In December, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was killed in an apparent terrorist attack by a Turkish police officer claiming revenge over Russian involvement in Syria. While indisputably tragic, Karlov’s assassination is also a potent reminder of the complex dynamics that undergird affairs in the overlapping border regions of the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia. Although the attack in Ankara asks its first questions of Turkey-Russia relations, it bears the contextual weight of a far greater aperture: the fate of Syria; geopolitical alignments in the broader Middle East; the Russian occupations in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia; and America’s dwindling claims to global indispensability. More generally, the Ankara attack both foreshadows and is, in part, an outcome of an increasingly un-polar world.
The radial chaos enveloping and emanating from Syria is what the end of Western hegemony looks like. The Syrian conflict – only the most destructive of a snaking archipelago of humanitarian and security crises in Eastern Europe and western Eurasia – is the product of vacating Western power, and the resulting competition by local powers for their pieces of the pie. In the vast and expanding borderlands where the vestiges of Western writ hold increasingly minimal sway, no new structures have popped into existence to take their place, and chaos is the reigning force – not postmodern institutions, concerts of great powers, or romanticized 19th century armchair realism. “Unpolarity”, instead, governs the affairs of millions, and threatens contagion far and wide.
Whither the West
The notion of polarity describes a system where one or more convening great powers establish rules, norms, or at least agenda-setting preferences for the conduct of international relations. If the “unipolar” world, taken for granted since the end of the Cold War, describes US international primacy, “unpolarity” might be defined by a decided absence of preponderant power. Before the bipolar era of US-Soviet competition, Great Britain’s ocean-borne merchant empire held broad primacy, but its power was frequently shared and variously contested by a concert of other great powers (“multipolar”) – France, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany’s various iterations, Japan, and an emerging United States.
After two catastrophic world wars, which exposed the inherent volatility of the multipolar balance of power, the Soviet Union and the US established a bipolar, hierarchical international system. Independent great powers still existed; some as allies and clients to either the Soviet Union or the US (sometimes first to one, and then the other), and some pursued “non-aligned” policies. But they all subsisted according to an international framework forged by one of the two superpowers.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the hierarchies did not disappear so much as shift in favor of a so-called "Washington Consensus," which emphasised globalization, free markets, and (albeit less explicitly) liberal democracy. Supported by an international multilateral infrastructure to incentivise, govern, and police a liberalisation agenda, the US presided over enormous international influence and an era of unprecedented (if also inconsistent) peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, the dearth of credible competing ideologies to the American model—and the sheer magnitude of US economic, military, and cultural hegemony—led to musings about American "hyperpuissance" and the "end of history."
By any measure, the US is and will remain the world’s colossus for years to come. Yet, a series of stumbles – economic and geopolitical, exogenous and self-inflicted – have dramatically narrowed the margins of American superpower. Rapid advances in technology, economic dynamism abroad and diminished Western civilizational confidence (stemming from recessions, elongated foreign adventure, and domestic political gridlock) have helped accelerate the US’ relative decline. Meanwhile, an increasingly internally-fixated and cynical American body politic – which catapulted Donald Trump to power, ironically in part due to those same issues – looks set to supercharge those same trends.
But while Western decline has given rise to a cottage industry of analysis, commentary and even science fiction about the likeliest successors to American hegemony, the “post-American world” will have few structural parallels to the era of Pax Americana. In many respects, US hegemony was a unique phenomenon in the globalist structures it built, the inclusive power-sharing it engendered, and the array of rules and norms that sought to liberalize interstate conduct. Even at the height of Great Britain’s ocean-spanning empire, London never commanded either the full dominance or brash idealism that characterized US hegemony. Meanwhile, there is little reason to believe the US’ only credible superpower successor, China, has any ability or intention of single-handedly upholding the Western-crafted liberal system from which it has long benefited – or replacing it with anything comparable. Instead, the rules aren’t being rewritten so much as tossed out altogether. China – and other major, revisionist powers like Russia, Turkey and Iran – instead appeal for an order based on multipolarity, where great powers set the rules in their own neighborhoods, most small states are consigned to roles as tributaries, and might makes right.
But multipolarity is an inherently unstable arrangement, and the interregna between the fall of one order and the establishment of the new are typically chaotic. An international relations truism is that power abhors a vacuum, but the period between vacuum and stability can extend for years, and even decades. While a stable multipolar world may someday emerge, the intermission between the old world and the new will likely be defined by an extended period of jostling, competition and conflict between states and groups over the boundaries of power and influence.
This is why the Syrian civil war, already five years old, is still a long way from a conclusion; why the conclusion of that civil war will not end the geopolitical tectonics quaking along Eurasia’s western circumference; and why powers like Turkey, Iran, Russia, and a multitude of other states and non-state groups will have roles to play in the widening tide of competition and conflict.
The Turkish knot
With the obvious exceptions of Syria and Iraq, perhaps no country is so drawn into the morass of the ongoing conflict as Turkey. With Turkish troops sprawled across pockets of northern Syria and Iraq, host to millions of Syrian refugees, and itself a kind of secondary battleground among Syrian rebels and terrorist groups, Turkey has remained at the mercy of a conflict that has always remained just beyond its control.
