Bipolarity, unipolarity and the coming USBRIC world.

The lack of informed public debate on New Zealand foreign policy, to include its international security policy, is equaled only by its seemingly directionless drift under National. On the one hand National has embraced the idea of shifting its trade focus–which as Lew mentioned in an earlier post has once again become the basis for all foreign policy–towards Asia (and increasingly the Middle East). On the other hand, National is attempting to reforge its security ties with the US and Australia as well as regional partners like Singapore. It continues to pay lip service to the UN multilateral ethos, but in practice appears less committed than the Bolger, Shipley and Clark governments to supporting the multinational cause in places that are not of immediate import to economic prosperity. This has even been reflected in its approach to regional issues in the southwest Pacific, where the expansion of Chinese economic and military influence has been met with diffidence rather than focused attention. All of this suggests that even if the foreign policy bureaucracy understands the complexities of international relations in the present moment, its current political masters do not.

I shall elaborate on the implications of a growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific in a future post. For the moment what I propose here is to outline, in a highly simplified fashion, the broader contours of the changes undergone and ongoing in the international political system, with an eye towards situating New Zealand in that fluid context. In so doing, perhaps a clearer picture of the need for foreign policy direction will emerge.

The Cold War was characterised by a tight bipolar balance of power, in which nuclear-armed superpowers and their allies aligned themselves along a communist/anti-communist axis that divided the world into peripheral and shatter zones depending on the probability of direct confrontation. Collective security via superior counter-force was the basis for mutual deterrence under the so-called “balance of terror” principle, which was premised on the shared belief that conflict in shatter zones had a high possibility of escalation into nuclear war. Central Europe was the most vital shatter zone, so conflict avoidance was the overriding principle in that theater. Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America were peripheral to the core interests of the superpowers, so they became the sites for proxy wars and unilateral interventions in which weapons were trialed and tactics refined, but in which no immediate possibility of superpower confrontation existed. Some places were so remote, they only served as monitoring stations or way fares for the big players. Depending on the technologies available and their spatial location , a few peripheral countries could be accorded special interest by the superpowers. On that score, New Zealand and Cuba were exemplars of each side of the continuum, respectively.

As oil increased in importance as a strategic commodity, the Middle East was increasingly defined by the US and its allies as a shatter zone, which helps explain the reduction in direct inter-state conflict between Israel and its Soviet-backed neighbours (Egypt, Syria and Jordan especially) after 1973. It was not until the demise of the USSR that the so-called “secular nationalists” in the Middle East adopted a more pro-Western stance, but the dye had been cast on their position more than a decade before.

The fall of the Soviet bloc ended the bipolar balance of power and began a decade of unipolar domination by the US. No country or combination of countries had the military or economic power to confront the US on either or both grounds. Russia descended into post-Stalinist chaos; China was still in the early stages of embracing capitalism. East and Western Europe integrated, but the process was fractious and economic, demographic and social differences precluded the emergence of a truly “unified” Europe as a political and military actor. Post-colonial despotism abounded in Africa, and if Latin America democratised, it did so largely amid conditions of economic stagnation. East Asia prospered by remained politically divided amongst itself. Under such conditions, and coupled with major advances in telecommunications and the global opening of markets, the US imposed a form of pax americana in which the only types of conflicts feasible were of the low-intensity variety in failed or peripheral states. Inter-state conflict was replaced by pre-modern ethnic and religious conflict, and nation-building and peace-keeping in failed states became the raison d’etre of military forces in the loosened post-Cold War alliance structures as well as for a host of other middle and small powers. New Zealand was one of them.

