Inside Story

Restless continents throbbing and surging

Books | Even if the Asian century is peaceful that doesn’t mean it will be harmonious, writes Graeme Dobell

Graeme Dobell 20 October 2015 2300 words

Any sense of triumph is gone: former US national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History
By Henry Kissinger | Penguin | $24.99

Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics
By Michael Wesley | Black Inc. | $29.99

In the twentieth century, Europe’s wars were world wars. In the twenty-first century, world wars will come – if they come – from Asia. For Asia, power has arrived. In a world of states, this shift is as profound as it gets.

Australia has a new prime minister who enthuses that there has “never been a more exciting time to be alive… and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” Malcolm Turnbull could just as easily say that it doesn’t matter whether Australia is excited or afraid. Coming ready or not, Asia’s era is here and Australia has no option but to take a front row seat. Indeed, we have little choice but to get on stage and be one of the players.

As a nation that often served as an offstage spear carrier for Europe or the United States, Australia finds itself where the big stuff will happen. Fear as much as excitement is a logical response. That curse about living in interesting times has landed close to home.

Asia’s biggest challenge in the twenty-first century will be to do a better job of avoiding the world wars Europe imposed on the last century. A question almost as potent is how Asia will reshape a global order created by Western ideas about the role of the nation, the purpose of the state and the rights of the people.

If Asia delivers a century that is lucky as well as smart, we won’t get definitive answers to these questions of war and order. The only conclusive answer would be if disaster arrives, delivering the bloody conclusion that Asia has failed.

Asia’s greatest interest, its central mission, is to keep the excitement running and manage the power shift peacefully, if not smoothly. Keep striving and driving and pray not to crash. In this endeavour, with its many signposts but, we hope, no disastrous endpoint, fresh maps have arrived from one of Australia’s finest international relations scholars, Michael Wesley, and from that modern Metternich, Henry Kissinger. Both thinkers are grappling with what Asia will become and what it will do to everybody else.

At ninety-two, Kissinger has produced what may be his final substantial statement on the state of the world. He tackles what he sees as the ultimate problem of our day, “the crisis in the concept of world order,” and the ultimate challenge for statesmanship, “a reconstruction of the international system.”

Michael Wesley’s version of the same conundrum is that Asia’s powers “feel little investment in or loyalty to the rules and conventions” the West built. People in the West, meanwhile, fear a challenge to international business, law and security “that appears to them both unjustified and unconscionable.” The result, he writes, “is a global economy of increasing interdependence but declining trust, of collective concern about instability but eroding consensus on what to do about it.”

The idea – or ideal – of the “international community” is invoked more now than in any previous era, Kissinger muses, but there is “no agreed set of goals, methods or limits.” He worries that we are entering a period “in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future.”

Kissinger has always seen America as an ambivalent superpower, and here he devotes a chapter to that familiar theme. The difference now is how much that ambivalence is shaped by intimations of impotence rather than omnipotence. “From perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional concepts of balance of power,” he writes. “Yet its very success made it inevitable that the entire enterprise would eventually be challenged, sometimes in the name of world order itself.”

Perhaps this is the dirge of an old man watching the light fade. Consider, though, that Kissinger – the realist’s realist – has spent his whole career thinking about power and how to direct or survive it. As the former US national security adviser and secretary of state notes, the life gave the man his life’s work: “Having spent my childhood as a member of a discriminated minority in a totalitarian system and then as an immigrant to the United States, I have experienced the liberating aspects of American values.” He returned to his native Germany at the end of the second world war as a soldier in the conquering US army, experiencing geopolitical conflict in the most personal way.

In World Order he grapples haltingly with the troubling thought that American values may not define this century. Of his previous books, the one that sits closest is Diplomacy, published in 1994, not long after America won the cold war and the Soviet Union vanished. Its first chapter was titled “The New World Order.”

Now Kissinger returns to that new order, and any sense of triumph is gone. He starts with Europe’s role in creating the modern state (through the Westphalian principle) and a pluralistic international order, then adds the balance of power that prevailed, for good or ill, from Napoleon until the final triumph at the end of the cold war.

A century ago Europe had a near monopoly on designing global order. Today it worries about itself and turns inward. It will become just one of several regional units alongside America, China and perhaps India and Brazil. As Kissinger writes:

Is the world moving toward regional blocs that perform the role of states in the Westphalian system? If so, will balance follow, or will this reduce the number of key players to so few that rigidity becomes inevitable and the perils of the early twentieth century return, with inflexibly constructed blocs attempting to face one another down?

Kissinger sees little role for the Middle East in the emerging world of blocs because the region is in chaos, consumed by all of its historical experiences simultaneously: “empire, holy war, foreign domination, a sectarian war of all against all.” Vast areas could fall to anarchy and extremism as “religion is ‘weaponised’ in the service of geopolitical objectives.”

If the Middle East is a saga of state failure then Asia is a stunning story of state success. Yet it has no regional order, says Kissinger, because there is no Asian consensus “about the meaning of the journey they have taken or its lessons for twenty-first-century world order.” He predicts two balances of power emerging – one in South Asia, the other in East Asia – neither of which will easily achieve equilibrium.

