Events of the last five years have displayed the shift in the global centres of power.
Fifteen years ago, the USA was the unchallenged "superpower" (or as the French called it, "hyperpower") in the globe. By 1999, the USA had shown itself to be the world's supreme arbiter of justice, in the Kosovo war using the moral and military support of its NATO allies to bring an end to an attempted genocide and force about a change in government in Serbia (then still calling itself "Yugoslavia").
Today, the limits of America's power abroad are clear to be seen. The reign of George W. Bush displayed the amoral extent of US foreign policy to intervene and change governments in its own interests. The nadir of that was when, in 2003, post-war Iraq was ruled for a year by an American "viceroy", L.Paul Bremer III. In fact, for all his good intentions, Bremer was keen to emphasize his independence from Washington at the time; inadvertently declaring Iraq as his own personal domain. Such comments laid bare the ineptness and ignorance of American understanding of the world beyond its borders, and the lack of understanding of the places they were "intervening" in.
The Obama administration has gone to the other extreme, declaring a mostly "hands off" approach to foreign policy. The result has been an inconsistent application of that approach, in some ways similar to the foreign policy decisions made by Bill Clinton - intervening in some cases (such as Kosovo), in a half-hearted way in others (such as Bosnia and Somalia), and sometimes not at all (such as Rwanda). Clinton's approach could be explained as a steep learning curve, from the disaster in Somalia at the start of his tenure, to the success in Kosovo at the tail end of it.
But Obama's inconsistency has more been a victim to events and the political reality of the world around him. America is no longer able to act as the "supreme arbiter of justice" as it did at the end of Clinton administration, and much of the way through the Bush administration. Nowadays, America's power has been leeched off by other rising powers, such as China and a resurgent Russia. All its actions have to be tempered by what the reaction will be from its rivals. If the USA can intervene in Libya, then why can't Russia "intervene" in Ukraine? America's inconsistent and morally-ambiguous foreign policy is now coming back to bite it where it hurts.
In the popular TV series "Game Of Thrones", the land of Westeros is the setting for the "War Of Seven Kingdoms". In many ways, the globe can be effectively carved up into seven similar spheres of influence: The USA, China, Europe (the EU), Russia, The Arab World, Latin America, and India. Like in "Game Of Thrones", each of these centres of power is competing with the others for control, using both fair means and foul.
Going through them alphabetically, these "centres of power" can be summarised like this:
The Arab World
The "Arab World" stretches from the Straights of Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf. An excellent article and graphic by the "Economist" summarises its current status. Historically, the Arab World hasn't been united into anything approaching a coherent political entity for nearly five hundred years. The current collection of states owe their borders due to agreements and lines on a map drawn up by Europeans over the last hundred years, much of it as a result of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, their former masters. The result is something like a squabbling group of feudalistic satraps (some of whom claim to believe in "democracy") who control varying degrees of territory, resources and population. Collectively, they belong to a loose alliance that calls itself the "Arab League". Much of the wealth in this part of the world is focused at the eastern extremity, on the oil-rich lands around the Persian Gulf.
In the years since the Arab Spring, the relative stability that occurred between these many "players" has been disturbed, and in some parts, completely destroyed. Syria and now Iraq are in a state of civil war; Libya is teetering quite close to one; Yemen likewise. Within the Arab World, different (and surprising) alliances have been formed due to the rise of Islamic extremism; the one true beneficiary of the Arab Spring.
The USA and Europe look on, trying to make sense of the confusion and fluid allegiances, and make a mess of trying to choose the "right" sort of ally (Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Qatar?). Russia looks on with interest, plotting its own allegiances with duplicitous cunning; China, like a true merchant, always follows where the money is.
These days, China is at its pinnacle of development and potential in world history. China has been one of the world's pre-eminent powers for the last two thousand years, the chaos and relative decline of most of 19th and 20th centuries notwithstanding.
China today is ran as a highly-organised (and efficient) hierarchical capitalist state. While the powers of the USA and Europe disapprove of its human rights record and the fact that it is not a democracy, China's internal political system tends to reward efficiency and (on the whole) punishes bad organisation and corruption. While many critics call Russia a "modern feudal state", China's hierarchy rewards efficiency above anything else; in Russia, the system rewards loyalty to the centre above anything else. As a result of this, China's population understands how to get on; a simple work ethic is rewarded. It may not look pretty to Western eyes, but it works. China's government is popular with its people for the simple fact that living standards and a Chinese person's way of life has changed beyond imagining in the last twenty years; for example, China's thriving middle class is the same size as the entire population of Europe, or the USA or the Arab World. Words like "democracy" are meaningless in such a context. China has always been a strong state, and will continue to be so.
