This year, Guernica celebrates its 10th anniversary as a free, online magazine of art & politics! As we prepare to launch into our second decade, we hope you'll consider making an end-of-year donation. Reader, you make this work possible.

Skip to Content

Share

Richard Falk: Toward a New Geopolitics?

August 21, 2012

Are we in the midst of a fundamental geopolitical shift?

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/225965762_b6db404658_z.jpeg
Image from Flickr via Ashitakka

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

During the Cold War the main geopolitical optic relied upon by policymakers and diplomats was associated with a bipolar structure of hard power. There were supposedly two superpowers with overwhelming military capabilities compared to all other sovereign states, and each controlled an alliance of subordinate states that staked their survival on the global crisis management and territorial containment skills of either the United States or the Soviet Union. This framework was an extreme version of the balance of power system that had sustained global order in the West with mixed results during prior centuries. The Cold War nuclear version of the balance of power was frighteningly vulnerable to accident or miscalculation, creating a lingering illusion that the current possession of nuclear weaponry on the part of nine sovereign states is a tolerable and stable situation in global affairs. This statist framework, evolving from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was partly based on the juridical idea of the equality of sovereign states while being fully responsive to the geopolitical facts of life that placed stress on the gross inequality of states. This dimension of inequality produced an historical succession of hierarchies in the relations among sovereign states,  quite often taking the form of regional and globe-girdling empires.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency.

The UN from its outset was a constitutional reflection of the Old Geopolitics, with the General Assembly organized according to the logic of sovereign equality while the Security Council incorporated inequality via the veto power conferred upon its five permanent members, who incidentally achieved this status because they were regarded as the main winners in World War II. These state soon justified their status by passing the new litmus test of hard power—that is, becoming the first five countries to acquire and stockpile nuclear weapons. The Old Geopolitics was built around the institutional practices of warfare: victory on the battlefield, superior weaponry and military capabilities relative to others, and levels of industrialization as a prime indicator of war fighting potential.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency. Still, the ideas and behavioral patterns of the Old Geopolitics persisted, but the new structure of power was redescribed by security specialists as “unipolar” with the organizing authority in the world now concentrated in the government of “the sole surviving superpower,” which Michael Mandelbaum, a respected international relations scholar, glorified as a virtual and benevolent “world government.”  It was a romanticized way of acknowledging that America’s hard power dominance of global scope and its projection of hard power to the far corners of the planet, on and under the oceans, and into space, was truly the first world state of global proportions. But it was not a Westphalian state, as its boundaries were geopolitically delimited rather than fixed territorially.
 
When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, a collective response was successfully organized by the United States at the UN, and its character reflected the operating procedures of this post-Cold War situation of unipolarity. At the time, this undertaking was rendered feasible by what the American president inappropriately called the “New World Order.” What George H.W. Bush clearly meant by the phrase was the capacity of the UN to act collectively in peace and security situations in accordance with Washington’s wishes, no longer gridlocked by the Cold War standoff. But this was not a genuine shift in the direction of collective security, the global rule of law, and an empowered United Nations. It became very clear as the response to the Iraqi aggression unfolded that it was nothing more dramatic than an enactment of a new phase of the Old Geopolitics, that is, interpreting world order priorities and security policy almost exclusively as an expression of the current distribution of hard power capabilities among states. In the 1990s the Old Geopolitics was dominated by the United States, and operationally administered from Washington, and continued despite the collapse of colonialism to be West-centric when it comes to the shaping of global security policy. In effect, the Old Geopolitics did not immediately register the momentous historical consequences for world order of the collapse of the colonial order that irreversibly weakened the relative position of the West.

THE EMERGENT NEW GEOPOLITICS

A number of developments on the global stage are suggesting that a New Geopolitics is indeed struggling to be born, although unable at this stage to challenge seriously the reign of the Old Geopolitics. The New Geopolitics is premised on the primacy of soft power criteria of influence and status, and is more universalistic and less statist in the composition of actors providing global leadership and influencing policy. The prominence accorded to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is one expression of a shift in the understanding of a more multi-polar structure of world order. The claims of these states to such an acknowledgement of first tier influence is not based on their military capabilities or the potency of their alliance affiliations, but is primarily associated with an economic rise that consists of their astonishing recent record of growing achievements in GNP, trade, investment, and financial settings. Such a trend is also being institutionally recognized in relation to economic globalization and a network of the industrialized leading states, with notable shifts from a Cold War Group of Seven, to an enlarged Group of Eight to accommodate Russia, and finally to the present Group of Twenty to incorporate into the dynamics of global economic policy formation a more globally representative group of states.  

