and customs regarding ​​the right to resort to force and its use in a 'morally acceptable' manner.  

Since the 15th century, a relevant legacy has emerged with formal and written aspects, which turned, about a century ago, into written treaties and agreements.

Moreover, the end of the Cold War raised hope that the use of force would become exceptional. In fact, some books and analyses were published at the time to herald the complete end of wars.  

It is true that there were several civil wars that broke out after the end of the Cold War, e.g. in Yugoslavia, Central Asia, and a few other countries, but they were largely curbed and did not extend to the inter-relations of the major countries. Rather, we saw that these major countries cooperated, at times, to solve these problems.  

For example,  Salamé says that the Taif Agreement in Lebanon, in which he played a small role, would not have happened at the end of the 1980s had it not been for the favourable global atmosphere that arose at that time.

For Salamé, the turning point was when Washington broke all norms, laws and Security Council resolutions by invading Iraq in the spring of 2003. 

US President George W. Bush delivers an address at the Louisville Convention Center 11 January 2006 in Louisville, Kentucky. Bush spoke about the US war in Iraq.

That invasion was probably caused by an exaggerated sense of power and a feeling that there were some appropriate historical circumstances for the US to get rid of opponents.  

But it set a very dangerous precedent, because the US — the superpower that played the largest role in building international institutions, particularly the United Nations in 1945 — has been the one violating these norms and laws and waging an unjustified and illegal war, as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan articulated at the time. 

An increase in state adventurism

The US invasion of Iraq inspired other major countries to do the same.

After the Iraq war, Russia attacked Georgia and carved out a part of it, establishing two independent republics, then attacked Ukraine and carved out part of the Donbas region and annexed Crimea and other regions in eastern Ukraine.

China moulded itself in a different way while it was dealing with Tibet, and particularly with Hong Kong, and perhaps one day with Taiwan or its neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines when it comes to the process of borders demarcation.  

The misbehaviour effect of the US did not extend only to Russia and China, but also to middle-power countries as well, such as Turkey, which intervened in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places, and is also present in Somalia and a number of African countries, while having a military base in Qatar.  

That US-effect also encouraged Iran, which interferes in more than one place and is publicly declaring its control today over the decision-making in four Arab countries.  

The US invasion of Iraq set a very dangerous precedent. It encouraged countries around the world to do the same as was the case with Iran, which interferes in more than one place and is publicly declaring its control today over the decision-making in four Arab countries.

Ghassan Salame, International diplomat

Then that effect extended to smaller countries or the so-called 'Little Spartans'. Moreover, there are some small Arab countries beginning to interfere here and there.  

In Africa, you have at least two countries that use force frequently. One of these two is Chad, whose soldiers we see elsewhere in the African continent, and the other one is Rwanda, led by President Paul Kagame. 

Therefore, 'Great Sparta' violated the law and intervened in Iraq. Other 'Spartans', i.e. other major powers, followed it, then medium-sized countries followed them, then small-sized countries did. In the last 20 years, we have seen that there has been a reckless use of force, he says. 

Considering these developments, I asked if the world order as we know it is coming to end.

Before Salamé responds, he stands up to get some more coffee. He puts the tray and two cups on the table. He takes a sip, leaves the cup in his hands, and speaks. 

When you talk about 'labour', you are talking about the birth of a newborn baby. We see the labour contractions, but we do not yet see what the baby will look like, he says.

There are pains due to the causes of concern that I mentioned, which I refer to as labour, and due to structural change, not a superficial change in the composition of the world order.  

Decline of the white man

To put things in context, we must go back in history.

What we see now is the extinction of an international system that has been around for five centuries, which began with the Europeans' discovery of the American continent and, thus, their dominance over it and the greater part of Asia and Africa.

At the beginning of the 19th century, China and India were among the largest economies, if not the largest. But Western supremacy, mainly thanks to the industrial revolution and steam navigation, "allowed the white man to control most parts of the globe." 

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the white man represented about a quarter of humanity but controlled four-fifths of the globe.

Now, the white man represents no more than 17 per cent of the world's population and controls only 30 per cent of the globe.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the white man represented about a quarter of humanity but controlled four-fifths of the globe. Now, the white man represents no more than 17 per cent of the world's population and controls only 30 per cent of the globe.

Ghassan Salame, International diplomat

This is due to the independence of dozens of countries and the restoration of major countries to their former positions before the Western expansion.

The West, led by the United States, is still the dominant global military power and it is premature to talk about the waning of Western influence on global events, he says.

However, new powers are growing at an astounding rate, especially in Asia, such as China, India, and Indonesia, not to mention regional countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey. These countries have clear ambitions.

