The Past Should Not Always Be Prologue

Nicu Popescu

Global politics today is a mess, and it can be tempting to turn to history for clues about how to clean it up, as Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan did recently in “The New Concert of Powers” (March 23). But one must be careful to learn the right lessons. Haass and Kupchan argue that the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe provides a model for managing great-power relations, avoiding major wars, and balancing an imbalanced world. These are worthy goals, but the Concert of Europe failed to achieve them—and so would any new organization inspired by it.

In 1815, Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom founded the concert to maintain their power and stabilize a continent roiled by wars and revolutionary uprisings. The concert is sometimes depicted as producing a golden age of diplomacy: a time when diplomats and statesmen fostered mutual respect, maintained a balance of power, avoided one another’s spheres of influence, and eschewed war in favor of joint sorties to the opera and late-night discussions over whiskey and cigars.

That image is false. The Concert of Europe was based on the idea that a few great powers could run the world. Yet it neither prevented war among its members nor managed to preserve any balance of power for a meaningful length of time. Its achievements were short-lived, and its failures were disastrous.

Haass and Kupchan claim that the concert demonstrated how “a steering group of leading countries can curb the geopolitical and ideological competition that usually accompanies multipolarity” and that the concert’s approaches to statecraft and crises represented “important innovations” that helped “preserve peace in a multipolar world.” But the peaceful phase of the Concert of Europe was rather short: 38 years, stretching from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the outbreak of war in Crimea in 1853, during which there were no wars among the concert’s members but plenty of other wars, violent revolutions, and military interventions that involved them.

Thirty-eight years of relative peace does not a golden age make. For comparison, the Cold War, which represented another way of avoiding great-power conflict, managed to prevent a direct war between the Soviet Union and the United States for 43 years. Few, however, would wish for a return to that arrangement. And the post–Cold War period is now in its 32nd year—meaning that if China, Russia, and the United States avoid war in the next six years, the current creaky international system would have as good a record of preventing wars among great powers as the Concert of Europe had.

The Concert of Europe's achievements were short-lived, and its failures were disastrous.

What came after the concert’s initially peaceful phase further disqualifies it as a model. In 1853, Europe was plunged into nearly a century of wars among the Concert of Europe’s members. First, France and the United Kingdom went to war with Russia after Russia attacked Turkey. Then, in 1866, Prussia fought Austria-Hungary, and finally, in 1870 and 1871, France fought Germany and eventually lost, upsetting the continent’s precarious equilibrium.

All that fighting resulted from the fact that, ultimately, the Concert of Europe did not accomplish its main mission: ensuring a balance of power. Beginning in the 1850s, Prussia began building up its army and waging wars against its neighbors. The concert did not anticipate this development and failed to deal with it, which pushed the continent into a series of conflicts that lasted almost a century and culminated in the two world wars. In the end, the concert system required war, not quiet diplomacy, to restore balances of power. Even in the concert’s first few decades, when peace mostly prevailed, diplomacy worked only because the threat of some of its members going to war against others was ever present, driving diplomacy forward to keep that threat at bay.

Haass and Kupchan argue that a new multilateral organization inspired by the Concert of Europe could handle the challenges of today’s turbulent global order. But consider the difficulty such a group would have had in responding to the kinds of crises the world has seen in recent years. If a new concert along the lines proposed by Haass and Kupchan had existed in 2014, when Russia sent troops into Ukraine, it seems unlikely that China would have joined the United States and the EU in sanctioning Russia, let alone in threatening Moscow militarily. In 2015, after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft, it is hard to imagine that the United States and the EU would have sided with Russia, putting great-power solidarity above NATO solidarity. If Haass and Kupchan’s proposed concert came into being, it would not take long before one of two things would collapse: either the Western alliance system—including NATO and the EU—or the new concert itself.

A concert system would also be especially ill suited to the age of nuclear weapons. The Concert of Europe’s diplomacy worked a few times—for instance, by restraining Russian encroachments on the Ottoman Empire—because of the constant threat that some of its members would team up to attack another. But in a present-day version of the concert, in which all the members were nuclear powers, the chances of that happening would be far lower thanks to nuclear deterrence, which would make it far less likely that any member would credibly threaten war against another, since to do so would be to court catastrophe. Without the specter of war, a new concert of powers would feel far less urgency in encouraging diplomacy to find negotiated solutions to disagreements.

Haass and Kupchan are correct to highlight the persistent danger of great-power rivalries leading to war. But it is important to remember that the Concert of Europe was not a golden age of great-power relations. The concert was based on these powers’ readiness to wage war against fellow members when diplomacy failed. The concert set the stage for a disastrous century, and a new organization modeled on it would risk a similar outcome.