Parallel to this evolution in relations among states have been efforts by private sector actors and civil society representatives to establish their own institutional arenas so as to put forward alternative policy agendas, promote interests and values, and indirectly erode the Westphalian notion that states, and only states, can be fully participating members of world order. The Davos World Economic Forum is one influential expression of a private sector initiative to shape global economic policy in a manner responsive to corporate and banking wish lists. In contrast the World Social Forum, held annually in a city somewhere in the global South, asserts people-oriented visions of a post-Westphalian world order and mounts sharp critiques of capital-oriented globalization.  

A striking example of New Geopolitics was the ad hoc realignment that took center stage in the closing days of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. It was there that the United States sought to circumvent unwieldy and uncongenial procedures involving 193 states by selecting the participants in a hegemonic coalition that consisted of itself, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It mission was to put before the conference a proposed consensual agreement to deal with the challenge of global warming. There was widespread resistance to this approach at Copenhagen, especially from the states that felt excluded by this maneuver and resented the clumsy effort to circumvent the agreed procedures that had been relied upon to prepare the negotiating documents for the Copenhagen conference. This statist backlash was centered in that part of the Old Geopolitics associated with the idea of the equality of states as the basis of legitimate multilateral lawmaking in the 21st century.

The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat.

In effect, this wider community of states, essentially the membership of the UN General Assembly, was unwilling to give assent to such a geopolitical coalition formed without their authorization and behind their back, despite the fact that for once it was not West-centric. Part of the objection was due to a perception of shifty backroom politics that demeaned the hard work of a UN inclusive statist effort to find global common ground on climate change, and partly it was an unwillingness to go along with the proposed shift in climate change policy from the mandatory emission reductions associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the proposed voluntary system of governmental pledges that was contained in the Copenhagen Accord presented to the Copenhagen Conference by the American president. At the same time, the hierarchical side of the Old Geopolitics was strong enough to avoid a direct repudiation of the Copenhagen Accord, which was presented to the assembled delegates at the last minute as a matter of “this or nothing.” Clearly, these governmental representatives preferred to go home with the Accord, however annoyed they were by its process and content, than to return to their capitals empty handed.

There is much graffiti on the walls of the Old Geopolitics, and it signals a gradual and partial loss of historical control. The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat. This amounted to a radical reversal of the experience of conflict during the colonial era, in which hard power realities shaped, usually with minimal effort, the outcomes of political conflict to the advantage of Europe. This enhancement of soft power stature was reinforced up to the present moment by a series of failed wars undertaken by the United States in particular. From the outcome of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s to the recent winless withdrawals of the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that hard power superiority, even total military dominance, is no longer able to reach desired political outcomes in violent conflicts at acceptable costs. In other words, relying on the staple currency of the Old Geopolitics, military power, seems recently to bring frustration and defeat, not victory as of old. These outcomes discredit and infuriate the geopolitical leaders, but rather than adapt to changed circumstances, these governments struggle to find new battlefield tactics and weaponry to satisfy their traditions strategic ambitions and somehow demonstrate anew that military superiority (rather than law or justice) serves the world as the arbiter of international conflicts. The aged architects of the Old Geopolitics for a variety of reasons are unable to learn from failure, and so the cycle of war and frustration goes on and on with disastrous human results.

Reinforcing these developments, and their interpretation, was the earlier impact of nuclear war on the conduct of international relations. Nuclear weaponry, the Omega point in the Old Geopolitics, actually had the paradoxical effect of excluding hard power solutions from political struggles between principal geopolitical rivals, radically modifying the emphasis on grand strategy in the direction of war prevention and deterrence, so as to avoid the mutual disaster of nuclear warfare. Even in military conflicts waged in non-Western settings on the geographic periphery of the Old Geopolitics, which constituted the proxy wars between East and West during the Cold War, there was a restraining fear. There were worries that such conflicts as the Korean War and Vietnam War might unintentionally escalate if it was allowed to approach the nuclear threshold. Such concerns interfered with entrenched belligerent habits of the Old Geopolitics that had long been preoccupied with winning wars rather than settling for stalemates and ceasefires. 

