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Debate: A new bipolarity

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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: blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org .

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.

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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.



In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa.

On the other side of the new bipolar divide is Asia, a collection of countries driven by a set of preoccupations completely different from those of the Atlantic community. This is a region – it cannot be described as a community in any meaningful sense – undergoing rapid change in power relativities.

Over the past decade, Asia has evolved from a region in which no state was large and rich enough to contemplate dominance to a region in which one state, China, is large enough, and rapidly amassing wealth and power sufficient to make its dominance imaginable among its neighbours. As a consequence, there are few pretensions towards a non-competitive, post-modern pattern of international relations in Asia. As the Atlantic community steadily disinvests in its armed forces, Asia's states are engaged in a prolonged and determined arms build-up.

Asian institutions have always been less ambitious than Atlantic institutions, in that their adherence to Westphalian norms of non-interference and consensus has been uncompromising. Despite the proliferation of regional institutions in Asia, none have been permitted to address the region's multiplying points of stress and tension among its jostling powers. In a region in which power competition is rising, institutions are becoming even less relevant.

While Asian elites may at times mouth support for norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, few would admit that it is an operative expectation in their part of the world. The prospect of an international coalition intervening to prevent a massacre in, say, Burma, are vanishingly small.

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In Asia there is a pragmatic approach to internal governance; as long as the regime is effective in maintaining a stable country, regime type makes little difference. Witness the disgust of many regional leaders when Thailand's constitutional crisis disrupted the December 2008 East Asia Summit meeting. Their consternation was not directed towards the prospects of democracy in Thailand, but towards the ineptness of the then government in dealing with the protests. Even those Asian states that many outside Asia look to as future champions of democracy – such as India and Indonesia – have been silent on regime type in other countries.

Colonial and Cold War ties are meaningless in Asia. Vietnam rarely looks to France for anything other than assistance in restoring grand colonial architecture, and its burgeoning strategic relationship with the US shows how weakly Cold War memories influence current policy. Consequently, there are no natural and accepted leaders in Asia. Each of its powerful states would arouse suspicion and resistance were it to propose leading a coalition of countries; in this situation, collective action is often most effective when proposed by smaller countries.

The focus of Asian states is on pressing contemporary issues in their region. The overarching strategic picture is dominated by responses to China's rising power, as the second-tier states surrounding it build closer ties with the US.

Meanwhile China is working assiduously at countering any ability or willingness to contain it. Simmering disputes in the East and South China Seas are, on the one hand, problems needing immediate management, and on the other, confrontations that will shape the future of the region's maritime trading order. The Arab uprisings seem very far away, while the issue of Iran's aspirations sees non-proliferation concerns tempered by pragmatic considerations on access to and the price of West Asian energy.

Don't touch that dial – part 3 of 'Back to Bipolarity' will be along soon.

Photo by Flickr user Old Sarge.


In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa. Part 2 describes the other side of the divide, Asia.

The new bipolarity is very different from that of the Cold War. This divide is not one of opposing coalitions clustered around all-powerful poles. It features strong interdependent links rather than a chasm of rivalry and fear between its two components. The new polarity is of a different type, with two different communities of states divided by a widening gulf of perceptions and expectations about global institutions, international norms, and the basic ground rules of international affairs.

These are not competing or even non-trading coalitions; rather they represent two steadily diverging conceptions of how the world works. Whereas the Atlantic community holds fast to a teleological belief in the steady improvement of international relations, a resignation to playing out a cycle of rising, declining and competing powers is pervasive in Asia.

This new divide may be less dangerous than its predecessor, but it will be no less determining of global affairs. The Atlantic and the Asian mindsets will struggle to find common ground in global institutions and on the big planetary challenges that face us. It will be a recurring dialogue of the deaf between idealists and arch pragmatists. It is hard to see how institutional solutions will be arrived at in negotiations between one group of countries committed to internationalism and another group sceptical of internationalism.

The Cold War ended with the victory of one side and the implosion of the other. The new bipolarity can't be resolved in this way because the two sides aren't competing – in fact they're not even speaking the same language. Whereas the preponderance of global production and minerals lay on one side of the Cold War divide, allowing the West to construct a quasi-global order, this time around production, resources and legitimacy are much more evenly spread between the Atlantic and Asia. The new bipolarity will likely be more enduring than the Cold War version.

Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the new bipolarity will be to the global leadership of the US. America will be torn between the Atlantic and Asian realms. Its sympathies and predilections lie very much with the Atlantic community, whose ideals reflect and extend FDR's postwar internationalism and which still looks to Washington for leadership. But America's pragmatic interests lie in Asia, where it faces the most serious strategic challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the best prospects for the recovery of its economy.

America will struggle to come to terms with the new realities in Asia, because it will approach them with an Atlantic mindset. Its expectations about what it can do, and how it does them, will need constant readjustment in Asia. Whether it can juggle two different approaches to international affairs will be a major challenge for the US in the twenty-first century.

Suggestions, comments and critiques on all three parts of this series are gratefully accepted.

Photo by Flickr user Aaron Molina.


Michael Wesley has invited comment on his thesis that the world may be entering a new bipolar age (part 1, part 2, part 3), and I suspect many of the replies will focus on the geographic boundary that Michael has drawn between Asia and what he calls the Atlantic community (Europe, Africa and the Americas).

I prefer to focus on another bipolarity in Michael's piece, this one conceptual rather than geographic. He says in part 3 that:

Whereas the Atlantic community holds fast to a teleological belief in the steady improvement of international relations, a resignation to playing out a cycle of rising, declining and competing powers is pervasive in Asia...The Atlantic and the Asian mindsets will struggle to find common ground in global institutions and on the big planetary challenges that face us. It will be a recurring dialogue of the deaf between idealists and arch pragmatists. It is hard to see how institutional solutions will be arrived at in negotiations between one group of countries committed to internationalism and another group sceptical of internationalism.

This is Michael's version of the standard binary division of international relations theory into realism and idealism; in this case, the Asians are realists and the Atlantic community is idealist. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has observed that '(t)he battle between realists and idealists is the fundamental fault line of the American foreign-policy debate', though the influence of this conceptual bipolarity goes well beyond the US.

Yet I think this binary division is inadequate, and Michael's series exposes why.

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With his reference to a 'teleological belief in the steady improvement of international relations', Michael implies that, to be an internationalist, one must believe in progress in international politics. He associates internationalism with the liberal humanist notion that, over time, humankind will learn to banish its warlike impulses and perhaps even its irrational attachment to the nation, allowing for the global formation of a post-sovereign entity like the EU.

There is certainly a stain of such utopianism in European thinking, but it's worth remembering that an altogether different version of internationalism held sway in Europe in the 19th century: the Concert of Europe. This was an international institution designed not to further some utopian ideal but to manage the existing order and stifle radical change.

After World War II, we saw the rise of a new generation of international institutions, very different to the European Concert but also lacking the progressive character that Michael ascribes to 'internationalism'. Yes, the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions were built on high-minded ideals, but they evolved into procedural bodies, designed not to transform the world but just to make it run a little smoother and relieve tensions.

In fact, many of the commonplace aspects of internationalism we take for granted today — trade, the coordination of air traffic, international postal delivery, patents — are proceduralist by nature; they set the rules of the road, but sovereign states still determine their own direction of travel. As such, these bodies don't impinge on national sovereignty; rather, they make the exercise of sovereignty practicable in an anarchical environment.

I'm not sure I buy Michael's division of Asian and Atlantic spheres, but his characterisation of Asia sounds about right. This region is simply not suited to European-style supra-nationalism; Hobbes and Thucydides are better guides here than Kant. So Michael is right that idealists will struggle to find common ground with Asia, given its realist mindset. To find such common ground, interlocutors will have to draw on the third intellectual tradition I have briefly described above, which I would call 'conservative internationalism'.