China's attitude to the abroad seems very straightforward: what it can get out of it. Like any great power, what China looks for above all is one thing: security. Having a natural merchant's mindset, China sees security in money, trade and resources. It is for this reason that it has gained larger economic control over some the resource-heavy parts of Africa, as well as a larger stake in the energy market in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Its "String Of Pearls" policy may look like an act of aggression to Western eyes, but this tells us more about Western insecurity about the USA and Europe's relative decline. Angry rhetoric about its claims over the South and East China Seas may also be a combination of nationalism at home and territorial security of its "near abroad". In this sense, it looks somewhat comparable with Russia, but minus the psychological insecurity.
Europe (The EU)
Like the Arab World, Europe is a collection of states; the difference is that most of them sit together as part of a super-national entity that has legal and economic authority over them, called the EU. Most of the EU shares the same currency, which is effectively controlled by Germany, the EU's biggest economic power. In many ways, the modern-day EU shares the same characteristics of the former European empire, Austria-Hungary: as a multi-national super-state with a parliament full of different languages, ruled by a unaccountable and essentially autocratic government that struggles to adapt to changing circumstances.
While the individual states of the EU are all recognised as democracies (though some far from perfect), the legal authority in Brussels that rules over them and dictates law to them, is not a democratic entity in the real sense of the word. Its "government" is appointed through opaque negotiation, while the "parliament" has little real control on the executive. In essence, the various nation-states that are part of the EU have given up many of their legal powers to a centralised European autocracy.
The contradiction here is that while the many nation-states of Europe have willingly surrendered power over their internal affairs to the EU, these nation-states still have almost complete independence in foreign affairs. While this works fine for the likes of Germany, it makes smaller countries look ridiculous on the world stage when they have to balance their commitments; rather like how the original Thirteen Colonies that made up the USA after their independence all had their own foreign affairs between gaining independence in 1783, and becoming a proper federal state, in 1789.
Of course, the EU does have its own foreign policy (and foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, since 2009), but when it has tried to create a combined front (such as over Ukraine), it has not taken long for the individual states' whims to take over, or be manipulated by outside "players". Just like with the Arab League.
In many ways, India is the polar opposite to China. While India is the "world power" with easily the second-biggest population, it is a democracy compared to China's one-party state. The other major difference is that while China is a highly-organised, centralised state, India is a highly corrupt, disorganised state. While in China, everyone knows who is in control, in India, it often appears that no-one is in control. The culture of corruption that infiltrates all levels of the government means that it is almost impossible to get things done. While China has leapt forward economically in the last twenty years, India's pace of growth has been far more modest; and that is down to a combination of corruption and inefficiency. While India's middle class has been growing in an impressive manner, without reforms in the basics of how the state is governed, this is simply a detail.
The talk of India becoming one of the "big players" on the world stage (as the USA would like to see) still looks like a far-off pipe-dream. There's being a democracy, and then there's "democracy" that paralyzes the decision-making process. This, combined with corruption and inefficiency, is what is keeping India on the lower rankings of the "players" on the world stage.
This compares to, say, Turkey: a nation with a population many times smaller than India, but has an efficiently-organised economy and a very well-structured government agenda that has allowed Turkey far greater influence with other (bigger) world powers than would have been thought possible.
India's "foreign policy", if it can be seriously called that, seems an incoherent tangle of ideas. Different politicians from the main parties have contradictory ideas about the future direction of the country; without a coherent sense of purpose, India will be going nowhere quickly, and will be prey to the designs of other, more powerful, rivals.
Within Latin America (the American continent south of the Rio Grande), Brazil is by far the biggest power. Brazil's rise in the past ten years has been impressive, and has been helped with its growing energy market. Like India, Latin America is a "rising power", not a "risen power" like China, or to a much lesser extent, Russia. The main advantage that LatAm (primarily a result of Brazil's success, and to a lesser extent, Mexico's economic growth) has over India is that LatAm's foundations are firmer.
