USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education)

Preparing now for a peaceful 21st century

Preparing now for a peaceful 21st century – international relations

Charles W. Kegley, Jr.

DESPITE the disruptions evident since the end of the Cold War, the great powers have yet to forge a clear, coherent strategy for promoting global security. Instead, confusion and conflicting impulses abound. From efforts to deal with the civil war in what was once Yugoslavia to coping with domestic turmoil in Somalia, their policies have been characterized by hesitation and false starts. The failure to prevent aggression stemming from long-suppressed ethnic hatreds, alongside percolating rivalries among themselves over trade issues, have heightened apprehensions about whether the great powers will be able to maintain peaceful relations in the long term.

To some extent, their struggles are understandable. Creating a global security policy for a chaotic and confusing post-Cold War world is a formidable challenge. The simple bipolar system of the recent past rapidly is giving way to a more complex configuration of strength, and the prevailing uncertainty surrounding the great powers’ future intentions makes construction of a new security system difficult.

In today’s cloudy global atmosphere, military and economic might are becoming increasingly diffused. In contrast to bipolarity, where two superstates held a preponderance of strength compared to all other countries, the multipolar system of the future appears destined to contain as many as five roughly equal great powers: the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and either Germany or a European Union with a common defense policy. A “power transition” is well under way, and the changes provoked by this redistribution promise to be fundamental. The relative capabilities of the great powers are moving in the direction of approximate parity.

The diffusion of strength among the world’s leading states demands attention because some previous forms of multipolarity have been more war-prone than others. For example, the multipolar system of antagonistic blocs that developed on the eve of World War I proved particularly dangerous. When a world of many great powers splits into rival camps, there is little chance that competitors in one policy arena will emerge as partners somewhere else, so as to mitigate the competition. Rather, the gains made by one side will be seen as losses by the other, ultimately causing minor disagreements to grow into larger faceoffs from which neither coalition is willing to retreat.

Since the international system of the early 21st century probably will include three or more extremely powerful states whose security interests are global, it is important that they do not become segregated into rival blocs. While the world can rejoice in the end of Cold War hostility, differences in the interests of the great powers have not disappeared, and there is no assurance that future disagreements will not culminate in intense conflict.

As former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger warns, we are “returning to a more traditional and complicated time of multipolarity, with a growing number of countries increasingly able to affect the course of events.” The primary issues are how well the U.S. and Russia can adjust to their unequal decline from overwhelming preponderance, and how well China, Japan, and the European Union will adapt to their newfound importance. “The change will not be easy for any of the players, as such shifts in power relationships have never been easy.”

Can great-power cooperation, not renewed conflict, prevail? At issue is whether the security threats that collectively will face the world will be managed through multilateral great-power action instead of the unilateral pursuit of national advantage.

Great-power options in a multipolar future

As power in the international system becomes more diffused, what can be done to prevent the re-emergence of an unstable form of multipolarity? How can the great powers avoid the rivalries that historically have provoked the formation of polarized, antagonistic blocs? Three general courses of action exist: they can act unilaterally; develop specialized bilateral alliances with others; or engage in some form of broad collaboration with many nations. What matters for the stability of multipolar systems is the relative emphasis placed on “going it alone” vs. “going it with others,” and whether joint action is defined in inclusive or exclusive terms.

Unilateral policies, though attractive because they symbolize the nostalgic pursuit of national autonomy, are unlikely to be viable in a multipolar future. The end of the Cold War has reduced public anxieties about foreign dangers and, in some countries, led to calls for a reduction in the scale of foreign commitments. A retreat from world affairs, however, would imperil efforts to deal with the many transnational threats to security that require active global engagement.

On the other hand, a surge of unilateral activism by any of the great powers would be equally harmful. None of them holds an unquestioned hegemonic status with enough power to override all others. Although the U.S. is unrivaled in military might, its offensive capability and unsurpassed military technology is not paralleled by unrivaled financial clout. Like others, the U.S. economy faces constraints that inhibit the projection of American power on a global scale.

Given the prohibitive costs of shouldering the economic burden of acting alone alongside the absence of a public mandate for international activism, and given the probability that other great powers would be unlikely to accept subordinate positions, unilateralism will be problematic in a multipolar future. As University of California political theorist Kenneth N. Waltz observes, major key nations such as Japan, Russia, and Germany thus “will have to relearn their old great-power roles, and the United States will have to learn a role it has never played before; namely, to coexist and interact with other great powers.”

An alternative to acting unilaterally is joining with selected states in special partnerships. On the surface, this option also appears attractive. Yet, in a fluid balance-of-power system lacking stark simplicities, differentiating friend from foe is exceedingly difficult. It is exacerbated further when, as exists today, allies in the realm of military security also are the major trade competitors in a cutthroat global marketplace. Instead of adding predictability to international affairs, a network of special bilateral partnerships would foster a fear of ostracism among those who perceive themselves as the targets of these combinations.

