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What Kind of Order?

Winter 2010 Tête À Tête

What Kind of Order?

Tete a teteGB distills coming world orders with world-beating historian Margaret MacMillan

GB: Is there a period of history that is more instructive than others for telling us where we might be headed over the next 10 years in terms of global orders?

MM: I don’t think that history offers very clear lessons, but it does give interesting parallels, and I think that one parallel might be the period before the First World War. I say this because what you had was a world power in the shape of Great Britain and the British Empire, which was beginning to lose ground to its rivals, such as Germany and the United States, in financial terms and in industrial terms, in terms of production, and also in political terms. This was a period of transition in the world. Then the First World War came along and blew it up. It would mark that transition. After the First World War, I think you’ve got a similar, continued shift in world power with the rise of the United States. If I’m looking at similarities, it is these periods of transition, often after a great struggle – the parallel of the 1920s and 1930s, following on big struggles, just as the 1990s and the present decade have come after the great struggle of the Cold War – where there is a lot of realigning and reshifting in the world. It’s very difficult when you’re in the middle of it to see what’s actually happening. One of the things that perhaps we all try to do is to see what the United States really is – a declining major power. But the United States has a tremendous capacity to change course, and a tremendous capacity to renew itself. So I don’t think that the picture is all that clear. It wasn’t all that clear in the 1920s either, or in the period before the First World War.

GB: Do you see this as a transition to some sort of renewed equilibrium, or as a long-term transitional period? And when will we know when the dust has settled?

MM: When will we know indeed? I think that the alternatives are – well – there are three, as far as I can see. One is a transition to an old-fashioned balance of power, where you have an uneasy balance between states in various combinations, and often you’ll get states shifting sides. So you might, for example, get a China-Japan axis or a United States-India axis. It’s very difficult to tell at the moment, I think. The other possibility is that you’ll get the rise of a hegemonic power; that is, a dominant power that will keep the international system going, as the British Empire did before the First World War. The British Empire played a very important part in ensuring that trade worked – that currency flowed around the world – and intervened when it looked like one power was disrupting the peace too much. And that is possibly going to be China. I think that it’s way too soon to tell. China has tremendous strengths; it’s had a tremendous rate of growth; it has tremendous capacity. But it also remains a very challenging country with huge internal divisions, and, I think, very large problems. I rule out the possibility of going back to some sort of division of the world into empires – I don’t think that that’s going to happen. The third possibility is perhaps something that we haven’t really seen before, and that is a world in which you get a very high degree of international cooperation – in which international institutions become stronger and stronger. We may well be moving into something like that. One of the different factors in the present, and going into the 21st century, is that we’re just a lot more closely linked now, given the tremendous capacity of the internet, the tremendous speed of communication, and the tremendous capacity of transportation. I think also that the recognition that we share global problems – climate change is one of them, but also global problems in the transmission and spread of diseases, or the global reach of crime, or of terrorist activities by sub-state actors – may well usher in some form of international cooperation, or some recognition that major players actually have more to gain from buying into the system and supporting it than they do from going against it. The only parallel with this third possibility – or at least the most recent parallel with this third possibility – would be Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, where you had major states, even though they were very different in their composition, politics and outlooks – France, Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary – nevertheless seeing that they all made gains by supporting a stable international order.

GB: If you were to put your historian’s money on a certain trend over the next 10 to 50 years, is this a peaceful period, is it conflictual, or is it far too difficult to gamble on a certain tendency?

MM: I think that it’s very difficult. There is a recognition that, because of the power of modern weapons, and because of the ways in which we all live together, a major conflict would be destructive even beyond the scale of the First and Second World Wars, and that we may then well end up with no livable planet at all. This is a very important factor in helping us to draw back. However, this won’t stop some group of people from perhaps seizing control of atomic weapons and risking it all. Still, I’d like to think that, on the whole, rationality will prevail. So we may assume that people will largely recognize that the planet simply cannot sustain another major conflict – that we just can’t have another world war because of the nature of modern weapons and the damage that they can do; and that’s not even considering chemical and biological weapons. If this is true, then we’re going to be forced to cooperate with each other, and my hope is that the international institutions and that whole web of institutions, including non-governmental ones and those very particular single-issue ones that have really spread around the world since 1945, will provide a strong enough framework within which major powers can work with each other, and in which conflicts can be avoided. I think that the odds of this are very good. The Chinese, more and more, seem to be working with the international system, rather than against it, and are increasingly showing an awareness of their responsibility for the international system. And I think that India, although it can be difficult, does the same thing. I think that Russia is torn in a couple of ways: it so far has continued to support the international system, as have other new, emerging powers. So my hope – and I think that this is fairly promising – is for an international order in which there will clearly be strains, but through which we will somehow manage to avoid outright conflicts on a major scale. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be lots of little local wars – as we’ve seen since 1945 – but it does mean that we will be avoiding conflict on a major scale simply because we can’t afford it. All of us.

