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System re-equilibration on a global scale.

datePosted on 16:50, October 18th, 2010 by Pablo

I was fortunate to have been taught by the father of modern international systems theory (Morton Kaplan) while in graduate school. Although it has fallen out of theoretical fashion to neo-realist and constructivist arguments, from time to time events conspire to remind me of its utility as a broad interpretive framework for understanding international relations. Once such moment is now.

One of the axioms of international systems theory is that the international system will always seek equilibrium, and that this most often comes about by achieving a balance of power between rival state actors. That balance can be bi-polar, multi-polar or even unipolar, although the latter is inherently unstable if all other actors do not accept the moral authority of the so-called “hegemonic” power. In a modern world comprised of nearly 200 nation-states with a multitude of divergent ideological views, to which are added a host of non-state actors both armed and unarmed, unipolar systems are inevitably unstable and short-lived as states move to counter-balance the hegemon. 

One such moment is the post Cold War period. Although it initially brought to the fore the US as the world’s sole superpower, a situation of unipolar dominance that lasted almost twenty years, the current international context has seen a move towards a new multi-polar balance of power that is different than the US dominated status quo as well as the tight bipolar balance of power that characterised the Cold War. Much of the move has been precipitated by China’s emergence as a global power, but it is also fueled by the rise of the other members of the BRIC  collection: Brazil, India and Russia. Although these countries are leading the push for a new multi-polar world, other states have joined the bandwagon, most notably Turkey, Iran, Australia and South Africa. To this emergent geopolitical landscape  can be added the shifting alliance perspectives of countries like Japan, Indonesia, Venezuela and the arc of “Stans” made up of former Soviet Republics along Russia’s broad southern flank. Then there are the status quo powers, all of whom have to re-calibrate their foreign policies and strategic perspectives as a result of the shifts within and around them: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Israel and Mexico, most notably.

The current international moment is therefore one of transition, with the transition marked by a rapid increase in new alliance formation and increased fluidity of international exchange across physical borders.

As an example, consider that both the US and Russia have moved to reaffirm military and diplomatic ties with India as a hedge against Chinese advances in Pakistan and Central Asia. Likewise, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all rekindled defense ties with the US as a result of increasingly aggressive Chinese power projection in the East and South China Seas. China has worked hard to carve out a sphere of influence in Sub-Saharan Africa as both a source of raw materials and as a potential forward power projection location, something that it is also in the process of doing in Latin America and the Western Pacific basin. Brazil has opened up ties with Russia and Iran, as has Venezuela. Venezuela has worked for over a decade on creating a so-called “Bolivarian bloc” as a counter-weight to US influence. Iran has aggressively supported Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies in the anti-Israel fight, something that was made amply evident in Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon last week. It has also materially and financially supported Shiia dissident groups in the Sunni Arab world and exerted its influence in post-Saddam Iraq, positions it would not have been capable of or dared to do a decade ago. Germany has worked to reaffirm its position as the leader of Europe while moving to strengthen ties with Russia, leaving France and the UK working to counter Germany’s dominance by reaffirming ties with both old and new European partners. South Africa has worked to expand its circle of economic partners beyond its traditional colonial ties while asserting its position as Africa’s emerging giant. Wracked by financial crisis and declines in productivity, Southern Europe has increasingly looked to the East for developmental support. While continuing to retain close defense ties with the US, Turkey has asserted new found diplomatic independence by challenging Israel and improving ties with Iran while establishing new ones with Brazil.

The pattern of realignment is broad and deep and not confined to great and middle powers, new and old. Small states are also in the process of redefining their alliance commitments and diplomatic priorities, although not always in a coherent manner informed by a long-term strategic perspective (as is the case with NZ, which can be contrasted with Singapore or Chile when it comes to its lack of strategic vision). And then there are the non-state actors working the interstices of the nation-state system in ways that serve to both uphold and undermine it.

The sketch outlined above does not do justice to the full measure of the geopolitical shifts now underway. I have used it to illustrate the point that the international system is in flux in pursuit of a new multi-polar balance of power in which cross-cutting and overlapping alliance commitments, some new and some rooted in previous alliance structures, will generate a new power equilibrium within the global community. That may take another decade or  more to fully materialise, but in the interim it is worth noting one last axiom of international systems theory: it is the times in between equilibrating balances of power that are the most prone to conflict, and the intensity of those conflicts during period of international systems transition is directly related to their impact on core national interests of the actor’s involved. In a world with ascendant and descendant powers vying to influence the shape of the emerging international system at a time when irregular armed actors ply their trade on a global scale, it is safe to say that an era of world peace is still a ways off from becoming reality.  It therefore might behoove foreign policy elites in countries big and small to re-familiarise themselves with international systems theory as an analytic guide to the context in which they frame their diplomatic, military-strategic and economic decision-making. It should not be the only tool that they use, but it is part of the decision-maker’s conceptual workbox that although long neglected, appears to have particular utility at the present moment.

