Foreign Policy Blogs

A Concert of Great Powers

President Obama announces his Af-Pak Initiative.  Source: CNN
President Obama announces his Af-Pak Initiative. Source: CNN
Metternich   Source:  Wikipedia
Portrait of Prince Metternich Source: Wikipedia

Keeping nuclear-armed Pakistan out of the hands of radicals should be a central goal of U.S. foreign policy.  Like a nuclear-armed Iran, control of the Pakistani government by believers in a radical ideology would be one of the worst scenarios for U.S. interests and for the safety of the world.  Weapons of mass destruction will proliferate, but ensuring that basically conservative governments (like China’s and Russia’s), regardless of ideology, remain the custodians of these weapons should be on overriding international priority.  In terms of furthering this objective, President Obama’s “Af-Pak” initiative last week, and its focus on preventing Al Qaeda and the Taliban from taking control of Pakistan, should be applauded.

However, what is missing from this initiative is greater emphasis on multilateralism.  The world is fast slipping from America’s “unipolar moment” after the fall of Communism to a dynamic multipolar world of rising and declining powers.  The sooner the U.S. recognizes this and couches almost every foreign policy initiative in terms of getting the great powers to work together to solve global problems, the more likely this power shift will occur peacefully.  The only goal perhaps more important to U.S. interests than preventing WMD proliferation is this peaceful shift to multipolarity.  Such a shift, characterized by consultation and coordination, would provide the best mechanism for solving the world’s problems, including WMD proliferation.  True, you cannot put the brakes on America’s myriad foreign policy initiatives as new institutions of multipolarity are erected, but you can tailor policy with multipolarity in mind and use the bully pulpit to promote reform of the machinery of diplomacy.

In fairness, President Obama’s Af-Pak initiative did include a call for a Contact Group, including NATO, the Central Asian states, Gulf nations, Iran, Russia, India and China.  Yet this was more of an afterthought to a unilateral initiative.  Notwithstanding Movement Obama’s ever-present language of renewal – from the “new politics” and “transformational leadership” of the campaign to recent calls for a “new day” for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a “new partnership” with (as well as a “language of respect” and a “hand of friendship” toward) the Muslim world – Obama’s foreign policy remains much the same as that of his predecessor, the guy he so single-mindedly excoriated. 

The Obama team argues that they will be smarter and more focused than their predecessors, and perhaps the Af-Pak initiative will bear this out.  However, the new thinking required in foreign policy is not yet apparent in this administration (granted, it is still early).  We have thus far been treated to clever rhetoric, including cute, new metaphors, such as the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.  Besides being another backhanded criticism of Bush, the “reset” metaphor fails to acknowledge that the “software” of U.S.-Russian relations remains the same.  Since the end of the Cold War, the West (led by NATO and the EU) has been unable to resist the temptation to extend its influence to Russia’s doorstep.  If Obama’s “reset” constitutes cooperation, not confrontation, discussion, not unilateralism, then he would in fact be installing new software in relations with Russia.  

Still, we need a point of departure in American foreign policy.  Some adjustment of global institutions is under way, including altering voting rights at the IMF, utilizing the G-20 forum instead of the G-7, discussing reform of the U.N. Security Council.  The president should raise the profile of this process, calling for new diplomatic machinery.  He should seek a Concert of Great Powers, similar to the Concert of Europe erected in 1815 by the victorious powers in the Napoleonic Wars.  

The Concert of Europe that included Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria, and after a few years, France, the vanquished aggressor, prevented major wars for forty years and a global conflagration for nearly a hundred.  The Concert involved periodic international congresses and a recognition of the national interests of the great powers and the need for a balance of power.  The vice grip that Wilsonians have had on U.S. foreign policy thinking over the last century has precluded such an approach.  Likewise, neo-conservative unilateralism cast aside any close cooperation with other great powers.  It is time that realists put these ideologies in their proper place.  FDR had proposed something like a Concert of Great Powers after WWII, with his “Four Policemen,”  the U.S., U.K., USSR and China.

Kissinger has pointed out that balance of power politics without at least some international agreement on values cannot produce stability.   Yet agreement on shared values is difficult to achieve.  To an extent, the Concert of Europe included this component.  The powers agreed that territorial adjustment would only occur through consultation.  The three members of the Holy Alliance – Prussia, Russia and Austria – agreed on the principle of monarchical legitimacy, while France and Britain demurred.  Nevertheless, the governments of the day found enough shared values to make the Concert work for decades. 

There is much that the great powers today – both rising and declining – can agree on.  They all participate with vigor in the global economy.  They are all active members of international organizations and parleys, such as the U.N. and various regional fora.  They are all relatively conservative in that they do not seek substantial territorial aggrandizement and are essentially peace-loving.  None seeks the elimination of any other sovereign state.  Yet there are substantial exceptions and areas of disagreement.  China opposes self-determination for Taiwan; Russia would like a free hand in its near-abroad; America intervenes in local hotspots if certain principles are violated.     

A commitment to working through a Concert of Great Powers would present challenges and ethical quandaries for American policymakers, and would be difficult politically.  The U.S. Congress enjoys grandstanding on moral issues.  The president is required by law to produce public documents on international affairs that sometimes irritate other powers, such as the report on China’s military that was released last week, and the State Department’s Human Rights reports, released in late February.  These reports have a great deal of utility and can encourage ethical behavior in the world.  Nevertheless, cooperating closely with such rising powers as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should become at least as high a priority as sermonizing to the rest of the world about ethics.  

This would mean, not giving up our values, but moderating the vehemence of our pursuit of them.  It would mean recognizing that cooperating with other great powers holds out the prospect of solving complex regional problems and maintaining global peace and prosperity, worthy moral objectives as well.  Pursuit of great power accord might be worth the short-term toleration of unfortunate ethical lapses of other powers.  It might require the U.S. to put religious freedom and democracy lower on the list of priorities than coordination with the great powers.  It might mean pushing allies to do things that might seem unfair, in order to solve a conflict that would garner broad international support.  In the end, resolution of local conflicts that attracts the support of the great powers would be eminently more stable than the alternatives.   

The world has a large number of international and regional fora, including the UN (both the General Assembly and the Security Council), NATO, the G-20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Organization of American States, Organization of the Islamic Conference, African Union, Arab League, the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the IMF, World Bank and regional development banks, and the WTO, among others.  What do we do with all of them? 

These groupings and institutions should not necessarily be replaced by other machinery.  However, a regular forum for the great powers, both rising and declining, to meet and discuss issues, and perhaps in time, to confront aggressors and solve regional problems, is needed.  Whether this could take place through an existing vehicle, say, the G-20, or the U.N. Security Council (revamped to include new members), or even through regular bilateral discussions and ad-hoc parleys, such as the North Korea six-party talks, such diplomatic coordination would be critical to a peaceful transformation of the international system.  

This approach does not preclude the U.S. from giving voice to its values — promoting democracy, human rights, and private enterprise.  It simply suggests that the best way to pursue these ends in the long run is through a peaceful coordination of the interests of the great powers.  Again, sometimes the emotionally-satisfying sermonizing we Americans enjoy can be counterproductive to the very aims we seek.  Though more intensive diplomatically, especially in the near term, this approach over the long term could lift the burden of global stability off the solitary shoulders of the United States.  

It is unclear what the initial steps this administration should take to usher in a multipolar world.  President Obama is traveling to Britain this week for the G-20 summit, not a bad time to launch such a discussion.  Updating the existing machinery, already under way, is not a bad beginning.  Let’s hope that Movement Obama remains true to its rhetoric and seeks renewal in American foreign policy.




Roger Scher

Roger Scher is a political analyst and economist with eighteen years of experience as a country risk specialist. He headed Latin American and Asian Sovereign Ratings at Fitch Ratings and Duff & Phelps, leading rating missions to Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, among other nations. He was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer based in Venezuela and a foreign exchange analyst at the Federal Reserve. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, an M.B.A. in International Finance from the Wharton School, and a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University. He currently teaches International Relations at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy.

Areas of Focus:
International Political Economy; American Foreign Policy


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