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New bipolarity: What the numbers say

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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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23 May 2012 08:33


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

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.

I'd like to have another go at convincing them, and other silent sceptics. There are all sorts of distinctions and classifications that can be made in international affairs; the trick is to pick the one(s) that are significant – in the sense that they shape the way the world works. Both Volker and Hugh argue (though for different reasons) that the important distinctions are regional ones. For Volker it's based on 'cultures' of international relations; for Hugh (and Peter Layton) it's about 'strategic re-regionalisation' and 'regional security complexes'.

I don't think regions are the key to the way the world works, certainly not for the big questions of war and peace and our capacity to address the big issues faced by the planet. On these questions, it is an Atlantic-Asian divide that will have a big impact.

First, some statistics that I think show that Africa and Latin America are closer to Europe than Volker and Jim Terrie believe, and that give some real definition to the 'Asia' that Peter questions the existence of. I looked into two data sets that would distinguish the Atlantic from the Asian outlook: how much states spend on international institutions, and how much they spend on weapons.

The results are pretty clear. I averaged the contributions made to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP for African, Asian, European, and Latin American states. Despite having an average per capita GDP three times as big as Africa's, Asian states' contribution to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP is less than 50% bigger than African states'. And although Asia's average per capita GDP is slightly higher than Latin America's, Asia's contribution to the UN budget is only four-fifths the size of Latin America's.

So African and Latin American countries are much more committed than Asian states to funding the UN, irrespective of their own wealth – an attribute that brings them closer to Europe than Asia.

As for arms spending, according to SIPRI, between 2000 and 2011 Asia's arms spending doubled; compare that to Africa's 55% rise, Europe's 21% increase, and Latin America's 58% growth. In other words, Asian states are arming at nearly twice the rates of Africans and Latin Americans, and five times the rate of Europeans.

In my next post, I look at why all this matters.

Photo by Flickr user michaels photo album.

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