That the world has become multipolar is a truism. But what about a multipolar world order? This question was raised at a forum of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF)/Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (HSFK). The discussion about “The World Order of the 21st Century” yielded some refreshing and unconventional ideas. “Power” is more than military strength plus GDP. Both the “power” of states and relations among states have become multidimensional. And this has far-reaching implications for the emerging world order.
By Michael Liebig
Currently, there is quite some discussion about Weltpolitik in Germany. Books have appeared on “The Disempowerment of West” (Nikolas Busse) or “The Post-American World” (Fareed Zakaria). Probably, the financial-economic crisis has prompted this debate about world political power shifts. At the recent international summits dealing with the crisis, the United States and her “G 7” partners had to huddle together to make room for China, India, Brazil and other economically and politically rising states. Indeed, the crisis “made in USA” has catalyzed major geopolitical shifts. Here in Germany, public opinion is realizing that the new powers of the “G 20” want a new world order – and that they also do have the means to push through their aims and interests in international affairs.
In November 2009, we have the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which meant the burial of the post-World War II bipolar world order. The subsequent unipolar world order did not even last two decades. The “Project for a New American Century” ended in the Iraq fiasco and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. President Obama may still talk about “American world leadership,” but the congregation of true believers in ”American exceptionalism” is melting away – not only abroad, but at home as well. Today, America is one world power among others, and not “the” world power.
Clearly, the world has become multipolar. But equally clear is that the multipolar world system has not yet evolved into a multipolar world order. What will it be?
In trying to find answers to this question, some stimulating concepts came up at an April 29 round table discussion in Frankfurt, organized by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and the “Leibniz-Association”. The event had the title “The World Order of the 21st Century – Causes and Implications of Global Power Shifts”. On the podium were Prof. Harald Müller, head of PRIF; Prof. Detlef Nolte, deputy head of the Leibniz Institute of Global and Area Studies; and Prof. Helwig Schmidts-Glintzer, sinologist and head of the renowned Wolfenbüttel Library, at which Leibniz once was the chief librarian.
None of the speakers presented a “blueprint” for a multipolar world order, but in the discussion process some quite inspiring ideas were put forward.
A “Six Pack” of World Powers?
The natural impulse for conceptualizing the emerging world order, is to look back into the past. Is not the 19th century “Concert of Europe” an appropriate historical reference for the current global political situation? Under the “Concert of Europe” regime, there was relative stability among the four, later five leading European powers: Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. Indeed, there were no “great” wars in Europe between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1814/15) and World War I.
So, can we imagine a “global concert of powers”, involving the United States, China, Russia, India, Brazil and the European Union? The selection of this “six pack” would come closest in meeting the key criteria of the “realist” conception of power in international relations: Military and economic strength plus some sort of “political will power” to push through one’s national interests in international relations.
However, there are several question marks in respect to the “global concert of powers” concept:
- Which states, among the G 20, do qualify for the top flight of world politics? Each of the powers of the above mentioned “six-pack” has severe endogenous problems – economically, socially and politically.
- What will be the impact of the emerging multipolar system on the United Nations? Which states should be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)?
- If a reform of the UNSC remains blocked, will the G 20 become an international body dealing not only with financial-economic, but also political-strategic matters?
- Is the EU really a “world power”? Prof. Müller argued that the EU is “less than the sum of its parts.” But, at the same time, new regional cooperation combines are evolving in Latin America, South East Asia or the Gulf region, which could have considerable economic and political power potentials coming close to those of the “six pack.”
- What about the recently fashionable “G 2“ scheme? A kind of condominium between the United States and China standing on top of the global power hierarchy.
- Is a re-consolidation of the trans-atlantic cooperation imaginable? Could NATO evolve into a global “League of Democracies”?
- What will be the role of international law and norms in the multipolar world?
There’s More than Military Power and GDP
These questions raise another basic question. Is the “realist” conception of power, defining state power as a combination of military and economic capabilities plus “political will power,” still the appropriate benchmark for a new stabile multipolar world order?
At the Frankfurt event, there seemed to be a consensus that a global order based on traditional notions of power and power hierarchies would indeed be a dubious proposition. Such a simplistic-mechanistic system of multipolarity would not correspond to the paradoxical diversity and multidimensional connectivity in the modern globalized world. Such an order would likely be far too rigid and inflexible, thus lacking the crucial quality of stress-resilience.
