The new abnormal of international power
12 Jun 2018|

‘When the balance of power changes, it is not the power we lose, but the balance.’

Florence Parly, French Minister for the Armed Forces, Singapore, 3 June 2018

The power balance wobbles and lots of power is sloshing around.

The new abnormal of international relations has stopped being that abnormal—it’s the strange form of the new normal.

The old normal was pushed and pounded. The new abnormal has been stomping on it for quite a while. The new abnormal is settling in as the permanent reality.

Lots of markers map this journey: the Iraq invasion (a US foreign policy disaster worse than Vietnam), the global financial crisis and the great recession, China overtaking Japan on the economic league table, and now China ahead of the US on purchasing power parity.

Donald Trump is more symptom than cause. Ditto Brexit.

The normal we’ve lost lasted just two decades, from 1989 to 2008. The US unipolar moment dawned with the end of the Cold War. Happy days: the US decided the old rules didn’t apply any more, in Iraq or the way US banks played the game. That version of normal smashed in 2008 when an already war-weary US suffered an economic nervous breakdown.

We’ve had a decade of the new abnormal. Get used to it.

The laments for the old normal are loud, only emphasising how much it has waned. Questions abound. Key among them: What does China want? What will the US do?

Those questions are at the heart of two annual tomes that track the tone, temperature and trajectory of the Asia–Pacific (aka Indo-Pacific):

See the strangeness of the times in the opening words of the first two chapters of the 2018 IISS study:

Chapter 1: President Trump’s first year in Asia—‘The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency yielded significant changes in the underlying principles of the United States’ engagement with the Asia–Pacific region, as well as in the style and focus of American diplomacy.’

So, Trump changes principles, style and focus—the abnormal normal, indeed.

Chapter 2: China’s regional leadership role—‘The Trump administration’s lack of a coherent Asia strategy has generated fears that America is stepping away from the regional leadership role that it has played in this part of the world since the Second World War. These concerns have been compounded by China’s apparent willingness to step in to fill the vacuum.’

Ok, that’s lack of coherent strategy, fears and vacuum.

Now, over to the CSCAP picture that’s printed from the same set of negatives. The ever-erudite Ron Huisken sets the scene, arguing that we’re witnessing the end of widespread confidence in America’s willingness to uphold the ‘rules-based order’. The ‘established but besieged order’ is slipping into a prolonged and dangerous transition to a contested order:

A major change in the distribution of hard power is well underway but for the indefinite future this ‘new order’ seems destined to have a collective leadership. No single state will have both the margin of hard power and the aura of legitimacy to either seize or to accept the mantle of sole leadership.

If this is the probable reality, it has yet to be accepted by the certain and probable members of that leadership collective. As the established order is perceived to be eroding, expectations of serious penalties for breakout behaviour weaken, leading to a gathering sense of disorder, chaos and danger.

The US can’t overturn the new abnormal—there’s no going back to that previous normal, the two decades when America enjoyed being unipolar. Perhaps America doesn’t have to. Ron Huisken poses the thought this way:

Can America regain its former pre-eminence? Hardly, but the smarter question might be whether it needs to do so? No other state can hope to achieve the quantitative and qualitative heights that the US attained over the decades following WW2. It is most unlikely that the US will shrink so it will remain as a huge state with immensely powerful armed forces, an array of allies and close friends, and a uniquely appealing set of governance and cultural attributes.

The old balance in the Asia–Pacific/Indo-Pacific has gone from wobbly to gyrating. That’s the point that was so elegantly put by Florence Parly at the Shangri-La Dialogue, in the quote atop this column: ‘When the balance of power changes, it is not the power we lose, but the balance.’

Throughout this decade, the annual IISS defence summit in Singapore has discussed what we’re losing—the old normal, the old balance—while debating how to order the new abnormal.

This year, US Defense Secretary James Mattis gave a good speech promising both cooperation and competition with China—and predicting that China will suffer consequences if it ignores the international community.

China again sent a relatively low-powered delegation and didn’t bother to argue too hard—grumbling acidly that Shangri-La is an Anglo-Saxon gang-bang in a Singapore setting.

And there you have the strangeness of the times. The US thinks that agro is as likely as agreement. China—simultaneously arrogant and insecure—isn’t always willing or able to argue its own case. Beijing wants the power but can’t explain what it aims to do.

The new abnormal is the new normal. That means less balance with the power and more uncertainty about where the power sits.