The future international system will be multipolar as today’s powerful nations decay from within. The forces responsible for their demise are baked into the current framework of governance.
China was economically successful and fought poverty – its regime has survived. In countries where state-driven industrialization was more elitist and less successful, new cultural or neo-populist forces emerged: in Southeast Asia, in the Arab world and in Latin America.
Only in Subsaharan Africa did the ruling classes opt for full cooperation with the West, often out of a lack of economic alternatives. In the rest of the world, the power for NGOs and transnational corporations – the two transnational arms of the hegemonic power of the West – is limited.
Secrecy and power politics
The rise of new powers is connected to the rise of states – unlike in the 1950s, when new powers arose from a global and transnational movement of states that did not fit into either the West or the Eastern Bloc. The large multi-ethnic empires of Latin America and Asia – China, India, Brazil – are continuously gaining influence. They resemble the system of balanced power that was set up at the Vienna Conference in 1815, with two crucial differences: The rising nations are content with their positions, they do not pursue an aggressive expansionist policy.
The German fear of these new powers is based on the historical memory of attempts to establish a system of hegemonic rule. But these attempts failed when they violated the basic tenets of a realist foreign policy that is driven – above all else – by self-interest. Dialogue with other nations only serves the purpose of minimizing transaction costs or of cementing the status quo. It is a game of power politics that is usually lost of those nations that lack power.
Internationally, we are entering a period of diplomacy and secrecy. The public debates about foreign policy mainly serve the purpose of manipulating the opinion of one’s opponents. They increase the leeway governments have to pursue policies of self-interest under the cover of noble rhetoric – just as they did during the heyday of imperialist expansion.
In a system of cooperating and competing states, reliability is key. Governments are interested in surviving (and in seeing stable partners survive) and have developed a modern-day equivalent to the family structures of the feudal system. Now, they respect “regional spheres of influence” and refrain from using military power against unruly allies. They have abandoned the idea that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The deployment of conventional troops is curbed by the importance of public opinion and by the tactics of guerilla movements that extract heavy casualties even from advanced militaries.
The impossibility of change
Small states do not oppose these developments. A democratically organized world oder under the auspices of the UN is not in their interest. Majority decisions against the big powers are less important to them than the protection of their sovereignty and alliances.
Conflicts arise, when different powers attempt to exert their influence on a region without a strong regional power. Because of the importance of oil money, all nations will prevent the rise of one Arab country above its neighbors. In Southeast Europe, the retreat of the former colonial powers from the Balkans left behind political structures that are reminiscent of 18th century Germany.
Taken together, these developments have two major consequences: The perpetuation of the status quo between sovereign states and the global solidarity of the ruling classes against political and societal change.