International Decentralization

This column is normally written in Angra do Heroismo, in the Azores, right in the middle of the Atlantic. This geographical vantage point is helpful when it comes to analyzing international politics, as it allows some distancing from events and protagonists.

In the past two weeks, a number of events have occurred that suggest we may be entering an era in which the international order becomes far more decentralized than during the Cold War and the 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this last period, the superiority of the United States was manifestly clear.

The first of these recent events of note was the meeting at Camp David between the leaders of the United States, Japan and Korea, where they reached an agreement to form a strategic alliance that may be formalized in the coming years. From the point of view of the Joe Biden administration, this was an important diplomatic victory. For many decades, the memories of Japanese colonialism and the violence perpetrated on Korean women by Japanese soldiers during World War II kept Seoul and Tokyo from engaging in any sort of substantial strategic collaboration.

China, however, has managed the historic feat of pushing these two capitals closer, creating the conditions for this new trilateral alliance in the Pacific region. As Michael J. Green points out in his recent book, “Line of Advantage,” the United States’ current strategic concept regarding China was essentially developed in the Japanese capital. Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister who was assassinated last year, was the intellectual architect for a new vision of regional order in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Tokyo managed to aggregate regional interests, a feat particularly relevant for Washington.

The second event is the BRICS* summit, which took place this week in South Africa. For Beijing, this institution plays an important part in creating an international order dominated by China and is able to help export its autocratic political model. This concept, however, is not in the interests of India, Russia or Brazil — and the same could be said for those nations which would like to join the group. But while they are wary of the growing ambitions of a China led by Xi Jinping, they view the commercial routes between the Persian Gulf, Africa and Asia as benefiting their national interests and as a critical opportunity. In addition, direct investments by China in their countries, as well as loans that don’t appear to include the type of political expectations that Washington’s loans often do, make entry into the BRICS group more tempting.

All of these countries tend to believe that the United States will still be the most powerful country in the world at the end of this decade, but they fear its financial hegemony and its unpredictability as an ally, or even as an economic, scientific and military partner. Their approaches to China can therefore be seen as part of an effort to accelerate their own domestic development, but also as an attempt to decentralize international politics. They hope that these moves will give them more room to maneuver and defend their interests, and allow them to avoid having to choose between the United States, which they consider to be a hypocritical power, and China.

Washington and Beijing would like to navigate an era of highly centralized international politics. Their rivalry, however, is providing lesser powers the possibility of creating alternatives to the existing international structures.

*Editor’s Note: BRICS is an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa and represents a grouping of these world economies.

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