Brazil as the largest power in the region has recently started to tap into its potential: using its growing oil sector, and wealth, it has begun to build its economic independence on assertive foreign relations. The USA once considered LatAm to be its backyard, and historically claimed rights to the Western hemisphere. That changed with the more assertive Socialist government of "Lula" DaSilva a decade ago, and has continued with his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
This realignment of LatAm relations (essentially an assertion of independence) coincided with the first years of the Bush administration. A rising China was seen as a useful partner, LatAm welcomed China's hands-off approach, and a new economic alliance was born. By the end of the decade - and coinciding with the financial crisis - Brazil's oil independence meant that it had also become more assertive. This meant that Brazil became one of China's main rivals for influence and resources in sub-Saharan Africa.
With Europe consumed with its own economic problems, and the new Obama administration taking a more hands-off approach to some areas of foreign relations, much of Africa's resources were effectively up for grabs. Some African nations looked to Brazil as a more "European-like" partner to deal with, with the advantage of being geographically closer than Europe itself or China.
In other areas, LatAm's foreign policy has generally been to go against whatever the USA (or Europe) were doing. This explains the economic closeness to China, as well as healthy relations with Russia. In a primitive sense, some voices in the West would see LatAm as going from being on the side of the "good guys" to that of the "bad guys".
The author has spoken before about Russia's place in the world: its mentality is due to a combination of geography and history. It has been called a "modern-day feudal state" by some (although that term can be used about many places in the world). Historically, it has always been a "resource exporter": a hundred years ago and more, it was a grain exporter; now it is an oil and gas exporter. In many ways, the Kremlin is one of the archetypal "courts" of world power, as it has been for centuries. The fact that the current resident is not a "tsar" but there by popular will is a historical detail.
Russia has always been a country needed to be ruled by will-power. Its greatest time of weakness, in the late 16th and early 17th century (called the "Time Of Troubles"), was when the country was overrun by foreign powers, eventually leading to the rise of the Romanov family, who ruled the empire for the next three hundred years. The 1990s are seen by contemporary Russians in something of a similar light: a time of weakness and anarchy. Vladimir Putin changed all that.
Russia's foreign policy has always been to defend its interests in whatever way it can: if it means siding with butchers, so be it. Is the USA so very different, in spite of its claim to the highest motives? From Chechnya to Syria, Russia's interests are the Kremlin's interests, and vice versa.
Russia's historic antipathy towards the USA, and pragmatism elsewhere, have meant that Russia has made allies of China and Latin America, while following a policy of divide-and-rule in the Arab World and Europe. This has left the USA at perhaps its weakest moment in foreign relations in decades, perhaps since the start of the Second World War.
The USA's geo-political situation is well-known, as summarised at the start of the article. The USA's internal situation is akin to being divided between two factions (red and blue), managed by an kleptocratic elite - calling the USA a properly-functioning democracy is a bad joke. While productive and rich, the "empire" is going through a period of introspection, not seen since before the Second World War. Tired after fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for thirteen years, the American people now see that war abroad creates more problems than solutions. As I write, Iraq is effectively divided in three by sectarian and ethnic divisions, and Afghanistan looks like it may go the same way, de facto divided into a north and south along ethnic lines after a disputed presidential election. Karzai was the "strongman" that held the US-occupied country together; with him gone, the motivation to stay together becomes tenuous.
This would be the nightmare scenario for American foreign policy makers and military planners, with so much blood and treasure poured into a bottomless pit of chaos.
To be fair, I have omitted Japan, which is a huge oversight considering its economic might (if negligible military might). Somehow, Japan appears to carry less obvious geo-political influence over its neighbours than, say, Germany has over the rest of Europe. This has more to do with Japan's reliance on the USA as a military ally, lending itself to being a "pygmy" on the military round-table. Even in this globalised world of economics, military spending and prestige count for a lot. And while Germany's military spending is also modest, it has a lot more economic muscle it can leverage when it needs to; with huge China facing it across the sea, Japan's economic power can only be compared in respects to its neighbourhood. The behemoth of China dwarfs even the advanced economy of Japan.
These are the "players" in the game of global power. Right now, things bear a worrying similarity to things a hundred years ago, when Europe was divided into a variety of alliances.
More specifically, the Middle East looks like it has the most spontaneous likelihood to explode into a regional war. And no-one can predict where that could lead...