Tag: client states

Hegemony and Influence

Dave Noon Erik Loomis relates two anecdotes about the workings of US power. Both are a bit extreme. The US-Haiti relationship, in particular, is about as unequal as you can get in contemporary world politics.

Still, Loomis’ stories illustrate why some of us leave short-term stints in government with the impression that Washington is both much more powerful and much weaker than US academics often assume.

US officials find themselves significantly constrained by America’s web of alliances and economic interdependencies, but that web also privileges their voices in day-to-day interactions throughout the globe.

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Exit and loyalty

Great powers find themselves compelled to support regimes they consider problematic, unpleasant, or even odious. The United States is no exception. Many of its friends and allies have far greater democratic deficits than Egypt, although few receive more combined U.S. aid than Cairo does. 

Sometimes those allies will have revolutionary moments — points at which the forces for regime change are strong enough that no one can be sure whether the government will prevail. Sometimes they will have what might best be described as pre-revolutionary periods. During these periods it looks like a revolutionary moment might come, but no one is quite sure. Egypt is in a pre-revolutionary period, which means:
  • The US has less influence over Mubarak’s government than it would if the regime were under greater threat; and
  • The US faces much greater uncertainty about the costs and benefits of calibrating its level of support for the regime and the pro-democracy protesters. 

The Obama Administration cannot pull a “Ferdinand Marcos” in Egypt; despite all that aid, Mubarak is less dependent on Washington than Marcos was. While I expect that the hearts of most people in the Obama Administration are, like most other Americans, with the brave men and women protesting on the streets of Egypt, they also need to worry about the geo-strategic costs of alienating — or losing completely — an important regional ally, whether by supporting a doomed regime or undercutting a survivor. 

If things go badly, the ultimate fault will lie with decades of U.S. policy. From a realpolitik perspective we can understand why democratic great powers will support undemocratic regimes. But it is unforgivable for any great power — democratic or not — to lack exit options, e.g., to fail to cultivate other sources of support such that it can pivot to them when a regime begins to bend and shake upon its long-obvious cracks. 
It is doubly unforgivable for a liberal great power to lack variants of those exit options that allow it to more fully support a people’s democratic aspirations, whether by:
  • Making use of concomitant leverage to pressure a regime to enact liberalizing reforms;
  • Being more secure in the knowledge that democratization will not threaten its geo-strategic interests;
  • Pivoting to supporters within civil society; or
  • Doing all of the above.
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Georgia, Framing, and the Aftermath of the Conflict

A friend emails me to say:

I just watched video of Saakashvili’s press conference with Sarkozy. Still claiming outright that the Russians started it and that the Russians are the invaders. Speaking English, naturally. Russians are of course indignant about this claim. Georgia is like the younger sibling who constantly pokes and prods the older and then runs to mommy to complain when the older eventually hits back. Then when the older gets grounded for hitting, hides behind mommy’s legs and sticks his tongue out at the older. Russia’s reputation as a bully (plus the fact that mom likes the younger one better anyway) means that no one will believe their version of what happened. They stamp their feet at the injustice of it all, but they are still stuck with it.

But how much does this matter on the ground? E. Wayne Merry writes in RFE/RL:

Whether the Georgian president fell into a waiting Russian trap or rashly threw a wholly inadequate force into South Ossetia believing Moscow would not respond, the consequences were disastrous for Georgia, but very negative also for the United States.

The essence of a productive patron-client relationship (especially one involving a Great Power) is that it serve the interests of both parties. Shevardnadze well understood that his obligation in return for aid was not to compromise U.S. interests with Russia. Relations with Moscow were quite poor during his tenure, but Shevardnadze carefully avoided steps that might trigger larger armed conflict and thus present Washington with bad and costly policy choices. The youthful and romantic Saakashvili ran a more honest and progressive administration, but lacked the cynical older statesman’s understanding that a client state must protect its patron’s interests as well as its own.

How grim are the “realities” of US-Georgian relations?