Shrinking armies

On the other hand, European countries, especially Germany, somewhat disassociated from the idea of using force and adopted the idea of peaceful globalisation, so much so that we see the British army is much smaller than it was during the days of British leader Oliver Cromwell (mid-1700s).

The numbers of soldiers that Europe could mobilise now are smaller than one middle-sized Asian country.

It is true that the Ukraine war was a rude awakening for Europeans that destroyed their illusions of a peaceful world focused on technological and industrial supremacy and not the use of force.

But their awakening came somewhat late, except for countries like Poland and Ukraine, who never stopped investing in their militaries for the past decade.

He says its amazing to see that China, Turkey, and Iran are exporting thousands of drones to more developed countries?

The West's ability to maintain a dominate position in the global system has less to do with traditional power as it was in the past and more to do with the internal challenges that its opponents face, each for their own reasons.

This adds to the lack of clarity over the possibility of an alternative system to the one that the West has established and imposed over the past centuries.

Alternatives to Western model

What do Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (Brics) have in common? Nothing unifies them, he says. We roughly know the pattern that the West created and developed in the world. But what is the alternative pattern?  

It is easy to talk about the 'decline' of the West and you have many criteria for that 'decline', but what is the alternative? Is the call for national independence sufficient as a basis for an alternative international order, as the Russians or the Chinese in particular try to do?  

If so, then independence of what? And international relations, built on what? Will existing organisations be pushed to the margins or be taken over by the new powerful (one or many)?  

Therefore, there is indeed a 'labour' process happening in the world, and we definitely see it in clear graphs — an ascent of some nations and a decline of others — but what is the alternative to the Western order that they imposed on us.

The idea of ​​the 'modern state' is a Western idea, the idea of ​​democracy is a Western idea, the idea of ​​the United Nations is an American idea.  

What is the alternative to these institutions, customs, and laws whose source is primarily Western? More is required to envision a different international order.

As a rising power, China is undoubtedly trying to set an example. 

But what do you then say to people who want more freedom and are accustomed to such levels of freedom? Do you say to them: it is finished, we are going back to the era of dictatorship and the rule of the individual or the party or the like?  

The autocratic developmental state can be justified, but only for a while and to a limit. 

We live in a time where ideas, information and lifestyles are transmitted through modern means of communication, and it seems to me that it is difficult for countries to be able to close their societies in the face of incoming ideas and forms of life across the world, or to deprive people of their right to express a different opinion or demand such a right to express such an opinion.  

New and old maps 

China's military development is no less than its mighty economic rise (the size of its economy doubled seven times between 2001 and 2021).

Now it has the largest military navy in the world (at least by the number of ships) and the third air force, and if it continues to build nuclear warheads at the same pace, it will become parallel to America and Russia in the atomic field 10 to 15 years from now.

But the question remains: how will the mighty Chinese position themselves? 

Is it content with being a dominate player in its regional neighbourhood? Will it enter into an alliance with Russia? Will it be able to prevent America from forming a partnership with Japan, India and Vietnam (similar to its alliance with Nato)?  Will border skirmishes with India slip into open hostility and a bloody war?

These questions have no answers, but they will determine how the emerging international system is shaped.

India's position will certainly be a pivotal factor in the coming years, given that it is about to become the most populous country in the world and could possibly become the third largest global economy within four to five years.

For decades, India has mainly relied on Russian arms and adopted a policy of non-alignment in the diplomatic arena, but now we are seeing it diversifying its weapons sources. 

As such, it cannot maintain its former neutrality if a confrontation between China and America intensifies or if a solid alliance is established between China and Russia. These factors will push India towards rapprochement with the West to counter China.

A broader issue

Definitely. It is, in the Chinese case, as in the Russian case, a redrawing of the maps to a point before the control of the West. Taiwan seceded in favour of Japan. For a very long time, Taiwan was part of the Japanese Empire in the 19th century when Japan was strong. Then it came under American protection ever since its defeat in World War II. 

Undoubtedly, there are those in China who believe that the process of ending Western hegemony over the international system must also include restoring Taiwan to its Chinese mother.  

What is happening in Ukraine is that there is a large part of Russian public opinion that believes that there are regions and countries that have no real existence, which arose only because of Western domination over the international system. 

Local resident speak as they stand near an armoured personnel carrier in the eastern Crimea port city of Feodosiya on March 2, 2014. Witnesses said Russian soldiers had blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines there.

What Taiwan and Ukraine share is a common drive to return to a time before Western hegemony. That is to say, it is to complete and accelerate the process of the declining Western influence over them. This is the logic that drives them.  

