Towards a Global Concert of Powers

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Some Observations on the Annual IISS Meeting

by Michael Liebig


Following the 2007-09 financial-economic crisis, the concept of a multipolar world (and multiple connectivity embedded within it) has gained broad acceptance. The denial of multipolarity became unsustainable when the economies of China, India and Brazil withstood the crisis, which had originated in the USA and has affected the American economy more than any other.

Since, there has been a growing recognition that not only the world economy, but the world political system has become multipolar. And as a consequence, now the security dimension of the multipolar world system is becoming a focus of debate in the international “strategic community”.

Symptomatic has been the growing attention given to China and India at the recent years‘ Munich Security Conference. And this year’s “Global Strategic Review” conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) had the title “Global security governance and the emerging distribution of power.” Among the participants at the Sept. 10-12, 2010 event in Geneva, were four personalities whose speeches do give some insight into the status and the perspectives for the security structures in the multipolar world: Henry Kissinger, Javier Solana, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and Jayant Prasad, Special Secretary in the Indian Foreign Ministry.

Security in a multipolar world means sailing into uncharted waters. There is no precedence in history for a global concert of great powers. True, in ancient times great powers coexisted in different continents. Along with the Roman empire, there were simultaneously empires in China, India, Persia and the Maya empire in Central America. But, except the Parthian Empire and Rome, there were no geopolitical connections and conflicts between these Empires. In post-Westphalian Europe there was a – regional – concert of powers up to World War I. This war plus World War II had the net effect that Britain, France and Germany mutually destroyed each others‘ status as world powers. Thus, the 20th century was dominated by the “superpower” USA and its – weaker – rival Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the bipolar system ended, but American “unipolar moment” lasted just a bit more than a decade – fizzling out in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial-economic crisis.

With the beginning of the 21st century we have a global concert of great powers: the United States, China, the European Union (a power suis generis), India, Russia and Brazil. All of these six powers have severe internal problems, but China, India and Brazil have the biggest potential to expand their economic, political and military power – mainly due to demographic factors and cultural self-confidence. In contrast, USA is facing the prospect of a “frugal superpower” for which the “limits of the possible for foreign policy will be narrower than they have been for many decades” due to the “gargantuan economic obligations” resulting from the financial-economic crisis. (John Hopkins University’s Michael Mandelbaum in his new book The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era)

Eurasia: The Global Powerhouse – With the Worst Security Problems

Kissinger said in Geneva that “the center of gravity of world affairs has left the Atlantic and moved to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” This statement can hardly be disputed, but one could also put it in another way: Eurasia is (becoming) the center of gravity of world affairs – certainly in economic terms.

However, Eurasia is also hosting the most serious problems affecting international security. Several “barriers” of insecurity and conflict cut through Eurasia: Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran and the Near/Middle East. Remarkably, in all of these latent and/or open conflicts in Eurasia, the United States have been the key actor. However, the capability of the USA to “manage” these conflicts has visibly eroded. Kissinger acknowledged that in Geneva when he said with respect to Afghanistan that its regional neighbors – China, India, Russia and Iran – “have more vital interests in a stable and coherent Afghan state than does the United States”. Therefore, the “long-term solution must involve a consortium of countries” in defining and protecting a status for Afghanistan comparable to what “was done to Belgium in 1830, when it was established in order to create some space where armies used to march for a century.” Jayant Prasad of the the Indian Foreign Ministry responded to Kissinger, saying: “There is talk of a regional solution [for Afghanistan] but it has never been given a fair trial so far. It is time to try this out now – by bringing into the equation Iran as much as Pakistan, together with the other major regional stakeholders.”

If Kissinger and Prasad seem to agree that there is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran (and the same is true for Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict) one wonders why there is still a “Cold War” – if not worse – between the USA and Iran?

On September 23, 2010, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a lengthy article, titled “The Digital First Strike Did Occur”. Its author, Frank Rieger, wrote that there are reliable indications that Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz was sabotaged by a cyber attack in early 2009. The cyber weapon – a trojan called “stuxnet” – was of a sophistication, which can only be generated with the resources of a nation state. Rieger didn’t indicate which nation state might have carried out the cyber attack, but there are two obvious suspects: the USA and Israel. As to the reliability of this report: First, the FAZ is not known for disseminating conspiracy theories; and secondly, on Sept. 24, 2010, the London Guardian carried a similar article, titled “Stuxnet worm is the ‚work of a national government agency’”.

A diplomatic solution for the “Iranian nuclear issue” seems quite possible: The USA normalizes relations with Iran (it did so with Vietnam, which had militarily defeated America). And, secondly, in accordance with the NPT, Iran can develop an endogenous enrichment cycle, but refrains from building the bomb; thus Iran would have the same status as some 30 other states which have the technical capability to build nuclear weapons – but don’t do it.

Brazil’s View on Global Security…

The essence of a diplomatic solution is that both sides make compromises – not just one. Obviously, that’s what the Brazilian government is thinking. Last May, Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula traveled to Teheran, accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and struck a deal with the Iranian leadership over swapping enriched uranium with Turkey. The specifics of the deal are less important than the fact the rising power Brazil has taken independent diplomatic action in view of the frozen US-Iran standoff. Brazil “could be able, together with Turkey, to develop a kind of dialogue [with Iran] that other countries probably were not able to,” said Amorim in Geneva.

