The Unsung Concert?

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. Continue reading