Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 16:52 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 16:52 | SYDNEY

Not two poles but two systems


Hugh White

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

13 April 2012 09:17

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

I think Michael Wesley is on to something. Since the Wall came down twenty years ago, most of us have believed that the world had become more integrated than ever before, As the Cold War divide dissolved, the world would increasingly function as a single system in which divisions – geographic, ideological, economic, strategic – would become less and less important, and interconnections across an increasingly homogenised globe would become more and more important.

This wasn't entirely wrong. It has happened in the economics, where increasing trade and financial flows, integrated global supply and production chains, and the 'Great Convergence' in productivity really have produced a single integrated global economy. But surprisingly, this has not happened in other aspects of international affairs, and as Michael has seen, these divisions might prove to be just as important as the integrations to the way the world works. That's an important insight.

But Michael sees the key remaining – indeed deepening — division being between an idealist 'Atlantic' conception of international affairs and a realist 'Asian' conception. I'm not sure, for two reasons.

First, I'm not sure the 'realist-idealist' divide is a stark, or as enduring, as Michael makes out, even between Asia and the Atlantic's most idealist element, Europe. Asia is certainly realist, but it will have to act a bit idealist (or at least liberal-institutionalist in an English School way) if it is to build an order to manage its remain rising powers and remain peaceful and prosperous. We all seek shelter from the harsh dictates of realism if we can. 

By the same token, we will see whether Europe is really as idealist as it appears, or simply enjoys the luxury today of not showing its realist side, when it faces a real strategic challenge, for example from Russia. We are all idealists when the sun shines, but turn realist when clouds gather.

Second, and more fundamentally, I think we need to look elsewhere for the driver of increasing division that Michael identifies between the Asian and Atlantic worlds. I think it's a division between increasingly separate strategic systems. My hunch is that we are seeing the end of a long era in which strategic and political affairs have been primarily global, and are seeing instead the re-emergence of a series of discrete regional orders which do not interconnect much with one another.

This re-regionalisation of the globe is primarily a matter of economics. Before the great divergence, no country could project strategically significant power far from its own region. But this changed from the mid-18th century when Europeans grew richer than countries in other parts of the world.  In the 19th century, with America, the North Atlantic countries brought the whole world into their strategic system. This reached its height in the Cold War and the brief moment of American unipolarity that followed.

But now that we are moving back towards a more even, more historically 'normal', distribution of economic power around the globe, we are also moving back towards old divisions between strategic systems. As Asia grows richer, non-Asian powers will become less and less able to project strategically decisive power into Asia, but equally China and other major Asian powers will find it impossible to project serious strategic weight into the Atlantic. (And no, I haven't forgotten about ICBMs, but they don't give you much strategic influence when others have them too.)

What follows, if this is right? First, Asia and the Atlantic are not two opposing poles in a single system, but two separate systems – which I think is what Michael was getting at when he wrote of 'non-competing poles'. Second, as Michael suggests, the biggest implications are for America, because after the Cold War it emerged as the only remaining global power, and one aiming to sustain global primacy. It is precisely the shift in relative economic weight that makes this aim now unsustainable – not just in Asia, I suspect, but in Europe too. But that's a whole different post.

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz.