The New Concert of Powers
How to Prevent Catastrophe and Promote Stability in a Multipolar World
|U.S. and Chinese leaders in Beijing, December 2011 Andy Wong / Pool / Reuters|
By Richard N. Haass and Charles A. Kupchan - 23. March 2021
The international system is at a historical inflection point. As Asia continues its economic ascent, two centuries of Western domination of the world, first under Pax Britannica and then under Pax Americana, are coming to an end. The West is losing not only its material dominance but also its ideological sway. Around the world, democracies are falling prey to illiberalism and populist dissension while a rising China, assisted by a pugnacious Russia, seeks to challenge the West’s authority and republican approaches to both domestic and international governance.
U.S. President Joe Biden is committed to refurbishing American democracy, restoring U.S. leadership in the world, and taming a pandemic that has had devastating human and economic consequences. But Biden’s victory was a close call; on neither side of the Atlantic will angry populism or illiberal temptations readily abate. Moreover, even if Western democracies overcome polarization, beat back illiberalism, and pull off an economic rebound, they will not forestall the arrival of a world that is both multipolar and ideologically diverse.
History makes clear that such periods of tumultuous change come with great peril. Indeed, great-power contests over hierarchy and ideology regularly lead to major wars. Averting this outcome requires soberly acknowledging that the Western-led liberal order that emerged after World War II cannot anchor global stability in the twenty-first century. The search is on for a viable and effective way forward.
The best vehicle for promoting stability in the twenty-first century is a global concert of major powers. As the history of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe demonstrated—its members were the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria—a steering group of leading countries can curb the geopolitical and ideological competition that usually accompanies multipolarity.
Concerts have two characteristics that make them well suited to the emerging global landscape: political inclusivity and procedural informality. A concert’s inclusivity means that it puts at the table the geopolitically influential and powerful states that need to be there, regardless of their regime type. In so doing, it largely separates ideological differences over domestic governance from matters of international cooperation. A concert’s informality means that it eschews binding and enforceable procedures and agreements, clearly distinguishing it from the UN Security Council. The UNSC serves too often as a public forum for grandstanding and is regularly paralyzed by disputes among its veto-wielding permanent members. In contrast, a concert offers a private venue that combines consensus building with cajoling and jockeying—a must since major powers will have both common and competing interests. By providing a vehicle for genuine and sustained strategic dialogue, a global concert can realistically mute and manage inescapable geopolitical and ideological differences.
A global concert would be a consultative, not a decision-making, body. It would address emerging crises yet ensure that urgent issues would not crowd out important ones, and it would deliberate on reforms to existing norms and institutions. This steering group would help fashion new rules of the road and build support for collective initiatives but leave operational matters, such as deploying peacekeeping missions, delivering pandemic relief, and concluding new climate deals, to the UN and other existing bodies. The concert would thus tee up decisions that could then be taken and implemented elsewhere. It would sit atop and backstop, not supplant, the current international architecture by maintaining a dialogue that does not now exist. The UN is too big, too bureaucratic, and too formalistic. Fly-in, fly-out G-7 or G-20 summits can be useful but even at their best are woefully inadequate, in part because so much effort goes toward haggling over detailed, but often anodyne, communiqués. Phone calls between heads of state, foreign ministers, and national security advisers are too episodic and often narrow in scope.
Fashioning major-power consensus on the international norms that guide statecraft, accepting both liberal and illiberal governments as legitimate and authoritative, advancing shared approaches to crises—the Concert of Europe relied on these important innovations to preserve peace in a multipolar world. By drawing on lessons from its nineteenth-century forebearer, a twenty-first-century global concert can do the same. Concerts do lack the certitude, predictability, and enforceability of alliances and other formalized pacts. But in designing mechanisms to preserve peace amid geopolitical flux, policymakers should strive for the workable and the attainable, not the desirable but impossible.
A GLOBAL CONCERT FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
A global concert would have six members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Democracies and nondemocracies would have equal standing, and inclusion would be a function of power and influence, not values or regime type. The concert’s members would collectively represent roughly 70 percent of both global GDP and global military spending. Including these six heavyweights in the concert’s ranks would give it geopolitical clout while preventing it from becoming an unwieldy talk shop.
