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.Â
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 Â 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 Â 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 Â 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. Â 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.