Heteropolarity, Globalization and the New Threat Set

In the last two posts I have tried to develop the concept and content of heteropolarity, which I  believe has some value as a heuristic tool for describing and analyzing contemporary world order. In part three of the trilogy, I assess the implications for grand strategy and the work of foreign ministries.

The most profound threats which imperil the heteropolis – and religious extremism and political violence do not make the A-list – are not amenable to military solutions. The best army cannot stop pandemic disease. Air strikes are useless against climate change. Alternatives to the carbon economy cannot be occupied by expeditionary forces. You can’t capture, kill, or garrison against these kinds of threats.  As instruments of international policy, defence departments are both too sharp, and too dull to provide the kinds of responses required.

Still, militaries continue to command the lion’s share of international policy funding, while foreign ministries struggle on the sidelines. Not only does this give rise to serious inefficiencies, distortions and misallocations, but Western governments have failed to apprehend the main lesson of the Cold War, namely, that force works best when it is not used. Take the sword out of the scabbard – think Iraq, Afghanistan – and it makes a dreadful mess.

Recalling the dismal experience of two world wars and a Cold War, the products of failed attempts at “managing” the emergence of new powers in the 20th century, this time around an alternative approach will be required. In the heteropolar world under construction, security will flow not from defence, but from development and diplomacy.

The representatives of governments will always have the business of states to conduct among themselves, and the need for the traditional variety of international political communication as practiced by designated envoys is not about to disappear. Yet the diplomatic centre of gravity is shifting, away from formal chancelleries and great halls, and into storefronts, souks, barrios and conflict zones. Diplomacy is going public, moving, as it were, from the cathedral to the bazaar.

The transformation of the operating environment in turn requires new skills, sharpened cross-cultural capacity and a smarter, faster, more agile method of diplomatic practice generally. Diplomats must be equipped to undertake the task of nuanced, and highly complex balancing between dynamic poles, and to apply knowledge-based problem solving in the face of common threats and challenges.

The effective treatment of many among this new suite of issues – conservation of the global commons, the prevention of environmental collapse, responding to resource scarcity and diminishing biodiversity, bridging the digital divide – will involve finding solutions which are rooted in science and driven by technology. Again, such challenges cannot be addressed militarily. Instead, broaching them will require the creation of new networks and the application of specialized expertise. All of this, in turn, will be possible only through a real commitment to dialogue, negotiation and compromise. Science diplomacy will figure centrally.

For better and for worse, it is globalization, that totalizing historical force which conditions, if not determines outcomes across a vast range of human enterprise, which is driving the emergence of heteropolarity. Economic activity, culture, social classes and political space have become transnational and de-territorialized.  It is even possible that some of the emerging heteropoles will be corporations, multilateral institutions or cities rather than states or regions.

In any event, while generals and admirals, bombs and guns will have a role to play in the pursuit of global security, mainly by deterring the use of organized violence, that role will not be front and centre. Today, durable security arises from met needs, from the absence of want and fear. Put another way, security is less about states than it is about people, and as such is integral to development – broadly-based, long term, equitable and human centred.

In a heteropolar setting, security and development are two sides of the same coin.

Bottom line? Because development has in large part become the basis for security in the age of globalization, diplomacy must displace defence at the center of international policy. Absent an adequately resourced  commitment to that goal, globalization will continue to socialize costs while privatizing benefits, and the successful management of an increasingly heteropolar world order will be difficult, if not impossible.

International organizations, governments and foreign ministries everywhere would be well advised to  gear up and prepare to engage the new threat set.

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