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Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 22:30 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 22:30 | SYDNEY

Coral Bell’s ‘The End of the Vasco da Gama Era’: A 10th Anniversary Retrospective

15 Nov 2017 08:22

This is the first of a series of articles marking the tenth anniversary of the publication of Coral Bell's Lowy Institute Paper, The End of the Vasco da Gama Era: The Next landscape of World Politics.

Of all Coral Bell’s many fine scholarly traits, her prescience was one of the most defining. In The End of the Vasco da Gama Era: The Next landscape of World Politics, Coral foresaw the emergence of a new multipolar order. A decade on, it is a multipolarity whose emergence even our finest contemporary strategic minds are only now beginning to acknowledge. It is a multipolarity that has been brought into sharper relief by the Trump presidency, a development not even Coral would have seen coming. And it is a multipolarity that Australian scholars and practitioners alike now need to think much harder about.

Coral viewed the emerging landscape of world politics as a six-sided order comprising the US, EU, China, India, Russia and Japan. Beneath these ‘great powers’ she saw an additional layer of smaller, emerging powers - including the likes of Brazil, Indonesia, Iran and Korea – with the capacity to affect relations between the six poles.

As a student of the Cold War, one of Coral’s preoccupations was the so-called ‘central balance of power’. Scholars of this era acknowledged the existence of local balances - in particular regions, for instance - but these were seen as secondary in importance to the balance at the global level.

It is worth asking whether today’s emerging multipolarity marks the re-emergence of that central balance, or something else. In his magisterial Griffith Asia lecture of September 2017, for instance, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese observed that ‘multipolarity in Asia is only going to get stronger.’ Yet many if not most of the same players in Varghese’s multipolar Asia were also part of Coral’s group of six. The relationship between these ‘local’ and ‘central’ multipolar balances – if, indeed, they are distinct – thus requires closer investigation.

In The End of the Vasco Da Gama Era, Coral also observed that power is becoming much more diffuse in the new landscape of world politics. Again, Coral’s prescience was on display. It was this very idea that Harvard Professor Joseph Nye made famous several years later in his book The Future of Power.

Yet if power is indeed becoming more diffuse, one potential area for further investigation might be around the question of whether there are indeed ‘multiple multipolarities’ emerging across a variety of different domains rather than the single, central balance that Coral portrayed. For instance, one can see the emergence today of a multipolar order in the nuclear realm which, in terms of the key players involved, looks different from the multipolar economic order. The challenge for the contemporary analyst is not only to understand these ‘multiple multipolarities’ in a discrete sense, but to also form some judgement about what they mean collectively.

Coral also reminds us in The End of the Vasco Da Gama Era that mutipolarity need not be unstable. Eminent realist scholars such as Kenneth Waltz and Aaron Friedberg have popularised the view that multipolar systems are inherently more conflict prone. Yet Coral shows that, despite the fierce rivalries between them, the great powers of nineteenth century Europe were able to avoid fighting a hegemonial war (one where they fought to determine the rank order between them) for almost a century.

There is indeed a rich scholarly literature examining the relationship between polarity and stability. While the likes of Waltz and Friedberg typically get the most airplay, a good portion of this work suggests that a range of other factors – such as alliance tightness – will ultimately determine whether multipolar systems are ripe for rivalry or not. As we move towards what appears to be a new era of multipolarity – in Asia, globally, or possibly both – now is an opportune time to revisit this rich body of work.

Another of Coral’s rare qualities was her ability to discern big-picture trends and to decipher their implications for Australia. Her parting thoughts in The End of the Vasco Da Gama Era are particularly relevant here. Ever the strategic optimist, Coral maintained that Australia had nothing to fear from the emerging multipolarity because Canberra enjoyed relatively good relations with the great powers likely to constitute it.

However, Coral also concluded that a stable multipolar balance required each of those great powers to treat one another as equals, even if they were not so in reality. Toward this end, she argued against the idea that some of these great powers could align on ideological lines and embrace a ‘concert of democracies only’ mentality. That, in Coral’s view, ‘would be dangerous.’ Those in Canberra now contemplating the resuscitation of the ill-fated ‘Asian Quad’ of the mid-2000s would do well to heed her advice.



16 Nov 2017 08:03


The End of the Vasco da Gama Era is vintage Coral Bell: bold and trenchant, with plenty on which both academics and policymakers might chew. Criticising it – especially with the benefit of hindsight – seems churlish. But it is necessary, I think, because it promotes a deeply problematic idea that still lurks in Australian strategic thought: the notion that a ‘concert of powers’ is the best way to manage contemporary international relations.

In the essay, Bell argued that the relative decline of American power, Islamist jihadism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, the growing prosperity of the non-Western world, and the uncertainties inherent in the transition to a complex, multipolar society of states were together likely to undermine international order. Managing these challenges, she thought, was beyond the capabilities of the US alone and existing institutions of global governance. Instead, she suggested an updated version of the 19th century European Concert.

This idea had surfaced before in Bell’s work, in A World Out of Balance (2003), for example. Her interest in it was long-standing, a by-product of her fascination with Henry Kissinger, the subject of her The Diplomacy of Détente (1977). Bell’s concert of powers is very much Kissinger’s version, outlined in A World Restored (1957), his tale of how an enlightened few conjured continental peace and stability at a series of grand conferences held in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, balancing great-power interests with the needs of systemic stability.

In the 1950s, the concert appealed to Kissinger because it seemed to offer a way of managing the escalating tensions of the early Cold War preferable to those pursued by the Eisenhower Administration, but also because it affirmed his belief in the pivotal role of elite ‘statesmen’ in creating order out of chaos. Fifty years later, in different but no less challenging circumstances, it appealed to Bell for similar reasons, for she too was a ‘strategic elitist’, to use Robert Ayson’s apt term, convinced that great powers and great men make or break world politics.

Bell spent very little time in The End of the Vasco da Gama Era exploring the history of the European Concert. This, I think, was a mistake, because had she done so, she might have been less keen on the idea and what it might imply for a state such as Australia.

As Kissinger tacitly acknowledged by ending the story of A World Restored in 1822, the formal Concert of Europe was short-lived and its record more than mixed. It broke down as great-power perceptions diverged about which challenges to international order mattered most. Russia and Austria-Hungary, fearing their regimes might be overthrown, saw the rising tide of liberalism as the greatest threat; liberal Britain, wisely, demurred and withdrew into ‘splendid isolation’.

What was left of the concert system after 1822 did not prevent great-power wars, such as those fought by Russia and the Ottoman Empire (1828-29), Russia and a coalition of Britain, France, and the Ottomans (1853-56), Austria and Prussia (1866), France and Prussia (1870-71), Russia and the Ottomans (1877-78), and so on. To be sure, none of these conflicts escalated into general wars, but the great powers were busy using military force elsewhere – in expansionist frontier wars or in subjugating swathes of Africa and Asia, to devastating effect. The remnants of the Concert facilitated rather than curbed these bloody projects, with conference diplomacy used to divide the spoils, most notoriously in Berlin in 1885-86. And as Europe’s strategic elite enriched itself with extractive colonialism, other pressures grew unchecked by the Concert: nationalism and communism became more radical and militant, foreshadowing their roles in the disastrous wars of the twentieth century.

It is possible that a latter-day version, along the lines Bell suggested, would be an improvement on its precursor. But it is more likely that it would operate in similar ways, for similar reasons.

First, today’s great powers do not share perceptions of the gravity of the challenges of jihadism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation, still less how they might be managed. Great-power cooperation on these issues, whether bilateral or within the G7/8 and G20, has been patchy at best, suggesting that a modern concert could fall apart as quickly as its 19th century cousin.

Second, it is likely that the costs of concert bargaining would, as in the 19th century, fall on weaker states whose independence, territory, and resources would be traded away, ostensibly to keep the peace, but actually to satisfy the interests of the great powers and – importantly – their political elites. Such arrangements would not benefit relatively open, resource-rich, tricky-to-defend states such as Australia.

Third, a contemporary concert of powers would not address underlying issues that threaten medium- to long-term stability, not least populist discontent and the growing crisis of political legitimacy faced by domestic and international elites, be they democratic, authoritarian, or kleptocratic.


17 Nov 2017 14:33

The global redistribution of power was a central theme in Coral Bell’s The End of the Vasco de Gama Era. What made this celebrated work so important was Bell understood the need to assess not just the military capability of nation-states but to include issues of political, demographic, technological and economic change. Bell also emphasised the significance of norms, arguing that cuius regio, eius religio ('the ruler gets to make the rules in his own domain') was under serious pressure in the current society of states.

These ideas also feature strongly in her formidable set of monographs, including Negotiation from Strength, The Debatable Alliance, The Conventions of Crisis and A World Out of Balance. However, less well known are four papers she was writing shortly before her death in September 2012. These papers, as yet unpublished, further embodied her deep understanding about the significance of norms for understanding power politics and international relations, and reflected her much understated legacy on Australian strategic studies.

In these papers, Bell, at 89 years of age, continued to raise confronting questions for the 'prospective society of states' in the 21st century. In New Century, New Norms she argued that:

The new world order seems likely to be shaped even more by normative shift than by the multipolar distribution of power…(Norms) are often equated with values, and assumed to be universal, but they are highly specific to particular times and places and even institutions. Moreover, they may change at different speeds in different regions, even within one society.

In a paper on Revolution and Alliances, Bell further emphasised that...

...as if material change were not enough, there is also an ongoing normative shift (a shift in the rules governing behaviour for governments as well as individuals) which is equally or even more revolutionary...In global terms, power is shifting fast from the West to the East.

This led her to argue that the G20’s role in this multipolar order (The G20 and Multipolarity) was to be a 'top crisis-manager for the society of states', particularly with regards to rising powers, as it was...

...merely an association based on consensus among the governments invited to its meetings. They need to know what other governments, especially perhaps those with autocratic systems like China, have on their minds...That informality is a strength, not a weakness.

It also led her to aptly characterise Chinese influence on international politics (China and the Arab Spring):

The norms of Confucianism recently being promoted are not egalitarian but hierarchal, and they have accorded well enough with present policies which constitute in essence state capitalism, run by the top hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party...The central preoccupation of international politics in the next decade or two is therefore likely to be how to achieve a peaceful and if possible constructive relationship between China and the other great powers, despite Chinese norms remaining quite like the current ones.

Her analysis is ever more significant, since the current debate is dominated by questions of whether countries like Australia can continue to benefit from a US-led 'rules based order', what the real intentions of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are, and if countries can reconcile their strategic and economic relationships. Perhaps it is time to return to Bell’s nuanced understanding of the effect of the 'inescapable clash of norms' on decision-makers as we contemplate the new balance of power in Asia.

Lastly, it must be noted that an important legacy of Bell concerns gender. One of the first pieces Des Ball encouraged me to read when we began editing her festschrift was her fifth unpublished paper, a memoir entitled A Preoccupation with Armageddon. Des probably thought I would discover some nuanced understanding of her works. Instead, I latched onto this paragraph:

It had been explained to me with great care when I accepted the appointment (at the Australian Diplomatic Service in 1945) that if I got married, I would be automatically deemed to have resigned. I suppose nowadays that would count as sex discrimination, or even infringement of human rights, but at the time it was standard practice, and I shrugged it off. It was also universally assumed then that to have a child out of wedlock spelt social and professional ruin. Of all the changes I have seen in what is now a very long life, those concerning the status of, and rules for, women seem to me the most radical. No one then believed we could 'have it all.' On the contrary, we were required by our elders to choose between the 'career track' and the 'mommy track' very early in life.

Bell’s achievements are even more significant considering the times she lived in. In an era that produced some of Australia’s great strategic thinkers – JDB Miller, TB Millar, Robert O’Neill, Des Ball and Paul Dibb among others – her name stands out. Not just because Coral Bell was a woman, but because she was a woman who was a leading authority, who had a realist understanding of power politics, and who forged a path for others through her practice and scholarship.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Number 10.


21 Nov 2017 14:42

The Lowy Institute has been producing its signature Papers series since 2004. The length of these papers - short books, really - is a clue to their ambition. They are intended not as commentaries on passing events but as sustained examinations of big trends shaping contemporary international affairs. They say something about the world today and the world to come, but they are also designed to repay attention at a certain remove from current events. That's why it is so useful to revisit Coral Bell's The End of the Vasco da Gama Era: The Next landscape of World Politics after ten years. It is a book very much of its time, but did it also transcended those times? In important respects, yes.

It's humbling to read The End of the Vasco da Gama Era today because it reveals the limits of forecasting, but it also demonstrates some techniques for making better predictions. 

Bell was clearly acutely aware of the limits of her capacity to make predictions; the book is studded with qualifiers to that effect. She begins with Yogi Berra's famous quote that 'prophecy is difficult, especially of the future', and ends with Twain's familiar warning that history never repeats, it merely rhymes.

In between, there are a number of claims that, ten years later, Bell would probably revise. She says China will remain pre-occupied with economic development for the next 30 years. She tentatively but optimistically suggests that economic development might induce liberalising social change in China and Russia. And she says the prestige of conventional military capacity has diminished, an understandable claim in 2007 when the US and its allies were suffering miserably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But although America's military struggles in the Middle East continue, clearly the Chinese have not taken the lesson that conventional military power itself is unimportant for great-power status.

But one reason we're talking about The End of the Vasco da Gama Era after 10 years is that Bell gets a number of big things right, and she does it primarily by focusing on trends that won't suddenly shift. 'Long-term outcomes depend more on underlying factors: demographic, economic, technological and above all political', she writes. By mid-century, 20 countries will have populations of over 100 million, eight of them in Asia and only one in Europe. And speaking of Europe, Bell's description of it as 'not just an economic club' but a 'cultural, historical and geographical identity' would have been unpopular among liberals at the time, not least in Europe itself. But that sentiment has been powerfully reinforced in recent years. For a scholar with a reputation as a strategic classicist, Bell also made penetrating observations about the power of communications technology to change the norms of international relations.

Of course the core argument of The End of the Vasco da Gama Era was that Western domination of global politics was drawing to a close, and this has proven Bell's most enduring and important forecast. The trends Bell saw in 2007 have continued since she wrote: we are still witnessing a shift of global economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and with it the relative decline of Western powers, primarily the US. These have been the most important global strategic and economic trends of the last decade, and many Western policymakers are only now beginning to wrestle with the policy dilemmas that Bell confronted a decade ago.

Bell reassures the reader that multipolarity is not unusual in international relations and need not be feared. The period of unipolarity enjoyed by the US between the Soviet collapse and the attack on the twin towers, by contrast, was unusual. Bell treats it as an interregnum, an interruption to a 'historically more familiar' international system in which power is shared by two or more great nations. For Australia, she writes, 'there is no need to mourn the end of the unipolar world...The United States will remain the paramount power of the society of states, only in a multipolar world instead of a unipolar or bipolar one.'

This might be the biggest call Bell makes in The End of the Vasco da Gama Era, and one wonders if she would declare it with such confidence today. At the very least, it is easier to imagine today that the US, rather than being the paramount power in a multipolar balance, will be no more than the equal of China, and perhaps India.

Photo by Flickr user Jessica and Lon Binder.