During the cold war, the dividing lines were defined by military force. Kissinger argues that Asia’s twenty-first-century balance should not have the military equation as its key measure. The modern Metternich seeks a new way: “Concepts of partnership need to become, paradoxically, elements of the modern balance of power, especially in Asia – an approach that, if implemented as an overarching principle, would be as unprecedented as it is important.”

The idea of Asian partnership restraining Asia’s competing powers is also central to Michael Wesley’s Restless Continent. The Australian National University professor agrees that the rise of great powers in Asia (Japan, China, India, Russia and perhaps, in time, Indonesia) will question the content and extent of the international order, and suggests the rules of the game may be shifting from Western-flavoured order to spheres of influence:

This century’s international relations could see a gradual crumbling of the globalism that has prevailed for half a millennium. The next phase of world order could very well be one of disarticulation, whereby Europe, America and Asia’s great powers compete to build zones of influence and deference around their borders and with regions and countries of importance, such as resource suppliers. In between would be stretched an increasingly threadbare tissue of global rules and institutions.

Wesley writes of the new age that has already dawned in Asia, driven by opposed dynamics of rivalry and interdependence. The giant dance of enmity and engagement, repulsion and embrace, clashes and constraints is being played out on a continent-wide stage that will shape the world.

To say that Asia is beset by mixed emotions is to underplay the strength of these forces – and of habits of state hierarchy rather than equality, and of the scars of history. Wesley thinks it inevitable that a triumphant Asia will demand the right to rewrite the rules of global and regional order. Yet the “scale and pace of their rise means that Asia’s larger states are often afflicted by ‘strategic claustrophobia’ – a fear that either by accident or by design, they will be denied the markets, resources, energy and investment they need to continue their brittle internal evolution.”

Wesley’s thinking is as robust as Kissinger’s and – no small compliment, this – his writing is as good as Dr K’s. Kissinger has ever been the master of mordant mots to lighten the ponderous bureaucratese of international affairs, and Wesley, too, handles the heavy with a deft touch, reaching high but writing tight. His distillation of ideas is intense and the liquid of the language is clear. Although he ranges across centuries, he gets the job done in less than 200 pages. Grand strategy and big history written for a time-is-short age: catch the idea, pare, stir in history, boil, then cut again.

The two writers differ markedly in their treatment of the role of the United States in Asia’s new geopolitics. Kissinger sketches America’s relative decline while always returning to the central role it must play in the Asian Century. Wesley briskly notes that decline as a given then turns his attention to Asia.

Thus, Kissinger offers this on his penultimate page:

A purposeful American role will be philosophically and geopolitically imperative for the challenges of our period. Yet world order cannot be achieved by any one country acting alone.

This is an instruction to Washington as much as a description of Asia’s potential.

Wesley sees Asia as “the first continent to emerge from under the umbrella of American strategic dominance, which has muted the latent power rivalries of most countries for seven decades.”

What do you get when you mix the decline of America as the strategic hegemon, Asian economic success and Asia’s burgeoning national pride? Wesley’s answer: “Asia has become a great arms bazaar.”

Naval power is the modern expression of Asian pride and paranoia: “Thanks to a cascade of maritime weapons purchases along Asia’s southern tier, American sea command is crumbling.” The end of unquestioned American sea command, Wesley writes, means “the lines of what can be credibly challenged and what will be safely enforced are moving.”

Wesley defines Asia “in its entirety” from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, and from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean; 4.4 billion people, 60 per cent of the world’s population, soon to produce more than half the world’s economic activity.

He offers four reasons why it is Asia that will shape global order, not Europe or Africa or the Anglosphere.

Scale: The revolutions in everything from communications to industrial organisation to knowledge creation “have reinserted populations back into the productivity equation, delivering major advantages to poorer but stable societies. In no geographic location has this been more pronounced than Asia.”

Governance DNA, or “muscle memory”: “The sheer persistence of government in Asian societies, through cycles of expansion, decline and conquest, is a major reason for their historical glory and sustained development today.”

Cultural and civilisational pride: Having emerged from Western domination, Asian states reassert their self-worth. Cultural chauvinism is awake and thriving, feeding Asia’s deep-seated hierarchical struggle. “A competitive cultural dynamic is deeply ingrained across Asia: as each society is determined to regain a sense of pride by investing in a sense of its historical greatness, it touches off a jealous response from its neighbours.”

Location: Proximity caused economic dynamism and military rivalry to spread across Europe and “then burst forth from the continent to reorder the world.” Asia has entered the same dynamic of power, ambition and deepening rivalry “driving a domino effect of prosperity and rivalry across the continent.”

Enriched and empowered, Asian states have a growing sense of entitlement, demanding the rights and prerogatives of regained place.

Asian interdependence should be as strong as Asian rivalry. Wesley thinks Asia will be unable to give war a chance:

Without recourse to decisive war or transforming political integration, Asia’s international relations will settle into a pattern of rivalrous interdependence. Asian states will grow ever more important to each other’s growing prosperity and continued development, while at the same time, their strategic mistrust and power competition will grow.

His rivalrous interdependence is Kissinger’s new Asian order, in which partnership is as central to the power balance as the military stand-off.

If Asia maintains peace, it won’t be a harmony. Think of a fluid equilibrium that constantly throbs and surges – the giant enmity–engagement dynamic. Networks must balance the nukes. Interdependence must outweigh the irrational. Pride must meld with partnership. Asia triumphant must deliver new forms of order.