Interregnum: Watch the sheep, not the shepherd

You can’t go far these days without reading about how China (and India (and Brazil)) is on the cusp of upsetting the liberal Western-centric order that provides the overarching framework for world affairs. Sucking up resources, demanding a high price for cooperation, holding the chips of world finance: the emerging economies are demanding their say. And conversely, proclamations of the decline of the West are rife – the slow death of European influence, American power, and Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

In Economist covers, it goes roughly like this, where an insurrection has come of age:


The Economist, Sept 20 2003


The Economist, Feb 20 2010

Perhaps. That the ability of the old great powers of the West do go it alone is not what it used to be, two decades on from the end of the Cold War. But how is it accurate to say that “It’s China’s world. We’re just living in it” – even just as a rule of thumb for the change that we’re undergoing?

A recent academic article* is a useful reminder that for the ‘new’ great powers, leadership and their prospective ability to direct outcomes means little without an adequate degree of ‘followership’. You can’t, by definition, be a leader if you have no followers. Stefan Schirm’s analysis focuses on Brazil and Germany’s ability to get other countries to support their bids for greater international status and influence in various international institutions (UN Security Council permanent membership, WTO directorship, policy leadership in trade negotiations). Within the parameters of this study – looking only at support from specific others (how much does Argentina follow Brazilian leadership bids, and how much Italy does for German ones), rather than broader aggregations – his basic hypothesis is this:

“the inclusion of the interests and/or ideas dominant in another country into an emerging power’s leadership project is a necessary condition for this other country to accept the policy positions, shift in power and/or status desired by the emerging power and to follow its lead.”

In other words, emerging powers will only be able to fully, well, emerge through a degree of compromise with second-tier powers such that the positions advocated by these emerging powers are at the apex of a rather broad church. Leadership has to be inclusive, and a failure to include others’ concerns (and thereby gain their support) explains why the aspirations of these emerging powers are not always fulfilled in practice. The absence of followers undercuts the credibility of any claim to the top table.

What’s the upshot for how we see the world today? The ability of a country to wield influence in international affairs has always been determined by more than the size of its economy or the capabilities of its military, because coercion, in the long-run, is a rather costly and inefficient means of governance. Far more efficient is some element of consent by the weaker states to the authority of stronger states in setting the rules – essentially such that the exercise of power by the strong is seen as legitimate. Why force someone to do something, if you can get them to agree to do it voluntarily?

‘Middle powers’ like Australia and Canada were once the future – credited with the proactive activism of intiatives such as the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, or catalysing cooperation in international negotiations by playing the consensus-seeker and bridge-builder role between otherwise fragmented groups of countries. These middle powers have been solidly behind the liberal, Western order. I tend to think that most of the ‘new’ middle powers – Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa, for instance – are too, enjoying whatever spoils accrue to them from an open trading system. But this is the reason why the Brazil-Turkey deal in May to bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table raised so many eyebrows: diplomacy under the noses of erstwhile US or EU leadership on Iran offers an alternative picture of who is doing the leading (and therefore holds the cards of power) in international relations. Whether the deal actually pans out into anything concrete in the longer-term is one thing; for me, the million-dollar question is whether and how these newer middle powers are scattering away from this US-centric liberal order.

So amidst the hyperbole of the relative rise and decline of the new and old great powers, it may be more useful to look behind them: Who are their followers? Which are the second-tier states that are lining up behind them, which provide them the clout to actually shape outcomes? What are the compromises – and make no mistake, there are compromises – that they’re having to make in order to elicit such followership? You can’t call yourself a shepherd if you have no flock. With animals, as with world affairs, the followers maketh the leader. Perhaps that’s the real measure of change and continuity in the global balance of power.

*Stefan A. Schirm, 2010, “Leaders in need of followers: Emerging powers in global governance”, European Journal of International Relations, 16(2), pp. 197-221. Abstract available (subscription required for fulltext)

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