New fault lines in international relations

Bridge Global Divides 

New fault lines signal rising geopolitical risks 

Brahma Chellaney

Times of India,  January 28, 2008

Davos: In the World Economic Forum meeting of top political, business, intellectual and civil-society leaders, the discussions centred on a range of major international challenges — from new threats to the growing strains on water and other resources. But the discussions also brought home the point that at a time of ongoing shifts in economic and political power, greater international divisiveness is making it more difficult to build a consensual approach on the pressing challenges. 

            Indeed, new fault lines and global divides are emerging. Major shifts in power, as history testifies, are rarely quiet. They usually create volatility in the international system, even if the instability is relatively short-lived. The new divisiveness may reflect such a reality. But unlike in past history, the qualitative reordering of power now underway is due not to battlefield victories or military realignments but to a factor unique to the modern world: rapid economic growth.

            The power shifts are linked to Asia’s phenomenal economic rise, the speed and scale of which has no parallel in history. Asia already has emerged as the world’s main creditor and economic locomotive. That development is helping alter equations, with the IMF in perceptible decline and troubled US and European financial institutions turning to Asia and the Middle East for bailouts. 

            While we know the world is in transition, we still do not know what the new order would look like. That has also contributed to the divisiveness. The ongoing shifts signify not only a world characterized by greater distribution of power, but also new uncertainties. Technological forces today are playing a greater role in shaping geopolitics than at any other time in history.

            The more the world changes, however, the more it remains the same in some critical aspects. The information age and globalization, despite spurring profound changes in polity, economy and security, have not altered the nature of international relations. In fact, the rapid pace of technological and economic change is itself a consequence of nations competing fiercely and seeking relative advantage in an international system based largely on national security.  

  For example, the tensions between internationalism and nationalism in an era of a supposed single “global village” raise troubling questions about international peace and stability. With greater public awareness from advances in information and communications technologies encouraging individuals and even some states to more clearly define their identity in terms of religion and ethnicity, a divide is emerging between multiculturalism and artificially enforced monoculturalism. The rise of international terrorism indeed shows that the information age is both an integrating and dividing force.

            The emerging political, economic and security divides are no less invidious. The world is moving beyond the North-South divide to a four-tier economic division: the prosperous West; rapidly growing economies like those in Asia; countries that have run into stagnation after reaching middle-income nation status; and a forgotten billion people living on the margins of globalization in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also a resource divide, with the resource-hungry employing aid and arms exports as a diplomatic instrument for commodity outreach. As the spectre of resource conflict has grown, the contours of a 21st-century version of the Great Game have emerged. 

            In modern history, the fault line between democrats and autocrats has at times been papered over through a common geopolitical interest. But today the failure to build greater political homogeneity by defining shared international objectives carries the risk that, in the years ahead, political values could become the main geopolitical dividing line. Also, with the rise of unconventional transnational challenges, a new security divide is mirrored both in the failure to fashion a concerted and effective international response to such threats, including terrorism, and the divisiveness on issues like climate change.

           There is clearly a need to improve global geopolitics by building cooperative political approaches that transcend institutions whose structure is rooted in a world that no longer exists. The reality is that just as the G-8, to stay relevant, has initiated the so-called Outreach for dialogue with the emerging powers, the five unelected yet permanent members of the Security Council can no longer dictate terms to the rest of the world and need to share executive authority with new powers.      

            It was a mistake to believe that greater economic interdependence by itself would improve geopolitics. In today’s market-driven world, trade is not constrained by political differences, nor is booming trade a guarantee of moderation and restraint between states. Better politics is as important as better economics. That in turn calls for several major steps whose initiation so far has sought to be frustrated: institutional reforms, greater transparency in strategic doctrines and military expenditures, and cooperative approaches on shared concerns. No international mission today can yield enduring results unless it comes with consistency and credibility and is backed by consensus — the three crucial Cs.

          With Davos attracting 27 heads of state, 113 cabinet ministers, 74 of the top 100 global companies’ CEOs and 2,300 other delegates this year, the unique forum can help promote innovative thinking. Davos’s central message is that silo thinking can only increase global geopolitical risks at a time of greater fluidity and financial volatility. 

            The writer was on the faculty of the just-concluded World Economic Forum meeting.

© The Times of India, 2008

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