Inflection points in international affairs, or really in any affairs, are very hard to see as they are happening. Even the Bible tells us so: When Moses asks God, “Show me your glory”, God places Moses in the cleft of a rock and shows him only his back as he passes by, telling him in effect that he can understand His ways only in retrospect. Sensing inflection points in these latter days is especially difficult when we look for them in the wrong places. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, most national elites were focused like the now proverbial laser on rising economic turmoil in the global economy at large. They ignored the broader strategic implications of what was, after all, only a provincial American episode. But mark my words: The demise of Lehman Brothers will come to be remembered for ushering in a new age in global affairs, an age which had been portended for many years.
The Lehman collapse signaled an abrupt reordering of global power and initiative. Whether it takes the United States and Europe ten or twenty years to recover, the ranks of the world’s top economies will look rather less Atlanticist and rather more Asian for the rest of this century. The weightier economic heft of Asia’s big economies is increasingly matched by their growing diplomatic clout. The days when the major global questions in trade and finance could be decided between Washington, Brussels and Tokyo are as long gone as are the days when the big strategic questions could be resolved, or at least contained, between Washington and Moscow.
The rise of Asian powers to positions of genuine global consequence is important because it carries with it a significant divide in the approaches of leading countries to state initiative and collective responsibility. So significant is this divide for the management of international affairs in this century that it presages the rise of a new bipolarity. Whereas the Cold War’s bipolarity pitted two ideologically opposed, mutually threatening camps against each other, the new bipolarity is much closer to its original meaning in the discipline of physics: “the possession of opposite or contrasted principles and tendencies.”
The new bipolarity divides two groups of countries in terms of how they believe rules and institutions should constrain and shape state behavior. One group, composed of the 20th-century powers in the North Atlantic and latterly joined by most states in Africa and Latin America, has invested heavily in liberal institutions and rules to govern the domestic and international behavior of states. The other, clustered across the continent of Asia, believes in the command power of the state and is suspicious of domestic or especially international rules that constrain state initiative. The new bipolarity may not threaten nuclear Armageddon as did the last one, but it will in the decades to come profoundly affect the management of an increasingly interdependent and complex world.
The Nomocratic Realm
lustered around the Atlantic basin are states that have over time manifested a strong individual and collective commitment to liberal domestic and international rules and institutions governing state behavior. In this sense they exhibit a nomocratic tendency, a term coined by Michael Oakeshott to refer to associations based on strict rules of conduct. These states have developed domestic institutions promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and they have erected regional institutions that reinforce these domestic institutions. What sets these states apart from democracies elsewhere, particularly those in Asia, is their collective commitment to domestic liberal institutions. These states care whether their neighbors uphold standards of democracy and human rights as high as their own, and they are prepared to use regional institutions to buttress liberal institutions of domestic and regional governance among their neighbors.
In Europe the collective concern with liberal domestic institutions began soon after the end of World War II and into the 1950s in West Germany, Italy and France, then in Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1980s, and then in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The development of Europe’s acquis communautaire signaled that membership in European institutions was predicated on high standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Europe’s collective commitment to liberal domestic institutions was codified in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which allows the suspension of membership of any European Union state that breaches these principles.
Latin America’s progress on liberal domestic institutions has been more halting, but has begun to demonstrate a collective commitment to these domestic values of a kind with Europe’s. While certain regimes in Latin America fall below the gold standard of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the important point is that they have collectively committed themselves to high standards of liberal governance domestically.
The region’s three most significant institutions have made unambiguous commitments. The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted Resolution 1080 in 1992, giving the organization the right to suspend any member whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force. Mercosur, through the Treaty of Asunción, and the Rio Group have defined themselves as associations of democracies, stipulating that any member state in which democratic order is interrupted will be suspended until democracy is restored. These collective commitments are more than polite but meaningless diplomatese written on dusty forgotten treaties. In 2000, the OAS convened a high-level mission that pronounced Peru’s 2000 elections illegitimate, leading to a temporary suspension of its membership. The Rio Group temporarily suspended Panama’s membership in 1988 and Peru’s in 1992 for constitutional or democratic breaches.
The states of Africa are further behind, but appear to have started down the nomocratic road. The continent crossed a significant threshold in July 2002 when the African Union (AU) replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This act signalled a clear break with the OAU’s legacy of tolerance for dictatorships and human rights abuse and its absolute respect for territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs and the non-violability of borders. In its place, the AU has assumed the right to intervene in grave circumstances of genocide or crimes against humanity, and to restore peace and security as necessary. Africa’s developing collective commitment to democracy has also been enshrined in the AU’s constitution. The 2002 Durban Declaration set out 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.