As a telling sign of the emergence of the New Geopolitics now defining contemporary strategic goals, Brazil is far more interested in acquiring a permanent seat in the Security Council than becoming a member of the nuclear weapons club. Such a shift in great power aspirations has long characterized the global ambitions of the main losers in World War II. Germany and Japan were enabled by their defeat and destruction to learn the lessons of a transformed world setting far better than did the winners. Perhaps it was enforced learning, as their post-war policy options were restricted by coercive occupations that installed governments that would not revive their past militarist behavior. At present such rising political actors as Turkey and Indonesia seem more concerned with gaining recognition by winning diplomatic battles to land prestigious posts in the United Nations System than they do in acquiring the latest weapons systems or embarking on expansionist military adventures. Turkey, in particular, has gained greatly enhanced stature by pioneering what might be called “compassionate geopolitics,” engaging with Somalia at a time when it was discarded as “a failed state” by the United States. Turkey has stepped in to a chaotic internal situation, and embarking on a major joint state-building venture that seems to have made unexpected and significant gains to date. Turkey has also come in difficult circumstances to the economic and diplomatic rescue of the abused Muslim Arakan minority in distant Myanmar.

SOFT POWER AND THE NEW GEOPOLITICS

Two crucial tendencies are evident: soft power achieves the most important gains for a society seeking to accelerate its development and raise its status on the global stage of diplomacy; hard power is increasingly frustrated when tested by determined nationalist forces, even those with seemingly modest military capabilities. These factors are given greater historical weight by several other considerations. The greater complexity associated with globalization has created new political spaces that are being filled in various ways by both civil society representatives and private sector actors.  Such patterns of participation exert strong pressure to move the New Geopolitics toward more peaceful and less war oriented standard operating procedures. The civil society vision of the New Geopolitics inclines strongly in the transformative direction of Global Democracy, making all institutions of governance subject to the imperatives of transparency, accountability, stakeholder participation, rule of law, and attention to the human interest/global justice/climate change diplomacy. A first institutional step toward Global Democracy could involve the establishment of a Global Parliament that would directly represent people, not governments.
 
In effect, we have two models of the New Geopolitics:
 

  • Minimal Model envisions the persistence of a state-centric world order that is de-Westernized and more inclusive, determining status by  a greater reliance on soft power criteria of status and influence, trending toward nonviolent geopolitics, but at the same time continuing to be dominated by a few state actors and remains responsive to the prescriptions and values of neoliberal globalization;
  • Maximal Model is dedicated to institutions and practices that rely upon nonviolent geopolitics, establishing by stages Global Democracy, while reorienting Economic Globalization in relation to sustainable development by putting people and earth first, and giving an equitable priority to those most vulnerable and deprived when it comes to the allocation of public resources.

 

We live at a perilous historical moment. The Old Geopolitics is relying on hard power regardless of cost or risk, and unable and unwilling to heed experience, while the New Geopolitics is struggling with the torments of infancy and growing pains.

At this point, global politics is in a transitional phase. The Old Geopolitics has certainly not disappeared, as is evident from the war dangers that remain in the world’s main conflict zones, but it is also rarely capable of translating its preferences into desired outcomes. At some point, hopefully short of global catastrophe, strategic failure in warfare will produce a turn, even in Washington, toward the New Geopolitics. In the interim the prospects are not encouraging, including perhaps the menacing last hurrah of global militarism, its practices and technological innovations that are rapidly turning the world into a borderless and terrorized war zone. The Old Geopolitics fashioned a dysfunctional set of responses to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. These devastating attacks posed a problem that could not be effectively addressed in the customary manner of the Old Geopolitics, that is, by a reliance on hard power–waging wars against distant countries as if the adversary was a series of territorial sovereign states rather than a non-territorial network of political extremists.  In this regard, the threats posed by such anti-system forces of resistance can only be successfully neutralized if a primary reliance is placed upon soft power methods of response. These methods must include the identification of legitimate grievances that induced recourse to such desperate violent political behavior in the first place. To harden territorial boundaries to protect the homeland against hostile encroachment while engaging in a series of failing and bankrupting wars around the world is an almost certain recipe for authoritarian rule at home and intensifying intensifying insecurity elsewhere.