15 Responses to “System re-equilibration on a global scale.”

  1. dave brown on October 19th, 2010 at 00:10

    I would say that there is no tendency towards equilibrium in the global system. There is the rise and fall of hegemomic capitalist powers so that an accidental equilibrium is incidental. The rise and fall of hegemonic powers is usually associated with major wars such as those of the 20th century that made the US the hegemonic power. What is challenging about the rise of China is the dynamic that makes it the next hegemonic power. The critical factor which separates it from Brazil and India (though not Russia) is the national revolution in the name of socialism that allowed China to return to capitalism on its own terms and escape the trap of dependency on the US.

  2. Pablo on October 19th, 2010 at 00:30


    A long-cycle view would suggest that the competition between would-be hegemons predates capitalism as a form of national economic system, much less as a global system. Capitalism gave a structural imperative to imperialism that accentuated inter-state competition for resources, but it was not the basis for the “war logic” behind balances of power and the quest for a stable international status quo. That came before the advent of capitalism, and study of the Greeks, Asyrrians, Romans, Persians, and any other number of pre-capitalist empires suggests that both war and balances of power were distinctive features of the inter-state, if not international system millenia ago. Plus, in its behaviour the USSR behaved no appreciably different when it came to international relations than did the Western capitalist bloc, so in terms of power dynamics between nation-states the causes of competition cannot be reduced to productive form even if national productive form does influence the propensity for conflict.

  3. Phil Sage (sagenz) on October 19th, 2010 at 00:54

    A few weeks prior to the first war Germany and the UK were happily deeply interlinked with a free trade system. To what extent do you think the China-US relationship will remain balanced by trade and how long do you think it will take China to catch up with the US lead in technology? At that time will China be balanced by a democratic hegemon of the US, Europe, Australasia, Japan and India as envisaged by John McCain?

  4. Pablo on October 19th, 2010 at 13:19


    There are two parts to that comment. Regarding the technology gap, that should be narrowed to near zero by 2050 given current conditions, which are chracterised by massive Western technological investment in China and the Chinese propensity for industrial espionage at home and abroad. Beg, borrow or steal, they will close that gap as a priority. However, that will not solve the myriad internal problems that are emerging in the country and which technology, especially telecommunications, are making increasingly impossible for the CCP to control. That alone will forestall any Chinese challenge to the US, although it should not preclude its extending its regional-based sphere of influences.

    The second answer is that it is doubtful that some form of entente will be created amongst other states to contain China much in the way was attempted with the USSR. This notwithstanding, the fact is that US policy in East and SE Asia seeks to tighten its defense ties with traditional partners and strengthen ties with India in order to encircle the Chinese and limit their military ambitions beyond their immediate territorial annex.

    Instead, what is occurring is the establishment of a multiplicity of bi- and multilateral international agreements encompassing trade, security, environmental standards, copyright matters, smuggling, etc etc that in many cases involve the PRC (the recently signed Chinese-Russian energy pact is one such compact). The idea is to enmesh China in an interlocking and overlapping web of agreements that deepen its engagement with the West and increase its (inter) dependency on foreign partners for continued growth. Dependency equals vulnerability. Engagement, as crafted by the Clinton administration and followed since by US policy-makers, is designed to provide a soft power cushion or buffer against Chinese hard power projection. It appears that approach is widely accepted by other major powers.

    One way to think of it, to steal an analogy, is as a multilayered chess game. By increasing the actors, issues and levels of play that China has to engage, it decreases its ability, if not propensity to conduct aggressive foreign policy for fear of negative consequences. The thinking is that the more it is enmeshed in this multilayered game, the less likely it will be inclined or able to pursue a unilateral, nationalist-based, neo-imperialist policy. Its own material welfare would be too compromised if it were to disengage and lose the benefits of its international ties, especially if these were broken by foreign partners in retaliation for some aggressive Chinese military move abroad.

    Which will mean that even if the US enters into a period of relative decline (relative, that is, to the emerging BRICs and other rising powers), the Chinese will not be able to replace it as superpower, much less as international hegemon.

  5. Sdm on October 19th, 2010 at 20:54

    I am interested in your thoughts on the writings of George Friedman of Stratfor fame who, in his most recent book argues that the US is in the infancy of its powers, not at the end. He believes that the 21st century will be the “American Century” for a few key reasons.

    1) Never before in the history of human kind has a power had control over all of the oceans of the world – the US current does.
    2) Its economy is bigger than Japan, China, Germany and the UK combined
    3) Geographically, it sits between Asia and Europe, an ideal position for trade routes.

    Do you, given the above,agree with Friedman?

