A while back, Dan Nexon posted a thought-provoking suggestion at the Duck of Minerva:
I wonder, though, if our unipolarity fixation obscures some important aspects of post-Cold War security order. In the early 1990s another image of world politics seemed plausible: that of a new great-power concert. After all, the United Nations was constructed with an embedded concert architecture via the United Nations Security Council, and the 1991 Gulf War suggested a reinvigoration of that latent aspect of international order.… [F]oreign-policy pundits debate whether the US should pursue some kind of new capital-c Concert as the fundamental component of a post-Iraq grand strategy. Sometimes the Concert in question is supposed to be composed of democratic states, and other times not.My suggestion is different: it is that we are already living in a Concert system, albeit it one deeply inflected by American primacy. The argument that we aren’t, I submit, is based on a flawed conception of just what the Concert of Europe did. The Concert did not preclude deep disagreements among its members. The great powers of Europe often acted without consensus. They even fought wars with one another during the lifetime of the system. But they did coalesce to manage a number of crisis within Europe and on its periphery and otherwise to function as a kind of geo-strategic cartel, and lack of agreement did sometimes constrain one or more of the members of the Concert system.This sounds a good deal like the current order–with the notable difference that we haven’t seen any great-power wars. Indeed, it sounds more like the last twenty years than we sometimes realize. We tend to focus on the “big” disagreements between, for example, Russia and the US. But beneath those disagreements remains a great deal of “managed” international order made possible by something like a great-power cartel with a focal-point in the United Nations system.
In the conventional U.S. narrative, global peace and order is some product of either interlocking institutional arrangements by institutions, norms, and economic or social forces which constrain states from beyond the realm of so-called old geopolitics, while much of the hard geopolitical constraints are the product of U.S. power. What Nexon effectively points out is that much of the sources of international agreement today are in fact the products of a degree of great power cooperation. That cooperation does not exist because of ideological agreement – as Russia and China certainly do not buy into liberal values or human rights – or a natural belief in the benefits of the liberal international order – China and Russia have stood against its supporting security components when they encroach on their own areas of interest – so much as a modus vivendi enabled by the United States’s clear predominance in the system and relatively balanced zones of great power competition where the U.S. lacks outright hegemony.
As Nexon notes, this cartel – and cartel really is the right word – of great powers, is for the most part enshrined in the United Nations Security Council. As Hayes Brown has persuasively explained, the primary point of the UNSC is to affirm the basic rules of the road when it comes to great power behavior. It is not that the UN itself is a binding force so much as the UNSC is an arena for competing geopolitical interests and ideological proclivities, and provides, as Richard K. Betts once described, a sort of out-of-court settlement to potential crises of great power relations.
However, the foundations of this arrangement, and the relative peace it brings, are not permanent. Indeed, the very attempts to strengthen it or reorganize it through the consolidation of the liberal international order or a league of democratic states may, in fact, undermine its foundations. So too would perpetuating or accelerating its most destabilizing flaws.
The desire to create a consensus around the legitimate use of power and authority is, in fact, self-defeating in the international arena. As in the Concert of Europe, the source of cooperation is not really a consensus on internal domestic values, nor an alliance or common institution per se. It is a respect for power, a general satisfaction with international systems, and a flexibility for internal domestic politics and foreign policy which prevents total hegemonic control.
Take the idea of a league of democracies. Besides the fallacious notion that governments of the same regime type automatically have shared interests – and a quick examination of Indian, South African, Turkish, and Brazilian views of U.S. foreign policy should show they do not – the creation of ideological blocs in a concert system means not a return to stable bipolarity, where two superpowers could try to keep their fellow traveling junior partners and clients in line, but imbalanced or tense multipolarity. Relying on democratic states to make up for the shortfall in U.S. capability is a dangerous strategy. On the one hand, framing a concert of democracies as a new ordering system will put further pressure on the U.S. to demonstrate its values by undertaking crusades or antagonizing non-democratic states in hopes of re-affirming its values and wider organization, and in the expectation that other democracies will feel similarly compelled to follow suit. It will also compel the U.S. to support other states simply because they seem more democratic, even if their interests are less consonant with ours than those of more authoritarian states.
This problem is also inherent in the argument for burden-sharing facilitated by enlightened self-interest as a way of extending U.S. hegemony’s lease on life. Burden-sharing relies upon the idea of a shared interest. But in reality, economic interdependence and common institutions do not really produce shared security interests in the same manner. The Balkans was a far more relevant security issue for Central and Eastern Europe than for the United States, and so was Libya for France. Currently, Syria is a much more pressing interest for the Sunni Gulf monarchies than for the U.S. too – but because burden sharing relies on a conception of an enlightened and reciprocal interest, the national interest is consequently internationalized. Yet that goodwill is not fungible. If a crisis more directly concerning U.S. interests were to erupt in East Asia, how useful would French support be? In one in South Asia, how useful would Central European support be? In one over Eastern Europe, how useful would the backing of the Gulf monarchies be?
The Concert of Europe was not based on burden-sharing so much as mitigation of conflicts. If the point of a new global concert system is to coalesce a new system around the U.S. and its allies, it will both entangle the United States into unnecessary conflicts and dangerously fracture the multipolar system into less flexible blocs. The inclination of many fearing U.S. decline has been attempts to revitalize alliances and seek multilateralism – but paradoxically, flexibility and unilateralism are often better guarantors of stability. Simply because an overseas threat is a concern does not mean that a large alliance bloc is the best way to deal with it, and any alliance based on the institutionalization of shared interests is inevitably going to exclude rival powers. Rather than cementing the divides, a Concert system would genuinely need to embrace the principle of power balancing – but the U.S. would have to be truly flexible.
At the same time, any variety of crusading ideology is bound to destabilize the concert. In the case of the 19th century, there were persistent fears of usurping powers – at first French revolution, and then the reactionary expansion of Holy Russia – destroying the basis of the international system. Russia is indeed an instructive example. Despite holding monarchical principles that were shared by other powers in the system – namely Prussia and Austria – the conversion of these principles into action outside the wider, ideologically diverse concert, particularly during 1848, struck fear into the relatively more liberal French and British. Indeed, the ideological principles Russia sought to coalesce a newer, more legitimate concert of states around proved incapable of papering over real disputes between Austria and Russia, while the targets of Russia’s ideological interventions triggered counteraction from Britain and France – at one point, British Orientalist contrasted reactionary Russian Orthodox ideology with that of the supposedly tolerant, potentially liberal Ottoman brand of Islamic governance. Interventions justified on narrowly or even incompletely shared values exacerbate rifts between great powers and create bonds between them that might otherwise not exist. In other words, to shore up the concert system and ensure the continuation of its stability, it is generally wiser to deal with the least-common ideological denominator and consider the mundane aspect of the balance of power, rather than try and construct a system from the top-down which tries to re-establish great power relations in an ideologically divisive context.
Concert systems tend to preserve the status quo and mitigate the shocks of its historical erosion. They succeed not when they enable the hegemony of a few of their members over the others, not when they provide an alliance bloc against peers, and not when they seek deep ideological connections, but when they prevent great powers’ attempts to implement these behaviors from destabilizing the system. The failure of the U.S. to create a league of democracies, a new multilateral alliance system, or cement the norms of R2P are not failures of this system, but triumphs which preserve the less glamorous and less appreciated peace that allow America and the world, despite its perceptions of threat and aggravation over the wretchedness of foreign regimes, to enjoy the greatest great power security in its history.