Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 05:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 05:49 | SYDNEY

The roots of the new bipolarity


Michael Wesley


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

24 May 2012 16:03

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

Ten years ago, Robert Kagan grabbed everyone's attention by declaring 'Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus'. It was, he told us at the outset of his article-turned-bestseller, 'time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.' As war clouds gathered over Iraq, Kagan argued that Americans were prepared to use force to uphold international order, while Europeans placed their hopes in institutions that would build a post-modern world where force was rare.

At the base of Kagan's analysis is an argument about power and psychology that has long intrigued me. He tells a parable about a man in a forest inhabited by a prowling bear: if the man is only armed with a knife he will probably lie low and hope to avoid the bear; but if the man is armed with a gun, he is more likely to go looking for the bear to eliminate the threat to his safety.

His point is that the more power you have, the more proactive you're likely to be in seeking out and eliminating threats to your safety. Hence Americans will find and eliminate threats, whereas weaker Europeans are more likely to try to either tolerate or placate threats using diplomacy and institutions. 'Great powers', he goes on to say, 'often fear rules that constrain them more than they do anarchy. In an anarchic world, they rely on their power to provide security and prosperity.'

It's here that any superficial applicability of the Mars-Venus divide to my Atlantic-Asian divide breaks down, because as I argued in my previous post, it is Asian states that are least willing to invest in institutions, and most insistent of their sovereign prerogatives.

But Asian states don't have anything like the power lead over Atlantic states that would render Kagan's parable more broadly applicable. Yes, Asia's giants may be racking up year-on-year high growth and buying up big in the global arms bazaar, but their own internal feelings of fragility and weakness make the man-with-a-gun analogy a long way from apt.

I think the difference between the Atlantic and Asia is psychological, but it's not related to power differentials. I think it arises from differences in how countries in these two regions interpret their own histories. To the Atlantic states – Africa, Europe, Latin America – modern history reads as a tale of disappointment. For Europe, the last century has charted a trajectory of decline from the glory days when imperial Europe created the modern world. For Africa and Latin America, there is a widespread feeling of having failed to live up to the possibilities presented by their vast, bounteous continents. For each of these three regions, the responsibility lies within – volatile and venal domestic politics that leads to war and economic under-performance.

To Asian states, modern history reads very differently. It is a history of decline from former glory, but the crucial difference is that the decline coincides with (and is interpreted as having been caused by) a period of external colonial domination. Asian states read domination as both external (unequal treaties, direct imperial control) and internal (Western critiques of local customs, replacement of traditional social and political structures, complete reorientation of Asian economies). Most importantly, the ending of colonial domination has led, with a bit of a lag, to the resurgence of Asian societies.

Their different readings of history have made Atlantic societies more fatalistic, and Asian societies more volitional. Atlantic societies' bitter histories have given them an overwhelming desire to curb the irrational internal and external forces that have caused decline and under-performance. Democracy, the rule of law, and rights internally, plus 'thick' institutions externally are the way they try to eliminate these forces. These institutions also provide a psychologically important symbol of being modern and progressing towards a better world.

Asian societies want none of these fetters. For them, whether democratic or not, the command power of the state is the expression and instrument of their resurgence. They are societies on the make which refuse to be constrained by others' expectations, and see no reason why anyone else should be either. They are convinced they are the future, and don't need institutional symbols to convince themselves.

Photo by Flickr user Princess-Lodges.