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.

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'.