American Ascendancy-And the Pretense of Concert

American Ascendancy-And the Pretense of Concert

Mini Teaser: Like the one before it, the twenty-first century will be American—predictions of a multipolar world nonwithstanding.

by Author(s): Coral Bell

What a viable, long-term concert of powers strategy requires first is
to strengthen and even widen existing alliances (as with the Clinton
defense agreement with Japan and the ongoing expansion of NATO), and
second, to draw the once and possible future adversary, Russia, into
the circle of the concert, exactly as France was recruited into the
original Concert of Europe only three years after the defeat of

It will instantly be objected that one of the assumed desiderata, the
eastward expansion of NATO, is at odds with another aim-- securing
agreement from the Russian leadership that its national interest is
best forwarded by diplomatic identification with the Western powers.
That clash of objectives does exist at the moment, and may well
persist for at least as long as Yeltsin remains the effective though
erratic decisionmaker in Moscow. But one should also remember a
widely practiced though seldom acknowledged diplomatic maxim: "If you
can't beat them, join them." Russia has no God-given right to
determine the diplomatic, political or economic choices of the
Central European powers, as it did during the Cold War. If Moscow is
obliged to abandon all hope of reasserting that sphere of control or
influence, the option of securing the best deal it can through
membership of the Western concert becomes the more appealing.

As was mentioned earlier, the old Russia had a century's experience
of how to operate in a concert system. Its historians and probably
its policy planners will therefore be well aware of the advantages
that accrue to the "balancer" (the "swing voter") in such a system.
In the old European system those advantages were enjoyed by Britain,
but in the twenty-first century (though not until its later decades)
they would logically fall to Russia, as the ambivalent state between
two prospective coalitions. Washington's policies (economic,
diplomatic and strategic) will be major factors in deciding how
Moscow's ambivalences are resolved. It must be made clear that the
economic and even strategic advantages of being part of the
"Vancouver to Vladivostok" grouping (a phrase that James Baker used
to use) could be very real. They should eventually include both close
affiliation with the EU and membership in NATO.

Kosovo and the New Norms

But, it might be asked, what is in all this for America? Well,
primarily, the further extension of the phase of unipolarity beyond
the forty years or so that I have been assuming in this article. The
current U.S. alliance structure (the American bandwagon of its
European and Japanese allies, plus assorted others) is already an
immense concentration of power. If Russia can be recruited into it on
a reasonably long-term basis, the likelihood of any effective
challenge would retreat into the remote future. The Pax Americana, in
terms of its duration, might thus become more like the Pax Romana
than the Pax Britannica.

The stress on peace has a real relevance. The primary virtue of
unipolarity is that it inhibits capacity to make war at several
levels. At the widest level (hegemonic war, Armageddon-style war, or
what Sam Huntington calls "civilizational" war), the great
preponderance of power on the side of the status quo inhibits
challenge by any rational decisionmaker. On the most local level,
that same preponderance of power should in time (when all the
implications sink in) make it possible to convince others that
launching hostilities may not be a good idea, for their own societies
or for themselves personally. Of course, such a concert is not yet
fully established, and there will probably always remain some
regional autocrat like Saddam Hussein who will "chance his arms"
locally, and some powers like India and Pakistan that are too big to
bully. Nevertheless, the likelihood of war in a unipolar system is
much less than in either a bipolar or a multipolar balance. And it is
worth preserving on that basis alone.

There is, however, another factor with still more capacity to
transform the whole structure and future of the society of states.
Unipolarity promotes the rapid emergence, and even the prospective
enforcement, of a new set of norms governing the behavior of states.
In doing so, it undoubtedly erodes the traditional concept of state
sovereignty. The basic norm of the Westphalian society of states
(from 1648) was cuius regio, eius religio; that is (loosely
translated), "the ruler is entitled to make the rules in his own
domain." That concept of sovereignty has been gradually circumscribed
since the beginning of this century, and more rapidly in the past
fifty years. In the past ten years (i.e., in this phase of
unipolarity), it has been still more rapidly eroded.

