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Großraum and Regional Hegemony, Redux

April 14, 2011

Beginning in the aftermath of World War I, and restarting in earnest after its more cataclysmic sequel, the Western world has sought to develop universal norms and ideological architectures to preserve and advance the progress of modern ideals. The assumption was that these ideas would be truly universal, and that whether those ideals stemmed from capitalism or communism, they would be without geographic delimitation. In the case of international humanitarian law, the primary stumbling block for half the latter half of the twentieth century was the presence of a rival, equally universalistic doctrine with superpower backing, which both directly excluded the advance of liberal and humanitarian ideas into its own realm, and whose own global aims pressured liberal leaders to compromise their values for the sake of geostrategic interest. The end of the Cold War thus removed both impediment to advancing liberalism and humanitarianism, and decreased the threat of instability which lent realists’ caution credence. Western thinkers generally agreed that a new universal order based on some variant of liberal principles would reign worldwide – the dispute was whether this moral community would have a unipolar hegemon or a multipolar distribution of power as its geopolitical foundation.

The experience of history made clear these aspiring universal norms lack universal recognition, interpretation, and support. Irascible cultural differences often take the blame, or credit, for this fact. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations became most notorious for asserting the inevitability of cultural-civilizational limits to political ideas, but he was hardly the only culprit. Even left commentators have embraced a sort of global cultural pluralism. Chantal Mouffe, who opposes liberal universalists such as Jurgen Habermas, advocates for a return to a world of regional blocs with their own political identities, with the European left’s project appropriate for Europe alone. She also explicitly advocates a world of pluralistic identities as a necessary step to create the multipolarity to check the United States and with it, its prevailing vision of a liberal, free market world order. Multipolarity becomes necessary as a recognition of cultural pluralism and a bulwark against the universalistic ambitions of ideologically dominant liberalism. For the left, and particularly amongst Europeans and advocates of the Global South or successors to the Third Worldists, multipolarity also contains some hint of a global multilateralism. Yet both the cultural essentialist views of a multipolar international system and the anti-hegemonic multipolar and multilateralist critique overlook the dynamic forces behind multipolarity itself.

To make this discussion more concrete, consider Responsibility to Protect, which I discussed in a previous post. Responsibility to Protect is a universal ideal, and it has adherents in Europe, the United States, and a not insubstantial portion of the developing world. Responsibility to Protect has an intellectual genealogy in Western political thought, of course, but it is not a culturally essentialist concept in any meaningful sense. Simultaneously, it is not the tool of a hegemonic, unipolar American system, as critical theorists might brand it. Responsibility to Protect’s most eager and able proponents are in Europe, and as the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council’s endorsement of  an NFZ in Libya indicate, it can mobilize at least tactical support from non-Western quarters.

Yet the distribution of power will likely determine the extent of Responsibility to Protect as a rigorous doctrine. The key is to understand Responsibility to Protect, and multipolarity itself, within the context of the geographic, technological, and strategic considerations that make it possible. For adherents of a civilization-determined international politics or an anti-hegemonic, anti-liberal critique, multipolarity is a normative or political necessity, rather than a historically, geopolitically, and strategically contingent phenomena. This is a problem which, it is worth mentioning, realist scholarship must grapple with as well. The balance of power as a foreign policy doctrine had its origins not simply as a descriptive but a normative position in European political theory, and thus even though the empirical records pertaining conventional balance of power theories seriously challenge realists’ use of their descriptive validity, the normative appeal of multipolarity as a precondition for achieving a balance of power or equilibrium is a problem in realist though as well. In the case of Responsibility to Protect, however, realist explanations of power calculations and interest-based contingency do a much better job of explaining the doctrine’s geographic boundaries in the European sphere of influence. While culturalist solidarity was used to explain foreign intervention in the Balkans, such explanations break down in the interventions in Libya and UN actions in Cote d’Ivoire, or the calls to help the people of Darfur and the Congo. The critiques of Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention are, to the extent a civilizational or culturalist explanation applies, the product of imperial condescension, not colonial oppression. The critical left’s arguments against the doctrine over-emphasize the materialist incentives to intervene in countries where Responsibility to Protect is applied. As defenders of humanitarian intervention and realist critics have noted, the economic and strategic benefits of political power in countries such as Cote d’Ivoire or Libya are relatively low.

Despite the insistence of prominent intellectuals, neither oil nor coffee nor cocoa motivate the application of Responsibility to Protect. What best explains the geographic bounding of Responsibility to Protect, among other patterns of idealistic behavior, are the material and political factors which increase the costs and risks of intervention. Multipolarity and spheres of influence are the patterns of geopolitical and strategic factors. Consider that very few of the states in western or northern Africa, or the Balkans, have strong military establishments. These are realms of minor and often weak governments, which are less able to field the capabilities necessary to deter an armed intervention of limited scope. These states are also relatively accessible to the power projection capabilities the relevant great powers in the European sphere of influence are able to bring to bear. Because Europe’s navy is relatively weak, even assuming there were just minor anti-access and air defense capabilities to deal with, a European intervention can become quite costly when it goes out of reach of its Mediterranean airfields and military bases.

