Carl Bildt: Beware of flashpoints in a multipolar world
31 Jul 2020|

One of the world’s most experienced political leaders, diplomats and peace negotiators has warned that in the face of growing global discord, the democracies must support each other and build systems to communicate clearly with potential adversaries.

Former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt told ASPI’s online ‘Strategic Vision 2020’ conference he hoped some form of order would emerge in international affairs. ‘At the moment, we are heading towards more disorder, a multipolar world with increasing tensions between the different poles, and the risk, of course, that a small issue suddenly becomes a big conflict,’ he said.

Interviewed by journalist Stan Grant, Bildt said that as the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo set in train events that culminated in World War I, the Scarborough Shoal or the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea might become a future flashpoint.

That must be avoided by building structures or alliances among the like-minded, and among democracies, but also by pursuing dialogues and understandings with adversaries.

‘And then we must handle the big economic shifts underway in the world.’

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it had become clear that in a couple of decades China’s economy would be twice the size of the US economy, India’s economy would be the size of Europe’s and Indonesia would have the world’s fourth biggest economy, Bildt said. ‘That’s a very different world. And add to that, the transition to digital technologies. How do we make certain that the benefits of that particular digital world bring both security and prosperity to as many as possible?’

Bildt noted a lack of global leadership from the United States under Donald Trump and said a view of a ‘post-American world’ had emerged during the Covid-19 crisis.

He’d been struck by what happened when a May meeting of the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization discussed the pandemic. ‘This was the number one global issue at the time. We had America absent, we had China very active, assertive, and we had a Europe that was able to go in and be sort of the mediating force that could bridge the gap and forge a global consensus.’ That, said Bildt, was a taste of the future if current US policies continued.

He contrasted the US approach now with memories of American leadership during the Ebola outbreak when, in 2014, President Barack Obama mobilised resources and sent military specialists to help in West Africa.

That leadership was completely absent now, Bildt said. ‘First, the US doesn’t have any ambition of global leadership of that sort any longer. Second, they denied the problem for far too long. And there’s no question that these factors add into all of the other factors in making this particular pandemic far worse than anything that we’ve seen in modern times.’

Relations between Europe and China, in the context of growing tension between China and the US, were set to be one of the big issues in the next year, Bildt said.

There were plans for a big summit between all of the EU leaders and the Chinese leadership in Leipzig, Germany, in September but that had been cancelled. ‘But still China looms big. And there’s an element of American, let’s call it pressure or whatever, to align with a more hardline approach that they’ve taken. That won’t happen.’

Europe, said Bildt, would develop its own approach.

Effective climate policy, for example, could not be developed without involving China and India.

But if Trump were to be re-elected, it would be extremely hard to persuade China and India to take major measures if the Americans were doing nothing.

Bildt said he had previously referred to Australia as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for two reasons—because no other Western democracy was so dependent on China in economic terms, and because last summer’s bushfires showed the impact climate change was having here. ‘That means that we have something to learn from the experience of Australia.’

And while Europe and the US were confronted with potential Russian meddling in their domestic affairs, Australia was discussing Chinese meddling in its domestic affairs. ‘So, we have things to learn from each other.’

In the meantime, the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his attacks on Ukraine had driven the resurrection of NATO, Bildt said.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the view in Europe view was that, without the threat of invasion, NATO was out of business. ‘Now, with Putin, the territorial defence issues in Europe are back. We now have NATO forward-deployed battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, a multinational surge that was absolutely unthinkable prior to 2014. But now it’s seen as absolutely essential. So, NATO is, in that sense, back in the core business of territorial defence of Europe due to what Putin did in Ukraine in 2014.’

Bildt said the Russians never fully accepted Ukraine as an independent state. ‘That is what ultimately led to the intervention decision that they took in the beginning of 2014, which I think historians will see as the biggest strategic mistake of Russia for a long time. I mean, losing the German Democratic Republic, yeah, that was bound to happen at some point in time, but losing the friendship of Ukraine is quite something from the Russian perspective.’

He did not think Russia would invade the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were firmly anchored in all of the transatlantic and European institutions. ‘As long as they have their internal cohesion under control or harmonious democratic control, I fail to see what Russia would gain.’ Such a Russian offensive would trigger a Europe-wide, and perhaps a worldwide, conflict.

Russia had made itself central to the conflicts in Syria and Libya, among others, and it was operating in the Middle East with an element of sophistication. ‘The fact is that Russia is now the country that is talking to everyone in the Middle East. The US is not talking to everyone in the Middle East.’ The Americans talked to some friends and refused to talk to other nations there.

Asked if Russia and China could maintain an effective strategic partnership, Bildt said that when Russia attacked Ukraine and faced Western sanctions, there was a tendency in Moscow to say, ‘We don’t really care about you. We’ve got China.’

That tendency had disappeared, he said.

‘There is now an awareness in Moscow that they are very much a junior partner. I mean, the economy of Guangdong province is much bigger than the economy of Russia. And they are also now beginning to see China, in terms of technology, is far more advanced than they are. So, there’s an apprehension.’

At the same time, both China and Russia felt that they needed each other to be a strategic counterweight on the global stage to the Americans.