As it turns out, market globalisation and technological change were the source of both US strength and weakness. While the US focused resources on the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” and fourth generation warfare in which the element of human will is supposedly trumped by technological capability, market forces pushed both technological advancement and consumption in a host of previously underdeveloped states. In the measure that these states welcomed foreign capital and investment, both the input and output sides of the supply chains flourished within them, and they developed increasingly advanced economies of scale. Foremost of these are what are now known as the “BRIC” countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Through an astute mix of good government policy, size and resource base, national ambition and foreign investment, these countries have emerged (or re-emerged in the Russian case) as nascent great powers. The US, for its part, overextended itself militarily in response to 9/11, where it is confronted by irregular, decentralised non-state actors fighting asymmetrically so as to negate US technological superiority and reduce both the tactical and strategic confrontation to that basic element of will. Although US technology still affords it clear battlefield advantages, it cannot on its own prevail decisively or quickly against well-prepared and ideologically committed irregulars fighting on their home soils. Under such circumstances, in which a long-term war of attrition is fought on mostly unconventional grounds, irregular actors can force strategic stalemates that for all intents and purposes are political defeats for the militarily superior adversary. That is because the logistical and human costs of engaging in such long term military adventures without resolution erode the will not so much of the troops engaged in them, but of the civilian support base at home that votes on matters of policy. Such is now the situation in Afghanistan, as it was previously in Iraq.

Since 2003 the US has entered into a slow economic decline, fueled in equal parts by the W. Bush administrations fiscal policies, the costs of its wars and the failure of a large swathe of the US business community to recognize and adapt to the changes in the global system of production and exchange post 1990. Conversely, not saddled with military burdens comparable to that of the US, the BRICs have directed their national energy and resources into economic development. The results are impressive. In the last decade the individual BRICs have increased their yearly GDP by an average of nearly ten percent and collectively have advanced their growth rates by more than 50 percent when compared to 1990. They have all survived the recession of 2007-09 and currently display growth rates in excess of 4%/yearly on average (the US is predicted to have an average growth rate of less than a 3 percent for the next five years). Barring some human-made disaster, the upward economic trend for the BRICs shows no sign of abating for another  decade. The same cannot be said for the US, regardless of its recent rebounds. In an economic as well as military sense, the tide seems to have turned against US unipolar dominance.

All four BRIC nations are major sources of consumption. Russia remains the most vulnerable economy because of its dependence on fossil fuel exports and criminal influence in policy making, but even so has reconstituted a significant measure of its military capability and battle tested it in Chechnya and Georgia. China and India have become technological incubators, value added export platforms and, most recently, purchasers of advanced weapons systems under slowly opening forms of elite rule. Militarily, China is constructing nuclear submarines as well as an indigenous aircraft carrier amid a major expansion of its entire range of force; India is modernizing and expanding both its sub and carrier fleets as well as it land and air wings. Both countries have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them at considerable range from a number of platforms, and both have been aggressive in asserting their military presence abroad (as has Russia). Of the four countries, Brazil is the least focused on military expansion, although it too has upgraded both its offensive as well as defensive capabilities. In no case can the US stop this progress by the use or threat of force or economic sanction. The result is that the world is now evolving into a multipolar system in which US power is balanced, in the first instance, by the BRICs, and in the second instance by the interplay between the BRICs themselves and with other middle powers such as France, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Malaysia and the UK.

Emergence of the BRICs and the move towards multipolarity has further accelerated the loosening of Cold War alliance structures and increased the profile of smaller or emerging national actors such as South Africa and Singapore, which in turn has pushed a general reconfiguration of diplomatic, economic and military relations within the multi-tiered international community. Needless to say, the US will not disappear from the scene or be conquered anytime soon. What the emergence of new powers and changing international dynamics does mean is that it will have to share space with the new great powers: enter the world of USBRIC multipolarity.

Such change should be welcomed. The situation remains fluid but from a historical standpoint the move towards multipolarity is encouraging because it promises an era of greater peace once the multinational-balances and attendant blocs have been sorted out. Unipolar systems have historically been the most unstable type of international order because absent universality of values one-sided domination breeds resentment and challenge. Bipolar systems are stable (as the Cold War demonstrates), but  stability rests on a the precarious assumption that both rivals share the same form of rationality when it comes to strategic perspective, and that cannot be guaranteed over time. In a situation in which 3 or more powers contend for power, balancing becomes the pivot of the system because it serves as a hedge against single actor dominance. Here the actions of national elites matter less than the systemic response, which pushes the determinant logic out from the national (unit) level to the international (systemic) level. Hence small number multipolar systems are considered to be the most stable type of international political community.

