Beijing, December 2011, photo: Andy Wong/Pool/Reuters
Beijing, December 2011, photo: Andy Wong/Pool/Reuters

In the recent article “The New Concert of Powers. How to Prevent Catastrophe and Promote Stability in a Multipolar World” in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan argue for the Global Concert, or Concert of the World, by analogy with the Concert of Europe in the 19th century. Henry Kissinger has supported similar ideas for a long time and again quite recently at a Chatham House event. He is the author of the authoritative dissertation on the post-Napoleonic European restoration, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822.1

The first problem with the idea of the Big Powers Concert is that the 19th century balance of power overseen by the Concert of Europe collapsed in the First World War. It did not prevent one of the worst catastrophes in history. Why did it work as long as it did and why did it fail in the end? That is not unknown, and it is not unknown what the remedy is. Indeed, it has been known at least since Kant’s Perpetual Peace why such balance of power arrangements will not work, and his insights are not without precedent. At least since the start of the Westphalian System of which the Concert of Europe is an outgrowth. But I will put that aside and come back to that briefly in the conclusion.2

The problem with oligopolies, such as the Concert of Europe or the World, with or without internal coordination, is that oligopolistic competition, which is certain to develop, is not stable. For one, because members of the oligopoly have an incentive to improve their position vis-à-vis the other members of the group, with intra-oligopoly coalitioning, and for another, because the outsiders will compete with each other and with the members of the oligopoly for their support and for potential future membership. Stability might be secured with the so-called Stackelberg leader, which is to say that one member of the Concert would secure the leadership power. That would be the reason for the Concert not to get formed to begin with.

One can perhaps see the dynamic of such an oligopoly with a leader in the performance of the Security Council in the period after the end of the Cold War and the return of the stalemate early in the new century. The period in question might be the one between the first Iraq War and the rejection of the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo due to the Russian veto. In the interim, there was no agreement on the NATO war on Serbia and on the second Iraq War.

To simply capture these challenges that the Concert of the World might face, I consider three criteria for inclusion in the Concert and for its enduring stability.

The first is the combined economic and military weight, which is what is associated with the notion of a great power. If we take that the members of the Concert are: USA, EU, Japan, China, Russia, and India, as proposed by Haas and Kupchan, the first two have individually larger economies than China while Japan’s economy is larger than Russia’s or India’s. Indeed, the first three economies together greatly outweigh the aggregate economies of the latter three.

Militarily, in terms of nuclear weapons, Russia is up there with the US, while China’s military build-up is closing in on them both and India will certainly continue to put the effort to keep up. The EU and Japan are not military powers; the EU probably cannot be. The UK is excluded from the group in this proposal, which is hard to justify on the big power criteria alone, so the reasons probably should be found in the next two.

The second is existence of security risks between the members of the Concert and more generally. Territorial conflicts are the most threatening. The US has potential, but avoidable, problems with China on the Pacific and with Russia in the Arctic. The EU has problems with Russia in their joint neighbourhood. Indeed, Russia has developed and is sustaining a number of frozen conflicts on its borders; of which the Ukrainian one is not even completely frozen. China has territorial issues with India and had problems with Russia in the past; and has potentially serious problems with Japan. Russia and Japan have an unresolved territorial dispute. India feels threatened by China. India is also directly involved in one major territorial dispute, over the control of Kashmir, with a nuclear power, Pakistan.

The third is the existence of security and other obligations in the crisis spots e.g., in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula. And then there are the Caucasus, Ukraine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Balkans. And of course, many other crises elsewhere in the world. These crisis points draw up the world’s geography of animosity.

Looking at the challenges of the changing geography of animosity, it does not appear that any of the potential members of the Concert of the World has obligations they cannot meet. Russia is an exception as it is increasing its involvement in all the world’s hot spots even though its economic weight is hardly such that it can sustainably afford its world power ambitions. If one were to look for an example of a country which is competing for membership in the big league so to speak, that would be Russia. Historically, that has tended not to pay off well.3

There are at least three major problems with these ideas of the Global Concert or balance of power at the very outset. First and probably the most fundamental is that Kissinger for one does not define what the stable balance of power is. This is the problem that plagued the Concert of Europe. The balance can be established at the current level or at some agreed upon level of equal distribution of power. The former would have to assume that the balance has already been established, so further increases in military strength are not needed by anybody. The latter would mean that the stronger should allow the weaker to become relatively more powerful. Chances are, however, that all the big powers would continue to build up their relative strength.

