Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 13:04 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 15 Aug 2018 | 13:04 | SYDNEY

Back to bipolarity? (Part 1)


Michael Wesley


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

2 April 2012 09:33

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

Back in February, Sam drew attention to University of Colorado Professor Roger Pielke's observation that blogging is a great way of critiquing, extending and refining new ideas:

(Blogging) is a remarkably powerful tool for refining ideas, for collecting intelligence, for making contacts. I get routinely better feedback critique from ideas, arguments, I put out on my blog than I do in the peer review process.

Well, as a lapsed academic, I'm intrigued enough to give it a go.

On a recent trans-Pacific flight, I tapped out some impressions I'd formed while attending a Council on Foreign Relations conference, which brought together the heads of 20 think tanks from around the world to discuss global governance. I call the piece 'Back to Bipolarity?' because it is an argument that the world has split into two different communities of understandings and expectations about how the world works.

I'd like to test these ideas before I put them together into a journal article, by presenting them on The Interpreter in a three-part series, and asking specialists from around the world to respond. In particular, I'm going to encourage some of the other participants in the 'Council of Councils' conference to critique my impressions. Suggestions, comments and critiques from you, the reader, are also gratefully accepted: .

On one side of the new bipolar divide is an Atlantic community, which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa. The Atlantic community places great hope in the progress of global institutions and norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, and believes strongly in the prospect of building a non-conflictual, 'post-modern' international system by way of regional and global institutions.

Indeed, it has been Africans and Latin Americans at the forefront of extending post-modern norms: witness the African Union's rejection of non-intervention in favour of a norm of 'non-indifference' in its July 2000 Constitutive Act, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's call for a norm of 'responsibility while protecting' in her address to the General Assembly in September 2011.

Among the Atlantic community there is much greater attention to the type of internal governance of states than to the effectiveness of internal governance, irrespective of type. The influence of 'international opinion' (which really means Atlantic community opinion) carries great weight in the domestic politics of the Atlantic states. It was the influence of Atlantic community opinion, for instance, that dissuaded Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo from contesting an unconstitutional third term in 2007.

Colonial and Cold War ties remain strong influences on the cohesion and common purpose of the Atlantic community. It has three spear-carriers: the US, France, and the UK. These three countries, collectively or separately, are looked to for leadership in times of crisis, such as civil war or genocide in West Africa. Leadership by any other country, such as South Africa or Brazil, is looked at askance in the Atlantic community.

The Atlantic community tends to focus on problems that threaten either its security or its ideals. The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East challenge both: by threatening to disrupt Middle Eastern and Atlantic basin energy flows, by raising the prospect of large refugee movements, and by highlighting the forces of democracy and illiberalism in the Arab world.

Iran's nuclear ambitions similarly challenge the integrity of a global norm and the strategic stability of the Middle East. The crisis of the euro likewise has become all-consuming, challenging both the dream of regionalism and the reality of Europe's continuing influence and prosperity.

Stay tuned – parts 2 and 3 of 'Back to Bipolarity?' will follow.