Whether they entail informal understandings or formal treaties of alliance, all bilateral partnerships have a common drawback–they promote a politics of exclusion that can lead to dangerously polarized forms of multipolarity, whereby the competitors align by forming countercoalitions. For example, a Russo-American alliance would concern many Western European leaders; similarly, a U.S.-Russian-European Union axis stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals would alarm both China and Japan. The problem with such potential partnerships in a freewheeling dance of balance-of-power politics is that it promotes much switching of partners, and those cast aside then are tempted to break up the entire dance.

Beyond forming special bilateral alliances, great powers have the option of establishing broad, multilateral associations. The most likely variants are concerts and collective security organizations. While unilateralism discourages mutual consultation and specialized bilateral relationships involve regularized consultation among a subset of powers at the top of the global hierarchy (to the exclusion of the rest), multilateral associations require full participation by all states. A concert offers the benefit of helping control the great-power rivalries that often spawn polarized blocs, though at the cost of ignoring the interests of those not belonging to the charmed circle.

Alternatively, the all-inclusive nature of a collective security system allows every voice to be heard, but hinders engineering a timely response to emergent threats. In past collective security experiments, consensus-building has proven both difficult and delayed, especially in identifying the culpable party, choosing an appropriate response, and implementing the selected course of action. Since a decision-making body can become unwieldy as its size expands, what is needed to make multilateralism a viable option for the multipolar future is a hybrid that combines elements of a great-power concert with those of collective security.

The key to the stability of any future multipolar system lies in the inclusiveness of multilateralism. It is not a panacea for all of the world’s security problems, but offers humanity a chance to avoid the types of unilateral hegemonial pursuits and polarized alignments that have proven so destructive throughout history. Recall that every previous multipolar balance-of-power system has ended in a general war, and that each of these conflicts has been more destructive than its predecessors.

Creating a new security architecture seldom has proven easy. When seen from the perspective of the mid 1990s, all the existing institutions upon which a multilateral concert-based collective security system might be constructed have limitations. Consider first the potential role of the United Nations. After the Persian Gulf War, many people assumed that the UN at long last would be able “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace,” as originally proclaimed in its charter.

Whether this becomes a reality will depend on the political dynamics within the Security Council, which has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Of the Security Council’s 15 members, five hold permanent seats and possess the right to veto council actions–the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, France, and China. The harmonious veneer witnessed in the Cold War’s wake could fade. Moreover, if, as proposed, the Security Council’s permanent membership is expanded to include Germany, Japan, and such regional powers as Brazil, India, or Nigeria, reaching agreement for collective action will become even more challenging.

To complicate matters further, there is a pervasive fear among UN members that the organization has become a captive of its strongest member at the moment–the U.S. Although American influence is resented by many states, they still recognize the need for U.S. leadership if the UN is to play a peacekeeping and peacemaking role. This creates a dilemma, for, as political analyst Leslie H. Gelb explains, “Without U.S. leadership and power, the United Nations lacks muscle. With it, the United Nations loses its independent identity.”

Thus, an invigorated, independent UN would need more resources to carry out its mandate for peacekeeping–a dim prospect since its members owe billions of dollars in back dues and appear unwilling to support financially the organization’s new initiatives. Attempting to reform the United Nations to cope with the exploding demand for UN peacekeepers was described by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as “trying to repair a car while you are driving at a speed of 120 miles per hour.” Nevertheless, he has lobbied for the creation of UN peace enforcement units to administer ceasefires between armed adversaries.

As with UN peacekeeping forces employed during the Cold War, Boutros-Ghali recommended that these rapid deployment units be established by the voluntary contribution of member states, act when authorized by the Security Council, and serve under the command of the Secretary-General. In contrast to traditional peacekeeping operations, their use could be ordered without the express consent of the disputants, and the UN’s troops would be trained and equipped to use force if necessary.

Despite Boutros-Ghali’s energetic quest, the creation of a large, easily mobilized multilateral UN contingency force positioned to manage disputes seems unlikely. The Clinton Administration, perhaps fearing a possible loss of control, vetoed in its 1994 Presidential Decision Directive 13 the contribution of U.S. military units to a permanent UN standby force. Without active enthusiasm in Washington, the other great powers appear unlikely to release command authority of their military units to the United Nations.

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) offers a second multilateral option for a new concert-based security architecture. Although the Helsinki process has established principles that give the great powers incentives to share costs and responsibilities for security without reducing the lesser powers to second-class citizens, the CSCE has not yet proven itself up to the challenge of operating as a global collective security institution. For that, the CSCE must transform itself from a regional security organization into a body that includes Japan, China, and other affected states. Furthermore, it must devise a decision-making formula grounded in majority rule, rather than in the unanimous consent among more than 50 diverse members.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization represents a third possible multilateral mooring for international security. For many analysts, though, NATO is more an anachronism than an anchor. The utility of any alliance tends to diminish when the common external threat that brought it together disappears, and NATO is no exception. Without a Soviet or Russian threat to cement its unity, NATO must broaden its membership and the geographical definition of its responsibilities.