Again, while some African states are less than perfect in their adherence to liberal domestic institutions, the AU has shown its willingness to act to uphold them in the event of gross breaches. No government that has come to power by coup in Africa since 1997 has been allowed to participate in the AU’s ministerial or summit meetings. At various times Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar and Niger have been temporarily excluded from AU summits due to interruptions in democracy. Mauritania has been suspended from the AU twice, in 2005 and 2008, after military coups overthrew democratic governments. In 2005, in response to AU pressure over his unconstitutional seizure of power, Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe was forced to hold elections. These are not meaningless gestures. If the AU can find a way to restore democracy in Mali en route to reunifying that country, it will have made a dramatic demonstration of power aligned with principle.
The nomocratic realm has also designed its regional institutions to intervene to maintain peace and stability among its constituent states. The European Union and NATO intervened in the 1990s to restore peace and security in the Balkans. In 2008, the Union of South American Nations intervened to mediate an escalating dispute among Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia. In Africa, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has actively mediated conflicts in Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, and the AU has itself intervened in the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Comoros.
The Teleocratic Realm
his collective commitment to strong liberal institutions of governance found around the Atlantic rim is in short supply across the continent of Asia. Here an alternative conception of the balance between state initiative and constraining institutions reigns. The teleocratic approach evinces a tendency to see rules and institutions as subordinate to the ends of the state—that is, to the state’s needs and objectives. While many states in Asia have strong and mature institutions of democracy, rule of law and human rights domestically, at a regional level they exhibit little interest in forging collective institutions to support liberal rules. In the teleocratic realm, what matters is not your and your neighbors’ adherence to rules and institutions, but the effectiveness of the state in maintaining stability and attaining its objectives.
Asia exhibits the oldest and most stable forms of non-democratic government on the planet. It is in Asia that all of the world’s communist regimes save one survive, in altered but intact form. While democracy, human rights and the rule of law have arrived in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, other soft authoritarian regimes such as Malaysia and Singapore have remained stubbornly resilient. And the continent’s oldest democracies, India and Japan, have shown no inclination to place the promotion of democracy and human rights in their neighbors among their more narrowly hewn foreign policy objectives.
Instead of a collective concern with liberal rules and institutions of governance, the teleocratic realm is founded on a collective commitment not to interfere in other states’ domestic affairs. Asia’s oldest continuing regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), maintains a steadfast attachment to its founding principles: absolute respect for sovereignty, strict non-interference, avoidance of criticism of other members, and consensus as the basis for decision-making. These principles have been absorbed into a range of other regional institutions: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
In a declaratory sense, it is true, Asia’s regional organizations appear just as committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and decisive collective action in support of peace and security as Europe’s, Latin America’s or Africa’s. As early as 1976, ASEAN mandated the creation of a High Council to oversee the peaceful mediation of disputes among its members, and it adopted detailed rules for the High Council in 2001. The 2007 ASEAN Charter makes repeated references to democracy, good governance, the rule of law and human rights in member states.
The difference, of course, is that these institutions and principles have never been enacted or enforced in a collective sense. No regional dispute or tension point has ever been addressed or resolved by an Asian institution. Even when two of ASEAN’s founding members, Indonesia and Malaysia, agreed to seek international adjudication of their dispute over the islands of Sipidan and Ligitan in 2002, they turned not to a regional body but to the International Court of Justice. In 2011, as armed clashes occurred between ASEAN members Thailand and Cambodia over a boundary dispute, none of the region’s institutions intervened or were able even to achieve a de-escalation. The simmering tensions over territorial claims in the South and East China Seas are not the subject of discussion in any regional grouping including the conflicting claimants: Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Neither have ASEAN’s stated principles on democracy and human rights been upheld. Half of the organization’s members—Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and Burma—fall short of basic standards of democracy and human rights. None has ever been even threatened with suspension from the organization. A 2008 coup and serious ongoing instability in Thailand didn’t raise so much as a murmur of concern from the other members.
Basic statistics also reveal the stark difference between the nomocratic and teleocratic realms. Atlantic states are prepared to spend more on multilateral institutions than Asian states. Despite having a per capita GDP three times as big as Africa’s, Asian states’ contribution to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP is not even 50 percent bigger than that of the African states. Although Asia’s per capita GDP is slightly higher than Latin America’s, its contribution to the UN budget is only four-fifths the size. European, African and Latin American countries are much more committed than Asian states to funding the UN, irrespective of their own wealth levels, and irrespective of elaborate UN funding formulas. And Asian states are arming at nearly twice the rate of Africans and Latin Americans, and five times the rate of Europeans. Between 2000 and 2011 Asia’s arms spending doubled, compared to Africa’s 55 percent rise, Europe’s 21 percent, and Latin America’s 58 percent.