First, the Georgian economy is in dire straits, with many new refugees, damaged national infrastructure, and frightened foreign investors. Only 16 years ago, Georgia verged on mass hunger. It could happen again. Aid (both U.S. and European) is needed, but Tbilisi must also create confidence that investments will be safe from further strife.

Second, the Georgian Army is in tatters, in a society with a vibrant warrior culture. Only 16 years ago, Georgia was ruled by warlords and private armies. It could happen again. The integrity of the Georgian state requires some kind of army, but with confidence that it will not again be used recklessly.

Third, no amount of Western political “pressure” will restore Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian rule. Moscow’s recognition of the entities as independent is surely a prelude to their incorporation, sooner or later, into the Russian Federation. This step would likely receive overwhelming endorsement in free referendums by the Abkhaz and Ossetians, while the dispossessed Georgians will have no say. Wars have consequences, usually bad, that diplomacy cannot rectify.

Finally, the current Georgian leadership will pay the price at home for its failed venture. While the embattled Saakashvili has the titular support of all political factions at the moment, the jockeying is already under way to replace him. Georgia’s first and second presidents were forcibly removed from office. Politics are pitiless, and Georgian politics more so.

Georgia today needs its U.S. patron as never before, but any future U.S. administration will certainly impose tighter controls and more conditions on its help. The rhetoric from Washington will doubtless be supportive of Georgia, but no patron state enjoys the feeling that the tail has wagged the dog, especially against its own advice and interests.

At some level, this isn’t all that surprising. The basic dynamics here involve what I have termed the “balance of influence in patron-client relations.”

Despite many features of the relationship that should, at first glance, provide the US with more leverage over Georgia than Georiga ought to enjoy over the US, Saakashvili ultimately ignored US warnings. He then made appeals to the United States that it would have been very difficult for Washington to ignore, but that also required it to step beyond its ability to influence events on the ground. In doing so, he dragged Washington into a conflict with the Russians that has, in many respects, harmed US interests.

But for a variety of reasons–some ethical, some political, and others strategic–the Washington cannot, nor should it, abandon the Georgia. The obvious answer, then, is to seek more ways to control the policies that come out of Tbilisi. But how to accomplish this task? That’s the crucial, and as yet unanswered, question.

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Pakistan and Afghanistan: misguided strategic priorities


A fantastic commentary by Troy at Abu Muqawama.

If you haven’t seen it already, the New York Times magazine has an excellent article by Dexter Filkins on the Taliban in Pakistan. It is a longer piece, but well worth the read.

A fair amount of it covers ground that should be familiar to anyone who has been watching South Asia for the past couple of years:

* Taliban factions are in control of Pakistan’s tribal areas

* The Pakistan Army and ISI are actually supporting the Taliban while pretending to cooperate with the U.S. to control the militants

* By way of example, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the de facto leader of a powerful Taliban faction in North Waziristan that organizes suicide bombings in Eastern Afghanistan, is close to UBL, wanted in Afghanistan, and (drum roll please) an ISI intelligence asset! ISI quote from Filkins: “We are not apologetic about this.” Note: The Haqqani compound outside Miranshah was the target of a Predator strike yesterday.

* The Talibs are free to operate in Afghanistan/attack NATO forces provided that they “refrain from attacking the Pakistani state and from setting up a parallel government.”

* Keeping the Taliban intact is a hedge against the day when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and the government in Kabul collapses so Pakistan can be assured that a friendly (and anti-Indian) government can reestablish stability.

* The Pakistan Army is in such poor shape as a warfighting organization that it likely couldn’t defeat the militants even if it were actually trying to do so.

* This “double game” allows Pakistan to obtain U.S. aid which is critical to sustaining its broken economy.

What Troy found more illuminating was the discussion of the new government’s counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses on economic development (billions will be poured into the tribal areas over the next five years to build roads, schools and health clinics) and negotiation with tribal leaders in a manner that seeks to sideline the militants. This contrasts sharply with the Musharraf-era negotiations that took place directly between the Army and the militants themselves. This strategy sounds similar in many respects to the notions proposed by Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason (previously discussed here) that strengthening and re-building the Pashtun tribal structures was key to bringing the tribal areas back from the radical brink.

