The Unipolar World Is Ending
The ‘Concert of Powers’ that global leading minds have been invited to discuss by the Valdai Club this week is an irrelevancy. We are returning to a bipolar world — and the possibility of global peace
International Relations studies, like other academic subjects, has its passing fashions, its own changing hemlines. One of the new conceptualizations of the present-day global political landscape that is enjoying some discussion these days in places as far removed as Washington, Brussels and Moscow is the multipolar world such as existed before World War I, for which the governing principle was a “Concert of Powers.”
You might call this Realpolitik by stealth, since Realism is largely discredited in the Western foreign policy establishments for ignoring the moral dimension in international relations, even if it always held out among pockets of theoreticians on university campuses.
The Concert of Powers traces its history back to the political settlement arranged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 which ended the period of Napoleonic Wars and institutionalized methods of European (meaning at the time world) governance through the Holy Alliance and Quadruple (later Quintuple) Alliance of European sovereigns. The leading powers coordinated their relations with reasonable success so that for nearly 100 years Europe was spared any general conflagration, although localized wars were waged.
The relevance of all of this to the post-Cold War world was perhaps first brought out by Henry Kissinger in his master work Diplomacy in 1994, at the moment when great thinkers were busy trying to provide the general public, and, of course, decision makers in the corridors of power, with a road map to the future in what otherwise seemed to many to be uncharted waters.
The absence of both an overriding ideological or strategic threat frees nations to pursue foreign policies based increasingly on their immediate national interest. In an international system characterized by perhaps five or six major powers and a multiplicity of smaller states, order will have to emerge much as it did in past centuries from a reconciliation and balancing of competing national interests.
He concluded with the heart-felt wish that the Metternich system of balance of power put in place in 1815 might provide a useful reference to today’s heads of state.
However, in the 1990s the public in the West was more intrigued by the unipolar vision set out by a competing theoretician, Francis Fukuyama, in his End of History. Here they were offered a world led by the victors of the Cold War, the United States. For Americans it meant there was no need to share power or make compromises. Grateful for the end of global tensions and distracted by their preoccupation with reuniting and developing the freed Old Continent, Europeans fell into step. For their part, the Russians were overtaken by economic crisis and political collapse at home, so they were in no condition to dispute theories of world governance.
In the more than 20 years that have passed since then, the United States has frittered away its dominant position in a never ending series of military interventions abroad, all unsuccessful and resulting in the spread of chaos and misery across large swathes of North Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Rest of the World has been gaining on the US and Europe in terms of economic and political force, propelled largely in the past decade by the economic miracle in China.
Within the USA debates raged for some time over whether its relative decline meant an end to its world domination. This was especially provoked by Vladimir Putin’s direct challenge to the principles of exceptionalism justifying American hegemony beginning in February 2007 with his speech to the Munich Security Conference and repeated with ever greater conviction and proofs in a series of public addresses ever since, most recently on 28 September at the United Nations General Assembly meeting.
Today, without question there are a great many well-known figures in the American political establishment who acknowledge that the American Empire is fading and we live in a multipolar world. Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University was one of the first big names in the field to venture that conclusion. Barry Posen of MIT is another big name who challenged the conventional wisdom on American hegemony in a book published in 2014. Nearly every issue of Foreign Affairs magazine now carries reviews of books questioning the sustainability of American hegemony.
The same conclusions have been reached in Europe. The EU’s policy assumptions for the forthcoming new doctrine on foreign policy and security that Federica Mogherini will present in the spring of 2016 will likely also be that we are living in a multipolar and regionalized world. In this context, Europe can safely concentrate on its neighborhood and leave to others, meaning the USA, management of parts of the world farther afield.
Into this altered perception of the world, Henry Kissinger reintroduced his idea on the relevance of balance of power and the principles of the Congress of Vienna in his latest major work World Order, published in October 2014. Clearly his notion now fell on fertile soil and was taken up by fashionable intellectuals looking for a way out of the growing disorder in international relations brought on by Russia’s challenge to the Washington- imposed post-1992 order by its takeover of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass.
One panel in the visible and significant annual gathering of Russian and German politicians and thinkers at Schlangenbad, near Frankfurt this past April was devoted precisely to the question of the Concert of Powers concept as a solution to world governance. The talented co-presenter was a well-known academic and political commentator from Moscow, Sergei Karaganov.
All of this is fine, except for the possibility that we are not living in a multipolar world but have already reverted to the bipolar world that we knew as the Cold War. I maintain that this is precisely the case. Looking at what Kissinger identified as the 5 or 6 global great powers, I see not a free-for-all, which is implicitly what drives ‘balance of power’ governance, but instead a two-by-two configuration with everyone else from among the great powers, and medium to small powers, scrambling to align themselves with the two mega-blocs. The United States and Europe are joined at the hip to form one pole, and Russia and China are joined at the hip to form the second pole.
When I proposed this analysis of the global landscape last week to three well-known IR experts comprising a panel on Europe’s political ambitions at a prestigious symposium at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels during Q&A, two immediately rejected the notion. On the one hand, they objected that the USA and Europe are not pursuing identical objectives, and on the other hand, they refused to accept that Russia and China, with their long history of territorial disputes, could be viewed as strategic partners. However, one of the three experts did agree with me that the Russia-China strategic partnership is real and present, even if he insisted it could not last. I conclude from this that even as the multipolar concept has just taken hold here, there are doubters among its proponents even now at the outset.
Geopolitics trumps economics. Geopolitics trumps border disputes. The geopolitics of American pursuit of its hegemony, meaning its application of aggressive containment policies simultaneously against both Russia and China has forged a deep strategic interest in both Beijing and Moscow resulting in the ever-expanding activities of the BRICS, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other related associations which they jointly direct. Consequently, an alternative camp to the West has emerged. Through BRICS, Russia and China presently have attracted to their standard more than half of the world’s population and perhaps 40% of global GNP.
At the same time, the de facto division of the world into two poles of self-interest is consolidated by overarching competing ideologies. The ideologies are not as comprehensive as the Communism/Free World ideologies of the Cold War. But they are crisply defined and effective rallying points nonetheless. And like the ideologies that were supposedly made irrelevant with the Cold War’s demise in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, the new ideologies deal with how human society shall be organized and what are its highest values.
On the side of Russia and China, there is the belief that for nation-states true freedom means freedom to follow their own development course and to organize their societies in keeping with national traditions. Moreover, they staunchly defend the principles of Westphalia, meaning the equality of sovereign states and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.
For all of these reasons, the Concert of Powers that the global leading minds have been invited to discuss by the Valdai Club this week is an irrelevancy. We are well and truly back on track to a bipolar world, which, in any case, many IR experts have long believed is more stable, hence more promising of global peace, than an ever shifting balance of power among five or six major players.
G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd.
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