The Roots of Divergence
he nomocratic-teleocratic divide is a difference in kind, not in degree, because it is rooted in psychology and history and reinforced by geography. The divide arises from differences in how countries in these two realms interpret their own histories. To the nomocratic states in Africa, Europe and Latin America, modern history reads as a tale of disappointment. For Europe, the past 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 that they have failed to live up to the possibilities presented by their vast, bounteous continents. Elites in each of these three regions have decided that the responsibility for failure lies within—in volatile and venal domestic politics that leads to extremism, war and economic underperformance. And that is notwithstanding the fact that, in the African case, colonization is very much a part of recent historical memory.
To the teleocratic states, modern history reads very differently. Theirs, too, 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 domination. Elites in 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, and the complete reorientation of Asian economies). Anger at the dead hand of external domination is what unites countries colonized by Europeans (India, China, much of Southeast Asia), by other Asians (South Korea, China), and more recently and temporarily by international institutions (Russia). Most important, the end of colonial domination has led, with a bit of a lag, to the resurgence of these Asian (and part-Asian, in the limited Russian case) societies.
Their different readings of history have made Atlantic-rim societies more fatalistic and Asian societies more volitional. Nomocratic societies’ bitter recent histories have given them an overwhelming desire to curb the irrational internal and external forces that have caused decline and underperformance. Democracy, the rule of law, and rights internally, plus “thick” institutions externally, are the way they try to control these forces; these institutions also provide a psychologically important symbol of modernity and progressiveness.
Asian societies, for the most part, 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 in the main societies on the make. Even the outlier country in this regard, Japan, seems to be growing more nationalist by the day despite its demographic and economic circumstances. They refuse to be constrained by others’ expectations and see no reason why anyone else should be. They are convinced they are the future, and they don’t need institutional symbols to convince themselves of that belief. Most of Asia’s states incline to see multilateral institutions as, at best, checks on their freedom of maneuver and, at worst, as conspiracies to keep Asia down and the West in charge.
Determining the roots of the difference between the Atlantic and Asian realms is important because it casts doubt on a widespread assumption about international affairs: that states and regions that support multilateral institutions do so for idealistic reasons. Commentators such as Robert Kagan and former British diplomat Robert Cooper are the latest in a long line of analysts who contrast “realist” forms of power behavior with “idealist” forms of institutional behavior that seek to eradicate war and build a “postmodern” world of commerce and peace.
But the motivation of nomocratic-realm countries in moving toward liberal institutions belies this characterization. Rather than being motivated by the idealistic imperative of building a better world, Europe’s, Africa’s and Latin America’s investments in liberal institutions are ultimately pragmatic and conservative. In each case, regional solidarity and commitments to internal and external institutions are defensive.
Europe’s original impulse came from a desire to reverse its relative decline in wealth and power in the face of rising superpowers on its eastern and western flanks. Similarly, a major motivation for Mercosur is the need for solidarity among South America’s states in dealing with the Colossus of the North, initially, but not only, in negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. In Africa, too, the 1999 Sirte Declaration proclaimed the need to establish an African Union in order to “discuss ways of making the OAU effective so as to keep pace with the political and economic developments taking place in the world and the preparation required of Africa within the context of globalization so as to preserve its social, economic and political potentials.” None of this is properly described as idealism; it’s conservative internationalism.
Geography also plays a strong role in reinforcing nomocratic tendencies in Europe, Africa and Latin America, and teleocratic tendencies in Asia. Without doubt there are powerful voices in Europe, Africa and Latin America that are frustrated by high standards of liberal institutions, domestically and internationally. The euro crisis has certainly stimulated voices that are critical of the European project and demand a return to national interests. By the same token, there are undoubtedly in Asia powerful advocates for the spread of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, within both democracies and non-democracies.
The problem for these dissenting voices is the powerful reinforcing logic that occurs between domestic and regional politics in both the nomocratic and teleocratic realms. In both realms regional order has been constructed around either a nomocratic or a teleocratic logic and is strongly buttressed by the most powerful regional countries. A state wanting to pursue a teleocratic path in a nomocratic region, or a state wanting to pursue nomocratic standards in a teleocratic region, would find itself profoundly isolated and subject to enormous pressure. If, say, Japan or Indonesia wanted to advocate democracy and human rights within the East Asia Summit, it would risk breaking up that institution. The pressure on teleocratic outliers in nomocratic regions is even more intense. Despite strong internal support to extend his highly successful presidency to an unconstitutional third term, Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo decided in 2007 that the risks of regional isolation outweighed the advantages of office.