Equally important, those states are too distant from another great power’s military capabilities to provoke a serious diplomatic crisis at a high level. To paraphrase the classic remark about Mexican geopolitics: poor Gaddafi, so far from China, so close to France. Even assuming Europe did have the power projection capability to independently field an intervention force in somewhere such as Burma or Kyrgyzstan, their intrusion into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence would markedly reduce the appeal of any form of humanitarian intervention.

Willingness to undertake intervention is also a function of relative security. It is quite obvious that a doctrine such as Responsibility to Protect is unlikely to take root among countries with serious security threats on their borders which require them to focus their military efforts closer to home, or at least closer to vital interests. In this sense, the presence of a predominant power, even in a multipolar system, to provide security for other regions and control the global commons, makes intervention based on less concrete interests and values more likely. What advocates of multipolarity as not just a distribution of power, but a normatively superior ideological architecture, fail to see is that multipolarity only bounds or brackets power and ideology.

I previously discussed a similar idea about the spatial and geographic bounding of ideology in this post here, in the context of Carl Schmitt’s Großraum theory and the ideology of regional hegemony. Schmitt’s concept of the Großraum is present in Mouffe’s geopolitical analysis, and some commentators have accused his ideas of surfacing in Huntington’s concept of civilizational blocs. The resemblance to Huntington is superficial at best. Mouffe, who explicitly draws on Schmitt, overlooks the role that he intended the Großraum to actually play in world politics. The notion of Großraum is different than multipolarity, because the spatial configuration, and not just the number of great powers, is a determining factor. It is also quite different than multilateralism, in fact, Schmitt’s desire to see the world organized into a number of Großraume was intended to substitute for the failed multilateralism and international institution-building he saw in the League of Nations. Furthermore, its bracketing and restraint of conflict relied on the rejection of Just War theory. Where the critical left opposes the Just War formulations of humanitarian intervention or regime change because they enable liberal hegemony and wars of absolute enmity, Schmitt’s solution was to reassert jus hostis, rightful enemy, as the primary criteria of war’s legitimacy. In other words, Schmitt believed that only by rejecting claims of absolute ideological and ethical supremacy could a multipolar world sustain itself in the context of modern means of destruction.

The European states supporting Responsibility to Protect and human rights, along with the United States, do not intend to create a Großraum, nor will they likely find that outcome normatively satisfying. However, Schmitt provides us with a workable frame of reference. His conception of geopolitical order and orientation comes from a dynamic interaction of geography, technology, and ideology, where naval, aerial, and nuclear capabilities determined new juridical and political possibilities and constraints. It will doubtless strike some as strange, if not wrong, to think of human rights, humanitarian intervention, or state sovereignty in the geographic context of great power realms and the technological and logistical capability of their military forces. It recalls too much of Stalin’s remark that “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach,” if only descriptively, rather than the prescriptive sense in which Stalin intended it.

So long as the United States retains command of the global commons, or at least its Atlantic sphere, Europe will continue to enjoy the security which makes an outward policy of Großraum possible. The devastating consequences of modern warfare and the rise of non-European great powers propelled Schmitt, in part, to formulate the theory. Europe’s Großraum, like America’s in the Monroe Doctrine, is possible only through the acquiescence of a leading, liberal maritime power. Unlike America’s, however, Europe’s will be accidental. America, by virtue of its strategic interests within Europe’s sphere of influence and its commitments outside of them, will not just be the enabler but the restrainer of European intervention.

At the level of ideological competition, the result of such accidental Großraume will be what Gulliver called “calcified multipolarity.” In other words, multipolarity will not mean the disappearance of interventions in the name of universalist principles or the reversion to a non-ideological game of great power politics. Through the operation and imposition of regional ideological architectures in great powers’ respective realms of influence, strong states will seek to legitimate themselves in their own neighborhoods, while universal multilateral bodies weaken in influence. The EU and the norms it is able to enforce within its own realm will remain, and even become strong, as perhaps will ASEAN’s in East Asia. However, with the legitimization of regional bodies, their universalization will become less and less plausible. The integration of great power military-technical capabilities within a specific geographic and institutional context will limit the ability of global bodies to operate, or a great power to spread its norms beyond its geostrategic sphere of influence and operation.

Contrary to realists who believe anarchy at the global great power scale applies equally well to the relatively hierarchical orders of particular geographic realms, institutions and norms may well be able to flourish. Contrary to those who hope to overcome anarchy through modeling multilateralism and positive normative change in a particular realm, the ability of a power in one realm to project its preferences into any other will likely remain subject to the traditional calculations of geostrategic capability. Viewed from the lenses which evaluate ideological and institutional factors in world politics primarily through their universality or potential to achieve it, a world of multipolarity and no universal consensus may seem to be a world where ideology will not matter. At the level of great power interactions, this may well be the case – it is possible the military regional hegemony, defined in Mearsheimer’s terms, could coexist with a world of great powers with an institutional or ideological hegemony within their own spaces. The lack of a competitor with universalistic ideological aims does not mean the end to the global scale of geopolitical competition, just as such an absence does not mean a universalistic ideology will triumph everywhere.

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