Closer to home, the questions that arise are as follows: is NZ cognizant of these shifts and does it have a coherent foreign policy and international security strategy to ensure that it can take advantage, or at least not be disadvantaged by them? Is the current approach to trade, security and diplomatic affairs conducive to advancing the national interest over the long term, or is it more of an opportunistic hodgepodge of traditional and new perspectives and relations that do not account for the fundamental nature of the afore-mentioned shift towards USBRIC multipolarity? That, dear readers, I shall leave for you to ponder.

11 thoughts on “Bipolarity, unipolarity and the coming USBRIC world.

  1. Pablo,

    I enjoyed your analysis, but I feel that there are several important actors notable by their absence: specifically, Japan and the European Union.

    Do you think that the mentioned economic, demographic and social differences will continue to preclude a unified Europe? I know moves towards greater integration have been obstructed of late, but in light of a re-emerging Russia, do you think the Europeans will be able to put their differences aside?

    Also, Japan. While in demographic decline and relative economic stagnation, it is still a force to be reckoned with. I would wager an increase on the (official) 1% defence spending limit within the next 15 years, to maintain their qualitative edge in the region. And while I’m speculating wildly, I wouldn’t put it past the Japanese to re-forge those old links with Taiwan to contain PRC adventurism.

    I’ll leave it at that for now, I don’t want to hijack this thread any further and detract from the questions in your final paragraph.

  2. Corey:

    I appreciate your critical scrutiny. Within the confines of a blog post (which was already going to be long), I had to make some analytic distinctions. Thus, although I agree that we will see a more vigorous Japanese international security posture in the future, I do not see it achieving the status of the BRICs. As you said, demographics and stagnation conspire against it, and any move to assert ties with Taiwan or adopt an aggressive (offensive) military posture will find a united negative response from the rest of the East and Southeast Asian states. Memories linger…so the best that Japan can do is reinforce its alliance with the US and try to forge ties with Brazil (which has a large Nissei community).

    As for the EU I do not see it anywhere close to emerging as a distinct political-military entity, even with the threat of a re-emergent Russia on its eastern flank. Besides the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and conservative nationalist backlash against “Europeanising” efforts, there is appreciable differences of opinion and approach towards Russia on the part of “new” and “old” Europe, particularly along the Slavic/Anglo-Saxon/Latin/Germanic divides. For all the laudable attempts at regional integration, between the ongoing existence of traditional differences and parochial concerns, coupled with the difficulties in assimilating former Eastern European countries and the social dislocations caused by tides of extra-regional immigration, the EU cannot come anywhere close to developing a coherent strategic posture, much less project economic and military power world-wide. Individual European companies may have global economic clout; individual European countries may have global diplomatic leverage; but as the travails as the NATO led ISAF mission in Afghanistan proves, it is incapable of imposing on its own a preferential solution to intractable foreign problems. For that it needs other powers–the US today, the BRICs tomorrow.

    I am going to have to map out the multipolar constellations that might conceivably emerge in a USBRIC dominated world. But suffice it to say that I believe that Japan and the EU will be like moons orbiting the USBRIC planets, subject to the gravitational pull between them. They in turn will have their respective clients and dependencies, much as asteroid belts surround moons in any given solar system. The one I am outlining is defined by USBRIC.

  3. Since 2003 the US has entered into a slow economic decline, fueled in equal parts by the W. Bush administrations fiscal policies, the costs of its wars and the failure of a large swathe of the US business community to recognize and adapt to the changes in the global system of production and exchange post 1990. ….In an economic as well as military sense, the tide seems to have turned against US unipolar dominance.

    Pablo – I respect your political analysis but this description of relative economic power and blaming Bush leaves a lot to be desired. B and I economic and thus political military power is frankly a joke. Russia has economic influence over Western Europe through gas ransom, and military power through the now unlikely threat of MAD from ageing warheads. Both are long term unsustainable as the Russian population ages and reduces and its gas runs out. Brazil and India are mid size. Britain is and will remain more powerful than either with its military tradition and London’s position as financial centre of Europe and arguably the world.

    China has economic mutual assured destruction through its US Treasury holdings and dependence on exports to the US in the short to medium term. Chinese growth has been greater than US for decades and will continue so. But America will maintain a technology lead despite the per capita GDP and total GDP gap narrowing. It remains able to buy the best brains and offer them the quality of life that China will remain incapable of.