The American Dilemma
hese two very different understandings of the balance between state initiative and domestic and international rules that constrain behavior will have a profound impact on the operation of international affairs. It will also form some excruciating choices for American leaders.
With the passing of each decade, our world becomes more deeply interdependent and complex, meaning that by definition ever more of the challenges confronting states will be generalized and therefore unable to be addressed other than by some form of collective action. Unilateral action, even by the most powerful states, will find itself mired in “wicked problems”, whereby an attempt to address one aspect of a problem merely creates new problems elsewhere.1
The challenges of the new bipolarity will be the same as in any social situation in which one group of people relies on rules and the other on individual initiative. In the international realm, particularly in this century, there is little prospect that the rule-followers can force or induce the non-rule-followers to comply. Instead, there are two possible outcomes. One is that collective action will be partial, confined to the group of rule-followers, and therefore often ineffectual. Coalitions of the nomocratic willing will be able to get some things done, but not others. The other possible outcome is that, as the rule-followers find themselves at a disadvantage in sticking to rules while others act according to the dictates of their interest, they will progressively abandon the rules—at least in certain critical contexts. The result of both outcomes is a very limited means of managing international affairs that lags a long way behind their growing complexity.
At the core of existing global institutions like the UN, the IMF and the WTO lies an expectation that significant actions in upholding world order will be legitimated by the collective approbation of most of the world’s states. Interventions, be they initiated by the United Nations in cases of genocide or by the IMF in cases of financial meltdown, are debated and sanctioned by collections of states in these institutions’ governing councils. The new bipolarity projects a deep divide into these global bodies, between two very different views of the prerogatives and capacities of multilateral institutions. Gaining agreement within the Security Council on Chapter VII actions, or the IMF Board on the conditionality attached to assistance packages, may become even more fraught than during the old bipolarity.
There are strong new reasons, therefore, added to older ones, to be pessimistic about the world’s ability to find multilateral solutions to emerging problems. These include climate change, endemic instability in financial markets, and the possibility of designing arms control regimes for increasingly potent conventional weapons systems. Already multilateral attempts at finding agreements on the collective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, new rounds of comprehensive trade liberalization and new standards of financial regulation have exposed deep gulfs between Atlantic and Asian states. Given the commitment of the former to stabilizing institutions and the latter’s skepticism about them, it is hard to see how the world’s states can come to any significant new collective agreements.
Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the new bipolarity will be to the global leadership of the United States. America will be torn between the Atlantic and Asian realms. Its sympathies and predilections lie very much with the Atlantic realm, whose ideals reflect and extend America’s postwar internationalism, and which still looks to Washington for leadership. The United States was a primary architect of the UN, the IMF, NATO and the European Community, believing strongly in the stabilizing role of liberal institutions. For an even longer period, the United States has championed liberal domestic institutions like democracy, human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad. The internationalism of the Atlantic realm lies very close to America’s heart.
But America’s pragmatic interests lie in Asia, as acknowledged by the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Asia is where the United States faces its most serious strategic challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Asia’s economic dynamism also holds the best prospects for the recovery of the American economy as it inevitably becomes more export-oriented in an advancing, globalized environment. As a consequence, America’s expectations about what it can do and how it acts will need constant readjustment in Asia. Already U.S. leaders find it difficult to comprehend the value of Asian regional institutions, and Washington is well aware that the institutions that do the heavy lifting in ensuring the region’s peace and security are its Pacific alliances and PACOM.
The challenge of managing two increasingly divergent approaches to international affairs will form a dilemma that will play out both inside and outside the United States. America’s willing multilateral collaborators are likely to come from the Atlantic realm, but the big Asian states will increasingly be the important multilateral swing players. American diplomacy in Asia will be tied up with ineffective and frustrating regional institutions, and it will be difficult to stay focused on Asia when the Atlantic realm is so much more congenial and itself hardly bereft of all global strategic significance.
America, then, above all other countries, will be forced to straddle the new bipolarity. It will be required to devise a dexterity that would test the acumen of even the planet’s most mature and well-experienced masters of statecraft. How America does at this task will not only shape its future, but that of the world.
1See Horst Rittel, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Policy Sciences, vol. 4 (1973).