Volker Perthes heads the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Michael Wesley comes with a thought-provoking idea: bipolarity is back, but it is not between old or new major powers or alliances, but rather between two communities of states – the Atlantic one which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa on the one hand, and Asia on the other. While the idea doesn't convince me, it is certainly worth debating. Let me put a few question marks to it.

I guess what Michael really describes is not a 'polarity' of any sort (there are no poles in his picture), but rather a division between (or simply the coexistence of) different political-strategic cultures. And here, regardless of the details, he has a point.

Different 'conceptions of how the world works' are prevalent in different parts of the world, and they are indeed too relevant to ignore, both analytically and in practical terms. Political and strategic cultures impact on the way states deal with disputes, with issues of war and peace, and on how they cooperate or don't cooperate with others. There are certainly important differences here between, say, the US and Japan.

But is that really an Atlantic-Asian divide? Is there an Atlantic approach to international affairs shared by policy-makers in the US, Latin America, the EU, and Africa? And another one that determines political thinking and acting throughout Asia? Where, by the way, are Russia, Australia, and the Middle East in this picture?

Other people are more qualified than I am to speak about commonalities and differences among Asian nations themselves with regard to prevailing perceptions of international norms and institutions. What was interesting for me as a European, with a clearly European view of the world, was Michael's suggestion that Europe basically shares the American approach to international affairs, and that this approach is also shared in Latin America and Africa.

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In Europe and the US in particular, we have actually been discussing our differences in this respect at least since the end of the Cold War. Europeans and Americans share basic democratic and liberal values (as do many other societies in the world), but all the debates about European multilateralism vs. American exceptionalism, the legitimacy of the use of force, the importance of international rules and regimes, or simply Mars vs Venus all show that there certainly are different 'international affairs cultures' at work on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the transatlantic community is tied together by values and strong interests, NATO, or the US and the EU, have for the most part been able to deal with such differences. But they always do better when they acknowledge them. Maybe this is what makes a Euro-Atlantic culture.

I am not sure that Africa and Latin America really fit in here, at least for the time being. Michael cites different countries' attitudes to the Responsibility-to-Protect norm. But generally, Latin American and African states are much more 'sovereignistic' here than, particularly, the Europeans, and at least as sceptical of international interventions as India or other Asian nations.

Rather than constructing a new bipolarity in international affairs, we could perhaps try to identify a number of different international-affairs cultures. Aside from an (EU-dominated) European and a (US-dominated) American one, this could include an ASEAN-led and probably an emerging-powers approach. And all these cultures seem prone to adapt and change over time, particularly where states and their economies grow, societies become more affluent and more tied into global networks.

China is more interested in maintaining international norms and institutions today than it was under Mao. I wouldn't exclude, though, that, with time, it develops a strategic culture which is much closer to that of today's US than to either the European one or that of its smaller south East Asian neighbours.

States like Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and India are developing a stronger interest in international regimes and rules as they become more active participants in a globalised world. Given their democratic nature, they may see advantages in a European-type of multilateralism once they have reached a certain level of prosperity. But this may be just another of these European ideas about how things work in the world.

Photo by Flicr user batintherain.


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. 

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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.


Peter Layton writes:

The Venus and Mars distinction between the Atlantic and Asia that Hugh White and Michael Wesley discuss is an appealing simplification but perhaps a step too far. It tends to fall on the 'What is Asia?' question. The Austrian statesman Metternich in 1820 answered this neatly: 'Asia begins at the Landstrasse', the royal highway leading from Vienna east into Hungary. This is a pretty big slice of the world about which to lump together.

I make this observation as it is hard to see Asia (or the Atlantic) as homogenous in a theoretical perspective sense as Hugh and Michael see. For example, is the success of ASEAN really a tangible manifestation of realism in action? It would seem hard to make this case and this in itself suggests that the granularity of this 'bi-polar' realist/ idealist, Asia/Atlantic position is not fine enough to be useful in a conceptual sense.

Might I suggest a return to the 2003 Buzan and Waever Regional Security Complexes? This too generalises and, while at the price of being a bit more complicated in having several interacting global regions, seems to be more appropriate to the contemporary complex international system.