  6. Phil Sage (sagenz) on October 19th, 2010 at 21:11

    Thanks for that perspective. I understand the benefits of interdependence with China, my opening sentence was intended to note that German and British people thought they had interdependent trade based links before the first war.

    It is a shame that McCains league of democracies will not come to fruition. As Tony Blair put it in his autobiography, McCain was the idealist and Obama the conservative in terms of policy, the opposite was the case in public perception.

    The Obama administration seems to be taking the easy option of inflating the US dollar out of its financial obligations. As a counter to the Chinese unwillingness to allow its currency to rise it is a blunt instrument. Whilst understandable it does nothing for the long term health of the US economy and certainly does not address the real issues.

    I share your views about technology and the timeline seems plausible.

    Germany is in a position of extreme strategic weakness, given its size. It is reliant on Russia for its energy, that could be cut off at a stroke. It seems politically unable to follow the French into nuclear. And it is only now beginning to understand how it has tied its economic strength to those overspending southern european children that will sap its strength and growth long into the future.

    This discussion comes back to your ongoing critical theme regarding the lack of strategic vision. Winding a path between the technological democracy and selling the new hegemon high quality food (as opposed to selling the land) seems to be a reasonable default path, albeit not clearly articulated.

  7. Pablo on October 19th, 2010 at 22:21

    Phil and Sdm:

    Sorry for the garbled bits in the last comment. Not sure how I did not catch them before posting.

    Phil: Germany and the UK believing that they were “interdependent” is one thing. What I am describing today is something quite different. I believe the correct term for what you describe is “mutually” dependent, which is not the same thing as interdependent. The current context is far more complex.

    You are also aware that we disagree on basic geopolitical reads and Republicans. I never thought that McCain sincerely believed in that proposed league of democracies rhetoric (which, BTW, was a Clinton foreign policy principle under different name during the first six years of his administration–I know this because it was part of my charge in OSD to implement that principle when it came to Latin American-US security relations). Although in hindsight when compared to the current lot of GOP nutbars and freaks he comes off as an elder statesman along the lines of Woodrow Wilson (who may be the same age as McCain at this point), his proposal was a pipe dream and campaign fodder, nothing more.

    I agree that Obama is stop-gapping. When confronted by the domestic situation of social decay and economic malaise and a retrograde disloyal opposition, he has no choice but to tread water lightly.

    As for Germany: no matter how bad their situation, they are the default leaders of Europe. Who is there to replace them? As for Southern Europeans being “children.” Shame on you Phil, you are a better man than that. They just played the international public finance game as structured until 2008 and now have to pay the price. Trouble is, it will be ordinary citizens, not elites, who in fact do pay a price.

    Sdm: Thanks for joining the discussion. I do not recall your presence here before. I believe that Friedman, who I must say writes brilliantly on most matters, is wrong on his appraisal of the US. Of course it is geographically unique with regards to Europe and Asia (so is Canada). But Russia is similar in that regard if not more, just more vulnerable because it is geographically contiguous to both Europe and Asia (although it has not received the migration flows from its southern border regions that the US has, and which also allows it to project force easier–remember the 20 tank divisions in Eastern Europe during the Cold War). Who is to say that Russia will not re-emerge to eclipse both the US and China given its resources and location? It just needs the labour to develop its resources fully and a political will to exert neo-imperial power. That day may well come sooner than many people think.

    The US economy is shrinking relative to the PRC and other emerging giants. It will retain its edge for a few more decades but the composition of its economy is moving towards services rather than value-added manufacturing and it is now almost majority dependent on foreign inputs of raw materials and primary goods for what is left of its value added production. It may have guys who create Google and steal Facebook ideas in order to make billions, but once it loses its edge in manufacturing weapons systems it is done. Other than the defense and computing industries, it appears to have lost its manufacturing edge (some nice looking car models notwithstanding). If it loses its edge in defense and computing, the end is nigh. After all, a nation of lawyers, waiters, financial advisors, hedge fund managers, accountants, tech geeks, personal trainers and life coaches is no match for a nation of engineers, physicists, ironworkers and stevedores. Especially when there is no compulsory military service (Israel is a marked contrast in this regard).

    As for the ocean control theory of dominance. That reminds of the Mahan and Mackinder maritime geopolitical theories of the early 20th century. Both still valid, but not to the extent that Friedman gives them credit. Control of sea lines of communication still matter, but the US is different (and stronger) not so much because it can control oceanic sea lanes but because it is the only country to have carrier task forces assigned to project force onto foreign land masses. On all other measures–subs, surface fleet, maritime air patrol, ASW, SSW–there are a multitude of potential rivals who can make control of vital choke points a losing proposition for the US, or at least make it so costly so as to force the US to withdraw its assets to more core areas of interest. That is why the US is so keen on shoring up its defense alliances in the Western Pacific–it needs the help, not more adversaries, given the emergent Chinese threat.

