Multipolarity, Syria and a New Concert

Dan Trombly had, as he often does, an interesting blog post the other day on the possibility of a new concert. Not one with Bruce Springsteen, but rather a global concert of great powers akin to the 19th century Concert of Europe, where nation-states acted by a set of unwritten rules to maintain peace (this came in response to a previous post by Dan Nexon over at the Duck of Minerva). The shadows of Libya and Syria veritably loom over the text as the discussions of intervention and R2P (Responsibility to Protect) have stirred up an interesting debate on the role of norms in international relations. The overarching question seems to be, should the international community (a terribly fuzzy term, and usually code for the United States and Western Europe) intervene in other states to prevent genocide and other atrocities, couched in the R2P framework? I don’t want to get into this larger debate here, but instead look at the larger issue of a concert or cartel in the international system.

If Nexon is right and that there is a post-Cold War concert system in place, and not just a balance of power, the R2P debate could possibly be very important. Any concert would be based on some set of principles of behavior based on mutually accepted interdependence, and adding additional norms (especially ones anchored in strict morality) has the potential of fraying the bonds holding this concert together. The international system is already seen (correctly) as based on western, specifically U.S. values, and designed to uphold U.S. hegemony (partially correct). Any further skewing of that system towards the U.S. perspective would be risky, particularly because we are moving, though quite slowly, towards a multipolar world. The assumption that western liberal values are universal might hold on the individual level, but we do know with certainty that it does not hold on the political level. We can argue that given a large enough timeline all states will embrace western liberal values due to the inevitability of democracy, but that is speculation and unhelpful for our discussion. Instead, we are faced with the situation that some rising powers have a different political make-up that is in direct opposition to the principles of R2P. This is not simply because they disagree with the importance of human rights, but because they value sovereignty above all else. The most important example here is China. It would be have to be part of any concert for it to be meaningful, yet its views on R2P specifically, and sovereignty generally, means its perceived strategic interests are in direct opposition to any extension of norms on behavior in the direction of humanitarian ideals. When discussing any extension of norms of behavior in the international system such differences must be taken into account, otherwise it becomes an exercise in wishful thinking.

I remain deeply skeptical of the prospect of R2P somehow becoming a new norm and Libya being the first of several interventions, but the call for change highlights the existing regime of international behavior. To be clear, I am not arguing that should there be an intervention in Syria, however unlikely, it will have any discernible effect on the international system in the short to medium term. Any reaction will come slowly and in response to a fundamental shift in norms, not because of a single case. But the West can only push the agenda for so long before it causes a reaction. China can choose to find accommodation with the West, but acquiescing to some grand expansion of the UNSC’s purpose and evisceration of Article 2(4) of the UN charter seems rather implausible, and potentially dangerous.

A decision by the Chinese, or other potential rivals, to challenge the existing international system would depend on various calculations, including the cost and viability of such a challenge. This is an abstract discussion, but it does allude to a larger question of whether international norms of behavior will be affected by the change from a unipolar to a multipolar system. Richard Weitz made a good point recently on China and the United Nations Security Council in the context of sanctions against Syria:

In the end, China may need to agree to at least some punitive measures or other UN action just to keep the Security Council the main institutional player in the Syrian issue. Within the Council, China enjoys the unique privilege of being able to veto U.S. and other countries’ policies towards Syria. If decisions are taken elsewhere, such as in the NATO and EU headquarters in Brussels, or unilaterally by Washington, than Beijing’s influence is much less.

This nuance is important. China’s persistent obstruction to aggressive measures in the UNSC is often seen as opposition to the system, but in fact the country is a stakeholder in the current system and has real interests in maintaining it. A veto in the UNSC is a powerful tool, though a negative one, and as such China is perhaps more invested in the status quo than the United States. It likes that the notion of state sovereignty is strongly entrenched in the international system, despite current U.S. dominance. However, the growing debate over R2P and the intervention in Libya could change that system and threaten whatever post-Cold War concert may exist. As Trombly points out:

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.

I will leave the empirics to Trombly, as he has a better grasp of history than me, but I would like to add something on the normative part of his argument. The discussion over R2P reminds me of neoconservativism and wars of choice. Leaving aside the ethical issue of using force to institute subjectively positive change, establishing a new norm of foreign policy based on a self-defined “goodness” is inherently risky. One can argue that in theory Operation Iraqi Freedom could have had very positive effects for the Iraqi people and the region had the execution only been better. It certainly didn’t, which goes to show that good intentions (I realize this is a debatable issue on the Bush administration) are rarely enough to make positive change. They are also difficult to measure and maintain. One of the most commonly repeated criticisms of R2P is, “if you invade X, what about Y?” This is because intentions tend to be the victim of circumstances, chance and the whimsy of decision makers. When formulating predictable and robust foreign policy, those characteristics do not exactly encourage stability in an anarchical system.

Following on this argument, one could make the case that in the case of Syria China is the actor trying to maintain stability. This is not new or revelatory; China’s foreign policy is anchored in realpolitik. But China’s penchant for supporting the status quo does not mean it is a status quo actor. Rather, China is supporting the status quo for two reasons: (1) the alternative would be worse, and (2) it does not have the means to change the system. The first point is only relevant in this parochial context, but the second has far more serious implications. If John Mearsheimer is right, that there is no such thing as a status quo great power, China is simply waiting for its power to grow before molding the international system to its liking.

If and when the unipolar moment passes, the greatest legacy of the United States might be the post-Cold War concert Nexon talks about—a concert founded on a set of norms of behavior based on the assumption of mutual interdependence painted in a liberal western light. The danger is that the R2P proponents could be seen as overreaching to ensure an even more liberally based system is put in place before the realists in Beijing take over. Any hope of a continued concert would be thoroughly diminished by such actions and confirm suspicious about western ambitions of cultural and political domination.

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