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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The World According to Uncle Sam

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When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Stockholm in the early 1980s, he expressed his disappointment to Stig Ramel, then-executive director of the Nobel Foundation, "If you had awarded me this prize in 1978, I would still be in the White House." Ramel made a helpless gesture and replied, "At the time when the Camp David accords were signed between Israel and Egypt, the list of nominees had already been finalized, and we could not break the rules." Had Carter won the 1980 U.S. presidential election rather than Ronald Reagan, history might have turned out differently.

But the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee had no qualms about "meddling" in the U.S. presidential election campaign this year. The decision to award Al Gore the prize fueled rumors that he would be returning to politics.

The Nobel prize committee has repeatedly been the subject of international criticism for its bias and political intrigues, but it is a fairly accurate measure of the state of affairs in international relations. Committee members vote for candidates they believe to be promoting worthy causes.

From 1989 to 1992, the peace prize went to the Dalai Lama; Mikhail Gorbachev; Aung San Suu Kyi, a prisoner of conscience and leader of the Myanmar opposition; and Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan human rights activist. During the current period, which is sometimes referred to as "the end of history," there is widespread hope that totalitarian and dictatorial regimes from Asia to South America will be sent to the trash heap of history.

What is the result? Nothing has changed in Tibet and Myanmar. The Soviet Union collapsed, but many new authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes emerged in its place. South American countries have organized fewer military juntas, but they have embraced socialist demagoguery instead.

From 1993 to 2002, we saw many attempts to transform the world order. Six Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded to individuals who had been instrumental in resolving complex, longstanding conflicts. These included the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the bloodless partitioning of East Timor from Indonesia, a peaceful settlement in Ulster, the start of reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and the peaceful resolution of many other international conflicts, for which Jimmy Carter finally received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

How do those situations stand now? There are two success stories -- South Africa and Northern Ireland; one disaster -- Palestine, one failure -- poverty-stricken East Timor, which survives only because it receives charity from international donors; and one not entirely lost cause -- reconciliation between North and South Korea. But the nations of the world have not reduced the nuclear threat, nor have they become more humanitarian. More likely, just the opposite has happened.

Now we come to the post-2003 period. The war in Iraq has turned the triumph of the "world according to Uncle Sam" into a failure, and the "new world order," to which former U.S. President George Bush referred in 1988, has yet to arrive. Awarding the peace prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the only organization to receive it in recent years -- was an attempt to keep the nuclear nonproliferation process from falling apart at the seams. The remaining laureates are individuals who are laboring to achieve goals that the weakened international institutions are no longer capable of accomplishing.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore, who has come to symbolize the fight against climate change, is another sign of this trend. Perhaps the decision by the Norwegian committee will breathe new life into not only the environmental movement, but also U.S. politics -- and by extension, world politics.

The United States' failure to achieve primacy in international relations has been analyzed by just about everyone, including the Americans themselves. And there is nearly universal agreement that the world is now moving into a new, multipolar phase. Most people welcome the transition, anticipating that it will usher in a fairer and more equitable global order. Only one question remains: How will it actually function?

The idea of a global system dominated by a few major players is nothing new. Prior to the bipolar U.S.-Russian confrontation of the Cold War, that is how major international politics were structured. The great powers either opposed each other or entered into alliances, whether temporary or long-term.

On the surface, governments often agree that we should all take responsibility for the future of our planet. But when discussions focus on solving a concrete problem in which one or more sides hold a vested interest, mutual understanding often flies out the window. The disagreement over Iran is a vivid example of this.

From the West's point of view, Russia is obstructing the attempt by the "civilized world" to coerce Tehran into giving up its nuclear program. The U.S. Congress and mass media often accuse the Kremlin of protecting Iran's belligerent mullahs and their half-witted president. And Moscow's categorical "nyet" to the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which Washington claims would help mitigate an Iranian missile threat, further muddies the waters.

Tehran believes that Moscow is exploiting Iran as nothing more than a disposable pawn in its cynical game with the West. Iranian political analysts assert that it has always been unwise to rely on Russia's word. They point out that Russia has not followed through on its agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Bushehr and supply it with fuel. And Moscow's offer that the U.S. make joint use of its radar installations in Gabala in Azerbaijan and Armavir in southern Russia to monitor Iranian rockets is a clear affront to Tehran.

To be sure, Moscow is also unsettled about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. In addition, the issue of how the Caspian Sea is shared continues to be a divisive issue between the two nations.

Nevertheless, Russia views Tehran much differently than the West does. Israel, the United States and some European nations believe that Iran is an unpredictable clerical state capable of doing anything for the sake of religious dogma. And Tehran needs nuclear weapons, they believe, so it can spread the "true faith." Moscow, on the other hand, believes that the modern-day successors of Persia's imperial past are interested primarily in becoming a regional power, especially in the context of an increasingly multipolar world. This, the Kremlin says, is the most important reason why Tehran wants nuclear weapons and not to launch a nuclear strike against the West.

Russia's position should not be reduced to a primitive "for" or "against." The prospect of U.S. military intervention in Iran scares Europeans no less than Russians. The problem is that the political leverage of Russia and other world powers is much less than they think.

At a time of global instability, it is regimes like Iran -- and not the major global powers -- that come out the winners when the superpowers get bogged down in political power struggles. But the big players refuse to accept this fact. It is more pleasant for them to believe that they are still the ones calling the shots.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.