    Which is to say that I think that Friedman has a pro-US bias that does not fully accord with the realities of the emerging, transitional geostrategic context.

  8. Phil Sage (sagenz) on October 20th, 2010 at 01:02

    Who is to say that Russia will not re-emerge to eclipse both the US and China given its resources and location?

    Demographics my friend, demographics. Russia is down to 142m people and getting older fast and there is nothing to believe it could increase its population without a massive influx from its Muslim south. It will be no more relevant than Japan despite the size of its landmass. Personally I think the most likely scenario for conflict involving Russia is China moving north to occupy Siberia and provide liebensraum for itself. The US and Russia avoided direct conflict for 70 years with opposing ideology. They will not conflict with the same.

    I disagree with you on the economics. Services IS the high end. It is all of the value added. That is why a few coffee beans fetching pennies can be sold by Starbucks for a few dollars. It is why the Chinese workers rioted when they realised a single World Cup branded football sold for two weeks wages. It is the reason a few grams of metal and circuitry can be sold for hundreds of dollars as an iphone. All of the future value is the design and distribution. That is the chinese weakness.

  9. Phil Sage (sagenz) on October 20th, 2010 at 01:05

    And on Southern Europeans, they are also voters who refuse to recognise self restraint. When their leadership ask them for that they are thrown out at the ballot box. It is New Zealand’s fundamental problem also.

    The global rules have not changed. Bankers and banks are now earning massive profits. The dealer broker model is dead but moral hazard remains.

  10. Pablo on October 20th, 2010 at 13:16

    Thanks Phil, for the good replies.

    I am not as doubtful of Russian prospects as you are. Sure, they have a declining population and some serious health issues (declining longevity etc.), but they are encouraging migration from the Caucasus’ and Balkans and have reaffirmed their ties with several Central Asian former Soviet republics (as sources of labour and primary good inputs). Your line on a potential Chinese push into Eastern Siberia is an interesting one, although I should note again that Moscow is putting serious effort into revitalising and re-populating its Far East with exactly that scenario in mind.

    Your point about value added is well taken, But we must distinguish between “real” value added, such as that which makes computers and cruise missiles, and services such as Starbucks and which are extremely income elastic and thus susceptible to market vagaries (the Strabacks example was interesting because dozens of their shops had to close during the recession because people simply would no longer buy over-priced coffee with silly names and mixes). Such services may be a source of employment but do they really add value to society that is strategically important? That is where the US has issues–most of its services are of the parasitic or frivilous kind, or if useful, of the small business kind. Although it still retains a formidable technology-industrial base and military-industrial complex, the percentage of such manufacturing as a component of GDP has been dropping steadily for the last 20 years while it has increased in the emerging powers. That spells trouble down the road.

    I continue to disagree with you on Southern Europeans, although I admit that the entitlement culture in them is over developed. But that was because successive governments used welfare spending and full employment policies as political honey (and that includes parties from both sides of the aisle), so voters were duped into believing that such policies were the norm and voted accordingly. Plus, it is not just countries bordering the Med that have these issues–the current strike wave in France also tells a tale of over-entitlement based on decades of welfare-spending policies that were not connected to production. That is not the fault of voters but of policy-makers, no matter where they may be geographically located.

  11. SPC on October 20th, 2010 at 23:29

    Is not the real “entitlement problem” that of USA and the UK to pretensions of global diplomatic and military power they they can only finance with budget deficits?

    Similarly the frivolous added value services (branding) of the advanced economy is financed on the back of an out of control speculation sector masquerading as a financial services industry. This is little more advanced than the piracy period at the end of Minoan-Mycenean culture (cannibalising the remnant of a productive trading system).

  12. SPC on October 20th, 2010 at 23:45

    I also do not see Germany as held back by the South Europeans, in fact their negative impact on the value of the Euro provides the German manufacturing/design sector the same competitive edge in the world markets that the US complains the Chinese have via their currency being pegged to the weakening American dollar.

  13. Phil Sage (sagenz) on October 23rd, 2010 at 11:13

    ah spc – i see your point. actually kiwi dole bludgers are actually making exporters more competitive.

    silly me

  14. SPC on October 23rd, 2010 at 21:25

    You do not seem to understand it Phil, the Germans do not pay the benefits of those in South Europe but the fiscal impact of that cost on those nations takes down the value of the Euro – which increases the return to German exporters (and assists in maintaining its export markets).

  15. SPC on October 23rd, 2010 at 22:17

    I could add that Russian as energy provider and Germany as energy consumer are co-dependents … just as are all nations involved in imports and exports in the global economy. As Germany is capable of paying world market prices there is little prospect of supplies being cut off.

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