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Back to bipolarity (part 3)

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This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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3 April 2012 09:00


This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa. Part 2 describes the other side of the divide, Asia.

The new bipolarity is very different from that of the Cold War. This divide is not one of opposing coalitions clustered around all-powerful poles. It features strong interdependent links rather than a chasm of rivalry and fear between its two components. The new polarity is of a different type, with two different communities of states divided by a widening gulf of perceptions and expectations about global institutions, international norms, and the basic ground rules of international affairs.

These are not competing or even non-trading coalitions; rather they represent two steadily diverging conceptions of how the world works. Whereas the Atlantic community holds fast to a teleological belief in the steady improvement of international relations, a resignation to playing out a cycle of rising, declining and competing powers is pervasive in Asia.

This new divide may be less dangerous than its predecessor, but it will be no less determining of global affairs. The Atlantic and the Asian mindsets will struggle to find common ground in global institutions and on the big planetary challenges that face us. It will be a recurring dialogue of the deaf between idealists and arch pragmatists. It is hard to see how institutional solutions will be arrived at in negotiations between one group of countries committed to internationalism and another group sceptical of internationalism.

The Cold War ended with the victory of one side and the implosion of the other. The new bipolarity can't be resolved in this way because the two sides aren't competing – in fact they're not even speaking the same language. Whereas the preponderance of global production and minerals lay on one side of the Cold War divide, allowing the West to construct a quasi-global order, this time around production, resources and legitimacy are much more evenly spread between the Atlantic and Asia. The new bipolarity will likely be more enduring than the Cold War version.

Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the new bipolarity will be to the global leadership of the US. America will be torn between the Atlantic and Asian realms. Its sympathies and predilections lie very much with the Atlantic community, whose ideals reflect and extend FDR's postwar internationalism and which still looks to Washington for leadership. But America's pragmatic interests lie in Asia, where it faces the most serious strategic challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the best prospects for the recovery of its economy.

America will struggle to come to terms with the new realities in Asia, because it will approach them with an Atlantic mindset. Its expectations about what it can do, and how it does them, will need constant readjustment in Asia. Whether it can juggle two different approaches to international affairs will be a major challenge for the US in the twenty-first century.

Suggestions, comments and critiques on all three parts of this series are gratefully accepted.

Photo by Flickr user Aaron Molina.

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