But returning to a world before Western hegemony is not realistic. If you are opposed to this hegemony, you must confront it with the ideas and means of today, just as the anti-colonial forces did by using the ideas produced by Europe itself to eliminate its colonialism. 

At the same time, we have seen that the US is using the Ukrainian war and escalation with Taiwan as a reason to reinforce transatlantic and Nato relations.

The prevailing theory during the Cold War was that, if the influence of a major power starts to decline, it must use its military capabilities to stop it.   

It was the prevailing idea and was called "neo-realist thought", which had its proponents in the 1970s and 80s, he says. The world was later shocked to see a great superpower like the Soviet Union shrinking in size and influence, without a world war erupting.  

Cold War norms

The Cold War was characterised by four things. The first was deterrence and the second was mutual deterrence based on nuclear weapons.

Picture taken in 1961 in Potsdamer Platz of the Berlin wall built by the East German government to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main western powers.

It is like there is an equation: if you bomb me, I have the capabilities to respond in a way that I hit your main cities. You have nuclear capabilities and so do I, and, therefore, we will not collide directly at all.  

At the same time, rules of engagement were imposed, to some extent, between the two powerful haughty nations. But the Cold War included a second norm as well: I do not need you economically, and you do not need me economically.  

The level of trade exchange between Russia and America did not exceed 50 million dollars a year. Today, there is hundreds of times more trade between China and the US.  

There was a third norm in the Cold War, as well, which was: since we have prevented war between us, we can, however, fight proxy wars to prove our strength, greatness and influence.

We saw this in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Mozambique, Angola, Cuba, Nicaragua, and so on. While avoiding direct collision, wars were actually being fought all over the world. 

And there is also a fourth norm about the Cold War: we do not want to redraw borders. The borders remain the same, but we are concerned with the ideological orientation of the regimes within the borders.  

We, therefore, have no stance on Bangladeshi independence, the establishment of the state of Palestine or an autonomous Kurdish state. Such matters do not concern us. We accept the status quo of the region, but what concerns us is the ideological direction of those countries.  

For example, is Egypt aligned with America or Russia? This is where we work against each other, but we do not play with borders. East Germany is here, and West Germany is there. 

It's important to note here that unlike European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, US President Joe Biden is old and politically aware. 

He grew up during the Cold War, which made him less influenced by the illusions of the peaceful globalisation stage. 

Breaking taboos

Nonetheless, one should not rely on the safety cushion because relations between the superpowers can deteriorate. For example, what if Russia attacks another Nato country?  

What if two American and Chinese warplanes collide? In December, they reportedly came within three meters of each other.  

What if the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard attacks a ship of the US Seventh Fleet near the Strait of Hormuz?

There is a state of severe arm-twisting between America and several adversaries, especially Russia, China, and Iran, but it is still within the "red lines." 

Amid war in Ukraine, air and sea provocations in the China Sea, and financial and economic sanctions, what guarantees are there that an uncalculated mistake will not occur? How can we guarantee that any of these countries will not cross a ride line to avoid a possible defeat? 

This is a source of anxiety for everyone. 

The four points that characterised the world of the "Cold War" no longer exist.

First, nuclear power is no longer taboo among major powers. Secondly, there is a substantial economic and financial connection, especially between China and America, and to some extent between Russia and America's economic and financial interdependence.

Third, there is border play everywhere. There are no longer borders that we do not play with; instead, we play with orientations.

The ideological perspective has become extremely feeble. Russia does not consider itself the destination of communism, nor does the United States really seek to spread democracy.

Fourthly, proxy wars are not being waged, but instead, we are waging wars ourselves.

America invaded Iraq itself, unlike what used to happen previously during the Iraq-Iran war when it moved Iraq against Iran.

Russia did not move Belarus towards Ukraine; its forces entered Ukraine.

Fourth, proxy wars are not only something that we engineer, but we practice them ourselves. America invaded Iraq itself, not as happened previously in the Iran-Iraq War when it moved Iraq against Iran. Similarly, Russia did not incite Belarus against Ukraine, but it rather invaded Ukraine itself.

Ghassan Salame, International diplomat

Thus, wars are no longer passed onto others, and we help them from outside as enablers. We are direct parties to this war.  

When Putin wakes up every morning, he asks himself about what the Americans have prepared for him during the night to annoy him in Ukraine — not about what the Ukrainians have invented, but what the Americans have done to sabotage his invasion.

These are no longer proxy wars. Putin, himself, is in the war and he is leading it.  

Soft vs smart power 

Salame says he had a friend, a German professor, who coined the term 'light power' and mentioned, in particular, Germany and Japan as 'light powers' whose positions were very strong in the world economy, among the top five, but their situation was miserable when it came to military prowess.  

