Heteropolarity, Security and Diplomacy: Not the Same Old, Same Old

Almost a decade ago, at an annnual conference of the International Studies Association, I heard my colleague James Der Derian from Brown University use the word heterpolar to describe the new world order. I had not come across the term before, and was uncertain as to its precise meaning. Still,  it struck me at the time as an original idea, and those are rare. It lodged in my mind.

I took a first crack at developing the concept in Guerrilla Diplomacy, where I defined heterpolarity as: An emerging world system in which competing states or groups of states derive their relative power and influence from dissimilar sources – social, economic, political, military, cultural. The disparate vectors which empower these heterogeneous poles are difficult to compare or measure; stability in the age of globalization will therefore depend largely upon the diplomatic functions of knowledge-driven problem solving and complex balancing.

In preparation for a forthcoming conference at the London Academy of Diplomacy, I have been trying to further elaborate the implications associated with the emergence of a heteropolar world order. Those with an interest in the evolution of international relations may find the line of argument worth pursuing.

For the past few hundred years, high-level statecraft has been concerned mainly with attempts at balancing power in an ever-changing world.  From the age of European empires through to the end of the Cold War, the indicators of national power – armies, navies, missiles, warheads, economies, populations, territories – were carefully calculated, and then balanced and codified in an attempt to engineer stability. Numbers were important; alliances were made and treaties entered into for purposes of expressing or extending agreed balances. When imbalances arose, as they inevitably did, negotiations were re-opened. If the talks failed, war usually ensued.

And so was world order, however punctuated by periods of great upheaval, fashioned.

From the Congress of Vienna through the Treaty of Versailles and beyond, the search for international security turned on the efforts of diplomats to calibrate power in a manner which produced a workable form of equilibrium.  The threat or use of armed force served as the international policy instrument of choice and the ultimate arbiter in dispute resolution.  For the likes of Metternich, Castlereagh and Bismark, not to mention Churchill, Stalin and Kissinger, power was essentially a function of the ability to compel your adversary to submit to your will. Stability was engineered by fine tuning relationships within and between alliances, first in a multipolar, and then, following World War II, in a bipolar system dominated by the US and USSR.

All of this changed with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the advent of American uni-polarity in the early 1990s. This was a triumphal, if fleeting moment when history was said to have ended and the neoliberal Washington Consensus of decontrol and market freedom was imposed wherever it was not embraced. For large corporations, financial entrepreneurs, those with surplus capital, and more than a few felons, these were halcyon days.

But nothing lasts forever.  By the autumn of 2008, with the global economy heading into the worst recession since the 1930s, it had become clear that the one size fits all prescription of wholesale privatization and deregulation was not going to end well. That realization – in conjunction with a string of disastrous strategic choices perhaps best symbolized by the violent starburst of shock and awe unleashed over Baghdad in 2004 and the subsequent failed occupation – resulted in the end of American hegemony. Today, America’s prestige and influence are haemorrhaging. In the Asia Pacific and elsewhere, new poles are rising and the epicentre of global power is shifting.

Among the commentariat, and in both the academic and scholarly press, the mainstream view is that world politics have returned to some kind of a multipolar dispensation. The prefix multi suggests the existence of multiple poles of more or less the same type, as was the case in Europe, for example, in the 19th century. From that observation it follows that traditional means can again be used to establish some kind of new balance, one based largely upon conventional assumptions about the nature of power and the use of influence.

As is so often the case with the received wisdom, there are good reasons to doubt this proposition.  With the advent of globalization, international power and influence have become atomized. Not only are they highly dispersed geographically, but the sources and substance of power and influence – hard or soft, smart, whatever – now vary enormously. The times when well-acquainted  negotiators came to the table with similar cards in their hands have gone forever.

New players. New rules.

This is a whole new game, one characterized not by similarity, but by difference;  not by the return of multipolarity, but by the advent of heteropolarity.

We will look more specifically at the shape of our heteropolar world order in the making in the next post.