Yet, for all the optimistic speculation about a broadened, reconfigured NATO, until very recently there was little evidence that the alliance was prepared to take a bold step away from its original mission. With the creation of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council and the unveiling of the Clinton Administration’s “Partnership for Peace” proposal, the security concerns of former Warsaw Pact members have received greater attention. Still, NATO’s new Strategic Concept eschews leadership in favor of shared risks and roles. Unless NATO reconstitutes itself to deal directly with out-of-area operations and ethnic violence on its periphery, it likely will cease to exist.

To survive, NATO must redefine its mission. Even more critically in the long run, it must alleviate the fears of ostracism and encirclement by the other powers outside NATO’s traditional zone of influence and operation. Russia, in particular, should not be excluded–a principle which Pres. Clinton recognized when, at the January, 1994, Brussels summit, he declared that his aim ultimately was “a security based not on Europe’s division, but on the potential of its integration.”

The Partnership for Peace must be extended and enlarged. Otherwise, the possibility that ultranationalist forces in Russia will seek to reassert their nation’s imperial sway over its lost empire is likely to become a growing concern.

Similarly, an excluded China and Japan are unlikely to look favorably at an enlarged NATO that defines its purpose as their containment. Exclusion is the match that historically has ignited revanchist fires. Restricting security protection to only the 16 full-fledged members of NATO effectively denies it to the others and thus does nothing to prevent the alliance from remaining a symbol of division.

NATO’s enlargement is the best antidote to a return to the days of a world divided in separate blocs, each seeking to contain the expansion of the other. The U.S. solution of “separable but not separate” invites the very sort of polarization into competing alliances that it seeks to avoid. Filling the security vacuum around Russia (and China?) could revive the East-West division that followed Yalta–to no one’s benefit.

Finally, some experts have suggested that the Group of Seven (G-7) should become the focal point for collective peacekeeping activities in the post-Cold War world. Two reasons typically underpin such arguments. First, G-7 members are democracies, and democracies almost never have waged war against each other to settle their disputes. Second, as countries connected by a web of economic linkages, there are material incentives for the G-7 to avoid policies that would rupture profitable business transactions.

These reasons notwithstanding, the drawback of the G-7 as a multilateral security mechanism is that it functions like an exclusive club whose formal membership does not include Russia or China. While shared democratic values may lay the groundwork for cooperation among members of the club, economic friction can limit the scope of its activities. Trading relationships involve both costs and benefits. The rewards of commercial exchange may be offset by fierce competition that breeds hostility.

In view of the differential growth rates among the great powers and their anxiety about trade competitiveness in an interdependent global marketplace, the major battles of the future may be clashes on the economic front, rather than armed combat among soldiers. Even in the event that political solidarity overrides economic rivalry, the G-7 is ill-equipped to orchestrate peacekeeping missions. Its business is managing business, not warfare.

Overcoming limitations

In sum, the United Nations, NATO, CSCE, and the G-7 all have limitations. Nevertheless, they will play prominent roles in the coming years if only because they are pre-existing structures. Because of this interdependence, for an efficacious concert-based collective security architecture to emerge, it must consist of an ad hoc combination of regional bodies tied together by an interlocking membership. For instance, the Eurasian land mass might have NATO or the CSCE anchoring its western flank and some type of a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Pacific devised for the eastern flank, with relevant great powers holding memberships in both organizations and meeting regularly under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

A full-fledged, comprehensive global collective security system, dedicated to containing aggression anywhere at any time, may be too ambitious and doomed to failure. Nevertheless, a restricted, concert-based collective security mechanism could bring a modicum of order in a fragile and disorderly new multipolar system.

The impending structural shift to multipolarity rivets the world’s attention on the historical propensity of contending great powers to act as natural competitors by striving for position and pre-eminence. Whereas few powers seek to rule the world, all appear adamantly averse to subservient status–for no one wants equality with inferiors, only with superiors.

The diffusion of military and economic capabilities among powers that invariably have divergent interests presents serious obstacles for the preservation of world order. Multilateralism, with its emphasis on consultative, shared decision-making, provides an avenue for the great powers to recognize their convergent interest in avoiding the potentially bitter confrontations that otherwise might precipitate the formation of hostile blocs. Not all international conflict is amenable to multilateral resolution, but, by promoting mutual responsibility, multilateralism creates a legitimacy for concerted policy initiatives that is lacking in unilateralism and special bilateral partnerships.

Whether the great powers will seize the opportunity to create a concert-based collective security organization is problematic, however. The temptation to go it alone and compete, rather than cooperate to manage peaceful change, will remain strong. Yet, world order well may rest on the great powers’ capacity to see their interests served by concerted multilateral initiatives at peacekeeping.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Society for the Advancement of Education

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group