international analysis and commentary

The elusive Concert of Powers


The idea never loses its appeal. Yet its time never seems to arrive. Ever since the definitive collapse of the 19th century Concert of Europe in 1914, statesmen and commentators have proposed something similar: an informal association of the great powers whose basic aims would be to regulate competition among themselves and confront violent challenges to the status quo.

The post-1918 Council of the League of Nations embodied something of the spirit of the old concert, but to conservative nationalists in the US, it looked too much like an entangling alliance, and with the potential to meddle in the Western Hemisphere where the Americans insisted on their droit de regard.

Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Policemen” proposal was inspired to a degree by the European concert, as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s notion of great-power regional hegemony. FDR hoped that the big four – the US, USSR, UK and China – would monopolize military power (in particular, airpower), take responsibility for keeping order in their respective areas, and act together to deal with major threats to peace. (He did not intend to involve the US directly in maintaining stability in postwar Europe – a matter for the British and the Russians.) But even before East-West tensions called the scheme into question, Roosevelt had been forced to bow to opinion demanding “a general international organization based on the principle of sovereign equality” (as per the October 1943 “Moscow Declaration”) – as opposed to a cabal of the strong.

During the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis, the George H. W. Bush administration floated the idea of a “New World Order” (NWO) (the term seems to have been taken from Mikhail Gorbachev’s December 1988 address to the UN General Assembly), reminiscent of FDR’s notion. Although never fully elaborated, the basic idea was to build on the successful operation of the UN Security Council during the crisis and fulfill the council’s original promise as a great-power concert. Interestingly, NWO proponents like Brent Scowcroft did not see a concert as simply a tool of, or cover for, American leadership, but a needed prop of international stability in an era when the US faced dire fiscal constraints (it had had to ask its friends to pay most of the bill for military operations against Saddam Hussein), and the prospect of “imperial overstretch”.

Political scientists like Richard Rosencrance argued at the time that a workable great power concert required three conditions: the participation of all the powers; a basic ideological consensus among them; the renunciation by all of war and territorial expansion as means of state competition. Arguably, with the end of the Cold War, these conditions had been met. But with Bush’s defeat in the 1992 elections, and the descent of the USSR into chaos, the NWO was consigned to the shelf where such notions await better days. In the 1990s, both US political parties embraced a chimerical unipolarity as the best-of-all-possible worlds.

Recently, as an alternative to the unlikely revival of Pax Americana, or a misconceived alliance of liberal democracies, a pair of commentators have dusted off the idea. “The best vehicle for promoting stability in the twenty-first century,” argue Charles Kupchan and Richard Haass, “is a global concert of major powers. As the history of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe demonstrated . . . a steering group of leading countries can curb the geopolitical and ideological competition that usually accompanies multipolarity.” The concert would have six members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. “Inclusion would be a function of power and influence rather than values or regime type.” Like the old concert, it would privilege the territorial status quo and a view of sovereignty that precludes, except in the case of international consensus, using force to alter borders or overthrow regimes. “The international order that comes next,” they argue, “must make room for ideological diversity.They are surely right on the last point. The sort of US-led ideological crusade favored by some in Washington seems practically guaranteed to alienate allies, and push China, Russia and Iran further into each other’s arms. Pursuing the universal triumph of liberal democracy is not only quixotic, it is unnecessary in order to secure the basic interests of the West. Might the time be riper then for a concert than it was in 1945 or 1991? Regrettably, in this writer’s view, the answer is probably not.

First, one can debate the degree to which the 19th century concert was truly effective in containing conflict. Arguably, it was an underlying balance of power that kept the peace for long stretches of time. The concert was ultimately helpless in the face of rising nationalism, and of what observers from Machiavelli to Lenin have seen as a “law of uneven development”. Status quo powers inevitably face the prospect of decline relative to ambitious newcomers, and war is often the result.

Let’s assume, nevertheless, that the concert mechanism (operating through a series of congresses) did at times act to resolve conflict, and that in retrospect the European powers would have been wise to invest far more time and effort in its success. For the sake of argument, let’s also assume that the potential members of Haass’s and Kupchan’s concert would be prepared to join, and have subscribed to important common principles: a relatively open world economy governed by WTO rules, and the “Westphalian” system privileging the status quo embodied in the UN Charter.

The Congress of Paris, 1856


But here’s the rub: Are they prepared to renounce the unilateral use of force as a means of pursuing state interests? Even if the US has tired in recent years of its “endless wars”, and Russia seems deterred for now from further territorial (re)annexations, the record since 2001 induces skepticism. Is it conceivable that China would rule out the use of force as a means of settling the Taiwan question (for the Chinese, an internal matter)? A concert based on the frank, mutual recognition of spheres of influence where members would be permitted to intervene, would be a more coherent arrangement – certainly one reflecting the reality of great power behavior – but it would be unacceptable to world opinion, and is emphatically not what Haas and Kupchan have in mind.

A new concert would face at least two additional obstacles. It would have to be seen as legitimate not only by small states, but middle powers unlikely to be satisfied with their place in the hierarchy: Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia. Among the loudest voices raised against FDR’s scheme were those of middle-sized countries like Canada and Australia. Today, it would be optimistic to assume that post-Brexit Britain would simply follow the US or the EU lead.

Finally, as if there weren’t Achilles’s heels enough, a concert still goes against the deep instincts of the US political class and “foreign policy community”. Even after Trump, the American elites do not appear ready to embrace the idea of genuine collective leadership, nor abandon the illusion of unipolarity, at least in the military domain. Circumstances may be pushing them inexorably in that direction, but they are not there yet.

Fortunately, the West’s choices are not limited to an alliance of democracies, refurbished US hegemony, or a new great power concert. A more practical policy would aim to refurbish existing structures: NATO, the G-20, and the floundering WTO.

And it is probably time to dust off a few basic lessons from the Cold War. First: avoid simplistic historical analogies. Conflating the USSR with Nazi Germany contributed to an over-militarization of Western policy, and US entanglement in places that had little or no connection with its vital interests (e.g., Vietnam). By the same token, one should avoid confusing China, a country with which the West has extensive common interests, with the USSR.

In the relations between states, doctrines and ideas matter. They carry weight. It was important that after Stalin’s death, both sides adopted doctrines of peaceful co-existence. Today, it is counterproductive to emphasize the ideological aspect of Western-Chinese competition. While abhorring aspects of the Chinese system, the West should accept its legitimacy, rather than trying to undermine it, and pursue regime change as a goal. In the spirit of the Haas-Kupchan proposal, it is worth making a plea for an old, albeit profoundly conservative notion, cuius regio eius religio – ideological live and let live.

A second lesson from the Cold War is that there is only one way to avoid disastrous conflict in situations where the vital interests of both sides are at stake (e.g., the South China Sea): compromise. In the confrontations over Cuba and Berlin, both sides accepted that they could not have all that they wanted, and if they had tried to impose their preferred solutions, war would have been the result.

A final lesson is simply that the world will always be too big and too diverse to be dominated by a single power or system. The end of the Cold War did not mean the triumph of liberal democracy: After all, authoritarian China was on the winning side. By the same token, today’s ideological rivals have common interests which far outweigh their differences: maintaining a relatively open world economy, combating climate change, and above all,  avoiding a catastrophic war or series of wars.