Heteropolarity Under Construction: Reflections from the GD Road Show

Looking out at dawn over the banks of the South Saskatchewan River from a hotel restaurant in Saskatoon,  the thin, reedy, late November light illuminates a grey-brown landscape impatient for the arrival of snow.

That blanket will obscure the detritus of a season passed and reveal in its place the essential patterns and forms which lie beneath.

Looking out over Canada, the USA, the UK and Europe after the first few months of the GD tour, I am left with a similarly expectant feeling.

I see a world waiting, impatiently, for change, for the renaissance in diplomatic institutions and practice which will permit to diplomacy to displace defence at the centre of international policy.

In the wake a few days in Boston and Washington, I very much hope that similar thoughts are on President Obama’s mind as he ponders the way forward in Afghanistan.

Keep fighting – only harder – or start talking with a view to ending, rather than extending the war?

It seems to me that the Nobel Committee, in selecting Obama as its 2009 Peace Prize winner, has sent a clear political indication of its preference in that debate.

That option would not involve escalation. Quite the contrary.

After Scheherazade, talk, and talk, and keep talking until they send the executioners home.

Nearing the end of the first phase of the book tour, then, I find myself more convinced than ever that the world is at a delicate moment, a strategic juncture in history which is likely to condition, and perhaps even determine the geopolitical shape of things to come.

I am referring to:

  • power shift, in favour of the re-emerging Asia-Pacific region
  • the coming into place of a new suite of global  challenges, distinct from the Cold War threat set in that most of these transnational issues are rooted in science and driven by technology

In earlier writings I have had occasion to elaborate on the first two points; here I would like to dwell for a bit on the third.

Many observers have suggested that with the rapid passing of hegemonic American uni-polarity, the planet seems to be reverting to some kind of multi-polar dispensation.

Well… I don’t think so.

This is not the world of Metternich and Castlereigh, nor of Bismark, or Churchill, or Trueman.  Attempts to secure stability can no longer be ensconsced in the likes of  the Congress of Vienna or the Treaty of Versailles. In those days, the vectors of power (military, economic, territorial) were relatively easily measured and compared. Attempts at balancing the resulting calculation – however unsuccessful –  appeared to hold some promise.

As it happens, they didn’t, as centuries of endless war attest with some conviction.

Even moreso in the globalization age, this is kind of thinking is no longer of much relevance or utility.

Looking forward a decade or so, it seems clear that the trump card of the USA will be its hard, or military, power. The dynamic epicentre of the world economy, however, will have shifted to an increasingly integrated Asia.

Europe, with its peace, prosperity, social democracy and rich artistic and cultural heritage will lead in soft power, the power of attraction. For the post-Treaty of Lisbon EU, the trick will be to find effective ways to translate that soft power into practical influence, almost certainly through the implememtation of  innovative public diplomacy.

Brazil, too, will be a pole.

Russia, as well.

Other poles will emerge – Turkey? Iran? – and the sources of their power are all likely to be different as well.

Which is to say, heterogeneous.

Bombs and guns, generals and admirals won’t have a major role in finding a way towards development and security in this kind of a world. That enterprise will turn on dialogue, on cross-cultural communication, on knowledge-based problem solving and on complex balancing.

Calling all (guerrilla) diplomats…

So, then, back to the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. In the lead up to next Monday’s Foreign  Policy Camp in Vancouver, I have been thinking about what all of this might mean for Canadian strategy, institutions, policies and interests.

More on that soon.