Orwell Centenary – Part Two

19 June 2003

Orwell Centenary – Part Two

Geopolitics: the Drift Towards 1984

By Gwynne Dyer

“What ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’) is really meant to do is to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into ‘Zones of Influence’,” George Orwell wrote to his publisher at the end of 1948 — and it certainly does that. The three-way cold war of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, with constant skirmishes between the three totalitarian mega-states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and no freedom left anywhere in the world, is geopolitics as nightmare. It would be a pity if the 21st century turned out like that.

The 20th century didn’t, actually. There was a long cold war between two great power-blocs, but only one of them was totalitarian. Besides, it all ended pretty well, with no nuclear war and a wave of non-violent democratisation. But now we can see the faint outline of exactly those three Orwellian blocs glimmering on the horizon ahead.

It may never come to that, of course. Most people outside the United States (and many Americans, too) assume that the reign of the neo-conservatives in Washington and the current extreme unilateralism of American foreign policy are self-limiting phenomena, soon to be discredited by the sheer cost of empire-building in the Middle East. Local resistance to the American presence is growing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before long Americans themselves will turn against this policy and normal service will be restored.

That is the assumption, and it is why other governments are keeping their heads down and playing for time. Why have a confrontation with the US now if you can just wait a bit and see it change course of its own accord? But what if it doesn’t? What if there is a bigger American empire in the Middle East three or five years from now, and the United Nations is on the scrap-heap, and NATO is gone too? The rest of the world won’t just roll over and accept American global hegemony, but what will it do instead?

In that case we’re back in the jungle, where the only way to contain the ambitions of other great powers is the old game of alliances. What would those new alliances look like? Quite a lot like the world of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

Oceania is already taking shape: essentially, the English-speaking world of North America, Britain (‘Airstrip One’ in Orwell’s novel), and Australasia. Give or take a Pole or two, that’s who actually showed up for the invasion of Iraq last March (though Canada and New Zealand are so far managing to avoid being swept away by their respective giant neighbours).

Orwell’s Eurasia isn’t too hard to identify, either. It is NATO minus North America and Britain, but plus Russia. It is nobody’s first choice, but if it becomes necessary it’s a good fit: the European Union’s economic strength plus Russia’s resources and nuclear deterrent would be a credible counter-weight to America/Oceania — and it’s the only way Russia could get into the EU (which it very much wants) within the next decade.

Eastasia is the puzzling one, mainly because it’s hard to figure out which way Japan would jump: rapprochement with China and a junior partnership in a new ‘East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, or honorary Anglo-Saxon status and a role as Oceania’s Asian ‘Airstrip Two’. Neither option is appetising, so Japan would certainly try to avoid the choice as long as possible — but if it did opt for Eastasia, it would go very nuclear very quickly, as the best way of establishing an equal relationship with China.

Which leaves the Middle East (a string of restive American protectorates), Latin America (client states of Oceania), Africa (contention between Oceania and Eurasia), South-East Asia (a zone of conflict between Oceania and Eastasia) — and India. The Indians would be the one major power with the freedom to stay clear of the global alliance confrontations, but conflicts with Muslim neighbours to the west could easily pull them into alliance with the United States.

This is a ugly world, but it is not unimaginable. If the multilateral consensus that has kept things sane for a long time breaks down, a massive realignment like the one that occurred in the twenty years before the First World War is quite possible, and the result would be a more militarised, less free, more compartmentalised planet.

There would be no primitive ‘Big Brother’-style totalitarian systems, for their time has passed, but the foundations are already being laid everywhere for subtler ‘national security’ regimes that would encroach greatly on civil rights and political liberty. Hardly anybody wants this outcome, but then the pre-1914 great powers didn’t really want their idiotic alliance system either. They didn’t design it, but their responses built it.

Something similar could be happening again soon. Listen, for example, to the tone of some recent remarks by America’s favourite hate figure of the moment, French President Jacques Chirac — almost as if events were sweeping him away against his will. “…War should not be used to settle a crisis which can be resolved by other means….The world today obliges us to seek a consensus when we act, and not to act alone. The US has a vision of the world which is very unilateralist.”

“Europe is…here to stay as a major world power. Then we have to take account of the emergence of China on the world stage, and India too….Whether you like it or not…we are moving towards a multi-polar world.” ‘Multilateral’ implies cooperation and consensus; ‘multi-polar’ means confrontation and conflict.

A three-cornered cold war like that of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is as stupid a way to spend the 21st century as can be imagined. It would also minimise American freedom of action in the world, which is hardly the declared goal of those now directing White House policy. But five more years on this course and we could be getting close.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“There would…conflict”)

TO USE AS A SINGLE LONGER ARTICLE OF 1200 WORDS, OMIT PARAS 3, 4 AND 5 (“He would…meant”) AND 8 AND 9 (“You can…culture”) FROM PART ONE, AND PARAS 2 (“The 20th…ahead”) AND 11, 12 AND 13 (“There would…conflict”) FROMPART TWO.