I’m delighted my thoughts on a new bipolarity provoked several people to respond. I found the responses really helpful, and have been deep in research and thought as a result.

I guess I'd class all of the responses in the 'nice idea, but I’m not convinced' category. Some people, such as Volker Perthes and Hugh White, agreed that there are differences in approach to international affairs, but disagreed that the differences were between two groups, one Atlantic, one Asian. Both argued that there are actually several different groups of approaches to international affairs.

I'd like to have another go at convincing them, and other silent sceptics. There are all sorts of distinctions and classifications that can be made in international affairs; the trick is to pick the one(s) that are significant – in the sense that they shape the way the world works. Both Volker and Hugh argue (though for different reasons) that the important distinctions are regional ones. For Volker it's based on 'cultures' of international relations; for Hugh (and Peter Layton) it's about 'strategic re-regionalisation' and 'regional security complexes'.

I don't think regions are the key to the way the world works, certainly not for the big questions of war and peace and our capacity to address the big issues faced by the planet. On these questions, it is an Atlantic-Asian divide that will have a big impact.

First, some statistics that I think show that Africa and Latin America are closer to Europe than Volker and Jim Terrie believe, and that give some real definition to the 'Asia' that Peter questions the existence of. I looked into two data sets that would distinguish the Atlantic from the Asian outlook: how much states spend on international institutions, and how much they spend on weapons.

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The results are pretty clear. I averaged the contributions made to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP for African, Asian, European, and Latin American states. Despite having an average per capita GDP three times as big as Africa's, Asian states' contribution to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP is less than 50% bigger than African states'. And although Asia's average per capita GDP is slightly higher than Latin America's, Asia's contribution to the UN budget is only four-fifths the size of Latin America's.

So African and Latin American countries are much more committed than Asian states to funding the UN, irrespective of their own wealth – an attribute that brings them closer to Europe than Asia.

As for arms spending, according to SIPRI, between 2000 and 2011 Asia's arms spending doubled; compare that to Africa's 55% rise, Europe's 21% increase, and Latin America's 58% growth. In other words, Asian states are arming at nearly twice the rates of Africans and Latin Americans, and five times the rate of Europeans.

In my next post, I look at why all this matters.

Photo by Flickr user michaels photo album.


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.

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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.


Andrew Carr writes:

As so often is the case, Michael Wesley has introduced a fresh and important take on world affairs with his new discussion of polarity, but I can't help but wonder about the significance of the differences, both in how we read the data and what it implies for the future direction of the world.

Michael is right that Asian countries are less invested in the UN than Atlantic countries. This is to be expected given that only one Asian country has a Security Council veto (China, a reluctant multilateralist at best) and the forum was designed and still largely operates in a manner that suits Atlantic countries (ie. a heavy institutional footprint, legalistic focus, preference for decision making over consensus, and a willingness to discuss ['interfere'] in the internal affairs of countries).

If by polarity Michael is suggesting Asia is disinclined for the UN in particular, I would agree, but if he's suggesting this represents a different world 'outlook' in terms of the role of multilateralism, I have to disagree.

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Institutions have, if anything, an even more important role in Asia than they do in Europe. As Michael well knows, there is not just a proliferation, but an overload of multilateral institutions in Asia, with an estimated 700 multilateral meetings a year being held. Asian institutions however, operate in a different manner to Atlantic ones. They are often regionally defined (ie. Asian countries are more concerned with neighbourhood challenges than global ones), and they follow different rules about the institutional footprint, decision making styles, and a preference for process and long term socialisation via dealing with common challenges, than seeking speedy majority rulings about hard security issues.

These are important difference of style, but in terms of 'distinguish(ing) the Atlantic from the Asian outlook', both regions share a strong preference for using institutions as the means for avoiding conflict and dispute resolution. Both pledge to work on human rights and advance democracy, but along different timelines. I'm not sure the different approaches and norms that shape their behaviour within institutions should be seen as more important than their common support of institutions.

