The Middle East as the Pivot of the International System

Over the last few years, many policy-makers and government officials in the United States have been advocating for an American ‘Pivot to Asia.’ Not to be outdone, the governments of other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Russia, and Australia, have all tried to also ‘pivot’ toward Asia.

The idea of ‘pivoting’ or ‘rebalancing’ to Asia is based around the premise that the Asia-Pacific, particularly East Asia is the location of the most important trends in 21st century geopolitics. The view that the global order will increasingly focus around East Asia is based on several factors:

  • The rise of China, its stellar economic growth, and the channeling of this growth toward military power and influence
  • The continued importance and economic growth of several other countries in East, South, and Southeast Asia
  • Demographics: over half of the world’s popular lives in East, Southeast, and South Asia
  • Geography: several important bodies of water, through which much of the world’s trade passes through, lie in the Asia-Pacific. These include the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Given all these factors, it is not surprising that many policy-makers in the United States believe that East Asia will be the hub of 21st century geopolitics; additionally, many wish this to be so, because of the continued chaos throughout much of the Middle East, a region that has seen a much heavier U.S. footprint throughout the past decade than East Asia. Geopolitical currents in East Asia is more similar to what policy-makers in the United States have been raised to expect: great power rivalry, with secondary powers balancing one way or the other, and tensions managed through a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvering. On the other hand, in the greater Middle East, the boundary between personal and state, domestic and international questions is often blurred, as sectarian, tribal, and ethnic rivalries are spread out over multiple, often heterogeneous, states.

However, the center of global geopolitics in the 21st century will not be the Asia-Pacific, and it remains debatable to what extent United States will experience a ‘Pacific Century,’ as Hillary Clinton argued in 2011.

Heng. Source: NY Times

Heng. Source: NY Times

Political, religious, ethnic, and security concerns will outweigh economic ones, as trends in Europe and the United States demonstrate, and this points toward increased geopolitical ferment within and near the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia, as well as in  South Asia (the Indian subcontinent), a region frequently mentioned as part of the larger Asia-Pacific region, but in reality a region whose destiny is more closely tied to that of the Middle East and Central Asia.

As such, we can expect a century where the most important geopolitical trends focus around the regions watered by the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, with Europe to its west and East Asia to its east. While the centerpiece of this area is the Middle East, and it is often referred to as the ‘greater’ Middle East, a more accurate term would be the one coined by the historian Tamim Ansary, the ‘Middle World,’ as it lies in the center of the Eurasian landmass.

This ‘Middle World’ or greater Middle East today resembles, in many ways, the world before the establishment of the liberal world order and and the spread of modern-nation states. Security and military concerns are prominent, geopolitical rivalries abound, and terrorism remains problematic. Despite the economic might of East Asia, the military-security focus of world geopolitics will remain in the Middle East, as powers such as the United States, Russia, various European countries, and India all try to shape outcomes in this central region.

Because of this configuration in the Middle East, countries and non-state actors in the region will have to compete with each other and project power, both military and diplomatic, across boundaries to a greater extent that countries in many other regions. The basis on which the Asia ‘pivot’ is premised, that economic power translates into an equivalent amount of geopolitical importance, does not always hold true. A case in point is Russia: it is currently ranked 12th in GDP and 9th in population among the countries of the world, but is still able to project more power and be more geopolitically relevant than many countries with larger economies (for example, Brazil) or populations (for example, Bangladesh).

Geopolitics, perceived national interest, and security requirements are all factors in Russia’s use of power, and certainly having large petroleum resources help. Likewise, countries in the Middle East, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, despite lacking the economic growth and population that characterizes China, will emerge as major geopolitical players in the world system, out of the current necessity of remaining engaged across multiple boundaries in order to deal with terrorist and sectarian threats. This is not to suggest that the region does not have natural advantages comparable to those of East Asia. Some of these advantages include:

  • Central location as a hub between Europe and East Asia
  • The presence of world-class cities like Dubai and Istanbul
  • Much of the world’s petroleum
  • Important choke-points such as the Bosphorus, Suez Canal, Strait of Aden, and Strait of Hormuz
  • Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are among the twenty largest economies in the world
  • Egypt, Turkey, and Iran are among the twenty most populous countries in the world

All this means that in the Middle East itself, major security decisions will increasingly be taken by Middle Eastern powers themselves, not the United States, which has begun to disengage and will likely continue to do so, and most certainly not by any theoretical replacement great power from outside the region, such as China, which simply cannot project power in the region any level comparable to that of the United States and Great Britain at their heights; nor is it even necessary for China to try to intervene in the region when it can simply do deals with everyone. Iran has been pushing for this strategic autonomy in its own backyard for many years now, but recently, Saudi Arabia has also taken the initiative in assembling coalitions of countries for various purposes, including a coalition of countries to project power into Yemen. It is only a matter of time before Turkey creates its own sphere of influence and perhaps forgoes trying to join the European Union (EU) altogether; its current establishment of spheres of influence in Syria seem like a step towards this goal.

In conclusion, geopolitical trends are not necessarily pointing toward the Asia-Pacific as the next hub of global geopolitics. Rather, the important of the Middle East will remain and grow, due to its central location and the security environment of the region, which is helping the most important countries of the region become major world powers in their own right.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an international relations analyst, editor and writer, who contributes to the Diplomat and the National Interest. He received his Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he concentrated in international security.

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