Working in concert

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 20 May 2021

I sometimes wish there could be an Arab council or centre on foreign affairs like the one in New York, which allows experts to freely pursue ideas and visions regarding not only the US but the entire world. While there are foreign affairs councils in Arab countries, they are packed with career diplomats motivated by their own personal narrative and experience in diplomacy. They rarely produce research, books or studies that spark the mind or address today’s threats with out-of-the-box or pragmatic ideas. In such continuous brainstorming about the condition of the universe there will be more questions than answers. In the end, it is the job of politicians to marry these ideas and reality.

I speak of all this because the US Council on Foreign Affairs recently published a paper by former diplomat Richard Haass and former politician Charles Kupchan titled “The New Concert of Powers: How to prevent catastrophe and promote stability in a multipolar world”. It focuses on the 19th century, when two major events took place.

First, there was the French Revolution, and its aftermath of Napoleonic wars that caused fundamental changes in Europe -- then leading the world order -- including the first industrial revolution.

Secondly, there emerged a steering group of five – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – which collaborated on running world affairs while creating stability on the continent, followed by managing European influence around the world through colonialism and other economic and strategic tools. In his book A World Restored, Henry Kissinger described this as the world gaining 100 years of peace, or more accurately, the absence of major conflicts, from Napoleon’s demise in 1815 until the start of World War I.

Haass and Kupchan argue that the world is experiencing a similar transformational moment, which requires the creation of a world order or concert where there is consensus among a handful of world powers on a more effective and realistic structure. The co-authors state, “The international system is at a historical inflection point. As Asia continues its economic ascent, two centuries of Western domination of the world, first under Pax Britannica and then under Pax Americana, are coming to an end. The West is losing not only its material dominance but also its ideological sway. Around the world, democracies are falling prey to illiberalism and populist dissension while a rising China, assisted by a pugnacious Russia, seeks to challenge the West’s authority and republican approaches to both domestic and international governance.”

This is a harsh verdict on a no less harsh moment because of what happened to the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The administration of US President Joe Biden seems to want to revert to a previous moment where “globalisation” and “democratic” thought were dominant in the US, with serious institutional attempts to infuse the rest of the world with them. This is not realistic.

“Even if Western democracies overcome polarisation, beat back illiberalism and pull off an economic rebound, they will not forestall the arrival of a world that is both multipolar and ideologically diverse. History makes clear that such periods of tumultuous change come with great peril. Indeed, great-power contests over hierarchy and ideology regularly lead to major wars.” If the West is no longer able to organise the world, in other words, then “the search is on for a viable and effective way forward”. 

Here, the writers return to Europe’s  experience in the 19th century for inspiration to what would benefit the 21st. They emphasise three factors: first, the existence of strong and influential powers able to interact politically and diplomatically among themselves to decide the fate of the world’s various countries; secondly, an existing world order based on the 1648 Westphalia Treaty which established nation states and prohibited interference in domestic affairs; thirdly, the absence of religious and sectarian beliefs and ideologies in international relations.

In the 20th century, these rules were turned upside down. The Bolshevik revolution erupted, ushering in Marxism, communism and socialism. The US came out of its isolation behind two oceans into the world as a tremendous economic and military power, championing the freedom of peoples and markets. Meanwhile, the world’s political base expanded after nations demanded the right to self-determination and wrestled for a place in a world that had never before existed.

The political formula that resulted from these changes produced a seat each for all the major powers, as seen in the Security Council, which leads the work of the UN. When the world became economically complicated, the bigwigs created the G-7 and medium-sized powers joined the G-20. The majority of countries, however, became part of the UN General Assembly, the G-77, and such groupings. In every case, major powers, especially the US, could regulate everything from the dollar to the World Trade Organisation.

But none of this is effective any longer. Today there is a need for restructuring based on a new global consensus or concert among powerful, effective countries that no longer obsess over ideologies that are none of their concern. Haass and Kupchan suggest a global concert of six members: China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia and the US. “Democracies and non-democracies would have equal standing, and inclusion would be a function of power and influence, not values or regime type. The concert’s members would collectively represent roughly 70 per cent of both global GDP and global military spending.” Including these six heavyweights in the concert’s ranks would give it geopolitical clout while preventing it from becoming an unwieldy talk shop, which is what the UN has become.

This concert would listen to representatives from four regional organisations: the African Union, the Arab League, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation of American States. These four would maintain permanent delegations at the concert’s headquarters, while other countries can attend when there are issues involving them in the presence of their regional organisation. 

This hierarchical power structure would bring us back to the Westphalia rules of respect for sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs, and setting aside ideologies in dealing with global issues. The basis for interaction would be dialogue and building consensus among major players, whether collectively or through direct one-on-one talks, such as the issue of Taiwan in the framework of US-China relations.

There are many more details, sometimes returning to the past, and at other times looking to the future. It is an expression of ideas being developed around the world to convince countries that yesterday’s world order is no longer suitable for today’s world. That is the crux.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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