The new norms are, in effect, Wilsonian rather than Westphalian.
Eighty years after his disastrous defeat in 1920, the ghost of
Woodrow Wilson bestrides the world. In particular, his maxim "Every
people is entitled to choose the sovereignty under which it shall
live" is the principle (whether they know it or not) behind every
separatist insurgency from the Kosovars and the Kurds to the East
Timorese and the Irian Jayans--even, in a more subdued way, behind
the aspirations of Scottish nationalists and Quebecois. The
assumption that any ethnic group with a territorial base of its own
is entitled to sovereignty is widespread and easily cultivated. It is
also, of course, the potential source of an infinity of trouble for
the future society of states.

Kosovo offers a useful example. In effect, what happened was that a
dissident province of Yugoslavia was able to enlist the sympathies of
the West to a degree that induced the NATO powers to mount a major
military campaign against the sovereignty under which the Kosovars
had lived (and often died). The current settlement gives Kosovo only
autonomy, not full independence or sovereignty. But the final outcome
is still in the lap of history, and it is unlikely that it will be
friendly to Belgrade.

Moscow and Beijing could hardly fail to notice the potential
application to their own problems (Chechnya, Tibet, Taiwan) of the
moralistic universalism inherent in Western policy. Neither could a
great many other countries, for the world is full of dissident
provinces that aspire to autonomy or even sovereignty. But for Moscow
and Beijing there was an extra turn of the screw in the case of
Kosovo, in that the Security Council veto was impotent to block
Western action. The concert of powers, whose diplomatic face is
sometimes but not necessarily the Security Council, went ahead
anyway. The military arm of the concert, which is NATO, proved equal
to the task, and its economic arm, which is the G-7, was a powerful
adjunct. Both Russia and China at present need the West profoundly,
China mostly for the American market, Russia for international aid.
So though both governments had very real reasons for anger and
resentment against Western policy in Kosovo, and quite a few other
grudges against the West as well, both acquiesced. Indeed, Russia
provided considerable help in pulling Western chestnuts out of the

All that must surely be seen as no end of a lesson in the
international politics of unipolarity--and in the potentialities of a
concert of powers, which is at present exclusively Western, but does
not necessarily have to remain so. As I said earlier, there is always
that useful old maxim, "If you can't beat them, join them." The
Clinton policymakers deserve more credit than they have got for
leaving that option visibly open, especially to Russia. For those who
listened carefully, the "soft answer that turneth away wrath" was
frequently audible during the crisis.

Kosovo has also been a powerful lesson in how the new norms (which
have originated in the international community rather than the
society of states) operate to erode the traditional concept of
sovereignty. So do many other recent episodes. For example, the
government of Chile, nowadays a fairly respectable democracy, does
not want General Pinochet to be put on trial for misdeeds committed
mostly in his own country. Yet Her Majesty's Lords of Appeal in
Ordinary (of all people) in Britain have at least ensured that he has
been confined under house arrest for some months, as a token of moral
reprobation by much of the world. A decade after the Gulf War, Iraqi
sovereignty is far more truncated (sanctions, no-fly zones, arms
inspectors) than Germany's was ten years after either the Kaiser's
war or Hitler's war.

To point these things out is not to disapprove of them. Rather, my
point is just how much they are at odds with the traditional norms
that had governed the society of states for centuries until this
decade, and how well they illustrate the workings of a concert of
powers, usually at present referred to as "the international
community." In other words, the new norms (especially the human
rights and environmental ones) legitimate Great Power intervention in
the crises of lesser powers to a degree seldom envisaged in previous
diplomatic history. The favorable way of interpreting this is as a
moralizing of international politics. The unfavorable way is as
"cultural imperialism" or even as "collective colonialism." Whichever
of those views one takes, it has to be recognized as a truly radical
change in the way the society of states works, and one inherent in
the structure of unipolarity. So Washington's current and immediate
future generations of diplomatic strategists have as large an
opportunity (and as complex a set of tactical choices) before them as
those of 1946-47. They will need to work as hard and as creatively.

Essay Types: Essay