"Changes Afoot on the Diplomatic Stage"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
February 25, 2007
Author: Seyom Brown, Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program, 2006-2007
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
POLICY ANALYSTS in Cambridge and policy wonks in Washington are all astir , trying to ascertain whether the anti-US rhetoric by President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a conference in Munich was mainly for his home audience or signaled a resurgent rivalry with the United States.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, asserting that "one Cold War was quite enough," wisely resisted a shouting match. Putin and company, despite their tough talk about developing new offensive missiles in response to US plans for missile defenses on the soil of NATO's East European members, have no stomach to renew an arms race or compete directly with the United States for allies around the world.
What could indeed work to America's disadvantage is the fact that Moscow, ahead of Washington, has come to comprehend a key fact: The world is becoming a polyarchy — an international system run by numerous and diverse actors with a shifting kaleidoscope of associations and dependencies. In its diplomacy, Russia has adapted to this change; more significant than Putin's abrasive language in Munich was his sojourn around the Middle East after the conference to take advantage of the new realities.
The emerging order is neither unipolar nor a multipolar system of rival great powers. The significant actors in the new polyarchy are not only the nation-states of great military and economic endowments, but smaller states, nonstate and transnational actors, as well as various regional and global institutions, some with a degree of supranational authority.
The cross-pressures to which countries are subject in the evolving polyarchic system make for fickle friendships and fickle adversary relationships. Today's partner may be tomorrow's opponent; allies on one issue may be adversaries on another subject.
The Cold War system assumed a high degree of congruence between primary security communities, trading blocs, and ideological coalitions. But world society today features a good deal of incongruence. NAFTA partners Canada, Mexico, and the United States are at odds over how to deal with difficult countries in the hemisphere, such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia.
Many of the NATO countries split with the United States on Iran and Israeli-Palestinian issues. South Korea is closer to China than to the United States and Japan on how to respond to North Korea's nuclear weapons. Even the closest American political ally, Britain, is at odds with Washington over the International Criminal Court, global warming, and the schedule for military disengagement from Iraq.
Putin's visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss the marketing of natural gas and sell Russian-made weapons reflect the Kremlin's pragmatic adaptation to the emergent polyarchy. So too does its continuing arms trade and oil deals with India, which neither country has devalued despite the growing relationship between Washington and New Delhi.
Meanwhile, China is intensifying its aid, investments, and participation in infrastructure projects in Africa and Latin America — and applying no ideological litmus test on the recipients. This approach also shows flexibility in a changing world. Indeed, countries large and small are catching on to the fact that one's bargaining assets are enhanced by a diversification of dependency relationships.
Only belatedly does the Bush administration seem to be recognizing that the "either you're with us or you're against us" dichotomy that it promoted after Sept. 11 , 2001, goes against the grain of post-Cold War realities.
The United States needs to revise some of its misconceptions about how countries will react to American assertions of supremacy.
In the years ahead, countries will be less likely either to "bandwagon" with the United States or to "balance" against it. Some governments will jump aboard the US bandwagon, to avoid alienating the superpower and gain the benefit of its support against local or internal enemies. But most will recognize that bandwagoning weakens their bargaining power, and, as Tony Blair discovered, can undermine their legitimacy with their constituents. On the other hand, opposing the United States head-on can result in high material costs. So countries are more likely to balk — to take determined postures of non alignment; to try diversionary ploys of bringing in other parties or issues; to condemn US imperiousness, sometimes in irritating ways; or to simply refuse to go along. But policy makers should not confuse balking with belligerent balancing. To do so could easily escalate tough bargaining encounters into dangerous confrontations.
Seyom Brown, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, is author of the forthcoming book "The Higher Realism."
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