The Emerging Multi-polar World and Small States: The Case of Armenia

Indra Stra
By Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan 
Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, Yerevan, Armenia

The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union have ushered in hopes of humanity's happy and harmonious future. The ideas such as "End of history" became very popular both within academic circles and policymakers. There was a widespread belief that the entire planet would live under liberal democracy, and interstate conflicts will become bad memories from history. The last decade of the XX century seemed to confirm those hopes. The EU and NATO enlargement, market reforms in former socialist states, cooperative relations between Russia and the West, and the growing US-China economic cooperation have seemingly justified hopes for establishing the world united under the banner of liberal democracy. The US enjoyed its absolute hegemony defined as a "Unipolar moment" with no apparent candidate to challenge its supremacyWashington embraced the grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which was in one way or another implemented during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

However, the beginning of the XXI century crushed these hopes. Russia – West relations started to deteriorate after the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, while the 2014 Crimean crisis brought bilateral relations to the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, astonishing Chinese economic growth and the emergence of the multi-million middle class did not bring about political changes in China. 

The turning point was the 2008 world financial crisis. It started in the US and shook the Western-dominated international financial system. It coincided with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which proved the ascent of China. The old mechanisms such as G-7 and later G-8 were unable to implement effective global governance, and the first summit of the G-20 in November 2008 was the harbinger of an upcoming tectonic shift in the world order. The establishment of new multilateral organizations such as BRICS and India and Brazil's rapid growth were clear signs that the world was drifting away from the "Unipolar Moment" towards a more complex multi-polar world.

The election of President Trump in November 2016 brought about new impetus in the US-China rivalry, while despite the perceived pro-Russia policy of President Trump, there were no significant improvements in the US – Russia relations. The 2017 US National Security Strategy explicitly put the great power rivalry at the center of the current international relations accusing Russia and China of their revisionist efforts. 

Despite all its criticism of President Trump, President Biden most probably will continue tough policy towards China seeking to encircle Beijing with the US-friendly states. A recent effort to transform Quad grouping into an alliance is a clear sign of US intentions, while the policy towards Russia is more nuanced. Biden called President Putin "a killer" and imposed new sanctions on Kremlin. Meanwhile, the US offered Russia to organize a bilateral Presidential summit in 2021, stating its intention "to have predictable relations with Moscow." President Biden reiterated his desire to reinvigorate the US alliances, strengthen transatlantic ties and protect democracy. It may seem that the Biden administration seeks to restore the US absolute hegemony and bring back the world to 1991. However, this is an unrealistic goal, and most probably, the Biden administration understands well that the world in the XXI century will be the "multi-polar" one. The recent publication in one of the most influential American think tanks argued for establishing the "New concert of powers” resembling the XIX century “Concert of Europe” and warned against efforts to restore the grand strategy of the liberal hegemony. It is a clear sign that at least part of the American establishment understands that a multi-polar world is a reality and the best course for the US is to adapt to these new conditions.

The emergence of the "Multi-polar world order" will inevitably trigger regional instability and the rivalry for regional hegemony. The absence of the world hegemon or the "world policeman" means that the second-tier states will be more inclined to use coercion as the primary tool to push forward their national interests. These states now enjoy much more flexibility in choosing their alliances and playing one great power off another. One of the best examples of this situation in Turkey. Being fully anchored in the US sphere of influence during the Cold war, Turkey now effectively balances between the US and Russia, opposing Washington in Syria and Kremlin in the Black Sea region. The Greater Middle East is a good example depicting the rivalry for regional hegemony between Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, while external players such as Russia, the US, and China seek to push forward their national interests.

If an emerging multi-polar world creates new possibilities for the second-tier states, the small states face growing challenges and threats. The rivalry for regional hegemony, growing instability, the erosion of accepted rules and norms, and the emphasis on coercion in interstate relations create complex problems for small states. It is especially valid for small states which are located on the fault lines of great powers. They may quickly become the "gray zones" or "areas of hybrid operations" with possible proxy wars and permanent instability. 

The South Caucasus is one of such areas contested by Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, the EU, and recently China. The harbinger of the more volatile and insecure world for the region was the 2020 Karabakh war, which resulted in the defeat of Armenia. It was an example of cooperative/competitive relations of powers vying for regional hegemony – in this case, Russia and Turkey – and the growing role of military power in the conflict settlement process. Meanwhile, despite significant gains by Azerbaijan, Baku failed to take Nagorno Karabakh fully and was forced to accept the Russian peacekeepers' deployment. President Aliyev reiterates that conflict has been solved, but anyone with basic knowledge about the region understands that this is not the case. Azerbaijan either has to accept the independent status of Nagorno Karabakh or wage another war if Russian peacekeepers leave the region.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Karabakh war was a harsh lesson for Armenia. Yerevan should reconsider its foreign policy if it does not want to lose what remained from Karabakh. The key here is not to ruin the strategic alliance with Russia. If Russian soldiers leave Karabakh, no state or organization globally – the US, France, Germany, China, India, NATO, or EU, will prevent Armenians' massacre or forced deportation. The alliance with Russia is an absolute necessity but not sufficient to secure the future of Armenia and Karabakh. Armenia should develop relations with all powers that are not happy with assertive Turkish foreign policy in the South Caucasus and beyond. It does not mean that no trade or economic relations can exist between Armenia and Turkey. There are many examples of adversary states having diplomatic and economic relations, such as India and Pakistan. However, Armenia should significantly restrict the access for Turkish capital and investments to enter the Armenian market. 

Armenia should pay significant attention to fostering cooperation with China in its efforts to develop relations with other powers concerned with growing Turkish influence and assertive foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As for now, China is not an active player in the South Caucasus, but the situation may change. The recent China – Iran multibillion investment deal brought China closer to Armenia. China and Turkey enjoy strong economic cooperation, and Turkey is a significant actor in the Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative. However, the growing pressure of the United States on China concerning the Uyghur issue, and the support which Uyghurs enjoy in Turkey, create complications in the bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, Armenia should not sit and wait until China approaches Yerevan with suggestions. Armenia is too small for China to put Armenia into its strategic calculus. Yerevan needs to develop a solid strategy towards China, and as the first step, Armenia needs to send clear messages underlying Armenia's friendly attitude towards Beijing. These steps may include starting negotiations to invite Chinese telecom companies to explore the possibility of launching a 5G network in Armenia and an Armenian decision to cancel its membership in the International Religious Freedom Alliance, an irritant for Beijing.

About the Author:
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies and also, Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia since 2011. He was Vice President for Research – Head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia in August 2016 – February 2019. He joined Institute for National Strategic Studies (predecessor of NDRU) in March 2009 as a Research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Before this, he was the Foreign Policy Adviser of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. Dr. Poghosyan has also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences and was an adjunct professor at Yerevan State University and in the European Regional Educational Academy.

His primary research areas are the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East, US – Russian relations, and their implications for the region. He is the author of more than 70 Academic papers and OP-EDs in different leading Armenian and international journals. In 2013, Dr. Poghosyan was appointed as a "Distinguished Research Fellow" at the US National Defense University – College of International Security Affairs and also, he is a graduate of the US State Department's Study of the US Institutes for Scholars 2012 Program on US National Security policymaking. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is a graduate from the 2006 Tavitian Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.      


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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS