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A new bipolarity

2 Apr 2012 09:33

Back in February, Sam drew attention to University of Colorado Professor Roger Pielke's observation that blogging is a great way of critiquing, extending and refining new ideas:

(Blogging) is a remarkably powerful tool for refining ideas, for collecting intelligence, for making contacts. I get routinely better feedback critique from ideas, arguments, I put out on my blog than I do in the peer review process.

Well, as a lapsed academic, I'm intrigued enough to give it a go.

On a recent trans-Pacific flight, I tapped out some impressions I'd formed while attending a Council on Foreign Relations conference, which brought together the heads of 20 think tanks from around the world to discuss global governance. I call the piece 'Back to Bipolarity?' because it is an argument that the world has split into two different communities of understandings and expectations about how the world works.


2 Apr 2012 16:16

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.

On the other side of the new bipolar divide is Asia, a collection of countries driven by a set of preoccupations completely different from those of the Atlantic community. This is a region – it cannot be described as a community in any meaningful sense – undergoing rapid change in power relativities.

Over the past decade, Asia has evolved from a region in which no state was large and rich enough to contemplate dominance to a region in which one state, China, is large enough, and rapidly amassing wealth and power sufficient to make its dominance imaginable among its neighbours. As a consequence, there are few pretensions towards a non-competitive, post-modern pattern of international relations in Asia. As the Atlantic community steadily disinvests in its armed forces, Asia's states are engaged in a prolonged and determined arms build-up.


3 Apr 2012 09:00

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.


3 Apr 2012 14:01

Michael Wesley has invited comment on his thesis that the world may be entering a new bipolar age (part 1, part 2, part 3), and I suspect many of the replies will focus on the geographic boundary that Michael has drawn between Asia and what he calls the Atlantic community (Europe, Africa and the Americas).

I prefer to focus on another bipolarity in Michael's piece, this one conceptual rather than geographic. He says in part 3 that:

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...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.


4 Apr 2012 14:44

Volker Perthes heads the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Michael Wesley comes with a thought-provoking idea: bipolarity is back, but it is not between old or new major powers or alliances, but rather between two communities of states – the Atlantic one which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa on the one hand, and Asia on the other. While the idea doesn't convince me, it is certainly worth debating. Let me put a few question marks to it.

I guess what Michael really describes is not a 'polarity' of any sort (there are no poles in his picture), but rather a division between (or simply the coexistence of) different political-strategic cultures. And here, regardless of the details, he has a point.


13 Apr 2012 09:17

I think Michael Wesley is on to something. Since the Wall came down twenty years ago, most of us have believed that the world had become more integrated than ever before, As the Cold War divide dissolved, the world would increasingly function as a single system in which divisions – geographic, ideological, economic, strategic – would become less and less important, and interconnections across an increasingly homogenised globe would become more and more important.

This wasn't entirely wrong. It has happened in the economics, where increasing trade and financial flows, integrated global supply and production chains, and the 'Great Convergence' in productivity really have produced a single integrated global economy. But surprisingly, this has not happened in other aspects of international affairs, and as Michael has seen, these divisions might prove to be just as important as the integrations to the way the world works. That's an important insight.

But Michael sees the key remaining – indeed deepening — division being between an idealist 'Atlantic' conception of international affairs and a realist 'Asian' conception. I'm not sure, for two reasons.


16 Apr 2012 10:02

Peter Layton writes:

The Venus and Mars distinction between the Atlantic and Asia that Hugh White and Michael Wesley discuss is an appealing simplification but perhaps a step too far. It tends to fall on the 'What is Asia?' question. The Austrian statesman Metternich in 1820 answered this neatly: 'Asia begins at the Landstrasse', the royal highway leading from Vienna east into Hungary. This is a pretty big slice of the world about which to lump together.

I make this observation as it is hard to see Asia (or the Atlantic) as homogenous in a theoretical perspective sense as Hugh and Michael see. For example, is the success of ASEAN really a tangible manifestation of realism in action? It would seem hard to make this case and this in itself suggests that the granularity of this 'bi-polar' realist/ idealist, Asia/Atlantic position is not fine enough to be useful in a conceptual sense.


23 May 2012 08:33

I’m delighted my thoughts on a new bipolarity provoked several people to respond. I found the responses really helpful, and have been deep in research and thought as a result.

I guess I'd class all of the responses in the 'nice idea, but I’m not convinced' category. Some people, such as Volker Perthes and Hugh White, agreed that there are differences in approach to international affairs, but disagreed that the differences were between two groups, one Atlantic, one Asian. Both argued that there are actually several different groups of approaches to international affairs.


23 May 2012 17:40

In my previous post, I used a couple of data sets to show that Asian states spend less on institutions and are investing more on weapons than African, European and Latin American states.

I think this is important because it portends a new bipolarity in international affairs, if we use the concept of polarity as it should be used, rather than as it has been defined by the international relations discipline. Since the dawn of the Cold War, IR has defined polarity in terms of competing centres of initiative and consequence, the number of which determine how the world works. The assumption is that all poles, irrespective of institutional or ideological makeup, play the same game of power politics, with common understandings and expectations.

But we need to remember that the concept of polarity comes to us from physics, which defines it as 'the possession of opposite or contrasted principles or tendencies.' I think this describes the current divide between the Atlantic and Asia really well; each operates according to a different tendency in interpreting and reacting to international events.


24 May 2012 11:27

Andrew Carr writes:

As so often is the case, Michael Wesley has introduced a fresh and important take on world affairs with his new discussion of polarity, but I can't help but wonder about the significance of the differences, both in how we read the data and what it implies for the future direction of the world.

Michael is right that Asian countries are less invested in the UN than Atlantic countries. This is to be expected given that only one Asian country has a Security Council veto (China, a reluctant multilateralist at best) and the forum was designed and still largely operates in a manner that suits Atlantic countries (ie. a heavy institutional footprint, legalistic focus, preference for decision making over consensus, and a willingness to discuss ['interfere'] in the internal affairs of countries).

If by polarity Michael is suggesting Asia is disinclined for the UN in particular, I would agree, but if he's suggesting this represents a different world 'outlook' in terms of the role of multilateralism, I have to disagree.


24 May 2012 16:03

Ten years ago, Robert Kagan grabbed everyone's attention by declaring 'Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus'. It was, he told us at the outset of his article-turned-bestseller, 'time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.' As war clouds gathered over Iraq, Kagan argued that Americans were prepared to use force to uphold international order, while Europeans placed their hopes in institutions that would build a post-modern world where force was rare.

At the base of Kagan's analysis is an argument about power and psychology that has long intrigued me. He tells a parable about a man in a forest inhabited by a prowling bear: if the man is only armed with a knife he will probably lie low and hope to avoid the bear; but if the man is armed with a gun, he is more likely to go looking for the bear to eliminate the threat to his safety.


4 Jun 2012 18:05

Harry Gelber, an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania, writes:

I am intrigued by Michael Wesley's suggestion of new patterns of cooperation/institutionalisation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I offer a few reflections:

1. This kind of pattern-making does not, it seems to me, have an entirely happy history in recent times. To take only one example, the creation of the UN after 1945 seemed to work quite well for some decades. But, although some of its agencies — WHO and WLO come to mind — have worked well, the UN as whole, meaning the General Assembly and the Security Council, have gone far in the direction of becoming mere talking shops, for all that states often use the 'authority' of one or the other to do what they think they need to do.

2. Your thesis does not seem to me to account for the increasing rather than decreasing multipolarity of the current international system.


6 Jun 2012 10:40

In a really helpful critique of the new bipolarity, Andrew Carr argues that I'm overplaying the institutional differences between the Atlantic and Asian realms and points out that there is no shortage of institutions in Asia (though that figure of 700 meetings a year came as a bit of a shock to me).

I think we need to look a bit deeper than counting institutions and meetings. We need to look at what those institutions are committed to and what they do; once we do, the differences just become starker.

Atlantic institutions prepared to act

The Atlantic's institutions have undergone a profound qualitative change since the end of the Cold War.


7 Jun 2012 09:21

It's taken me too long to respond to Sam's thoughtful piece on the new bipolarity. His idea of 'conservative internationalism' really got me thinking and in the end has made me revise a major premise of my original idea.

In first observing the qualitative differences between how seriously Atlantic and Asian states take their commitments to domestic and international institutions, I'd simply accepted the argument of people such as Robert Cooper and Robert Kagan, that regions which take institutions seriously are all idealists. That is, they believe that in building these institutions, they are building a 'postmodern' world that will eradicate war and build a perpetual peace.