The return of great-power politics

“Sustainable security” claims to address the causes of insecurity, not just symptoms. But when those “symptoms” are huge inter-state crises—as between China and Japan over disputed islands or between the US and Russia over Ukraine—what does it have to offer?

Benjamin Zala
25 April 2014

If the past 12 months have taught us anything it is that, despite the predictions of many, the potential for conflict between the major powers is still one of the defining characteristics of world politics. From the tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (with the United States waiting in the wings as ever) to the proxy confrontation between Russia and the US over the future of Ukraine (with its European allies desperately trying not to be forgotten in the diplomatic chest-beating), crisis diplomacy and inter-state rivalry are back on the global agenda.

One of the legacies of the “war on terror” years is that the focus of most organisations and analysts working on the concept of sustainable security—an approach to policy-making which downplays the reaction to immediate symptoms of insecurity in favour of addressing the factors that underlie them—has been on terrorism, insurgency and “non-traditional” security issues. Of late the large-scale trends of climate change and the division of the world between a global elite and a non-elite, combined with resource scarcity and the challenge of paramilitarism, have absorbed most of the focus of those concerned with conflict prevention.

Yet recent events suggest that the sustainable-security framework which NGOs, scholars and policy-makers increasingly deploy in their analyses and prescriptions needs equally to be applied to the traditional “high politics” of relations between the great powers--from geopolitical flashpoints and the politics of crisis diplomacy to the seemingly old-fashioned world of strategic-arms-control negotiations.

The long shadow of Vienna

Although security analysts have spent much of the past two decades concerned with “small” wars and counter-terrorism, inter-state rivalry and great-power politics never went away. Even in Syria, where the brutality of urban-guerrilla warfare and competition between paramilitary factions appear to be defining characteristics, the competing desires of regional and global powers have played a major part in the nature and longevity of the fighting. Moreover, the only serious attempts to end the war have been the multilateral negotiations in which Washington and Moscow have been key players.

Major powers descending on a capital city to sort out—among themselves—the fate of vulnerable individuals caught in cycles of violence is a trope reminiscent of the Concert of Europe meetings in Vienna in 1853 and 1855 on the “eastern question” or even Paris in 1860 on the Syrian revolution. But it is not the only sign that great-power politics is back. So too is the concern over “flashpoints” and the traditional response of crisis diplomacy.

In the East China Sea, Japan and China have been jostling over the remote rocks of what the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese the Diaoyu islands. Those predicting unparalleled eastern economic prosperity in the “Asian century” have become increasingly concerned over the downward spiral in relations between these two north-east Asian (and at least to some extent global) heavyweights.

The announcement of an air-defence identification zone over the islands late last year by China’s increasingly assertive regime, led by Xi Jinping, met an undiplomatic and extremely defensive response from the Abe government in Japan. Tokyo of course looked to its major military ally, the US, to join it in talking tough to Beijing, leading to a tense stalemate in which Japan is scrambling F-15 fighter jets from the Naha airbase in Okinawa almost daily.

If this was not enough of a gold-plated gift to those keen to make historical analogies with the great-power rivalry and security-dilemma dynamics of 1914 and the outbreak of the first world war, the increasing tensions between Russia and the west over influence in Ukraine have created a European crisis to rival the brinkmanship in north-east Asia.

The drama in Ukraine has prompted much talk of a renewed cold war. Moscow’s effective annexation of Crimea, its 40,000 troops along the border and mid-April’s four-way crisis talks among Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU all reinforce the idea that old-fashioned “power politics” is alive and well.

These two developments, involving two members of the BRICS coalition of rising (or in Russia’s case re-emerging) powers, come against the backdrop of a predicted global power transition and “rise of the rest”. One need not entirely accept Robert Kagan’s argument about the “return of history” to appreciate the importance of new centres of power challenging Washington’s dominance—in economic, diplomatic and, perhaps eventually, even military terms.

