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"Unipolar or a Multipolar World?" Address by Proffessor Danilo Türk, Former President of the Republic of Slovenia at the 16th Eurasian Economic Summit, Istanbul (10. - 11.4.2013)

Istanbul, Turkey, 11. 4. 2013 | govori

Distinguished participants,

It gives me great pleasure to address the 16th Marmara Forum today. The questions submitted today have been a subject of lively discussion ever since the ending of the cold war and continue to be of fundamental importance. Has the world after the ending of the cold war become unipolar? Is the world of today, almost a generation later, moving in the direction of multipolarity or has it become multipolar? What are the implications of the current evolution?

In my opinion, these questions can be answered in three stages:

First, it is necessary to recognize the growing body of opinion that the world is becoming increasingly polycentric and in some ways clearly multipolar. In fact, the period of a seemingly unipolar world has been relatively short and always open to question.

Second, it is useful to keep in mind the nature of change in the world in the past few years and the nature of the future multipolarity. While there are certain similarities between our era and the one before World War I, there are also very important differences. They make our world very different, less dangerous, it seems, but also more complicated to manage.

Third, it is important to recognize that general characterizations in terms of unipolarity v. multipolarity do not help much in dealing with the existing problems of international peace, security and development. It is therefore important to juxtapose the evolving general pattern of international relations with the ones which are more specific and geographically defined - in our case, the patterns in the area of Eurasia. This is necessary, because the actual issues of international relations always arise in geographically defined circumstances, which also offer a large part of solutions - to the extent the solutions are available.

Let me proceed to answer the question posed to us in these three stages.

First, a perfectly unipolar world is not possible in a pluralistic international community. Unipolar systems existed only in the early historic periods of great empires. The Roman Empire, in the first centuries AD represented the "known world" of the time and was characterized by a central, "unipolar" authority. The Chinese empire of the ancient era represents another example of a unipolar system. A different pattern emerged later. In the 16th century the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Moghul Empire and the Chinese Empire existed simultaneously. However, their interaction was limited and it would be inadequate to describe their simultaneous existence as a "multipolar world". Multipolarity as a meaningful political concept is a product of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Subsequently it mutated into the bipolarity of the cold war, which dominated the world of the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1990s, following the ending of the cold war, the prevalence of the United States, "the sole remaining superpower", was sometimes compared to that of ancient Rome - an effective methaphor of speech rather than a serious analytical proposition. A careful look revealed a more complex set of relations among the most powerful international players of that time. A good example of that pattern were the trade-offs in the UN Security Council. Thus, in 1994 its permanent members tacitly agreed on their respective leading roles with regard to the then acute crisis situations in Haiti, in the Caucasus and in Rwanda. Geographic and historic reasons for the distribution of leading roles of the US, Russia and France were easy to understand and they were de facto accepted by the wider international community as well. What happened was not a real unipolarity (let alone a new Roman Empire), but rather a cooperative scheme resembling a concert of powers of the 19th century.

In the 1990s the world also became accustomed to the description of the United States - the leading military, economic and political power of the world - as the "indispensable nation", an apt phrase coined by Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN and later US Secretary of State. Let us think about this choice of words. They convey two messages - one of the American power and centrality in international relations, and the other inviting cooperation. Indispensability is a two way street: the central player is indispensable to the others, but it can succeed only with an appropriate level of cooperation provided by the others. Multipolarity is implicit here and in practice it depends on the quality of cooperation among all the key players. The UN has wittnessed many examples of this pattern. Various crises around the world could not be meaningfully addressed without the participation of the US, the indispensable nation, but in order to succeed, crisis management and crisis resolution required cooperation of others - the key regional players and in some cases an adequate selection of other permanent members of the Security Council.

The developments of the late1980s and the 1990s gave rise to a cooperative pattern which strengthened the role of the United Nations, and in particular its Security Council, as a place of coordination and cooperation among the major powers. While not perfect, this pattern has dominated the UN and has affected many areas of international relations. It also maintained a high level of global strategic stability. This should be appreciated as an important achievement: Strategic stability in the conditions of clear military imbalance - the military spending of the US, the sole remaining superpower, has been higher than that of all other major powers (i.e. Russia, China, India, Japan and Europe) combined - is an important element of global peace. It has preserved, until now, the necessary rationality of behaviour of states with regard to nuclear weapons, and enhanced the importance of nuclear non-proliferation as a pivot of global peace.