It was not always this way. Before mass anti-government protests in 2011 gave way to civil war, Syria had been the crown jewel of Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy agenda. Under the once dynamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), which broke decades of nationalist rule after winning power in 2002, Turkey pursued an ambitious foreign policy to undo the entrenched enmities that old guard Kemalists had institutionalised in its extended tenure in power.
Yet at least some Kemalist biases were grounded in a hard-nosed view of the region. Despite a brief dalliance, Iran continued to undermine Turkish interests in the Middle East; Russia, though an eager economic partner, had little interest in seeing Turkey become an independent power in its own right; and little Israel, though a domestically unpopular ally, was a far more fruitful friend than adversary. Meanwhile, the fraternity that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cultivated in Damascus seemed to amount to little after Syrian popular unrest was met with regime brutality, sparking a conflict that continues to rage. Before long, Turkey turned on the Syrian regime, and joined Western calls for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite a string of rebel and Islamist victories, Assad would not relent. And a series of timely interventions by Russian forces – first covertly, and then more openly by September 2015 – as well as the meteoric rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (IS) in 2014 pulled Damascus from the edge of capitulation. Western leaders were long on rhetoric, but remained ultimately unwilling to commit the level of assets to theater to match their stated desired outcomes: sufficient arms or advisory in the earliest stages of the war; forceful air support to neutralize regime air superiority that blunted rebel advances; or the far more daunting prospect of a concerted campaign to dislodge joint Russian-Iranian-regime battle groups that had established a string of anti-access area denial bubbles across eastern Syria by 2015.
In all of this, Turkey’s position shriveled from field marshal for a theorised unified Western response to a beleaguered, isolated state left to fend for itself, all while managing rising tensions with Russia (capped by the downing of a Russian jet in late 2015) and spikes of internal unrest (some of its own making) – domestic protests, Kurdish crackdowns, IS terrorism, and a horrifying coup attempt in July 2016.
This was the context in which Russian Ambassador Karlov was murdered. While an embarrassment to the AKP’s renewed push for normalization with Russia, the perpetrator – reportedly invoking Russia’s role in the Syrian regime’s stampeding offensives – likely voiced the sentiments of a non-insignificant segment of the Turkish population dismayed by Ankara’s distancing from the anti-government Syrians it once called on the world to protect. From this vantage point, the Turkish government’s volte face from anti-regime obstinacy to quiescence amid the unfolding horrors of Aleppo smacks of a kind of duplicity. The Turkish government have certainly mishandled affairs to some degree. But it is hard not to conclude that their greatest sin regarding Syria was trusting in a Western consensus that would never materialise.
It is perhaps a great coincidence that Karlov’s assassination would come just days before a planned tripartite meeting between Russian, Turkish, and Iranian leaders in Moscow to discuss the fate of Syria. While Turkey’s revitalized relationship with Moscow will likely earn it some kind of face-saving concessions, it has few functional means of leverage over Russia and Iran in its currently isolated and weakened position. Notably, neither Washington nor any of the major European players were invited to participate, underscoring the reality that power is not a quotient to be crunched using inputs of GDP, military manpower, or cultural might. Ultimately, power is not just about economic dynamism (the Russian economy, for example, is roughly comparable to that of Mexico’s) or even a strong military, but the will, and the means, to act.
While the US and Europe continue to enjoy the bulk of global economic and military dominance, recent signs suggest that the Western public’s reserves of willpower have flagged to a potentially historic nadir, perhaps never to recover. With the West often unwilling to enforce the broad contours of the norms it developed and preached for decades, and sometimes even engaging in such violations, the scramble for dominance in wide pockets of western Eurasia has already begun in earnest.
Of course, while Western capitals may have had the means to stop them, it is important to remember that US and European leaders are not themselves responsible for the carnage in Syria, the mass refugee flows in the eastern Mediterranean and the extended fighting in Ukraine. President Barack Obama’s decision to grant the perpetrators indefinite forbearance may be an unfortunate over-corrective to past US blunders in the region, but it is ultimately Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime that are complicit in the grotesque crimes unfolding in the likes of Aleppo. Similarly, it is regime-allied forces and terrorist groups that are forcing millions to flee the region; and it is Russian troops and their Moscow-directed proxies that are prosecuting the wars in Ukraine. Towering though Western policy shortcomings may be, it should not be conflated with those whom are actively enabling or inciting destruction on those regions.
Nonetheless, unpolarity encroaches only with Western complicity. It is likely comforting (and not entirely wrong) to pin blame for emerging unpolarity on the elections of reactionary elements, or growing barriers to the global flow of ideas, goods and people. However, unpolarity is also an outcome from an array of misguided, or at least grossly mismanaged, foreign adventures; or from decades of economic policies that sacrificed inclusive growth for rent seeking; or a result of yawning popular disconnect between the cherished institutions of Western life and the sprawling global systems that underpin them.
If not a sign in itself, Ambassador Karlov’s murder in Ankara at least exposes the withered, snapping moorings of the old US-led unipolar order and an early preview of how an unpolar world might appear. And if current trends hold, the contagion of unpolarity is liable to spread broadly and swiftly, ushering a new age of geopolitical cynicism, mutual suspicion, and declining fortunes for all.
Michael Cecire is an International Security Fellow at New America and a non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.