The major problem with this mode of thinking, as Filkins makes clear, is that the Taliban has shredded the old social order that these strategies seek to re-establish. Not only have a significant number of Tribal Maliks been killed, but more importantly, the various Taliban factions have cultivated loyal adherents by overthrowing traditional tribal elders and/or hereditary feudal leaders and elevating lower-class people in their place. A number of prominent Taliban warlords, such as Baitullah Mehsud and Manghal Bagh were common laborers before picking up guns. While the attraction of the Taliban has often been framed in either religious or cultural terms, they are also tapping into that age old conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Those who have benefitted under the new social order are unlikely to be too enthusiastic about a return to the old way of doing things.

Just as insightful is a comment on the post by “bill”:

But, of course, the Pakistani government’s role is very interesting. Historically they backed Islamism for national unity and the Taliban for strategic depth, both to counterbalance their demographic disadvantage against India. Until that strategic calculus changes, until Pakistan stops trying to balance India, the government will have a very strong interest letting the Taliban survive.

This is a point that deserves a great deal of emphasis. Pakistan’s strategic position today is not like it was in the 1960s, or even the 1970s and 1980s. The can deter India with nuclear weapons, of course, but the important relative trajectories–most notably economic and military trends–all point towards continued growth in the already significant gap between the two countries. This gap favors India.

India’s GDP (PPP) in 2007 was around $3 trillion. In 2006 and 2007 India’s economy grew by 8.5%. In 2008-2009 it reached 9.1%. Even with a likely slowdown, India’s prospects remain better than Pakistan’s. In 2007, Pakistan’s GDP (PPP) was around $410 billion, with growth between 6-8% between 2004 and 2008 (source for most of these figures: CIA World Fact Book). But that growth is imperiled by high inflation and interest rates.

The Pakistani military is not in particularly good shape; morale and training are quite low. India spends $26.5 billion on its military, but that’s below 2% of its GDP, and India announced in June that it would increase spending to $40 billion; Pakistan spends about $4.4 billion (with close to an additional $10 billion coming from US military aid) but even that comparatively modest expenditure amounts to an enormous drag on Pakistan’s budget and economy.

The hard reality is that India is heading for even more robust regional hegemony, and there’s very little Pakistan can do about it. But even more important is that fact that Pakistan’s major security threats are no longer external; the Pakistani state is unlikely to meet its end via an Indian invasion.

Pakistan’s major security challenges now stem from within its nominal territorial boundaries. Pakistan’s grand strategy of preserving “strategic depth” by placing a friendly regime in Afghanistan–or, at least, preventing the consolidation of a pro-Indian regime there–constitutes, in light of current challenges, an anachronism driven by the straitjacket of organizational culture within the ISI and certain corners of the military.

Indeed, the consolidation of a Taleban state-within-a-state represents the most important threat to the Pakistani government. One day, the ISI’s and military’s allies may launch much more than terrorist strikes against the Pakistani state; it is far from clear who, at that point, will be able to stop them.

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Pakistan: the PML-N and PPP split as a case of more general dynamics

Is Pakistan returning to pre-Musharraf political patterns? Nawaz Sharif’s decision to break with the PPP and pull his party, PML-N, out of Pakistan’s governing coalition, certainly suggests so. The story of the last months reflects, however, more general dynamics associated with democratization in competitive authoritarian regimes, i.e., those characterized by elections in which opposition groups have some ability to challenge an autocratic regime. It also reflects the growing importance of international-patron client relations for US foreign policy.

As Marc Howard and Philip G. Roessler argue (PDF), one of the most important factors bringing about liberalization in such regime is the formation of a coalition among opposition parties. As long as opposition groups remain divided, incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes continue to rule. But once the opposition cooperates, it has a shot at overcoming electoral manipulation, structural barriers set up by the regime, and other efforts to maintain the status quo. And yet, as we’ve seen in other countries–most recently Kenya–such coalitions usually prove quite fragile when the spoils of victory arrive.

