The key to looking at all the current global dynamics is to understand the nature of a polycentric reality in the world’s power configuration. Polycentrism is a little-understood phenomenon in the post-WWII world, although it was not an unusual set of circumstances in other periods of world history. Here, I will not elaborate on the historical precedents nor argue whether we are in fact living in a polycentric world. I would just describe the main characteristics of polycentric reality, for reference in discussions:
1. Alliances, in the traditional sense, become more nominal than real. They do not work as well during a polycentric period as they would during a polaristic period (such as the bi-polar Cold War period or the twenty years of US monopolar period immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union). Member nations of an alliance are generally not as loyal to each other, nor as reliable in times of need, as when the world’s dominant powers are polarized in their confrontation with each other.
2. Instead, nations form loosely-structured coalitions, if and when they discover a common objective or a need to join force on an expedition. These are transcient and often not effective nor substantive. Partnerships become better description of effective and substantive relationships, but nothing legally-binding can be expected to be strictly observed, not for long.
3. With 1 and 2 above, one would typically get the impression that every nation seems to be “nurturing its own devilish embryo” and “cooking up some plots”. Indeed, these times bring back memories of Winston Churchill’s famous but oft-ignored truism: “there is no permanent ally, no permanent enemy, only permanent national interests”.
4. Smart nations, big and small, will develop their own independent bilateral and multilateral relationships and arrangements with other nations. They pay attention to striking the appropriate balance between contentious nations or groups of nations, often using each other as “pivots”. Those relying on a Big Brother will pay a dear price. Learn to use others, not just be used.
5. A large and increasing number of functional groupings (“circles”) will be formed among nations with no set pattern of preclusions, inclusions and exclusions. Clubby-ness is relatively defunct. The multiple circles operate on an ad-hoc as well as ongoing basis, may interlap with each other, merge or separate, and intermittently get suspended or revived. Pragmatism and practicality rule the day. It is important to be nimble, flexible and adaptable, not dogmatic nor “set in one’s values”. It is relatively useless to be preachy.
6. The intrusion or interference by a “third party” or “outsider” into matters between nations is a normal phenomenon. Parties acting out of sorts (e.g., Britain breaking rank with the US and joined the AIIB) are to be expected.
7. Small nations can cause big ripples among the big and powerful ones. “Upsetting the apple cart” is part of the new normal (witness the Philippines recently).
8. The best players in this polycentric reality are those conversant with the dialectics of “neither a friend nor a foe, while simultaneously a friend and a foe” mode of bilateral relations. (This is a particularly Chinese forte, going back to its 2,500 years’ philosophical roots: contradictions are the norm and constant, whether it is good or bad depends on you and the effort you put or not put into it.) Ability to operate under ambiquity and constantly-changing circumstances is a measure of strength, as are patience and decisiveness when acting.
9. During the most dramatic periods of a polycentric universe, independent statemen’s roles in intenational affairs become prominent. These individuals (the Chinese called them “Masters Of The Horizontal and the Vertical”) would cross national boundaries, function often without exclusive affiliation or distinct allegiance, provide advice and analysis on strategy and stratagem. They often play a vital role in changing the course of history, be it war or peace.
10. The most successful nations during a polycentric period are those that have effectively undertaken massive and decisive reforms in their domestic affairs. (At least that is what I have learned from looking into the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history, circa 722 BC to 221 BC.)
With the above as a reference, I will address the current world situation in the next post.