The new, 21st century started with a shock: the attacks on the US of 11 September 2001. The response of the sole remaining superpower was strong and characterized by an overly militarized reaction to the threat of terrorism ("war on terror"). It culminated in the war against Iraq in 2003. Now, ten years after the war, it is clear that one of the war's many effects was its demonstration of the limits of American unilateral action. The subsequent years have reconfirmed a more cooperative role of the US (the indispensable nation) and have effectively buried the rhetoric of unipolarity.

This brings me to the second part of my answer to the questions posed by the organizers of our session. The first decade of the present century crystallized several phenomena which have been long in the making and which define our world as essentially pluralistic, if not clearly multipolar. The economic rise of China, the emergence of the group BRICS and the creation of the G-20 marked an important change in the global economic balance of power, one with the necessary, though not yet very visible strategic and military consequences.

In addition, the financial and economic crisis in the US and the EU in the past five years has made its own contribution to the change. The relative decline of power and influence of the EU is probably not irreversible, but the EU has to make a major effort to establish itself as a major global player for the future. Integration of Turkey into the EU should be seen as an important contribution to the strengthening of the EU as a global player. The US, on the other hand, has been more successful in overcoming the crisis and is opening a new chapter in its global role, one which seems much more collective than unilateral in its outlook.

These changes have already had a major impact on the global security, economic and political landscape. The world looks increasingly multipolar. However, a note of caution is necessary here. The situation today cannot be equated with the type of multipolarity and balance of power known from the 19th Century. Like in the earlier historic periods, the major powers of our era both compete and cooperate. But unlike in the previous periods, the level of their cooperation and interdependence is qualitatively much higher. This interdependence is measured daily at the stock markets in the West and East, North and South, and is a constant reminder that competition must be kept within limits: None of the major powers of today can afford such competition that would destroy the existing economic equilibrium. The cost would be simply too high and would necessarily have political and security consequences.

An additional feature of the current global pluralism is the growing importance of various security arrangements - global and regional. They have been strengthened in the past two decades and have produced positive effects for the global security and development. The number of large-scale armed conflicts has been decreasing in the past two decades, and the contribution to this trend by the international security structures - underpinned by real power - is growing. The UN Security Council continues to play its role as the body with the primary responsibility for international peace and security. International cooperative regimes such as the World Trade Organization and Bretton Woods institutions have been strengthened. Naturally, they need further change and reform in order to better represent the changing distribution of economic and financial power. But this is not an impossible task. Reform and adjustment should be the order of the day for all international institutions, including the United Nations.

How do these changes affect the security issues today? This question can be answered to the full only with the necessary reference to the regionally defined realities. The evolution of the past two decades has not removed the critical importance of the geographic imperative in the present, increasingly multipolar world. Therefore I suggest that the third - and the most important part of the answer to the question of multipolarity has to be considered with reference to the geoghraphic realities, in particular those of Eurasia. Turkey, and in particular Istanbul, is an excellent place for reflection on this question, given its role as a connection point between Europe and Asia.

At this point I wish to make a small historic digression. In 1904 the British geographer and political thinker, Sir Hartford Mackinder published his celebrated article "The Geographical Pivot of History". In the article and in his subsequent books he explained the global geography as consisting of the "global ocean" covering nine twelfths of the globe, the "World Island" consisting of Eurasia and Africa, and the lands of the "Outer or Insular Crescent" - the Americas, Australia and smaller islands. He argued that the World Island dominates the world and that Europe and Asia are intrinsically linked. In his analysis Europe was, in essence, a peninsula with a disproportionately long seacoast, which made it a strong maritime power and thus helped to establish its historically dominant role. But it is, according to Mackinder, still a peninsula, while the pivot area on which the fate of great world empires rests is the Heartland of Central Asia.

Mackinder's theory had a very powerful influence on the political thinking in the 20th century and has inspired much of the geostrategic decision making leading to World War II and the post war arrangements. In the post World War II arrangements Europe lost its earlier dominant role and has been replaced by the North Atlantic Alliance. Together with the United States, the main part of the "Outer or Insular Crescent", Europe is not a mere peninsula, but an important part of the strong transatlantic system, capable of projecting global influence.

The Asian part of the "World Island" has been dominated, for the most of the 20th century, by the existence of the Soviet Union and its relations with China. This has changed to some extent with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. However, the pivot area of Central Asia remains as important as ever. The recent visit of the new president of China in Moscow offered a visible reconfirmation of this.

The geopolitics of the post cold war is not yet fully crystallized and the question of what kind of outcome can be expected from the current development of global multipolarity has not yet been given a full answer. Assuming that war is not a preferred option for any among the principal players it is possible to discern two main options of strategic bahaviour in the future. One of them is containment and the other is partnership.

Containment has been historically tested and lends itself easily to the military logic of the threats of war with the preferred objective of avoiding the war itself. It worked in the more distant as well as in the recent past. At the time of the "Great Game" of the 19h century the protection of the British India inspired Great Britain to apply the policy of containment towards Russia. This led to the arrangements between Britain and Russia with regard to Afghanistan and Iran, as well as to the multilateral arrangements for the Eastern Mediterranean (the succession of regimes of the Straits and the 1878 arrangement for Cyprus). During the cold war, the US - led policy of containment of the Soviet Union was central to the whole bipolar system of that era. In the past two decades various forms of containment have been applied by Russia and China - against the perceived threat of the radical Islam in Central Asia and by the United States - against Iran and against the perceived possibility of restoration, in one form or another, of the Russian domination of Central Asia.

Containment is historically known and is tempting to replicate it in an appropriately modified form. Today, it is easy to imagine the philosophy of containment applied by the US and its allies to China with regard to East and South China Seas. The practice and potential variety of containment policies is rich, indeed. While there are situations when containment is the necessary policy option, it is hardly ever the optimum. Therefore it is necessary to explore the alternatives - engagement, cooperation and partnership.

Partnership, on the other side of the spectrum of strategic policy choices, is not easy to establish. It requires strong political will, a high level of trust, well-developed practical cooperation and a shared vision of the future, based, ideally, upon shared values. Taken together, these requirements constitute a very tall order. They also call for a great amount of practical innovation. All this has to be kept in mind in discussions aiming at partnerships in the area of Eurasia. Specific initiatives and practical policy steps of states have to be measured by the high standards implied in the concept of partnership.

The experience of Turkey - the country in the middle of Eurasia - is particularly important. The international community is following with great interest the initiatives of Turkey vis-a-vis its immediate neighbours. These initiatives are motivated by the wish to resolve some of the persisting problems in the region and by virtue of that raise the level of trust needed for future cooperation and partnerships. The initiatives concerning Turkish relations with Armenia, Cyprus and Iraq are the clearest examples. The current effort to settle the situation with the Kurdish people falls in that category, too. The role of Turkey in the effort to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and the joint Turkish - Brazilian initiative of 2009 - 2010 with regard to the development of nuclear technology in Iran are examples of efforts to build the much necessary trust in the Eurasian region. It is important that all these initiatives have expressed a strong political will as well as valuable spirit of innovation. The practical effects of various initiatives do not come easily or simultaneously and generally take time to ripen. Patience and persistence are needed in the creation of the basis for future partnerships in the Eurasian area.

So, what does the experience of the post-cold war era suggest for the future? Here are five tentative conclusions and suggestions:

First, the movement towards a new multipolar world is clearly visible and most probably irreversible.

Second, the multipolarity of the 21st century is characterized by an unprecedented level of economic interdependence, which adds to the need for extremely careful management of the global security issues.

Third, the multipolarity of the 21st century is not totally dependent on the US, China and Russia, the key global political players and nuclear powers. Their specific responsibility is to continue to ensure strategic stability of the world and the highest attainable level of rationality with regard to nuclear weapons, including the continued viability of nuclear non-proliferation. All states, however, can contribute to the management of the international security issues. Ending the war in Syria will require diplomatic creativity of Syria's neighbours, in particular that of Turkey.

Fourth, developments in Eurasia will continue to have a critical influence on the evolution of global multipolarity. Cooperation of the key players for the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan will be an important indicator of the quality of the new, expectedly multipolar pattern of global security. Finding a peaceful solution to the issue of the nuclear programme of Iran will be of great importance for security in the region and for the future of multipolarity. Solving the problems posed by the military threats of North Korea will require continued cooperation of all the key global players.

Fifth and final, development of the necessary regional security arrangements in Asia will be an important priority. The success of ASEAN should serve as a source of inspiration. The evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other newly established organizations and groupings in Asia should be encouraged to help building cooperation and, eventually, partnerships. Experience gained through ad hoc mechanisms, such as Six Party Talks on the Korean issues should be taken advantage of and, if at all possible, help creating permananent security mechanisms. The importance of regional security structures in Asia for the global, multipolar system cannot be overestimated.

Prof. Dr Danilo Türk
Former President of the Republic of Slovenia

16. Evrazijska konferenca