In this case, the PML-N remained with the PPP as long Sharif’s needed its support to remove Musharraf from office (remember that Musharraf’s coup was directed against Sharif). The other major “policy achievement” of the coalition government? A law granting retroactive immunity to their members for past corrupt acts, and making it extremely difficult to prosecute sitting politicians for corruption. But now, with the Presidency up for grabs and a debate over whether to reinstate the judges removed by Musharraf, its back to politics as usual. As the BBC reports:

The PPP fears that if all the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf get their jobs back, they may invalidate an amnesty that paved the way for Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto to return to the country last year.

That would leave Mr Zardari open to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

The BBC’s Charles Haviland in Islamabad says the PPP has other parties in coalition and the government will not fall. However, the PPP may find Mr Sharif to be an uncomfortably powerful figure to have in opposition at a time when the country lacks a sense of political direction.

Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif worked together to threaten Mr Musharraf with impeachment which led him to resign last week.

The two party leaders had also agreed to reduce the powers of the presidency in a country where the president has in the past dismissed democratically elected governments.

Mr Sharif says as long as the presidency remains a powerful post, a non-partisan candidate acceptable to everyone, rather than Mr Zardari, should have been agreed on.

Given that Pakistan has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds for the struggle against the Taleban and Al-Qaeda, and given continued US uncertainty about how engage with post-Musharraf Pakistan, all this bears close attention.

There’s also a larger story at work here.

Consider the sites of the most visible challenges for US foreign policy of the last few years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Georgia. What do these countries have in common? They’re all, to greater or lesser degrees clients of the United States. In each of them, moreover, the convergence of domestic political dynamics and relations with the United States has arguably diminished US leverage over key policy decisions, with consequences that significantly impact–for the worse–the ability of the United States to pursue its grand-strategic objectives.

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Speaking of signals, mixed and otherwise – updated (yet again)

… Big news just came down the pike.

Courtesy of a friend, I learn that Poland has agreed to host US ballistic-missile defenses.

As geopolitical lines harden, the question becomes if Russia’s actions will drive a wedge between NATO members that embrace a harder or a softer line towards Russia. Or will balance-of-threat dynamics lead to renewed NATO cohesion? I suspect the answer is far from preordained: a great deal depends on how US and European diplomacy plays out.

Oh, and forget the G8/G7. This is the kind of thing the Russians might actually see as a significant negative consequence of the Georgia conflict.

Oops. I forgot to mention the Patriots the US is giving Poland. I guess the US decided to “pay” what Poland wanted. Still, the Russians might be more upset about the Patriots than the BMD ….

Via a different friend, two excerpts from news reports. The first from Reuters:

President George W. Bush’s pledge to send aid to Georgia means that theU.S. military will take control of the ex-Soviet state’s ports andairports, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on Wednesday.

But the Pentagon denied it planned any such action to proceed with deliveries of humanitarian aid.

“You have heard the statement by the U.S. president that the United States is starting a military-humanitarian operation in Georgia,” Saakashvili said in a television address.

“It means that Georgian ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. defence ministry in order to conduct humanitarian and other missions. This is a very important statement for easing
tension.”

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said: “We are not looking to, not do we need to, take control of any air or seaports to conduct this mission.

In his White House remarks, Bush said he had ordered the U.S. military to deliver humanitarian aid. A C-17 aircraft with supplies was on its way to Georgia and in the days to come Washington would use military aircraft and naval forces to make deliveries.

And, from the Washington Post:

Lavrov, in remarks broadcast on Russian radio, sounded unconcerned about White House threats that Russia could suffer a chill in relations with the West because of its incursion into Georgia.

“I don’t know how they are going to isolate us,” Lavrov said during an interview on radio station Echo Moskvy. “I have heard threats that we are not going to be admitted to the [World Trade Organization], but we see clearly that nobody is going to admit us there anyway,” he said. His remarks were translated by the Interfax news service. “Excuse my language, but they’re just stringing us along.”

I have a paper to finish, so analysis from me will be sparse for a bit. Maybe some of our readers can provide their own in comments?

… Itar-Tass reports that the South Ossetian and Abkhazian “foreign ministers” will soon be traveling to Moscow to discuss recognition of their independence (or, perhaps, their status as “republics” within Russia?).