    Long term the balance of power remains bipolar. New Zealand is well placed as a interlocuter trusted and respected by both sides. You wish to be non partisan, then try taking a little more open view towards Bush & National

  4. PhilS:

    You will note that the title of the post is the “coming” USBRIC world. The BRICs may not quite be able to fully match the US as of yet, but the trends are clear. I agree that Russia has serious internal issues that could undermine its quest for great power status, as does China for that matter. But none of these should stop their assertion on the world stage over the next 25 years. NZ has to future plan for that.

    I disagree with your assessment of the UK. Although an interesting place, it is to my mind a society in terminal decline, culturally, socially, economically and politically. The claim that it is a world financial centre is undermined by the fact that many of its best and brightest financiers have moved to Asia, which is where the big money is.

    As for the failures of the Bush 43 administration. Since we have beem through this before, how about we agree to disagree. You see no evil in it, and I think it was an unmitigated disaster that directly precipitated the US decline.

  5. Pablo,

    Thanks for clarifying your position, I appreciate the constraints of a blog post mean we can’t address everything we would like.

    In your opinion, how do you understand the balance of power in a USBRIC world? More specifically, how do you think that the blocs will array against each other militarily, economically and politically?

    Closer to home, the questions that arise are as follows: is NZ cognizant of these shifts and does it have a coherent foreign policy and international security strategy to ensure that it can take advantage, or at least not be disadvantaged by them?

    I would argue that not having a obvious approach to the new multipolarity is a slight advantage when compared to a country that has obviously signaled its alliances, ie. Australia.
    By resisting the temptation to bandwagon, New Zealand can always hold out for the better deal, by playing both ends against the middle.

    I disagree with your assessment of the UK. Although an interesting place, it is to my mind a society in terminal decline, culturally, socially, economically and politically.

    I know this thread isn’t on the UK, but if you could briefly explain your appraisal I’m sure we would be happy to hear it.



  6. Corey:

    I like your idea of NZ not showing its hand too early, but that is a public diplomacy tactic. Its strategic planners need to be thinking now of where they want NZ to be in 10-25 years vis a vis these players.

    At a glance, and again within the limits of a comment, I think we shall see a US-India and India-Russia bilateral containment of China. A US-Brazil axis is already being attempted by the Yanks so as to counter Chinese inroads into LATAM and in particular its relationship with Venezuela. Brazil is happy to run a China-Brazil line so as to off-set US pressure. Russia will want to pursue a US entente to counter China, yet work to be cordial with the Chinese as a counter to the US and its European allies. The point is that a systemic level the situation will be much more fluid and dynamic than during the Cold War or immediate post Cold War eras, as multiple balancing moves and countermoves will keep the system in equilibrated state.

    As for the UK decline, I have two words that sum it up: Russell Brand.

  7. Pablo

    I have been thinking for the past few days of a decent response to Russell Brand and just have to admit defeat. :^)

    I live very near Runneymede and used to think the British stood for democracy and freedom but you are right this is a country in decline with the exception of London financial power due to Sarbanes Oxley. HSBC is based in UK not Hong Kong or Shanghai.
    Actually my comparison of Brazil with Britain and India was simply to point out they are of similar power. They are all Regional powers, nothing more and not likely to be for decades to come. India GDP is less than half UK and one quarter China The wiki list below shows how far Brazil and India have to go up to match Britain on the gentle path down it has been on for the last 60 years.
    1 United States 14,264,600
    2 Japan 4,923,761
    3 People’s Republic of China 4,401,614h
    4 Germany 3,667,513
    5 France 2,865,737
    6 United Kingdom 2,674,085
    7 Italy 2,313,893
    8 Russia 1,676,586
    9 Spain 1,611,767
    10 Brazil 1,572,839
    11 Canada 1,510,957
    12 India 1,209,686

    As far as Bush is concerned I admire the intent if not some of the execution. We will agree to disagree about Bush. But it does entertain me to stir you with comparison of your views on foriegn policy to the Busn doctrine. Sorry about that. ;^) strange sense of humour.