Multidimensional and multi-relational connectivity in the globalized world should not be confused with the superficial notion of globalization as levelling, conformity or gleichschaltung. Instead, it means that the weight and influence of a state in the international system is being determined by manifold national capacities – apart from military strength and GDP.
These capabilities are usually known as “soft power” – the broad spectrum of political, economic, intelligence and cultural measures, development aid and the work of (state-backed) NGOs. While not fully substituting core military capabilities, “soft power” is a highly effective, enabling capacity in foreign and security policy.
In the 1980s, the American strategist Joseph Nye had coined the term “soft power.” For Nye, “soft power” represented a spectrum of non-military policy options, which however were anchored in American military-strategic and financial superiority on a global scale.
Since 2007, Nye is advocating a “smart power” policy for post-Bush American foreign policy. The “smart power” approach, since adopted by the Obama administration, is designed to preserve “American preponderance” in the world. Nye’s concept for the post-unipolar world order is: “Preponderant” America would “balance out” the “concert” of 2nd tier powers, like China, Russia, India, Brazil and the EU; while simultaneously “balancing out” the 3rd or 4th power tier against the 2nd tier.
A New Type of Global Order: Multidimensional and Multi-Relational
I would think that the concept of “soft power” is necessary and useful, but too limited when addressing the question of a multipolar world architecture. At the Frankfurt event, a senior official of the German Foreign Ministry made a most interesting remark: Do we really have to create “one global order”? Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to design a multidimensional “order” or an architecture of “orders”? The weight and influence of states is increasingly diverse in different policy fields, he remarked. States have very diverse military, political, economic, financial, technical, scientific, cultural, environmental and normative capabilities, just to name a few – and these capabilities cannot be mechanically added up. These diverse capabilities mean complex, manifold relations among the actors of world politics.
In simpler terms: The weight and influence of states is being determined by a complex manifold of different capabilities. Therefore, relations among states will vary strongly in different fields. These manifold capacities and corresponding relations generate a complex, multidimensional and multi-relational “order” or, in other words, a non-static, global “architecture.”
Prof Schmidt-Glintzer put it this way: If we are getting a new multipolar “concert” of leading powers in the world, why conceptualize it as “brass band” – with trumpets and drums only? Why not designing a “orchestra” or “chamber orchestra” of leading powers, where also strings and wind instruments are included. To safeguard her interests, Germany doesn’t have to sound the trumpet or beat the drum. Even small, “3rd tier” countries in the power ranking, which however possess specialized, highly advanced “niche” capabilities, can play an important role in the great affairs of world politics. Trying to conceptualize the world order(s) of the 21st century, necessitates “fantasy” and “unconventional thinking,” including “thinking the seemingly unthinkable,” Schmidt-Glintzer said.
Is the concept for a multipolar world order which would be multidimensional, multi-relational and semi-fluid a “realistic” proposition? Certainly not in terms of a “realistic” or “neo-realistic” understanding of international relations. For that latter approach, a “global concert of powers”, inspired by the “Concert of Europe” and its balance of power mechanisms, would be the model. However, there is another approach: The much-maligned European Union.
I think, the EU can give a certain directionality for a 21st century world order. The EU is no “superstate,” but a confederation of states with complex internal cooperation/integration mechanisms. The internal workings of the EU have been altered many times since the 1957 Treaty of Rome – and they are often slow and cumbersome. But in all these years, the EU’s cooperation/integration mechanisms never turned “vertical” – in the sense of domination by a hegemonic power or a hegemonic “directorate” of powers. Inspite of this, no, because of this, the EU has matured and expanded. In that sense, the EU has turned out to be a “realistic” and viable proposition. Obviously, the EU is not “the model” for an emerging world order, probably not even for regional cooperation/integration in other parts of the world, for example in Latin America, South East Asia or the Gulf region. But, the EU – with its merits and downsides – provides a useful orientation.
Lastly, an essential point. Whatever shape the 21st century world order will take, the states will remain its most important constituent elements. Nation states will remain the principal actors in 21st century world politics. The traditional notion of “unconditional” sovereignty is indeed being transformed, but essential statehood will be preserved. At the PRIF event, Prof. Müller provided a cogent refutation of the post-modern theories of the “moribund state” – eroding internally through private actors (“failed state”), being superseded by private transnational actors or being absorbed by supranational, non-state structures. Thus, the state will remain the anchor of the 21st century world order. And the world order must reflect the multidimensional, multi-relational interaction between the states.