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Djibouti and Eritrea


Did you know that Djibouti is in the midst of a border conflict with Eritrea? I didn’t, and for that I blame American news outlets. According to the BBC, French troops are providing logistical and medical support to Djibouti’s forces. The United States has condemned “Eritrean aggression.”.

Eritrea, for its part, has condemned “‘US meddling’ in the Horn of Africa.”. Which presumably refers not just to the large US base in Djibouti (Camp Lemonier), but to its backing of Ethiopia and its related proxy (as well as direct) activities in Somalia.


Given the creation of AFRICOM, the fact that Africa remains one of the least politically stable regions in the world, and the growing importance of the continent to the “War on Terror,” we should expect to see more conflicts in which the United States plays some kind of role or, at least, has some stake in the outcome.

The French, of course, have often engaged in direct military action–of one form or another–on the continent.

Image from the US Department of State.

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Georgian dreams

My offhand comment about Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s warnings to Russia over its increased activity in Abkhazia has, thanks to Rob Farley, produced some interesting commentary.

Matthew Yglesias fails to sugar coat his take:

It would be appallingly stupid for the United States or our other key allies to put anything whatsoever on the line for the sake of Georgia’s efforts to reassert control over its rebellious province. The question of maintaining a good relationship with an important country, Russia, versus standing up for the independence of Russia’s neighbors poses some tough dilemmas. But when the issue is Georgia’s effort to rule over a province that by all indications doesn’t want to be ruled by Tblisi, the dilemma really isn’t difficult at all. We should just stay far, far, far away from this dispute and try to make it clear to our friends in Georgia that we don’t encourage them to do anything stupid.

Joshua Keating disagrees:

think it’s wishful thinking on Yglesias’s part to pretend that this has nothing to do with US foreign policy. Abkhazia isn’t just some obscure, post-Soviet backwater conflict that emerged on its own. Russia’s recent actions — normalizing trade relations and sending hundreds of “peacekeepers” into the region — were taken in direct response to Western recognition of Kosovo and talk of NATO expansion. Telling Georgia that it has to resolve this issue on its own before we’ll even think about NATO membership is basically an open invitiation for Putin to continue meddling.

I agree that tradeoffs and concessions will have to be made with an increasingly assertive Russia, and Georgia’s territorial integrity may be less of a priority than other goals. But being willing to make concessions is not the same thing as looking the other way when Russia responds to U.S. and EU policy by annexing territory from Western allies. I don’t really see why de Hoop Scheffer saying that Georgia and Russia “should engage quickly in a high-level and open dialogue to de-escalate tensions” is some sort of bombastic provocation.

For the record, the Georgians have put quite a bit on the line to help the United States reassert control in Iraq with the hope that they might gain NATO membership in return. That gambit is starting to look “appallingly stupid.”

As I’ve argued before, one basic problem for the United States and NATO is that Saakashvili’s government tends to view signals of western support as a justification for a harder line on Abkhazia. Another is that anyone with a brain knew how Abkhazia and Russia were likely to react to Kosovo independence: if the U.S. and the Europeans can dismember Serbia, then why can’t Abkhazia have its independence as well? The Russians view themselves as playing the same game as the United States and many of the Europeans. And, in many respects, they are.

At the most basic level, the chances of Abkhazia ever rejoining Georgia are close to nill, while the lack of resolution to the conflict makes Georgian accession to NATO very risky for the alliance. There are options short of fully sovereign independence, membership in the Russian Federation, or a return to Georgia for Abkhazia, but finding them and making the stick will require a great deal of creative thinking. It may be that part of the package should include MAP for Georgia.

Georgia warms the hearts of many US foreign-policy wonks. It’s a quasi-democratic country, run by a man with a western education who knows how to say all the right things, and the US even backed the “color revolution” (the “Rose Revolution,” to be precise) that brought him to power. And Georgia wants to be both a US client and a major strategic asset. What’s not to like?

It isn’t hard to see why the Georgians want to be Uncle Sam’s outpost in the Caucuses. The Russians consider Georgia to be part of their sphere of influence, and border Georgia on the north. Their southern neighbor, Armenia is more or less a Russian client.