    We share the view that ALL people in the world have the right to self determination, we just differ about how to get there. To me soveriegnty applies only to those nations who have genuine self determination. I see no reason to protect dictators.

    I read Fran O’Sullivan onRudd via kiwiblog and his apparent strategy on getting closer to NZ as part of his strategic analysis of growing Chinese power and would be interested in your views.

    It seems there is a lot of sense politically in getting closer to Australia while maintaining the relationship with China.

    And while requesting commentary I would also be interested in you relating your scoop democracy analysis to the gradual democratisation of China. There is rule of law and attention to the popular will albeit no vote.

  8. Reading your comment about foriegn policy drift in National again. I would add that Key and Rudd seem to have hit it off. Rudd listed to Keys description of a $1.5bn broadband plan and shortly thereafter did an Ozzie. He announced $30bn for broadband to the wry bemusement of Key. Now we see Fran O’Sullivan talking about how Australia wants to get strategically closer to New Zealand. Those are actions not words.

  9. Phil S:

    I appreciate the informed responses. You list is a good indicator of the road to be traveled, but the writing is still on the wall (to mix metaphors). In fact, if we add in the Gini coefficient on inequality, then the distance between the advanced industrial democracies and the BRICs is even greater. But since your list has Italy as well as France and Germany ahead of the RIB states, and Spain amongst them, I think that the trend is clear. Lets see where these countries are in a decade.

    I suspect that a strengthened NZ-OZ bilateral alliance is in anticipation of the US asking it to be the front line in countering Chinese expansionism in the Southwestern pacific. The NZOZ alliance can better use soft as well as hard power incentives and disincentives to prevent China from disrupting the pro-Western status quo in the region, which otherwise could have serious implications for forms of governance as well as island state approaches to fisheries, whaling and other types of regional resource extraction. Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, for example, have become major focuses of Chinese investment in logging, which has contributed not only to unchecked deforestation but to political instability as well due to the disruptive influence of Chinese money on local politics.

    Given the Rio Tinto and Fonterra debacles in China, to say nothing of its intelligence gathering activities in both OZ and NZ and its growing military presence off-shore, Rudd and Key are increasingly aware of the downside of a full embrace Pacifika embrace of Chinese power. Absent shared values and with competing interests, yet being individually smaller, the seemingly best option is to solidify Antipodean relations as a united front to Chinese expansionism in the region. Or so it seems from recent events.

  10. Thanks. I see India as being firmly on the US-EU side of any future power split. The political impact of Indian educated software programmers spending time in Europe and America and then returning to India is grossly underestimated by Western media imho. There is also an educated and vastly growing group of Indians who are performing offshored services for US & Europe. The groups intermingle but they all support integration with the West.

    Your comment about China is interesting. Anz being in the forefront of limiting Chinese influence at the request of the US makes absolute sense. It explains the thawing from the US towards New Zealand and the strategic approach of Rudd.

    I contrast Rio Tinto which was China being strategically refused permission to control resources in Australia and Fonterra. Fonterra was a reputable Western company trying to follow acceptable Chinese channels to eliminate commercially destructive Chinese behaviour. China is smart enough to understand Fonterra NZ was not at fault and it was trying to handle the problem quietly.

    Think about the face implications of both on China. Despite the mewing about Fonterra in NZ media I believe Fonterra has increased face in China and that reflects on NZ. Rio Tinto, a massive decrease.

  11. My take on China is a long term strategic decision was made at the bowels of the US administration. WalMart integration is the way to a peaceful US-China future.

    The more economically integrated the two countries become the less likely conflict would be.

    I see the NZ approach as similar. Rio Tinto was a loss of face but partly China was simply seeing how far it cold go. They will take any advantage they can where open market ideology allows assets to be sold to China without reciprocal rights.

    Absent shared values and with competing interests, yet being individually smaller, the seemingly best option is to solidify Antipodean relations as a united front to Chinese expansionism in the region.

    I see it as being less a united front and more of a relationship that needs to be managed to mutual advantage. That has been easier for India with its English speaking recent heritage, but is possible with China.

    Should the investments in resource development by China remain unmade? The West has not bothered over decades.

    It is not something to be stopped, certainly it is something to be well understood and managed.

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