Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org
In the world there are four and only four great powers. They are China, the EU, Russia, and the USA.
Beyond the traditional economic and military capabilities, what makes an important power a great power is, arguably, its ability to project a world vision. A precondition for this is the ability to formulate a master frame of world order.
I claim that, as of today, only four great powers have developed a fairly sophisticated model of world order and have attempted, with a certain degree of success, to spread its content worldwide so to make their national normative projection global.
To these four we should then add a large number of nongovernmental organizations which singly or in networks actively contribute to such normative competition. Civil society organizations are particularly active in advocating new master frames on global politics and in enriching and diversifying the debate about world orders and international legitimacy.
Within states, authority is warranted through political procedures, which are democratic in nature in an increasingly number of states. At the international or indeed global level there are no such procedures. Authority is here ultimately warranted on legitimacy.
Ideas matter even more in times of power shift. In a period of transition eminently represented nowadays by the financial crisis, in which the traditional powers (USA+EU) are in decline, looking at how the key global players are (re)formulating their legitimacy claims through their model of world order is of utter importance. This tells us something about their actions which is at times overlooked. By understanding the models of world order held by the great powers we can better interpret their foreign policy actions.
Through the use of a strategic narrative, great powers attempt to consolidate their positioning vis a vis the other members of the international system. In this line, global master frames provide an interpretative key for reading international affairs. They identify a target of blame, draw an image of a desirable world order, and set international commitments. Their persuasive attributes are all too evident. Ultimately, the visions of world order help great powers to persuade the other actors about the rightness of their commitments.
Such visions of world order serve the aim of increasing one’s own legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. The national constituency is clearly crucial for any politician and it is obvious that any foreign policy decision, and a fortiori the overall depiction of one’s own foreign policy is drawn having in mind the search for national support. At the same time, politics being a multilevel game, politicians need also to secure external support, or at least to minimize external resistance. This way, models of world order also contribute to make new “friends” in the international system.
It is at these global master frames that we need to look in order to decipher a key dynamics in global politics. Of course, economy matters, military capabilities are highly significant, and institutional leverages are important. But it is these normative constructions and the soft power attached to them that we need to take into consideration in order to appreciate fully the ability of great powers to rally support and mobilize partners in the international decision making processes. International coalitions both at the level of intergovernmental dialogue and at the level of government-to-people public diplomacy heavily rely on mobilizing ideals. In the context of globalization in which so many uncontrollable avenues of interaction are available, soft power is proving key in influencing the course of action in the mid and long term.
In the dichotomy universalistic vs. contextualistic rests a crucial difference between the key global master frames present in today’s competition for international legitimacy.
While all global master frames have by definition a world scope, only the master frames uphold by the western powers have a universalistic nature. According to these, political principles and regimes should ultimately be replicated worldwide without any substantial differentiation. On the contrary the master frames endorse by non western countries such as Russia and China endorse a contextualistic perspective according to which each political regime needs to stand on its own principles and preserved in its uniqueness through the reaffirmation of national sovereignty.
The consequences deriving from divergence are all too clear. On the one hand, there is an open policy of democracy and human right promotion which is based on a specific understanding of these principles and does not take national borders as insurmountable barriers. American rough export of democracy and EU’s softer support for pro-democracy actors are just typical examples of these western transborder policies. On the other hand, there are sovereignist policies which are based on an understanding of politics as inherently embedded in a specific context and rooted in long standing traditions. Both the Russian idea of sovereign democracy and the Chinese ideal of a harmonious world entail the respect of difference as a key principle to be guarded in international politics.
As such these competing global master frames could easily end up in stalemate without finding a middle ground on which to build political compromises and common actions. It is in this context that the fifth main actor of global politics needs to be reassessed. Nongovernmental actors, and civil society organizations in particular, can be especially useful in envisaging potential commonalities and suggesting avenues for reducing the gaps between the four great powers.
From this perspective of the 4+1 global actors (China, the EU, Russia, and the USA + transnational nongovernmental actors), the future of the competition for international legitimacy needs thus to be seen as based on intercultural dialogue. It is only through a genuine dialogue that a more convincing global master frame can be constructed and more support rallied. Dialogue among great powers, but also and perhaps more productively dialogue among the four great powers and the plethora of nongovernmental actors that by now occupy an important space in international affairs.
Nongovernmental actors, and civil society organizations in particular, can in fact play a crucial role in terms of facilitating an open exchange of views insofar as they act through informal channels of communication, are less in need of continuously securing the support of national constituencies, and tend to have better exchange of information and ideas at the transnational level. Through people-to-people contacts, civil society organizations can in fact help to build up political frames from below which are potentially more robust in that they derive from more genuine common practices at the transnational level.
A critical step is obviously represented by the actual and potential avenues for communication between governments and nongovernmental actors. Such channels are not always open and this is proving detrimental to the flourishing of a positive dialogue about the future of global politics. An important task for politicians and activists is thus the creation, strengthening, and multiplications of arenas for dialogue about world orders.