You might be forgiven for expecting a resurgence of foreign policy idealism from Joe Biden’s presidency. Donald Trump’s erratic, transactional outlook and his coddling of autocrats has been replaced with a multilateralist president proclaiming “America is back”. Biden plans to hold a Summit for Democracy later this year. There is talk of transforming the G7 group of rich powers into a democracy-oriented D10 by adding South Korea, Australia and India. The “Quad” (the US, Japan, Australia, India) increasingly leads efforts to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. With China also growing closer to Russia, as recent military provocations towards Taiwan and Ukraine show, the divide in values seems stark.
Look more closely, though, and it seems just as likely that we are entering an age of foreign policy realism. In Europe, the EU is hedging its bets on China, and even Britain’s new Integrated Review of foreign and security policy strikes a nuanced tone. In the US, Biden’s announcement of the final withdrawal from Afghanistan reflects the end of nation-building and the war-weariness of the American electorate. An open-ended debate about the future of Pax Americana is under way: the dovish Quincy Institute is emerging as an engine room of US foreign policy thinking; Chinese naval manoeuvres are forcing awkward conversations about how far the US would go to defend Taiwan; on 30 March the old realist doyen himself, Henry Kissinger, warned that Washington-Beijing strains were the “biggest problem” for the world.
An important example of the neo-realism of the Biden era is the resurgent idea of a global concert of powers. Propounded by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, this takes inspiration from the European order brokered by the arch-realists Metternich, Castlereagh and Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the concert of Europe, established in 1815, the continent’s five major powers – Britain, Austria, France, Russia and Prussia – agreed to settle differences through consultation and restraint, respect each other’s sovereignty and uphold the territorial status quo. Three mostly peaceful decades followed.
The lesson, write Haass and Kupchan in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, is that “a steering group of leading countries can curb the geopolitical and ideological competition that usually accompanies multipolarity”. They propose a new concert of six players – the US, China, India, Russia, Japan and the EU – together representing roughly two-thirds of global wealth, military spending and greenhouse gas emissions. It would have a secretariat and headquarters, perhaps in Geneva or Singapore, to which each member would send a permanent representative. Through “sustained consultation and negotiation” among these core powers, the concert would line up agreements that would be formalised and executed through existing organisations such as UN agencies.
Some scepticism about this idea is due. The parallels between the world in 2021 and Europe in 1815 are limited, even tenuous. The post-Napoleonic concert worked because its participants were (broadly) comfortable with the geopolitical status quo, willing to subordinate smaller states to the collective will of big ones and galvanised by a common experience. Expansionist energies could be channelled into colonial ventures far from the old battlefields.
None of that particularly applies now. China and Russia are, to varying degrees, revisionist powers. Views about the rights due to smaller countries diverge. Ideological differences between democracies and autocracies are much greater than those between the liberal and reactionary tendencies of the old concert. And where that was underwritten by two half-detached hegemons, Britain and Russia, today’s hegemons (the US and China) are at the heart of the contests a concert would seek to manage.
And yet. The tilt towards realism is not taking place by chance. Recent years have provided ample evidence of the limitations of wishful thinking. Like it or not, the unipolar American moment is history, and the balance of global power is shifting. As the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, anarchic zones such as Syria and Yemen, and rising tensions like those in the Taiwan Strait all demonstrate, the degree of leadership, communication and coordination present in the global system does not remotely match the scale of interdependence and common problems. Add to that the vortex of social media and the pressure for leaders to react instantaneously, and the risks of runaway crises and breakdowns of communication are terrifying.
Haass and Kupchan are most convincing when they chart the chronic inadequacies of the existing global architecture. The UN is inclusive, but its permanent Security Council is hamstrung by vetoes. Both it and the G7 are unrepresentative of today’s distribution of power, as are new formations built around common values that exclude the likes of China. Like the G7, the G20 group is a sporadic, “fly-in, fly-out” talking shop whose anodyne memorandums often avoid difficult topics. The gap in the system for something like the proposed concert – permanent and frank dialogue between a small, manageable number of decisive powers – is painfully evident.
This is not to say a new concert should substitute the energy going into coordinating America’s allies, containing autocracy and reversing democratic recession. But in a world in which China’s rise is unavoidable, and in which the dearth of leadership might turn out to be the biggest global threat of all, a forum reflecting these realist imperatives can complement value-based efforts. And, rather than going back to Vienna, it could be one that goes forward to something reflecting the unmet needs of our time.
[see also: Is “Global Britain” losing its voice?]
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?