I would think that the Brazil-Turkey diplomatic action towards Iran is a harbinger of more initiatives by the rising powers on global security issues. And the very fact that Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim was one of the main speakers at the IISS conference in Geneva is indication for that. Amorim referred to the London Economist (“normally not very kind to South American countries,” as he noted), as saying that South America “is nobody’s backyard” anymore and “self-esteem and self-assertion” have become the natural attitude in countries like Brazil. Brazil’s interests are global – not just in the economic sphere, but in diplomacy and security policy as well. In the main international forums – like the UN Security Council, the G20 or the IMF – Brazil will “not only vote on what others propose,” said Amorim, but will launch its own initiatives. He noted that 12 million Brazilians of Arab decent and there is a large Jewish community, which should help to understand why Brazil is very much interested in peace and stability in the Near and Middle East.

… and India’s

Jayant Prasad, Special Secretary in the Indian Foreign Ministry, was as explicit as Amorim: Rapid economic development in the BRIC countries has “altered the geostrategic balance and shall impact, inevitably, on the existing security systems and global institutions,” he said. This necessitates “a new paradigm, different from the older and institutions designed in the middle of the last century, which remain intact today almost in the same form as they were originally created.”

For those who still see India merely as a regional power in South Asia, Prasad gave the following sketch of her foreign and security policy: “India’s interaction with the world begins in concentric circles around India, beginning with the countries of South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, including Afghanistan, and China. The next circle extends to much of the Indian Ocean Littoral: from the West to East, it stretches from Aden to Singapore; from Iran, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf countries to the countries of ASEAN. It stretches, in the North, from Russia, as a Eurasian power, to Seychelles, Mauritius and Indonesia in the South. The next circle encompasses Turkey, the countries of the East African seaboard, stretching from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, the Koreas, Japan and Australia. The United States is a significant, de-facto, Asian player present in our neighborhood. Finally, together with other major Asian countries, India has maintained its traditional traction with Europe and a growing one with Africa and Latin America.”

And to those who see in Asia first of all a strategic rivalry between China and India and a host of bilateral tensions and conflicts, Prasad said: “We are in an evolutionary stage in respect of a new Asian security architecture. The absence of collective security arrangements in Asia, instead of being a problem, is an opportunity. India would like the evolving architecture to be open, inclusive, plural and flexibly structured to contend with new dimensions of security, which include trans-national and non-State actors… Asian countries have practiced pragmatic co-existence, notwithstanding a few bloody conflicts and ideological and strategic divergences amongst them… Asian heterogeneity creates a natural disposition towards multipolarity making it difficult for any one power to impose its will on the entire region.”

Lessons To Be Learned

These quotes from Prasad and Amorim do provide a good insight into the strategic thinking of rising powers which is rarely covered in the international mainstream media, because they prefer a one-sided fixation on the – undeniable – security problems of Asia and South America. In the West, a mindset still seems to prevail which assumes that the rising powers in the South are doomed to repeat the strategic blunders made in Europe during the 20th century. One wonders whether Kissinger had that in mind when he said that the emergence of China as a great power “raises the issues that the world confronted before the First World War, when Germany attempted to enter the international system, and partly through its short-sightedness, and a little bit through the lack of imagination of the countries it was confronting, did not manage this process. In our period the problem is even more complex, because China is not a nation-state, but a continental expression of an ancient and great culture. “

Because the prevailing strategic outlook in Asia is “comparable to 19th century and early 20th century Europe,” Kissinger thinks that “the classic concept of collective security is difficult to apply…The current participants in the international system are too diffuse to permit identical, or even symmetrical, convictions sufficient to organize an effective global collective security system.”

Yet, when looking at the nastiest “cold” and/or open conflicts in Eurasia – Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran and the Near/Middle East – it seems evident that there is indeed a common interest among the main actors in Asia, Europe and South America that these conflicts should be resolved on a equitable and lasting basis. Up to now, “managing” these protracted conflicts may have served “geopolitical interests” of the United States. But the price for being the “indispensable” actor in Eurasian conflicts has become too high, as Kissinger himself admitted at the IISS meeting. And on August 27, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, said: “The most significant threat to our national security is the [public] debt” – not Iran, the Taliban or Al Qaida terrorists.

India’s Prasad put forth a very cogent argument against Kissinger’s (calculated) pessimism on the emerging global security architecture: “Asia has proved its ability to create new models of economic growth. Such innovation could be applied also to the new security architecture.” And I would assume that the rising powers have carefully studied what went so devastatingly wrong in Europe during the past century; Asians think and act in the longue durée.

In conclusion one may ask: And where is Europe in the emerging global security architecture? At the IISS event, Javier Solana noted that the main powers have been described as “atoms” in current world security system, adding: “With my background in theoretical physics I can tell you that the molecules are sometimes more important than the atoms…. [T]he European Union is an important molecule, or a collection of atoms put together and ready to share electrons… Europe invented the concept of cooperative, comprehensive security. At the Helsinki Conference in 1973, in the middle of the Cold War.”

In conclusion, I would argue that the prospect of a peaceful and stable concert of world powers is not a pipe dream. Building a new global security architecture in a multipolar world is certainly an enormous challenge – but it is doable.

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