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Centre of gravity shifting

BY HENRY A. KISSINGER (Kissingerspeak) / 2 November 2004

WHEN the history of these times is written, it may well be that the headlines of the day — Iraq and the controversies it has aroused — will pale in comparison to other tectonic international upheavals that mark our period. The centre of gravity of world affairs is moving to the Pacific, and almost all major actors on the international stage are defining new roles for themselves.

That transformation is about concepts as much as about power.

Relations with Europe are an example. Differences over Iraq are serious and substantive — even as both sides are seeking to narrow the gap. But a more fundamental cause is structural and even philosophical: the progressive erosion of the European nation state, which has been the foundation of international politics and the focus of political loyalties since the seventeenth century. European leaders spend more time on issues of European unification than any other. And these issues involve not traditional diplomacy but highly esoteric constitutional arrangements. Because the historic rivalries of Europe have been civilised into a domestic consensus, European diplomats seek to apply their new domestic experience in the international arena. They insist that resort to military force is legitimate only if sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

The proposition that the alliance involves no special obligations would have sent shivers down the spines of European statesmen had America applied it to the Berlin crisis during the Cold War. By contrast, America remains a traditional nation state, insistent on sovereign freedom of action. Europe, even as it embraces American pop culture, almost subconsciously edges towards identifying itself politically with what is not American. In the absence of an as-yet-to-be defined European national interest, these non-state attitudes towards international relations are becoming deeply embedded in European public opinion. Confirmed Atlanticists are increasingly troubled by whether the non-state aspect of European unification can ever be again fully reconciled with the experience of a country driven by state concepts or with a concept of alliance as traditionally conceived.

Paradoxically, the structural estrangement of America from Europe is taking place at the moment when the centre of gravity of international politics is shifting to Asia, where relations have been far less confrontational. Countries like Russia, China, Japan and India still view the nation as does the United States and as did European states prior to World War II. To them, geopolitics is not anathema; it is the basis of their internal analysis and their external actions. The concept of national interest still rallies public and leadership opinion. The balance of power affects their calculations, notably in their relations with each other.

Because their perceptions of their national interest are so comparable to ours, Russia, China, India and Japan have had far less fractious relations with America than some European allies. Though they reject what they consider hegemonical aspects of American policy, they do so on a case-by-case basis via traditional diplomacy and generally prefer a strategic dialogue to a test of will. To these countries, Iraq is not litmus of American moral fitness to lead but of American endurance in pursuit of strategic insights. It affects their judgment about America’s reliability as a partner and our capacity to achieve our goals. For each of these countries has an interest, at a minimum, in averting an American defeat in Iraq: India because of its large Muslim population; Russia because of its fear of turmoil in its southern flank abutting the Middle East; Japan because of its continued stake in a strong America and the American alliance during its period of transition; China because it believes that a partnership with America is the best road to a decade of stability.

All the countries involved are redefining their identities. Russia, returned to frontiers it has not known since Peter the Great, finds decolonisation involving countries at its borders particularly painful. To give up imperial rule and rely on cooperative relationships runs counter to Russian historical experience. Russians are bound to ask themselves the nagging question: if we are not an empire, what are we?

Russia is facing traumatic choices: redefining its relations to what it calls the near-abroad — the former republics, especially to the west and south; the proximity of a dynamic China; the relative emptiness of its Siberian space; the future of the energy resources of Central Asia, around which what the nineteenth century was called the great game between Russia, China, India and America is restarting. America can play a constructive role by permanent dialogue sensitive to Russia’s concerns without acquiescing in all of Russia’s answers to them. China’s emergence as a great power — and a potential superpower — is already a principal element in shifting the international centre of gravity to Asia. As China reinterprets the ideological premise of its revolution, the temptation of nationalism may become a substitute endowing the issue of Taiwan with a profoundly symbolic aspect.

China seems to have made a decision for an extended period of cooperation. The opportunity must be used to lift the relationship above the tactical and to encourage in a new generation of leaders a sense of compatibility between American and Chinese long-range purposes. The issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea is a good example of the need for a long-range approach.

Perhaps the most complex transition is taking place in Japan. For half a century after its defeat in World War II, Japan, sheltered under a bilateral security treaty with the US, concentrated with characteristic self-discipline on its economic recovery and return to political respectability.