Likewise, I can't help but note the different economic disparities between the regions when comparing spending on weaponry. Over the period discussed (2000-2011), Asia has witnessed significant economic growth, with many countries moving into middle income status and seeking the modern military capacities that come with it. We should expect a quickly growing region that is emerging from developing into developed status to spend more than poorer and less institutionally capable regions (Africa), and wealthier but already established regions (Europe).

Yet there is little evidence that this purchasing is being undertaken in response to the capability of other states (otherwise known as an 'arms race'). If Asia was gearing for war, we'd see diplomatic moves to match the defence spending, yet these are hard to identify. One explanation for the increased spending is that states, like people, often buy items for status, spending at a level they think is fitting with their income, as much as they purchase based on need or demand. To analogise, the person who orders the biggest TV in the store is not necessarily a couch potato; they might simply have received a big promotion. Asian states are spending more now, in part because they can.

Like all readers, I've really enjoyed Michael's thought provoking posts, but I haven't responded before because I'm not quite sure what the very real differences he is identifying mean.

The Atlantic and Asian regions have long been very different. Globalisation has brought them much closer together and maybe they will drift away again, but given they share common economic systems, largely common political systems (save China), and an increasing cultural overlap, the fundamentals for cohesion are strong. Add to that a mutual embrace of multilateralism as the proper forum for peaceful dispute resolution and I'm not sure what the many differences between these areas imply for how the world will work in the future.


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.

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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.


Harry Gelber, an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania, writes:

I am intrigued by Michael Wesley's suggestion of new patterns of cooperation/institutionalisation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I offer a few reflections:

1. This kind of pattern-making does not, it seems to me, have an entirely happy history in recent times. To take only one example, the creation of the UN after 1945 seemed to work quite well for some decades. But, although some of its agencies — WHO and WLO come to mind — have worked well, the UN as whole, meaning the General Assembly and the Security Council, have gone far in the direction of becoming mere talking shops, for all that states often use the 'authority' of one or the other to do what they think they need to do.

2. Your thesis does not seem to me to account for the increasing rather than decreasing multipolarity of the current international system.

3. But there is one point which seems to support your thesis but may rest on very different principles as far as I can see. This is the case of the British and French empires in the 1880s and 90s. As we all know, both London and Paris were increasingly alarmed by the economic, political and military growth of Russia, Germany and the United States. Each of them attempted to unify its empire into a more coherent and effective political unit that might hope to counter-balance one or other of the emerging great powers.

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Each failed, though it should not be forgotten how many Indians not to mention Australians and Canadians fought under the Union Jack and saw themselves as fighting for 'King and Country' (or equivalent) in the first and, in Australia's case, even the second World War. And how many Senegalese or Moroccans etc fought under the Tricolor.

I wonder whether the patterns you suggest might not, for all the evident differences, echo these earlier examples. Smaller African states and most Latin American ones may well have become impressed with how little weight they carry internationally, and how vulnerable they are, in comparison to the great powers of the US, China etc and even, in trade and financial matters, the EU. If so, perhaps the institutionalisation that you detect is, in each case, a somewhat similarly defensive manoeuvre. Whether such motivations would be more likely to strengthen or to undermine effective unity in the longer term I leave to you.


In a really helpful critique of the new bipolarity, Andrew Carr argues that I'm overplaying the institutional differences between the Atlantic and Asian realms and points out that there is no shortage of institutions in Asia (though that figure of 700 meetings a year came as a bit of a shock to me).

I think we need to look a bit deeper than counting institutions and meetings. We need to look at what those institutions are committed to and what they do; once we do, the differences just become starker.

Atlantic institutions prepared to act

The Atlantic's institutions have undergone a profound qualitative change since the end of the Cold War.

In North America, the Organization of American States has acquired the right to suspend any member whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force, through Resolution 1080 and the Protocol of Washington. In South America, Mercosur (through the Treaty of Asuncion) and the Rio Group have defined themselves as associations of democratic countries, stipulating that any member state in which democratic order is interrupted will be suspended until democracy is restored.