The other problem is that Haas and Kupchan do not consider what is supposed to happen to NATO and the US-Japan security pact, and perhaps other partnerships between the members of the Concert. That of course leads to the problem of the internal imbalance within the Concert of the World. If one puts together the US, the EU, and Japan, and they, plus the UK, are allied via their security commitments, they vastly outmatch in economic and military strength the other three countries, which do not have such close economic and military connections anyway. Even if, for instance, China and Russia were to forge an enduring alliance and even if the Chinese economy continues to catch up to those of the more advanced members of the Concert, it will still take some time for relative economic strengths to even out. In that, Russia’s contribution is going to keep diminishing in relative terms. And then of course there is India, which might share global economic interests with China and Russia but would become increasingly uneasy with China’s growing economic power in this type of set up.

And then, lastly, there is the role of the EU, which is not a military power at all. And is not likely to want to become one. And it should not be given the historical role of imperial Europe anyway. However, this kind of a set up would provide the incentive to the EU to increase its security forces, which might lead to problems within Europe. In the sense that Europe may become one of the crisis areas in ways that are not desirable at least on the historical record. With the UK inside the EU, things might have been different. One could have looked at the global EU weight as the combination of the military, in particular nuclear, power of UK and France with their global reach and the economic power of Germany. With the UK out, the EU is not much weaker in economic terms, but it is militarily and diplomatically.

These are considerations which are almost preliminary. The dynamics of the working of the Global Concert and its relations with the rest of the world is yet to be contemplated. When the idea was floated somewhat implicitly by Russia and before the attack on Ukraine, it was premised on the dissolution of NATO and on the irrelevance of the EU in power politics. The idea being that once the Cold War is over, the animosities are over, and the war alliances should be dissolved. In the same way France was included in the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars ended. This, however, did not happen after the two world wars, and the end of the Cold War was in a way the final end to these wars. Russia and China were included in the Security Council of the United Nations, a kind of Concert of the World, but the end of the Cold War did not see the demobilisation of the NATO alliance to match the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

This is of course one of the central questions. If indeed there is going to emerge a polycentric oligopoly of big powers, some of the inherited security arrangements will have to be reconsidered in order for the members of the Concert of the World to get at least close to an equal distribution of power. Otherwise, there is hardly any chance for the Concert of the World to contribute to stability rather than to conflict.

But why would the US and the EU give up on NATO and why would the US and Japan give up their security alliance? One would have to see the world in nationalistic terms, which is how the Trump administration approached the problem. If one assumes that every country is for itself and only bilateral arrangements are viable, while all the potential partners are equally suitable, then NATO and the US nuclear shield for Japan need not make sense. Multilateral arrangements make even less sense. But then the Concert of the World makes no sense too.

So, not only do the members need to be in some sense equal, but they need to be nationalistic so that there are no enduring alliances within the Concert of the World.

If, however, out of six member states of the Concert of the World three are allied and together are much stronger than the other three member states taken individually or collectively, then it is the straightforward consequence of the coalition power making that the collective power of the three allies is more than the sum of their individual powers because they can offer each and every one of the three remaining members of the Concert to join their coalition, perhaps on issue by issue basis. They can thus arbitrate in the issues in which the interests of the other members of the Concert collide. The remedy to that is the veto power. But the Security Council already exists.

Thus, for the Concert of the World to work as envisaged, the EU and Japan would have to become unsure of their alliance with the US, which indeed was where things were starting to go during the Trump administration. So, without the US ready to go into alliance with Russia or China as much as with the EU and Japan, the Concert of the World does not make sense. Indeed, in the case of the Concert of Europe the growing power of Germany and the potential alliance with Austria-Hungary together with Russia’s military build-up contributed to the growing irrelevance of the Concert.

And then, there is the rest of the world to consider. In the case of the Concert of Europe, there was the Ottoman Empire for one. Kissinger in his recent conversation mentions the Crimean War and the problem it presented for the Concert of Europe. There are perhaps no similar problems at the moment, but things can change quickly. Not wanting to speculate here, I might just mention two alternative international arrangements which might have better chances of ensuring an enduring peace then the Concert of the World. Both rely on the understanding which led to the setting up of the universal international institutions after the two world wars. And to the development of the European Union, which is kind of a Kantian project.

One is further economic globalisation. That would mean a new agreement on world trade which would be deep and comprehensive to use the trade policy jargon.

The other is a new UN Charter to address global public goods and basic human rights. In other words, a new understanding of sovereignty of nations and political unions.

That would be a Kantian alternative.

Peščanik.net, 06.04.2021.


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  1. See also H. Kissinger, Diplomacy. Simon and Schuster, 1994.
  2. V. Gligorov, A Kantian Idea of Sovereignty.
  3. V. Gligorov, Russia’s Interventions: Counterrevolutionary Power.