THE OLD GEOPOLITICS PERSISTS

In this regard, we live at a perilous historical moment. The Old Geopolitics is relying on hard power regardless of cost or risk, and unable and unwilling to heed experience, while the New Geopolitics is struggling with the torments of infancy and growing pains. The minimal model of the New Geopolitics is itself not yet sufficiently clear about how to reconcile national interests with human interests, and so does little to arrest the drift toward ecological catastrophe, systemic shock by systemic shock. The maximal model of the New Geopolitics has not established deep enough political roots to set forth, much less enact, its agenda of Global Democracy, and thus cannot challenge the Old Geopolitics or shape the New Geopolitics. At this point, we need to encourage the utopian imagination, and begin the hard work of initiating the hard political project of transition to the New Geopolitics.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring illustrates this clash between the old and the new. The rise of the people in country after country in the region reflected an attachment to the ideals and practices of substantive democracy. The unexpected regionalization of this challenge gave a glimpse of a new transformative politics, including distrust of military and police methods of sustaining public order and opposition to Western manipulations to control from without and within. The bloodthirsty backlash of regimes, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and to some extent, Egypt, manifested the resilience and cruel harshness of hard power tactics of governance, and their purpose of ensuring the counter-revolutionary restoration of the Old Geopolitics.

Whether the Libyan intervention should be seen primarily as a Western reversion to Old Geopolitics or some kind of amalgam of Old and New, with the Gulf countries and the UN enlisted as partners in liberating a people from cruel tyranny, will remain a matter of controversy and uncertainty for years to come. Similarly, with Syria, whether to consider the external moves for and against the Assad regime in Damascus as expressions of the New Geopolitics or some toxic blend of new and old is difficult to discern given the complexities and unknowns of this ongoing bloody struggle that is a blend of a cynical proxy war and bitter internal struggle for state power. Popular support for the idea of protecting a vulnerable people against the crimes against humanity of a vicious governmental regime can be understood from the perspective of human solidarity, an aspect of the maximal model of the New Geopolitics. In contrast, military intervention by external actors with a variety of suspect strategic motives and the use of interventionary weaponry that is likely to magnify the violence, is clearly in the spirit of the Old Geopolitics.
 
There are no signs at present that the New Geopolitics in either of its main variants will soon replace the Old Geopolitics, but there is plenty of evidence of a sharpening tension between these two main modes of sustaining security and development in the early 21st century. We can expect a gradual discrediting from within of the main centers of Old Geopolitics, but as such a process gains leverage, it is almost certain to produce the opposite effect—a tightening of control at home, and an intensification of military operations abroad, exactly the pattern being enacted in the United States by successive presidents from both main political parties in response to the 9/11 attacks. And within the domain of the New Geopolitics it is likely that there will be a parallel intensification of tension as the minimalists seek realignment without attending to social and economic inequities, while the maximalists insist on the long march to Global Democracy but lack sufficient transnational mobilizing traction to move their endeavor very far.
 
The Chinese proverb is correct in its chilling reminder that “it is a curse to live in interesting times,” but given the changing historical experiences with warfare, the growing sense of great ecological hazard, and the strengthening attachment to global justice agendas, maybe just this once, the fascinations of our age will turn out to be “a blessing.”

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

One comment for Richard Falk: Toward a New Geopolitics?

  1. Comment by steve on August 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    ummm – the invention of soft power starts with the US. You can go to any God-forsaken part of the planet and find a Levis, a McDonalds, and a Coke. As for the 9/11 responses, you automatically forfeit credibility by suggesting that grievances prior to the attack is what caused the attack – as if the attack was justified by US policy. US policy? Got rid of the god-less Soviets and served as the largest aid donor to Afghanistan during the 1990’s. Germany and Japan learned the lessons of WWII better than the victors? Those countries, like most of Western Europe, their entire existence was predicated on US largesse, direct aid, loans, free trade access to US markets, and Marshall Plan-styled assistance for 50 years. Compounded with NO defense expenditures allowing for a social welfare state to evolve freely, easily, and cheaply, while the US defended the globe. The BRICS benefit from the system created and protected by the US. Russia specifically brings nothing of value to the market, and like petro-staets, lives off of natural resources. Be careful what you wish for, the decline of US preponderance will result in a very messy world indeed.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting