The Concert Is Back, and It Seems to Be Working


Risto E. J. Penttilä, International Herald Tribune

It took two world wars to create a system of governance for the 20th century. It took an attack against the United States to arrive at a new system of maintaining peace and order. What we see in the war against terrorism may well be a blueprint for global governance in the 21st century.

The unity in the war against terrorism bears an uncanny resemblance to the 19th century Concert of Europe. The Concert of Powers, as it was also known, was a loose coalition committed to maintaining peace and ensuring ”repose and prosperity” in Europe.

The concert was a flexible instrument. It sought to preserve the status quo and was ready to intervene to defend it. However, if change proved inevitable the concert was quick to condone it. Thus it suppressed uprisings in Italy in 1820 and in Spain in 1822 but condoned Belgium’s rebellion and proclamation of independence and accepted as a fait accompli the unification of Italy and Germany.

In the 19th century the leader of pack was Britain, which commanded the seas and could project its power anywhere it wished. Now the leader is the United States, which commands the skies and can project its power anywhere it wishes.

In the 19th century members of the concert included the victors of the Napoleonic Wars (Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia). But in a masterful diplomatic move the victors soon extended membership to France and turned a former foe into a partner.

Today’s global concert consists of the victors of the Cold War, but has been extended to a former foe, Russia. China is less involved than Russia but is already seen as one of the group.

The Bonn accord on Afghanistan is a fine example of a regional concert. The agreement became possible only after Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India all approved of it. Such unity has never before prevailed in that part of the world.

Small states normally dislike concerts of great powers. Concerts are based on the idea of a fundamental inequality of states: Great powers make history, while lesser powers abide by the rules set by the powerful. But it is not altogether bad news for small states. Concerts do moderate the behavior of great powers.

Concerts are not good for international institutions. NATO and the European Union are cases in point. Why use bureaucratic and cumbersome NATO when the dominant power can do the job alone with the consent of other great powers? Why discuss serious matters of war and peace with all the members of the European Union when it is more efficient to concert among the biggest member states?

Unpleasant as this kind of great power camaraderie is, it gives the lesser states an incentive to strengthen existing institutions. This can already be seen in the greater preparedness of the small EU member states to accept and push for a greater integration of foreign and security policies within the EU.

The success of the United Nations in revamping its image at the time of the return of a great power concert is something of a historical anomaly. But there is a good reason and it is called mutual dependence. The powers need legitimacy, and there is no better place to turn for legitimacy than the United Nations.

And the United Nations needs the great powers. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, unlike his predecessor Boutros Boutros Ghali, does not forget that the United Nations was created by a concert of victorious great powers and can be relevant only if great powers support it.

Concerts tend to be short-lived. During the last 200 years there have been three coalitions of great powers that are normally identified as concerts. Only the Concert of Europe had a life spanof several decades. It existed in an efficient form from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the Crimean War in 1854. (After that it continued to function more haphazardly until World War I.) The concerts that emerged after the first and second world wars lasted only a little more than a year each.

The only way to make the present concert of great powers long-lasting is to merge it with the Group of Eight. The G-8 has all the characteristics of a global concert and has an impressive, albeit unrecognized, record in international peace and security. It was the G-8 that brought an end to the war in Kosovo, and it is the G-8 that has been the driving force in combating the finances of terrorism.

Three distinguished strategic thinkers – Graham Allison, Karl Kaiser and Sergei Karaganov – suggested on this page on Nov. 21 that the Group of Eight should be the foundation on which a new entity, a Global Alliance for Security, ought to be built. In addition to existing members China should be brought into close cooperation.

A concert of great powers is not a perfect way to run the world, but it is certainly better than anarchy. If we cannot revamp the UN Security Council, and there is no indication that we could, then a concert of great powers is our best bet. It is not pretty but it works.

Article was published in International Herald Tribune
Friday, December 28, 2001


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