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Europe also has formalised its commitment to democracy through the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which amends Article 309 of the Treaty of Rome to allow the suspension of membership for any EU state that breaches the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In Africa, the Organisation of African Unity's commitments to sovereign equality and territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs and non-violability of borders have been replaced by the African Union's principles promoting the ability to intervene in genocide or crimes against humanity and to restore peace and security. The AU has also set out clearly through the Durban Declaration a clear framework governing democratic elections, while Article 30 of the AU Charter provides for the suspension of any member government that comes to power unconstitutionally. 

The Atlantic states go beyond just making commitments: they act on them. No government that has come to power by coup in Africa since 1997 has been allowed to participate in the African Union's ministerial or summit meetings. At various times Comoros, Cote d'Ivoire, Madagascar and Niger have been excluded. The AU has intervened to promote peace in the Sudan, just as the Economic Community Of West African States has in Liberia. 

In the Americas, the OAS convened a high level mission which determined that Peru's 2000 elections were illegitimate, leading to a suspension of its membership. Panama's membership has also been temporarily suspended.

Beginning with the Contadora Support Group, Latin America's states have become actively involved in resolving insurgencies in Central America, and an active suite of joint exercises, strategic dialogues and disarmament and arms control measures is well under way. NATO of course intervened in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

Asian institutions missing in action

Here is a record that is starkly different from Asia's. While the 2007 ASEAN Charter makes repeated references to democracy, good government, the rule of law and human rights, there is no evidence that the grouping takes these commitments seriously. A coup and serious ongoing instability in Thailand didn't raise even a murmur of concern from the other members. That the Shanghai Cooperation Organization did nothing during Kyrgyzstan's bloody unrest surprises no-one.

On regional peace and security, Asia's institutions are also missing in action. While Africa's efforts in Darfur and Europe's in the former Yugoslavia are hardly paragons of success, at least they acted. Asia's institutions are not even allowed to discuss points of tension; I recently heard two Singaporean academics call the ARF 'Avoid Regional Flashpoints'. With Thailand and Cambodia shooting at each other over a border dispute last year, the failure of Asia's institutions couldn't be starker.

In a nutshell, the Atlantic takes its institutions seriously. Asia's institutions are a kabuki play, all movement and colourful shirts, while its states are free to arm, compete and conduct their affairs as they see fit.

Photo by Flickr user GanMed64.

It's taken me too long to respond to Sam's thoughtful piece on the new bipolarity. His idea of 'conservative internationalism' really got me thinking and in the end has made me revise a major premise of my original idea.

In first observing the qualitative differences between how seriously Atlantic and Asian states take their commitments to domestic and international institutions, I'd simply accepted the argument of people such as Robert Cooper and Robert Kagan, that regions which take institutions seriously are all idealists. That is, they believe that in building these institutions, they are building a 'postmodern' world that will eradicate war and build a perpetual peace.

Now I'm not so sure. Harry Gelber's fascinating contribution to the debate, pointing out the common defensive intent of associations, from empires to regional blocs, in the face of rising powers suggests a deep pragmatism behind what Kagan and Cooper take to be wildly idealistic enterprises. As Europe contemplates its steady relative decline and Africa and Latin America their persistent under-performance, solidarity and rules that promote stability have become the order of the day.

Thus we can see a major motivation for Mercosur is the need for solidarity among South America's states in dealing with the US, initially but not only in negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. And take the Sirte Declaration, which paved the way for the establishment of the African Union, which proclaims a 'vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples.'

This is not idealism; it's conservative internationalism.

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Asia, on the other hand, is a region of bursting optimism and self-belief (to use Dominique Moisi's fascinating framework, the 'geopolitics of emotion'). Its states, at least the big agenda-setting ones, have no need for solidarity and rules that promote stability. They want to be left alone to make their own luck.

But there's a downside to conservative internationalism, as we observe Europe's travails over Greece. In this case, the commitment to institutions — repeated elections that solve nothing; the desperation to save the eurozone — has led to mounting crisis. Perhaps what Europe needs right now is a dash of Asia's cavalier attitude towards institutions and a heap of Asia's determination to make things work, whatever institutional commitments might say.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.