Does greater integration of Georgia into Europe and the Atlantic Community make sense? Certainly. But the US and Europe need to proceed with extreme caution, as they need to juggle a wide range of potential downsides: from further antagonizing Russia to inadvertently increasing the chances of armed conflict.

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The emerging multipolar order

Parag Khanna has, in essence, a précis of his forthcoming book in today’s New York Times Magazine. The article, entitled, “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony”, contends that American hegemony is already over, that we’re seeing the emergence of three new “empires”–complete with different imperial styles–centered around the US, the EU, and China. Khanna thinks the US needs to adapt soon to his new great game, in which the “second world’s” orientation will determine the global balance of power, and, among other things, abandon the us-versus-them attitude which undermines its influence and makes great-power concert-style management difficult.

Khanna’s put his finger on many key contemporary trends. Unlike Kagan, he doesn’t try to interpret the new struggle for influence in quasi-Marxist terms, i.e., as a great ideological clash between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Khanna understands that Kagan’s view, if it drives US foreign policy, will prove counterproductive to US power and influence.

I only have a few criticisms, and they are largely those of an academic reading a work intended for a popular audience.*

1. I don’t care for Khanna’s “marketplace” analogy, which downplays the degree to which geopolitical competition for influence among clients and other weaker powers involves coercion, domination, and resistance.

2. Khanna is too dismissive of the implications of Russian assertiveness. He’s right that the long-term trends–particularly demographic–don’t favor Russian geopolitical influence, but we should be careful about projecting too much based on current trends.

And right now, the Russians are unhappy and resurgent; their capabilities far outmatch most of their neighbors, and they’re starting to adopt more sensible development policies designed to diversify their economy.

3. I wish Khanna didn’t fall into the trap of implying that the Shanghai Coopertation Organization (SCO) is a big deal because it might be like NATO some day. The SCO represents a strategy of “public goods substitution”–from its counter-terrorism to its election-monitoring activities–that seeks to undermines US influence. I doubt it will ever be upgraded to a NATO-like entity, and focusing on that question misses its significance.

4. I think Khanna’s a bit too fast to declare the passing of US hegemony. This is less his fault than that of the “unipolar moment” crowd, many of whom overstated–and continue to overstate–the implications, as well as the degree, of American primacy.

American primacy never implied that the US could “make its own reality” or largely ignore resistance to its policies and position. US power depended, and continues to depend, as much on the micro-politics of its foreign relations as upon its raw military and economic might.

So while (a) the US has mishandled many of those micro-politics over the last decade, (b) current trends do point towards a power transition, and (c) the US faces serious counter-hegemonic challenges, we should be careful about equating diminished US primacy with some form of tripolarity.

That being said, the book is really excellent. I consider it one of the most important contributions to the debate over American grand strategy to make its way into the public sphere in quite some time.

UPDATE: Since Dan’s called me out on this, let me clarify: I think this is a much better book than most of its rivals in the same market niche, and puts some very important issues on the table. I wasn’t sure how to phrase my concluding praise, and opted for a possibly misleading statement about the “public sphere” as opposed to what might sound like a more backhanded compliment about, in effect, the “Tom Friedman/Benjamin Barber/Robert Kaplan genre.”

If I do get around to a review, I intend to make clear that the book actually contains a number of distinct arguments, that these arguments do not depend upon one another, and that some of them are much more persuasive than others. Or, as I wrote on another blog, the “three empires” vision of the world should be seen as a possible, but unlikely, future. The important part of Khanna’s argument is not, contra how many are reading it, the tag lines about the coming tripolar order and the central importance of a similarly-situated set of “second world states,” but the more significant insights about the changing terms of US hegemony and the myriad challenges it faces as a result of, for example, enhanced exit options for second- and third-tier states.

*I should probably note two potential sources of bias. Khanna, who is currently pursuing a PhD from the London School of Economics, is one my former students. A lot of my current work, moreover, is premised upon a similar view of contemporary power-political developments and trends–although not in terms of his claims about the coming tripolar order.

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