The day the foreign policy bubble will burst

Inclusive Politics,Peace & Security03 Jun 2011Mariano Aguirre

(This post is the introduction speech of Mariano Aguirre at the Seminar “Emerging Powers in the 21st Century” that took place in Oslo, Norway, 4 April 2011)

This seminar is focussed on analyzing aspects of the international system’s new configurations, in particular how the rising power of some of the so-called Southern countries are affecting the fields of global governance, multilateralism, South-South cooperation, humanitarianism, and how regional leaderships can play important roles in mediation, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

This seminar was born of a common interest of both PRIO and NOREF, as well as other Norwegian researchers, institutes, the Norwegian government and civil society, to explore the new architecture and distribution of power in current international relations, with particular attention to the effect they could have, more broadly, on peace and security issues.

In twenty years we have moved from a bipolar to a unipolar and now a multipolar world. The process is exciting but far from complete. Redistribution of power and rearrangements in alignments are very likely to occur in the decades ahead. The patterns of relations among States, particularly the most powerful States, are changing and will continue to change dramatically.

Reviewing a series of books and essays to prepare this introduction I found that the concept most often used by relevant authors is uncertainty. From the kind of rigidity of the bipolar Cold War model, the international system moved forward to a short period of unipolarity that was evidence of a last aggressive effort by some sectors in the US to sustain a crumbling American hegemony more than a real moment of powers.

It became fashionable to describe the present as multipolar. But it would perhaps be more appropriate to define the current period as a moment of transition from the previous two patterns to a new one, with uncertain and varied results.

From economic, political and military perspectives the United States continues to be the most powerful country in the world, but its capacities are challenged by deep domestic problems, its crisis of legitimacy in some parts of the world (as in the Middle East) and the rise of “the others”.

Europe and Japan are going through difficult and troubled times. In the case of Europe, the most sophisticated post-national model of economic and political integration is being challenged by the financial crisis, the economic inequality among its members, the identity crisis partly derived from the incapacity to culturally accommodate migration and the different national approaches to defence and foreign policy.

The facts and figures are very clear, but neither the US nor the European circles of power accept that their roles in the world have been diminished by a series of circumstances. Barack Obama seems to be the first post –imperial president of the United States but is finding strong resistance in his own society to accept this reality. Also, in the case of the US, Stephen Szabo, of the Transatlantic Academy, thinks that “the foreign policy bubble will burst one day with a force similar to that which engulfed Wall Street” three years ago. This is something that could be applied also to Europe.

In the meantime, a revolution is happening in circles of the UN Security Council, in the G-20 and in a series of old and new multilateral forums and negotiations. What is happening is not a revival of the Non Aligned Movement of the 60s; that was a coherent body of the Cold War era. Rather, there is a dynamic and constant negotiation and realignment of the emerging powers in their relationship with the traditional powers and with the others actors of the world.

Realignment does not mean a true and fairly distributed multilateralism. The new world is multipolar but it is far from being multilateral. We live in times of a return to hard realism where States seek a pure national interest, coinciding with explorative attempts at Kantian multilateralism. It is a strange mix but one that reflects the complex reality of visions and approaches.

The concern of many experts on global governance is whether the leading actors of the international system will be wise enough to agree in assessing what is happening, and be capable of transiting to the future and establishing new relationships in peaceful ways.

The decline of a power generates the temptation to occupy spaces, and crisis or unpredictable events, as is now happening in the Middle East and North Africa, may generate frictions that could affect the life and fate of millions of people.

The sources of insecurity and violence have also changed in the last decades. The way the old and new powers respond now, either achieving consensus or using hard balance of power modalities based on their interests, is one of the more important challenges for the future.

I am sure that this seminar will help us explore some of these questions, particularly from the perspective of the emerging powers engaged in a dialogue with a medium power like Norway, which aspires to play an active and positive role in this new world.