NICU POPESCU is Director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Alan Alexandroff and Colin Bradford

In their recent article (“The New Concert of Powers,” March 23), Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan directly acknowledge a set of basic facts that some observers of global politics tend to avoid: tensions between leading powers are a dominant force in international relations, China is now a peer of the United States in many ways, and the Western values that shaped the post–World War II era are no longer as dominant in today’s diverse, multipolar world.

Haass and Kupchan’s response to these emerging realities is a “great-power steering group”—a global concert of powers. Such an organization, they argue, is “the best option for managing an integrated world no longer overseen by a hegemon.” This group would consist of China, India, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the European Union. The authors argue that this organization would be far nimbler and more flexible than existing international bodies and better able to manage geopolitical and ideological differences among its members.

Haass and Kupchan are, to some extent, describing what international relations theorists and trade experts call plurilateralism—an arrangement somewhere between bilateralism and multilateralism in which a small number of states come together to advance a particular issue. Under the right circumstances, plurilateralism can be more effective than its alternatives. It provides an opportunity for inclusive global leadership and avoids the cacophony of voices and views that often characterizes multilateralism. Plurilateralism works best not in isolation, however, but as a part of a broader organization in which groups of powerful states can build ever-shifting coalitions of consensus that provide collective leadership at different moments and over different issues. Within large multilateral bodies such as the G-20, this dynamic helps countries avoid rigid blocs that stifle agreement and water down policies.

At the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019
At the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Haass and Kupchan’s concert would have difficulty replicating this system. Simply put, there wouldn’t be enough players in the room. Consider, for example, how difficult it would be for India and Japan to resolve the thorny tensions among China, Russia, the United States, and Europe. A better way of addressing the problems that Haass and Kupchan identify would be to work through existing institutions—namely, a revitalized G-20. The G-20 is large enough to offer states room to maneuver in complex negotiations and mediate between leading powers. Properly empowered, the G-20 could avoid gridlock, generate trust and respect, and make progress on difficult issues.

Current geopolitical tensions make it exceedingly unlikely that leading powers could cooperate to create a new global institution of the kind Haass and Kupchan envision, especially one that dramatically favors just six major powers. Of all the available options, the G-20 provides the best opportunity to manage geopolitical tensions and the global economy.

The G-20 is informal and flexible enough to accommodate the ideological diversity that the authors believe is necessary to manage contemporary great-power competition. The right players are at the table. Plurilateral leadership within the larger G-20—including China as a vital member—would bring multiple interests, perspectives, and pressures to bear on the issues at hand. The G-20 is also far more comprehensive than Haass and Kupchan acknowledge, holding ministerial meetings on a wide variety of issues—including 11 meetings that will occur before the next full summit, which is scheduled for November. The G-20 organizes official working groups on pressing issues, such as energy, health, infrastructure, and the digital economy, and engagement groups composed of representatives from the private sector, labor, civil society, youth organizations, the scientific community, and think tanks.

Contrary to Haass and Kupchan’s characterization of the group as a “fly-in, fly-out” organization, the G-20 also involves much more than just leaders’ summits. It hosts an ongoing series of gatherings and negotiations that involve hundreds of officials and societal leaders. Critical to these year-round activities are the so-called sherpas, who represent national leaders and meet frequently to shape summit agendas and forge final communiques and agreements.

The G-20 is large enough to offer states room to maneuver in complex negotiations and mediate between leading powers.

Nevertheless, Haass and Kupchan are right to argue that the G-20 could be a much stronger institution. One of its major weaknesses is a lack of connection with everyday citizens in G-20 member states. The group devotes little effort to communications—rarely explaining the meaning of its work, the impact of its policies, or the relationship between what happens at its meetings and what happens in member states. When it does speak to the public, the G-20 tends to see its audience as elites in finance, trade, business, and the policy world rather than the broader public. As a result, its communiques are rife with technocratic jargon, guaranteeing their inaccessibility to ordinary citizens.

Addressing that problem and others will require institutional change. Leaders’ summits should focus on systemic and long-term issues of public concern, leaving detailed policies to ministers. Sherpas should work to push such matters to the front of the agenda. G-20 ministers, moreover, should have the power to develop their own action plans on urgent issues such as global health emergencies or financial stability—communicating with leaders but not waiting on them. The G-20 also has a follow-through problem; the host leader changes yearly, making it difficult to coordinate a given policy’s implementation. A small but permanent secretariat could address that, helping shepherd issues from start to finish and then communicating the outcome to the public.