GB: If one were to give this coming order a macro-narrative, would it be a social narrative, a religious narrative, or still an economic-cum-geopolitical narrative? Or is it all things in between?

MM: I’m not sure that you can separate them out. Economic links are obviously hugely important, and the amount of trade that now goes around the world is absolutely vast. The amount of investment that goes around the world, and also the movements of peoples, skilled peoples and unskilled peoples around the world are absolutely huge. I think that we’ve all come to depend on each other in a way that we haven’t seen since the late 19th century. But I think that it’s also, in a way, a spread of values or a spread of acceptance of certain kinds of institutions and certain kinds of things that need to be done. I don’t mean necessarily democratic values, but rather a sense that you do need an international set of rules that everyone can buy into. It’s a growing acceptance of certain ways of trying to manage international relations. As for a religious narrative, I don’t see it. Climate change will be an important narrative. But this is clearly more than just a sense of being economically linked: I think that there is a sense that we are, in a very important way, linked because we’re all on the same globe.

GB: How will the resurgence of Asian powers like China, in particular, but also India, change what the global equilibrium looks like?

MM: In a way, what we’re seeing is a rebalancing of the world, and in some ways we’re going back. If you look at the world before about the 1800s, there was terrific power in Asia, and China exerted tremendous influence over its own people and in its neighbourhood. There were very powerful kings in India, and Japan had potential power. What we’re now seeing is a very necessary rebalancing. We grew up in an age in which a very small part of the world – Europe and North America – dominated much of the rest of the world, and I think that we’re now recognizing that that was in fact an anomaly. If you look at production – production in Asia used to outstrip that of Europe until the end of the 18th century – in some ways we’re going back. And what we’ll see is perhaps a world in which the languages that people want to learn – this is already happening – are increasingly languages like Chinese. There’s going to be much more of a sense that different parts of the world need to know about each other, and much more diffusion of education and knowledge. The number of students now studying in different cultures and different societies is big, and I think that this number will continue to grow. So I think that the world is not going to look radically different. Rather, it’s going to change bit by bit. But, clearly, there’s going to be – and there already is – a whole world in Asia that doesn’t need to pay all that much attention to what’s going on in Europe and North America. It does, in a way, but it also has its own world, and that world is increasingly powerful and productive and important. And you see what Australia’s doing: Australia has very consciously realigned itself, and made a real effort to become much more of an Asian power.

GB: Do you see South America and Africa as important pivots, or even as participants in this realignment?

MM: Absolutely. Not only are they huge in terms of population, but they contain enormous natural resources, and have enormous potential. We’re already seeing the rise of Latin American powers. Brazil, for example, is a very, very significant power these days, and has managed to achieve stable governance – something that it didn’t have for a while. And I think that there are African countries with enormous potential. Certainly, African countries have, in many cases, been left with this colonial legacy of really unworkable borders. But if they can begin to develop common markets, I think that there’s huge potential there.

GB: So what are the big watersheds to watch for over the next five, 10 or 15 years to tell us where we’re headed? And what would trigger some reflection for you?

MM: I think that the key marker is whether, collectively, the powers of the world can do something about climate change; whether, collectively, they can do something about nuclear proliferation, which remains a very real concern; whether, collectively, they can create more robust financial institutions and more robust regulatory mechanisms that will, we hope, prevent periods like this past year of economic chaos from happening again. The other key marker will be whether rising powers will be brought into the system. A lot of the time we’ll know some of this, but a lot of the time we’ll be living through it – and it’s sometimes very difficult to spot.


Margaret MacMillan, best-selling author of Paris 1919, is Warden of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

(Photograph: Greg Smolonski)

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