For the first time in its millennia-old history, Japan subordinated its foreign policy to another country. As its international environment is in rapid transition, Japan tenaciously, subtly, systematically is widening the margin of action available to it. Beyond the war on terrorism, Japan is in the process of adapting its role as an American auxiliary and is preparing to enter the international arena as a principal — a challenge and also an opportunity for America.

The North Korean challenge has accelerated this process. Since Japan has historically considered Korea an essential aspect of Japanese security, it will not accept nuclear weapons in North Korea without offsetting measures.

To the extent that the six-power talks in Beijing legitimise the retention of some nuclear military capacity in North Korea, Japan will consider a nuclear option for itself and will, at a minimum, place itself into a position to implement it rapidly. These trends will be accelerated by China’s growth. Japan will have three options: (a) to continue a foreign policy based on US alliance; (b) to seek to develop an Asian political entity analogous to the European Union, perhaps in some sort of partnership with China; (c) to refuse to make a choice and adopt a kind of non-alignment to maximise its national interest.

For the moment, Japan is content to await developments while building a consensus over the next decade with the indirection and stern insistence on the national interest, which are the hallmarks of the subtle Japanese diplomacy. The emergence of India into great power status is one of the principal events of the next decade. This is all the more true because the geographic area of most intense interest for India — the Muslim world and Central Asia — coincides with a major concern of the United States, and the interests of the two countries run parallel there in important respects.

Since the days of the British Empire (whose strategic policy east of Suez was made in India’s capital), India has resisted the emergence of a dominant outside power in the arc between Singapore and Aden. With its Muslim population of 150 million, which, in a generation will exceed 300 million, India has a greater stake than almost any other country that the outcomes of the war in Iraq not provide an impetus to radical Islam because the consequences could not be arrested at the borders of India. Thus the global scene is more fluid than it has been for centuries. America’s task is to contribute to shaping this ferment which was years in the making and will require perhaps decades to crystallise.

American diplomacy is asked to bring about the elements of a new world order much as it successfully did in the decade immediately following World War II. Yet current conditions are more complex because the area to be integrated is global rather than Atlantic and because the symptoms of crisis often mask the underlying reality. Thus with respect to Europe, even the most intense consultation will ultimately come up against the philosophical problem of what makes the Atlantic relationship special. As an institution, the European Union is likely to recoil from the use of force except under conditions — unanimity in the Security Council — that deprive the alliance of its special status.

The challenge of Atlantic policy is whether the nations of the alliance can regain a sense of common destiny, and on the basis of what premises? In its absence the Atlantic nations will drift into a world order of constantly shifting constellations in pursuit of narrow national or regional concerns not unlike that preceding World War I.

The Asian countries discussed here March to a different drummer. Their consultation procedures with America are adequate and functioning. The short-term incentives are for collaboration. There are, however, three medium-term challenges. The nations involved will judge our relevance to their concerns by the outcome of Iraq. Somewhat contradictorily, concern over American hegemonical power may tempt these countries to explore options for constraints on American power, though for motives the opposite of those of Europe — as an exercise, not of moral or judicial principles, but of the balance of power. American policy needs to be sensitive to these attitudes. American power is a fact of life; but the art of diplomacy is to translate power into consensus. This requires more than good relations with all countries to provide the greatest number of options. It implies, above all, a unifying vision especially on challenges that objectively affect all countries: proliferation, control of epidemics, development.

An international system is vital if its members consider maintaining it more important than the inevitable difficulties that arise in its operation and when it is alive to opportunities for creativity. Amidst the passions of the Middle East, American foreign policy must look beyond immediate frustrations to the vision of a world waiting to be built.

© Tribune Media Services International.


Dr Henry Kissinger is by far the most admired Secretary of State in US history,  a diplomat par excellence, and a top intellectual of our times, informed as he is by a 'deep historical knowledge, wit, a gift for irony, and a unique understanding of the forces that bind nations'. He had injected a new dynamism to the US foreign policy during his term between 1973 and 1977, that, among other things, effected a major turn-around in Sino-US relations. He continues to hog limelight, unveiling refreshing thoughts about the state of the world. A recipient of Nobel Peace Prize and author of several books, Kissinger writes a monthly column that Khaleej Times gladly introduces to its readers today. — Editor

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