Most important, to operate as a global concert, the G-20 would have to do more than just change its processes. Instead of limiting itself to economic, social, and environmental issues, the group would also need to function as a forum for heads of state, foreign and defense ministers, and other officials to discuss strategic and political security matters. Although the body occasionally raises such issues, those discussions are the exception rather than the rule. By expanding its role, the G-20 could become a focal point for easing geopolitical tensions.

Plurilateralism can work. Shifting coalitions can ease tensions, generate mutual respect, and pave the way for progress on important issues. These are precisely the attributes that, as Haas and Kupchan point out, global institutions must have in order to prevent China and the United States from entering an era of bipolar competition. With the right approach and reforms, a focus on security issues, and the inclusion of China in a plurilateral leadership group, the G-20 could serve as a model of plurilateralism—one that would make it unnecessary to build a new global concert from scratch.

ALAN S. ALEXANDROFF is Director of the Global Summitry Project, teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and is Co-Chair of the China-West Dialogue.

COLIN I. BRADFORD is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Co-Chair of the China-West Dialogue, and a Global Fellow of the Global Solutions Initiative in Berlin.


Haass and Kupchan Reply

Our proposal to establish a global concert has provoked considerable discussion, reflecting widespread interest in fresh thinking on international order in an era of renewed great-power rivalry, ideological diversity, emerging multipolarity, and technological dynamism. We looked to the Concert of Europe for historical guidance because it succeeded in preserving peace among five major powers through dialogue and consensus, despite differences in outlook and aims.

Nicu Popescu is right to point out that the nineteenth-century concert privileged the rights and responsibilities of major powers at the expense of weaker states. But that’s the point. Great-power steering groups work precisely because they bring to the table only the states that need to be there. Popescu is also correct that the “peaceful phase” of the concert lasted only 38 years; it failed to prevent the Crimean War or the series of conflicts that arose from German unification. But we are searching for a better approach to managing a multipolar world, not perpetual peace. If a new global concert succeeded in averting major war, moderating great-power friction, and promoting even limited cooperation on regional and global issues until 2060, we would gladly take it.

Popescu also claims that including China and Russia in a global concert would doom its efficacy or spell the collapse of the Western alliance system. Given Beijing’s and Moscow’s penchant for aggressive behavior, he contends, the United States would eventually have to choose between abandoning the concert or parting ways with democratic U.S. allies. That analysis posits a false choice. A new concert would backstop, not replace, the current international architecture. The U.S.-centered network of alliances would remain central. The United States and its democratic partners, which constitute four of the proposed concert’s six members, would look to the group to head off and contain differences with China and Russia, not accommodate acts of aggression.

Great-power steering groups work precisely because they bring to the table only the states that need to be there.

In an interdependent world in which China, backed by Russia, is emerging as a peer competitor to the United States, cooperation across ideological lines is a must. To be sure, forging common ground with Beijing and Moscow on issues such as geopolitical stability, cybersecurity, global health, and climate change will be difficult and might well fall short. But not making an effort to do so or merely hoping that the status quo will evolve into something more stable all but guarantees a more dangerous and disorderly world.

Unlike Popescu, Alan Alexandroff and Colin Bradford recognize the need for new approaches to managing great-power relations in a multipolar world. They agree with our call for an informal grouping of major powers to address pressing issues but contend that the G-20 offers a more appropriate venue because it features 20 members instead of six. More is better, they maintain, as a larger membership would “offer states room to maneuver in complex negotiations and mediate between leading powers.”

We fail to see the logic. A grouping of 20 is more unwieldy than a grouping of six. There is almost always a tradeoff between inclusion and effectiveness. It is no accident that small-group formats—the six-party talks to deal with North Korea, the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, the four-member Normandy grouping for Ukraine—are today’s diplomatic vehicles of choice. The G-20 provides an important forum for discussion, but even with Alexandroff and Bradford’s sound recommendations for institutional reform, it is hard to imagine that the organization could mature into the steering group the world sorely needs. The G-20 has added value when it comes to policy coordination on economic, social, and environmental questions, but for good reason it has generally steered clear of security issues. The group’s size and diversity make it ill suited to take on the big geopolitical matters of the day. It makes more sense to stand up a global concert of six core members and, as we propose, add other actors as circumstances necessitate.

As we acknowledged in our original essay, our proposal to establish a global concert has drawbacks and limits. Still, clinging to the status quo or tinkering with existing institutions are far less preferable options as great-power rivalry mounts and international cooperation fades. Should a great-power steering group fail to materialize, the most likely result would be either a more unruly world managed by no one or the return of spheres of influence—outcomes that would make the task of organizing collective efforts to address global issues even more challenging than it already is.

RICHARD N. HAASS is President of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The World: A Brief Introduction.

CHARLES A. KUPCHAN is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

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