Towards Global Instability?

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Last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked its leading international affairs experts an intriguing question: "Every day seems to bring more bad news as global instability rages on. But is the level of turmoil really unique? Or does it just feel like it?" (Their brief responses can be read here, under the title "Is the World Falling Apart?" )

It will take years before the current global situation can be properly contextualized and interpreted. In his response, Carnegie's Thomas Carothers argued that the multitude of ongoing conflicts (Israel-Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, South Sudan, Central African Republic, etc.) seem to

underline the continued diffusion of power away from the United States to other actors, whether to different regional powers or to nonstate actors. They remind us that such diffusion will multiply the sources of violent conflict in the world.

This claim is popular (particularly in the United States), but it is not entirely clear whether any of the currently ongoing conflicts would be less acute if we still lived under uncontested US-led unipolarity. Amitav Acharya, for example, accuses liberals for often falsely assuming a simple equation between US-American preponderance and peace. After all, the international community witnessed considerable violence and conflict in the 1990s (Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Caucasus and the DRC, etc.) despite global US leadership. Unipolarity certainly makes systemic wars less likely than multipolarity, but the question of polarity seems to have little influence on second order conflicts such as the ones we are witnessing today. There is of course no consensus on this issue, and some scholars, such as Nuno Monteiro, even argue that we are not witnessing the end of unipolarity at all.

Carothers second argument, however, is less controversial and perhaps even more important. Carothers writes that current conflicts are "a sober tonic for anyone who started to believe that military force was somehow on its way out in international relations." Despite Amitav Acharya's point that multipolarity may lead to greater international cooperation, there is no substantial theory that suggests that the end of unipolarity will lead to a reduction of armed conflict. Steven Pinker may be right that, seen from a long-term perspective, the world is becoming more peaceful, but that holds little tangible value when predicting the frequency of war in the coming years and decades.

This has important implications for emerging powers that are seeking to build a more equitable global system and to strengthen their presence in the debates about the greatest global challenges. These challenges will, to a significant degree, be security-related, and a country's capacity to project leadership will depend on its willingness to meaningfully engage with them and offer credible and innovative solutions. Put differently, a country that continuously seeks to stay clear of complex security questions will not be able to make a convincing case that it deserves a more prominent position in global institutions such as the UN Security Council.

This does not mean that emerging powers such as India and Brazil should start intervening militarily around the world to underline their leadership claims - far from it. Engagement with international security issues can take many more constructive forms - ranging from the regular participation in high-level security conferences (such as the yearly Munich Security Conference that Brazil missed in February 2014), sponsoring relevant resolutions at the UN, taking a lead in delivering humanitarian aid, offering to send elections monitors and mediators, building a strong and continuous diplomatic presence at the UN in New York to advancing the debate about how conflicts can be prevented more effectively through the promotion of economic development.

Sometimes this type of engagement is cheap (such as Brazil's 2011 RwP proposal, which figures among Rousseff's most important international initiatives during her first term), yet in general it requires reliable on-the-ground knowledge to quickly develop smart and effective policies. That, in turn, requires, as argued before, a large diplomatic network in hotspots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.

It is certainly no coincidence that countries such as Germany, which completely avoided complex security-related choices until the late 1990s, are today increasingly engaged, with troops in Afghanistan and a vivid debate about whether to send weapons to the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Germany also organizes the world's leading yearly conference on global security challenges.

The challenge for policy makers in New Delhi, Brasília and Beijing is to show that they are capable of making a tangible contribution to dealing with the multitude of ongoing conflicts. Unless emerging powers leave their mark in the global discussion about international security, their calls for a more democratic global order will ring hollow.

This does not mean giving in to the United States' calls for "irresponsible stakeholders" to "step up to the plate". Such calls from U.S. foreign policy makers are often empty rhetoric because they falsely assume that "responsible stakeholders" automatically align with the US. Yet US reaction to emerging power leadership (such as Brazil's attempt to reach a nuclear agreement in Tehran) made it clear that the United States establishment does not feel comfortable with allowing others to take the lead. As Dingding Chen rightly points out, "it is not at all clear whether the US really wants China to share more international responsibility in the security realm, particularly when it comes to sending troops overseas."

Regarding action concerning international security, India (as a major peacekeeper) and Brazil (as a leader of peacekeeping troops in Haiti) are making growing contribution. At the same time, China is turning into the most active of the three. For example, Zhong Jianhua, China's special representative on African Affairs, has played an increasingly important role in the conflict in Sudan. It was first time China has been so proactive in addressing a foreign crisis. China's mediation experience remains limited and the extent and depth of its involvement in trying to resolve the South Sudan crisis shows that it is not a top priority for Beijing. After all, respect for sovereignty remains at the heart of China's foreign policy and Beijing is keen to avoid being seen as interfering.

Yet Beijing's typically reserved diplomacy will have to keep pace with its growing business interests across Africa - the same applies to Brazil and India. China's weight as an investor in South Sudan gives it extra leverage to defuse tension there. "This is a challenge for China. This is something new for us ... It is a new chapter for Chinese foreign affairs...the need to expand China's foreign policy footprint and protect its interests are both driving China's more assertive presence in South Sudan" says the 63-year-old veteran diplomat.

When it comes to solving tough security challenges, it becomes clear that today's global order is still fundamentally unipolar. It is thus natural to look to the U.S. when the trouble arises. And yet, there is a growing notion that precisely when it comes to security issues, we can no longer solve global challenge by merely relying on one country's wisdom. It is in this area, more than in any other, that new actors must contribute to finding meaningful solutions.

Read also:

Book review: “The End of American World Order” by Amitav Acharya

The Case against Brazil’s Retrenchment

Is Brazil abandoning its global ambitions?

Photo credit: AFP/AFP