Steps to secure the non-polar world

How to cooperate on global security with China, Russia and India will be among a new U.S President’s top challenges

The spectacular rise of China and India coupled with a decline in U.S. influence has prompted American scholar Richard Haas to talk about a “non-polar” world where it will be difficult to promote collective responses to regional and global challenges.

But rather than circle the wagons around like-minded democracies, a new U.S president should focus on issues where the West and the emerging powers can agree – like the safety of the international sea lanes. Both old and new powers transport a majority of their freight by sea. Yet a surge in sea piracy is threatening the traffic. Joining forces to deal with this scourge could be the start of a new approach to the world’s security problems.

It is easy to be gloomy about the prospects for a collective security arrangement in the modern world. The number of players alone will make cooperation difficult. In post-war Bosnia the so-called “international community” consisted of six countries who came together to oversee the country’s post-conflict transition. Fifteen years on, the UN-led body established to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction consist of no less than 42 countries.

But it is not only a question of numbers. The things that matters to the West – like stopping genocide in Darfur, rigged elections in Zimbabwe and a humanitarian catastrophe in Burma – are not high on Beijing’s list of priorities. More, the way in which the U.S and Europe are now used to solving problems – including outside the UN system – cuts against the way that India, Russia, China, Brazil want the international system to operate.

Our interests do coincide in a number of areas. Climate change, for example, has seen the European Union and China cooperate closer than has happened across the Atlantic. But these instances are usually the exception rather than the rule. In London, Berlin and Washington, diplomats are scratching their heads for ways to persuade China to come on board the West’s Sudan policy, or incentives for Moscow to buy-into the latest EU-US Iran policy.

In most instances, though, it is not clear how to make China “a responsible international stakeholder” – as this usually means getting Beijing to agree with the U.S. and Europe, even if doing so goes against China’s interests. When agreements are found, without the glue of a collective security system deals quickly fall apart or new disagreements emerge.

So be it, some argue. Rather than try to forge links across this new divide, a new U.S. President should build stronger links among the world’s democracies though a so-called League of Democracies. No doubt it will be crucial for a new U.S president to re-launch the trans-Atlantic alliance and find ways to expand cooperation to other democracies. But this cannot be enough, as cooperation is required with new emerging powers like China and Russia. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the European Parliament, “You cannot boycott a quarter of humanity.”

The key prize over the next decade is to build some form of collective security system fit for a non-polar world, not to give up trying. Few leaders would, any way, show up at a conference to re-draft the UN Charter – and if they did what are the chances that they would agree on anything?

Better to begin cooperating on something everyone needs. And this is where the safety of the sea lanes comes in. The growth of global commerce in the past two decades crowded the oceans with cargo vessels and supertankers loaded with every good imaginable. The world currently transports 80 per cent of all international freight by sea, a figure which will increase as energy prices soar. More than 10 million cargo containers are moving across the world’s oceans at any one time.

Both new and old powers use the sea lanes. For example, more than 99% of Japanese trade and 90% of U.S commerce is by shipping. Even for China, its all-important national economic growth is dependent on ocean commerce. And given the differences in efficiency between road and sea freight in terms of energy consumption, as energy prices increase so will the use of shipping.  

Yet the heavy ocean traffic has spawned a surge in sea piracy and a new breed of pirates, the bloodiest the world has seen. More than 2,400 acts of piracy were reported around the world between 2000 and 2006, roughly twice the number reported for the preceding six-year period. The sophistication of attacks against multiple ships suggests that piracy and armed robbery is taking on the characteristics of organized crime.

There is also a fear of certain seas – like the Malacca  Straits – emerging as a security “black hole” with the use of the waters to engage in arms and narcotics trafficking, which has been highlighted by the periodic discovery of arms shipments headed to terrorist organizations.

Realizing this, the international community is beginning to clamp down on sea piracy. In October 2007, two American destroyers sank two Somali pirate vessels after the pirates captured a Japanese tanker. Earlier in the summer, the U.N. Security Council voted in favour of a new measure that would allow the U.S. military to engage Somalian sea pirates.

But here lies the rub: the bulk of the burden to keep international sea lanes open befalls the U.S navy. To change this, a new UN-approved consortium should be established by the U.S, Russia, China, India and the EU to undertake multinational maritime operations.

No doubt cooperation will be difficult. For one, mutual suspicions run deep. China and India are competing in the South China Sea. Both eye the U.S Navy with suspicion. For Europeans, the problem is primarily one of cost. Budget cuts are affecting almost all European navies. But these reasons argue for, rather than against, a collective approach to maritime operations.

A new U.S president will not be short of proposals for how to counter Russia, stymie China and contain Iran. There may be no way around such policies. But at the same time, discussions should begin on building a new collective security framework. Finding ways for the U.S, Europe, China and India to cooperate on securing the world’s sea lanes could be the kind of confidence-building start required to build a collective security arrangement in a non-polar world.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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