Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:32 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:32 | SYDNEY

The Atlantic sphere transformed


Michael Wesley


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

23 May 2012 17:40

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

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.

I’m also keen to rescue my concept of the new bipolarity from another common usage in international relations – the realist-idealist divide. Hugh White suggests that if we look at the Atlantic and Asia using these terms, we'll see that states can switch from realism to idealism according to the circumstances.

But the new bipolarity is about more than alternating moods; it's about real commitments, institutions and philosophies that can't be switched on and off at will. We can see this if we stop for a moment to examine something really interesting that's occurred in the world over the past 20 years, but which few people seem to have noticed.

Since the mid-1980s in Europe, the early 1990s in Latin America, and the late 1990s in Africa, whole groups of states have transformed the way they interact within their regions. In each of these groupings, there has been a steady transformation from Westphalian prerogatives, reasonably weak intergovernmental institutions, and an avoidance of domestic interference and criticism towards collective commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the integration of public opinion and civil society interests into regional institutions, and the strengthening of regional peace and stability mechanisms.

All three regions have inaugurated comprehensive democracy, human rights and rule of law charters, and rules of exclusion for those states falling short. All three have established or strengthened regional judiciaries, regional parliaments, and regional peace and security intervention instruments. And all three (unlike ASEAN, which included a declaration on democracy and human rights in its 2007 charter but has not acted on it) have demonstrated a rising willingness and expectation that they will enforce their collective commitments.

This is what brings Africa, Europe and Latin America together into an Atlantic community, despite their great differences in culture, wealth and history. And it's what divides the Atlantic community from the states of Asia.

The key difference between the Atlantic and Asia is that Atlantic states are much more willing to negotiate and uphold rules and institutions – internally through democracy, rights and the rule of law, and externally through 'thick' institutions of regional governance relating to trade and investment, and instability and crisis management. For Asian countries, state effectiveness is more important than internal or external rules. What's important is not the form of internal governance but its efficiency. Externally, Asia's institutions remain 'thin' too, in order to place as few constraints as possible on the state's prerogatives.

Volker Perthes suggested I'm just re-hashing Robert Kagan's Mars-Venus divide. Far from it: in my next post, I argue that Kagan's distinction doesn't fit, and try to explain why these Atlantic vs Asian differences have arisen.

Photo by Flickr user Kirill Levin.