This is the first in what may become an occasional series. Over the last year or two, I’ve drifted out of regular blogging. The usual excuses apply: too much work and not enough energy. I am so badly behind on a number of book chapters, manuscript revisions, and the like that the simple act of writing this explanation feels like a misuse of my time. Well, anyway, so my notion is this: write short posts designed to provoke discussion of various issues in international relations and international-relations theory. We’ll see if it works.
For the last decade or more, unipolarity has been the basic framework in security studies for understanding contemporary international order. We’ve debated about the general stability of unipolarity. We’ve argued about whether the character of American leadership impacts that stability. And we’ve spent–and continue to spend–an enormous amount of time contemplating the power-transition dynamics associated with the rise of China.
I wonder, though, if our unipolarity fixation obscures some important aspects of post-Cold War security order. In the early 1990s another image of world politics seemed plausible: that of a new great-power concert. After all, the United Nations was constructed with an embedded concert architecture via the United Nations Security Council, and the 1991 Gulf War suggested a reinvigoration of that latent aspect of international order.
The standard story is that those hopes were dashed by retreat from Somalia, the Rwanda debacle, NATO expansion, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and so forth. Renewed optimism–at least those who favored such an arrangement, including Moscow–after 9/11 quickly gave way to talk of “American Empire” as the Bush Administration mobilized to invade Iraq. Thus, most recent discussions of a great-power concert have been forwarded looking. In essence, foreign-policy pundits debate whether the US should pursue some kind of new capital-c Concert as the fundamental component of a post-Iraq grand strategy. Sometimes the Concert in question is supposed to be composed of democratic states, and other times not.
My suggestion is different: it is that we are already living in a Concert system, albeit it one deeply inflected by American primacy. The argument that we aren’t, I submit, is based on a flawed conception of just what the Concert of Europe did. The Concert did not preclude deep disagreements among its members. The great powers of Europe often acted without consensus. They even fought wars with one another during the lifetime of the system. But they did coalesce to manage a number of crisis within Europe and on its periphery and otherwise to function as a kind of geo-strategic cartel, and lack of agreement did sometimes constrain one or more of the members of the Concert system.
This sounds a good deal like the current order–with the notable difference that we haven’t seen any great-power wars. Indeed, it sounds more like the last twenty years than we sometimes realize. We tend to focus on the “big” disagreements between, for example, Russia and the US. But beneath those disagreements remains a great deal of “managed” international order made possible by something like a great-power cartel with a focal-point in the United Nations system.