Salame remembers summoning a German general to help him in his international mission in Libya, but he discovered that he did not have the required qualifications.  

He also remembers that when the attack on ISIS began, the French and the Germans had given the former president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq Masoud Barzani MILAN missiles.

Barzani subsequently discovered that the MILANs that the Germans had given him had expired three years ago and he could not use it. It was the French who actually saved the day. 

The name of my friend who came up with the concept of 'light power' was Hans Möll, and I used the term after him because it fascinated me.

After that, about six years later, Harvard professor Joseph Nye built on it the idea of 'soft power', underlying the premise that poses this question: who needs the military anymore?  

Indeed, if we review the numbers, a decline in military spending is seen in various countries around the world. Soft power has become an industry. If you are militarily weak, you make it up in soft power. 

However, 'soft power' died in Baghdad in 2003 when the neo-conservatives came up with a new idea that was then developed into a famous book, as part of the Pentagon plan, which Paul Wolfowitz (former US Deputy Secretary of Defence) was convinced of.  

The idea was that it is not enough for the US to be a model that the world likes. As Joseph Nye said, the US is a model that everyone looks up to — everyone wants to eat McDonald's meals and everyone admires the American Constitution and watches Hollywood movies.  

This, however, became not enough.  

There are people for whom you need to use military power to uproot. This is the idea of ​​the neo-conservatives, and from the day when the idea of 'smart power' emerged, the idea of 'soft power' died, and the logic then became as such: even with McDonald's you still need a tank.

There are people for whom soft power does not work, such as Nicolás Maduro and Saddam Hussein, but you need to eradicate them. This is when the 'soft power' theory broke down. 

There are people for whom you need to use military power to uproot. This is the idea of ​​the neo-conservatives, and from the day when the idea of 'smart power' emerged, the idea of 'soft power' died.

Ghassan Salame, International Diplomat

On the intellectual level, Joseph Nye himself reviewed the 'soft power' theory and abandoned it. He then said that what is required is 'smart power', and this is a balance between 'hard power' and 'soft power', meaning that you need McDonald's and a tank.  

Japan and Germany

The two model countries were faced with things that changed their situation. In Japan, it began about 20 years ago, even before Shinzo Abe's first term.  

The turmoil in Japan was initially caused by concern over North Korea and then with Japan's observation of China's military growth.

That growth took shape after 10-12 years since it began the process. The issue of military strength began with the experience of Deng Xiaoping, and China has now built its third aircraft carrier.  

The Japanese think that Korea is provoking them, and the Russians are not ready to negotiate over the Japanese (Kuril) Islands. Day after day, North Korea launches its ballistic missiles over the Japanese islands, and China's influence is growing.

Gradually, Japan first began participating in several peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, Syria and elsewhere. Then it moved to a gradual increase in the defence budget and then to a serious discussion about the possibility of amending the constitution.  

Before all, Japan, as you know, is a country capable of producing a nuclear weapon within six months, and it is among 15 other countries in the world that have this capability, including Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. 

In the second term of Shinzo Abe, which lasted about 10 years, there was apparently a profound reconsideration, which has not yet extended to the Constitution, of the sufficiency of the American protection despite the importance of this protection located on the Japanese territory in Okinawa. 

On the other hand, Germany did not move during this period. Rather, we found that there was a camp in Germany that has fully adopted the idea of 'soft power' to the extent that it has become the first exporter in the world to rely mainly on the Chinese market to a large extent. 

Angela Merkel used to take 200 businessmen and industrialists with her on every visit to China. Additionally, the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines demonstrate Germany's absolute dependence on Russian gas (55 per cent of gas imports come from Russia).  

Whoever behaves in this way believes that the war between the great powers is over and that economic and sports competition has replaced military competition.  

The wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova came as the first surprises to Germany but were somewhat forgotten. However, the last attack on Ukraine came as a shock to the Germans.

What gradually took hold in the head of the Japanese over a period of two or three decades, happened in only three days between February 24 and 27, 2022 in Germany.  

Within three days, the Germans woke up to another world and discovered that they had no army and no weapons, and they were in a state of dependence on the Chinese market and Russian gas. Therefore, they had to change their behaviour in a radical way. 

Within three days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Germans woke up to another world and discovered that they had no army and no weapons, and they were in a state of dependence on the Chinese market and Russian gas. Therefore, they had to change their behaviour in a radical way.

Ghassan Salame, International Diplomat

The third issue is that there is a clear rise of the political right in Europe.

Everything that is happening in Europe in terms of the economic crisis, the gas problem during the winter, the rise of the political right, and excessive military spending, makes us feel that Europe, too, may be heading in the direction of something new. 

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