Echoing their voting behaviour at the UN Security Council on the intervention in Libya in 2011, all Russia’s BRICS counterparts abstained from the recent UN General Assembly vote denouncing the Crimea referendum (Russia voted against). And when the Australian foreign minister announced that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, might be banned from the G20 summit in Brisbane in November, the foreign ministers of the BRICS released a dissenting statement

All this makes predictions of a world without inter-state rivalry—even a “nonpolar” world—more than a little premature. The task then is to think through what a sustainable-security approach can highlight, as diagnosis and prescription, for the seemingly inescapable world of great-power politics. 

Militarisation, flashpoints, brinkmanship

A number of drivers of global insecurity stand out. First, the specific nature of great-power politics can create the conditions for crisis and instability. (And of course one could argue that the distinction between great and lesser powers itself helps to marginalise the views of most of the world’s population and is therefore a driver of insecurity.)

In his classic 1977 work on the social foundations of international order, the late international-relations scholar Hedley Bull argued that a degree of order could be provided by the great powers, but only if these states balanced their “special rights” with the concomitant “special responsibility” to manage their relations with each other peacefully and avoid crises. The art of great-power management appears lost on the current leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and Washington—and this makes for dangerous times.  

The drama in Ukraine has prompted much talk of a renewed cold war.

Secondly, existing work on sustainable security already provides some clear guidance on the drivers of inter-state insecurity through a focus on militarisation. Trends in arms transfers and spending are worrying when combined with a move away from a western-dominated world.

Recent research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded: “The increase in military spending in emerging and developing countries continues unabated.” Although global spending on arms fell by 1.9 per cent in real terms last year, China and Russia’s spending increased by 7.4 and 4.8 per cent respectively and the US, Russia and China were three of the five largest spenders. Not only are the leaderships of the major powers neglecting their great-power responsibilities—they are also upping their spending on the means to turn a crisis into deadly warfare.

Such spending raises the stakes in any crisis situation and makes such crises more likely by diminishing trust and souring diplomatic relations. There is little doubt that the controversial US missile-defence and Prompt Global Strike programmes have helped give the Russians the impression of being backed into a corner and made the already difficult Sino-Japanese relationship even more fraught. 

Broadening the sustainable-security approach

And what policy priorities follow if these underlying drivers of insecurity are to be addressed? The first is demilitarisation, beyond the human-security/small-arms agenda.

In recent years significant gains have been made in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants in war zones and on security-sector reform, as well as the eventual conclusion of the Arms Trade Treaty. The same cannot however be said of large-scale strategic weaponry. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty risks being seriously undermined by the glacial progress of the P5 states in living up to their article VI obligations on disarmament. And the chances of serious headway on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty are slim at best.

The ultimately futile trend towards trying to achieve security via superiority in strategic conventional weapons (as well as armed drones), rather than the much harder task of trust-building, is only making matters worse. A renewed effort to negotiate long-term, sustainable, strategic arms control is needed to reverse this trend, no matter how difficult immediate progress will be.      

The second priority is to move beyond crisis diplomacy in the major interactions between the great powers. By definition reactive rather than preventive, this can only ever provide limited opportunities to address the root causes of mistrust and insecurity between states.

While a far from perfect arrangement—questions of justice were frequently overlooked in a quest instead for “order”—the regular meetings of the Concert of Europe powers throughout most of the 19th century could provide some inspiration. This arrangement did have a clear sense of the purpose of being a great power: it was not just a privileged position in the hierarchy of states but carried a responsibility to manage relations with other major powers in ways that avoided, where possible, the downward spiral of military brinkmanship. This unavoidably involves a willingness to consider the world from the position of one’s adversary and to take seriously the perceptions and worldviews of one’s peers, even when disagreeing with them.   

Yet breaking the moulds of entrenched diplomatic practice will not be easy. As the diplomat-turned-scholar E.H. Carr remarked over 70 years ago, “The bureaucrat, perhaps more explicitly than any other class of the community, is bound up with the existing order, the maintenance of tradition, and the acceptance of precedence as the ‘safe’ criterion of action.” The task seems so enormous as to be overwhelming.

But if policy-makers, analysts and civil-society actors are to come up with ways of reversing the trend towards an increasingly competitive, militarised and crisis-driven inter-state order, thinking through the implications of a sustainable-security approach to great-power politics is the most useful path to follow.  

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