The Unipolar Concert: the North-South divide trumps transatlantic differences.

Author:Ayoob, Mohammed

An article in the New York Times on the eve of the 2004 U.S. presidential election began by asserting that the predominant view in Europe seemed to be that "no matter who wins ... the consequences for American-European relations will be bad" and that neither France nor Germany, the linchpins of the Continent's transatlantic relationship, would be willing to come to the aid of the United States in Iraq regardless of the outcome. (1) Analyses such as this one tend to portray America's relations with major European powers in one-dimensional terms. They assume everything hinges on Iraq and ignore the dense web of interlocking security and economic interests that bind industrialized Western Europe and America together. As Harvard's Jospeh S. Nye, Jr. has said in refuting the conservative political analyst Robert Kagan's assertion that when it comes to their approach to major strategic and international questions Europeans and Americans are from two different planets: "In their relations with each other all advanced democracies are from Venus." (2)

This commonality of interests was emphasized by Condoleezza Rice in her first trip abroad as secretary of state. Washington's relations with France and Germany had been severely strained by the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, and Rice was on a fence-mending mission. In a major foreign policy speech on February 8 in Paris, she declared, "History will surely judge us not by our old disagreements but by our new achievements." (3)

This essay suggests that although substantial changes to the international system have occurred since the end of the Cold War, the relationship among the industrial, affluent, powerful countries of the North basically has not been altered. This is because these relationships were only partly driven by the Soviet threat. They were driven as much, if not more, by the need to protect the interests of Western industrialized states vis-a-vis the majority of other states. It was recognized even during the Cold War era that potentially serious threats to the economic and security interests of the powerful and affluent countries could arise elsewhere, especially from the more recalcitrant, radical states in the South.

This assumed there was a "structural conflict" between North and South, and that this was likely to drive the states of the South to "gang up" on the North and use their numbers in international organizations to push through agendas deleterious to the interests of the industrialized powers. The Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner made this argument cogently and forcefully in 1985, when he advised the North to "disengage" as far as feasible from the South. He considered this essential to prevent the North's undue dependence, especially in the economic sphere, on a web of intertwining relationships with potential adversaries. (4)

The weakness of Krasner's analysis was that it attributed greater cohesion to Third World states than they possessed. He also overestimated their will and capacity to challenge the industrialized countries on issues vital to the latter. He did so because he ignored the vulnerabilities of individual postcolonial states, including the major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, and their consequent dependence in economic and security matters on the North. Such dependence gravely hampered the translation of their collective rhetoric into meaningful collective action. (5) Despite these shortcomings, Krasner's diagnosis that the interests of North and South diverged, and continue to diverge, in the economic and political arenas was not far off the mark.

From the perspective of the rich and the powerful, post--Cold War events have increased the saliency of challenges emerging from the South, whether in the form of political Islam (especially in its more extreme manifestations), "rogue" states engaged in clandestine proliferation activities, or forces that resist globalization in the economic as well as cultural spheres, perceiving it to be deleterious to their interests. A recent study sponsored by the Council of Foreign Relations and co-chaired by Henry Kissinger and Lawrence Summers concludes: "There is a consensus within the transatlantic community on the numerous challenges facing common interests. These include terrorism, authoritarianism, economic incompetence, environmental degradation, and the kind of misrule that exacerbates poverty, encourages discrimination, tolerates illiteracy, allows epidemics, and proliferates weapons of mass destruction." (6) This is a polite way of saying that the major threats to international order as conceived in the capitals of the North come from the South, particularly from those forces the major powers cannot control.

In truth, there are striking continuities between the Cold War and post--Cold War eras, especially in the political and economic relations between North and South. It is no coincidence, therefore, that NorthSouth relations are increasingly taking center stage in contemporary international affairs. The divisions between North and South are particularly evident in their differences over the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and humanitarian intervention, as well as over major economic issues relating to trade barriers, foreign investment, and questions of equity concerning intellectual copyright and patents.

Neatly dividing international relations into distinct phases often obscures an enduring continuum. The end of the Cold War did end competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the strategic arena. However, this by itself did not lead to a fundamental restructuring of international politics. Analysts of the post-Cold War era who argue that systemic change came about with the end of the superpower rivalry ignore the fact that today's key issues--i.e., globalization, multilateralism, and fundamentalism--have their roots in the Cold War and before. (7)

Structure and Process in the Global Order

Joseph Nye, in his book Understanding International Conflicts, writes of structure and process: "The structure of a system refers to its distribution of power, and the process refers to patterns and types of interaction among its units." (8) Logically, in order to explain the process by which states interact--whether they act multilaterally or unilaterally, or how they respond to economic or military pressures--it is necessary to understand the structure of the international system.

However, Nye's definition of structure is unduly restrictive if by the distribution of power he means only the allocation of capabilities among the major powers. Such a definition may suffice for neo-realists (and Nye cannot be counted among them), but it ignores the fact that the distribution of capabilities between the strong and the weak is as important as it is among the strong themselves. This is the case because this gap in capabilities determines in large measure the structural power that powerful states wield in particular areas as well as in the international system as a whole. It is the variable that explains the concentration of power as opposed to its mere distribution. It is essential to understand this phenomenon of concentration in order to comprehend the nature and degree of structural dominance in international society and its long-term consequences.

The current era is certainly different from the Cold War in that the United States is not only the most powerful state in the international system but that there is no credible challenger to its preeminence. Describing the current distribution of power as unipolar is, on its surface, not terribly problematic. (9) But every redistribution of power does not automatically lead states to discard the patterns of behavior that have existed beforehand. Furthermore, unlike earlier major changes, for example in the aftermath of the two world wars, the recent redistribution of power did not result from violent upheavals. The relatively peaceful transition from bipolarity to unipolarity has not resulted in major disruptions in patterns of state behavior, in existing alliance relationships, or in the rules and norms governing the system. Consequently, unlike the aftermath of the world wars, when new power relations and the rules governing them had to be established afresh, the transition to American unipolarity did not mean that the relationships developed during the prior 50 years suddenly disappeared.

The continuity is evident not only in the relationships among the states of the North, but also in North-South relations. Indeed, the end of the Cold War has made issues of North-South asymmetry more salient. The new vocabulary of post--Cold War analysis, which developed in American and European academia--emphasizing terms such as "globalization," "unipolarity," and "multilateralism," and the apparent tensions among them--may succeed in concealing these continuities, but analysts with a keen sense of history and sociology, not to mention economics, realize that in many spheres the post-Cold War era is the linear descendant of the...

To continue reading