Members would send permanent representatives of the highest diplomatic rank to the global concert’s standing headquarters. Although they would not be formal members of the concert, four regional organizations—the African Union, Arab League, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Organization of American States (OAS)—would maintain permanent delegations at the concert’s headquarters. These organizations would provide their regions with representation and the ability to help shape the concert’s agenda. When discussing issues affecting these regions, concert members would invite delegates from these bodies as well as select member states to join meetings. For example, were concert members to address a dispute in the Middle East, they could request the participation of the Arab League, its relevant members, and other involved parties, such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
A global concert would shun codified rules, instead relying on dialogue to build consensus. Like the Concert of Europe, it would privilege the territorial status quo and a view of sovereignty that precludes, except in the case of international consensus, using military force or other coercive tools to alter existing borders or topple regimes. This relatively conservative baseline would encourage buy-in from all members. At the same time, the concert would provide an ideal venue for discussing globalization’s impact on sovereignty and the potential need to deny sovereign immunity to nations that engage in certain egregious activities. Those activities might include committing genocide, harboring or sponsoring terrorists, or severely exacerbating climate change by destroying rainforests.
Policymakers should strive for the workable and the attainable, not the desirable but impossible.
A global concert would thus put a premium on dialogue and consensus. The steering group would also acknowledge, however, that great powers in a multipolar world will be driven by realist concerns about hierarchy, security, and regime continuity, making discord inescapable. Members would reserve the right to take unilateral action, alone or through coalitions, when they deem their vital interests to be at stake. Direct strategic dialogue would, though, make surprise moves less common and, ideally, unilateral action less frequent. Regular and open consultation between Moscow and Washington, for example, might have produced less friction over NATO enlargement. China and the United States are better off directly communicating with each other over Taiwan than sidestepping the issue and risking a military mishap in the Taiwan Strait or provocations that could escalate tensions.
A global concert could also make unilateral moves less disruptive. Conflicts of interest would hardly disappear, but a new vehicle devoted exclusively to great-power diplomacy would help make those conflicts more manageable. Although members would, in principle, endorse a norm-governed international order, they would also embrace realistic expectations about the limits of cooperation and compartmentalize their differences. During the nineteenth-century concert, its members frequently confronted stubborn disagreements over, for instance, how to respond to liberal revolts in Greece, Naples, and Spain. But they kept their differences at bay through dialogue and compromise, returning to the battlefield in the Crimean War in 1853 only after the revolutions of 1848 spawned destabilizing currents of nationalism.
A global concert would give its members wide leeway when it comes to domestic governance. They would effectively agree to disagree on questions of democracy and political rights, ensuring that such differences do not hinder international cooperation. The United States and its democratic allies would not cease criticizing illiberalism in China, Russia, or anywhere else, and neither would they abandon their effort to spread democratic values and practices. On the contrary, they would continue to raise their voices and wield their influence to defend universal political and human rights. At the same time, China and Russia would be free to criticize the domestic policies of the concert’s democratic members and publicly promote their own vision of governance. But the concert would also work toward a shared understanding of what constitutes unacceptable interference in other countries’ domestic affairs and, as a result, are to be avoided.
OUR BEST HOPE
Establishing a global concert would admittedly constitute a setback to the liberalizing project launched by the world’s democracies after World War II. The proposed steering group’s aspirations set a modest bar compared with the West’s long-standing aim of spreading republican governance and globalizing a liberal international order. Nonetheless, this scaling back of expectations is unavoidable given the twenty-first century’s geopolitical realities.
The international system, for one, will exhibit characteristics of both bipolarity and multipolarity. There will be two peer competitors—the United States and China. Unlike during the Cold War, however, ideological and geopolitical competition between them will not encompass the world. On the contrary, the EU, Russia, and India, as well as other large states such as Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, and South Africa, will likely play the two superpowers off each other and seek to preserve a significant measure of autonomy. Both China and the United States will also likely limit their involvement in unstable zones of less strategic interest, leaving it to others—or no one—to manage potential conflicts. China has long been smart enough to keep its political distance from far-off conflict zones, while the United States, which is currently pulling back from the Middle East and Africa, has learned that the hard way.
The international system of the twenty-first century will therefore resemble that of nineteenth-century Europe, which had two major powers—the United Kingdom and Russia—and three powers of lesser rank—France, Prussia, and Austria. The Concert of Europe’s primary objective was to preserve peace among its members through a mutual commitment to upholding the territorial settlement reached at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The pact rested on good faith and a shared sense of obligation, not contractual agreement. Any actions required to enforce their mutual commitments, according to a British memorandum, “have been deliberately left to arise out of the circumstances of the time and of the case.” Concert members recognized their competing interests, especially when it came to Europe’s periphery, but sought to manage their differences and prevent them from jeopardizing group solidarity. The United Kingdom, for example, opposed Austria’s proposed intervention to reverse a liberal revolt that took place in Naples in 1820. Nonetheless, British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh eventually assented to Austria’s plans provided that “they were ready to give every reasonable assurance that their views were not directed to purposes of aggrandizement subversive of the Territorial System of Europe.”
A global concert would give its members wide leeway when it comes to domestic governance.
A global concert, like the Concert of Europe, is well suited to promoting stability amid multipolarity. Concerts limit their membership to a manageable size. Their informality allows them to adapt to changing circumstances and prevents them from scaring off powers averse to binding commitments. Under conditions of rising populism and nationalism, widespread during the nineteenth century and again today, powerful countries prefer looser groupings and diplomatic flexibility to fixed formats and obligations. It is no accident that major states have already been turning to concert-like groupings or so-called contact groups to tackle tough challenges; examples include the six-party talks that addressed North Korea’s nuclear program, the P5+1 coalition that negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the Normandy grouping that has been seeking a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The concert can be understood as a standing contact group with a global purview.
Separately, the twenty-first century will be politically and ideologically diverse. Depending on the trajectory of the populist revolts afflicting the West, liberal democracies may well be able to hold their own. But so too will illiberal regimes. Moscow and Beijing are tightening their grip at home, not opening up. Stable democracy is hard to find in the Middle East and Africa. Indeed, democracy is receding, not advancing, worldwide—a trend that could well continue. The international order that comes next must make room for ideological diversity. A concert has the necessary informality and flexibility to do so; it separates issues of domestic rule from those of international teamwork. During the nineteenth century, it was precisely this hands-off approach to regime type that enabled two liberalizing powers—the United Kingdom and France—to work with Russia, Prussia, and Austria, three countries determined to defend absolute monarchy.
Finally, the inadequacies of the current international architecture underscore the need for a global concert. The rivalry between the United States and China is heating up fast, the world is suffering through a devastating pandemic, climate change is advancing, and the evolution of cyberspace poses new threats. These and other challenges mean that clinging to the status quo and banking on existing international norms and institutions would be dangerously naive. The Concert of Europe was formed in 1815 owing to the years of devastation wrought by the Napoleonic Wars. But the lack of great-power war today should not be cause for complacency. And even though the world has passed through previous eras of multipolarity, the advance of globalization increases the demand for and importance of new approaches to global governance. Globalization unfolded during Pax Britannica, with London overseeing it until World War I. After a dark interwar hiatus, the United States took up the mantle of global leadership from World War II into the twenty-first century.
But Pax Americana is now running on fumes. The United States and its traditional democratic partners have neither the capability nor the will to anchor an interdependent international system and universalize the liberal order that they erected after World War II. The absence of U.S. leadership during the COVID-19 crisis was striking; each country was on its own. President Biden is guiding the United States back to being a team player, but the nation’s pressing domestic priorities and the onset of multipolarity will deny Washington the outsize influence it once enjoyed. Allowing the world to slide toward regional blocs or a two-bloc structure similar to that of the Cold War is a nonstarter. The United States, China, and the rest of the globe cannot fully uncouple when national economies, financial markets, and supply chains are irreversibly tethered together. A great-power steering group is the best option for managing an integrated world no longer overseen by a hegemon. A global concert fits the bill.
The alternatives to a global concert all have disqualifying weaknesses. Although the UN will remain an essential global forum, its track record illuminates the body’s limitations. Veto-producing disagreements often render the Security Council helpless. Its permanent members reflect the world of 1945, not the world today. Expanding the membership of the UNSC might succeed in adapting it to a new distribution of power, but doing so would also make the body even more unwieldy and less effective than it already is. The UN should continue to fulfill its many useful functions, including providing humanitarian relief and peacekeeping, but it cannot and will not anchor global stability in the twenty-first century.
It is no longer realistic to aim for the globalization of the Western order and the emergence of a world populated primarily by democracies committed to upholding a liberal, rules-based international system. The unipolar moment is over, and in hindsight, talk of the “end of history” was triumphalist, even if sophisticated, nonsense. Indeed, the political coherence of the West can by no means be taken for granted. Even if Western democracies reclaim their commitments to republican ideals and to one another, they simply will not have the material strength or political wherewithal to universalize the liberal international order.
A U.S.-Chinese condominium—in effect a G-2 in which Washington and Beijing would together oversee a mutually acceptable international order—offers a similarly flawed alternative. Even if these two peer competitors could find a way to dampen their intensifying rivalry, much of the world will remain outside of their direct purview. Moreover, predicating global stability on cooperation between Washington and Beijing is hardly a safe bet. They will have enough trouble managing their relationship in the Asia-Pacific region. Farther afield, they will need considerable buy-in and support from others. A U.S.-Chinese condominium also smacks of a world of spheres of influence—one in which Washington and Beijing agree to divide their sway along geographic lines, perhaps apportioning rights and responsibilities to second-tier powers in their respective regions. To give China, Russia, or other powers a free hand in their neighborhoods, however, is to encourage expansionist tendencies and to either reduce nearby countries’ autonomy or prompt them to push back, resulting in more arms proliferation and regional conflict. Indeed, the precise purpose of thinking through how to provide order in the twenty-first century is to avoid a world more prone to coercion, rivalry, and economic division.
Pax Sinica is also a nonstarter. For the foreseeable future, China will have neither the capability nor the ambition to anchor a global order. At least for now, its primary geopolitical ambitions are confined to the Asia-Pacific. China is markedly expanding its commercial reach, in particular through the Belt and Road Initiative, a move that will significantly enhance its economic and political clout. But Beijing has not yet demonstrated a robust willingness to provide global public goods, instead taking a largely mercantilist approach to engagement in most quarters of the globe. Nor has it sought to export its views on domestic governance to others or to push out a new set of norms to anchor global stability. In addition, the United States, even if it continues down a path of strategic retrenchment, will remain a power of the first rank for decades to come. An illiberal and mercantilist Pax Sinica would hardly be acceptable to Americans or to many other peoples around the world still aspiring to uphold liberal principles.
When it comes to improving the current international architecture, a global concert wins not because of its perfection but rather by default; it is the most promising alternative. Other options are ineffective, unworkable, or unattainable. Should a great-power steering group fail to materialize, an unruly world managed by no one would lie ahead.
PUTTING IT IN MOTION
A global concert would promote international stability through sustained consultation and negotiation. Concert members’ permanent representatives would meet regularly, supported by their staffs and a small but highly qualified secretariat. Members would dispatch their most accomplished diplomats as permanent representatives, who would be equal in rank, if not senior, to UN ambassadors. The concert would encourage the African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, and OAS to send equally authoritative figures. Concert summits would occur on a regular schedule. They would also take place as needed to address crises; one of the Concert of Europe’s most effective practices was to gather leaders on short notice to manage emerging disputes. When relevant issues are under discussion, the heads of the African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, and OAS, along with the leaders of states involved in the matter, would attend concert summits. The global concert’s chair would rotate annually among its six members. The body’s headquarters would not be located in any of its member states. Possible venues include Geneva and Singapore.
In contrast with the UNSC, where showboating often crowds out substantive initiative, the permanent members of the concert would not wield vetoes, take formal votes, or commit to binding agreements or obligations. Diplomacy would take place behind closed doors and aim to forge consensus. Members who break rank and act unilaterally would do so only after exploring alternative courses of action. If a member were to defect from consensus, other concert members would then coordinate their response.
This proposal presumes that none of the concert’s members would be a revisionist power bent on aggression and conquest. The Concert of Europe functioned effectively in no small part because its members were, broadly speaking, satisfied powers seeking to preserve, not overturn, the territorial status quo. In today’s world, Russian land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine are worrying developments, revealing the Kremlin’s readiness to violate the territorial integrity of its neighbors. So are China’s ongoing efforts to lay claim to and build military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea and Beijing’s violation of its pledges to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Nonetheless, neither Russia nor China has yet to become an implacably aggressive state committed to wholesale territorial expansion. A global concert also makes that outcome less likely by establishing a forum in which its members can make transparent their core security interests and strategic “redlines.” Nonetheless, if an aggressor state that routinely threatened other members’ interests were to emerge, it would be expelled from the group, and the remaining members of the concert would rally against it.
To advance great-power solidarity, the concert should focus on two priorities. One would be to encourage respect for existing borders and resist territorial changes through coercion or force. It would be prejudiced against claims of self-determination—but concert members would retain the option of recognizing new countries as they see fit. Although it would give all nations broad latitude on issues of domestic governance, the concert would deal on a case-by-case basis with failing states or those that systematically violate basic human rights and broadly accepted provisions of international law.
Should a great-power steering group fail to materialize, an unruly world managed by no one would lie ahead.
The concert’s second priority would be to generate collective responses to global challenges. At times of crisis, the concert would advance diplomacy and galvanize joint initiative, then hand off implementation to the appropriate body—such as the UN for peacekeeping, the International Monetary Fund for emergency credit, or the World Health Organization (WHO) for public health. The concert would also invest in a longer-term effort to adapt existing norms and institutions to global change. Even while defending traditional sovereignty to reduce interstate conflict, it would also discuss how best to adjust international rules and practices to an interconnected world. When national policies have negative international consequences, those policies become the concert’s business.
In this regard, the concert could help counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and address nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. When it comes to diplomacy with Pyongyang and Tehran, enforcing sanctions against both regimes, and responding to potential provocations, the concert would have the right parties in the room. Indeed, as a standing body, the concert would significantly improve on the six-party and P5+1 formats that have historically handled negotiations with North Korea and Iran.
The concert could also serve as a venue for addressing climate change. The top greenhouse gas emitters are China, the United States, the EU, India, Russia, and Japan. Together, they produce roughly 65 percent of global emissions. With the world’s leading emitters all around the table, the concert could help set new targets for reducing greenhouse gases and new standards for green development, before handing off implementation to other forums. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the WHO’s inadequacies, and the concert would be the right place to fashion a consensus on reform. Forging rules of the road for managing technological innovation—digital regulation and taxation, cybersecurity, 5G networks, social media, virtual currencies, artificial intelligence—would also be on the concert’s agenda. These important matters often fall between the institutional cracks, and the concert could provide a useful vehicle for international oversight.
Drawing on its nineteenth-century forebearer’s experiences, a global concert should also recognize that great-power solidarity often entails inaction, neutrality, and restraint rather than intervention. The Concert of Europe relied on buffer zones, demilitarized areas, and neutral zones to dampen rivalries and head off potential conflicts. Concert members objecting to initiatives backed by others simply opted out of participation rather than breaking rank and blocking the undertaking. The United Kingdom, for instance, opposed interventions to put down liberal rebellions in Naples and Spain in the 1820s but decided to sit out rather than prevent military action by other members. France did the same in 1839 and 1840 when other members intervened in Egypt to suppress a challenge to Ottoman rule.
How might a global concert usefully implement such measures today? In Syria, for example, a concert could have either coordinated a joint intervention to stop the civil war that erupted there in 2011 or worked to keep all the major powers out. More recently, it could have provided a venue for the diplomacy needed to introduce a buffer zone or demilitarized zone in Syria’s north, averting the fighting and humanitarian suffering that followed the abrupt U.S. withdrawal and the regime’s increasingly intense attacks on Idlib Province. Proxy wars in places such as Yemen, Libya, and Darfur might become less frequent and violent if a global concert were to succeed in fashioning a common stance among the major powers. Had a great-power steering group taken shape at the close of the Cold War, it might have been able to avert, or at least make far less bloody, the civil wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A global concert would guarantee none of these outcomes—but it would make them all more likely.
More Trouble Than It’s Worth?
This proposal to establish a global concert runs up against a number of objections. One involves the envisaged membership. Why not include Europe’s most powerful states rather than the European Union, which is governed in an unwieldy and collective fashion by its commission and council? The answer is that Europe’s geopolitical weight comes from its aggregate strength, not that of its individual member states. Germany’s GDP is around $4 trillion, and its defense budget is around $40 billion, while the EU’s collective GDP is roughly $19 trillion and its aggregate defense spending is close to $300 billion. Europe’s most important leaders, moreover, need not be excluded from concert meetings. The heads of the EU—the presidents of the commission and council—could bring German, French, and other member states’ leaders to concert summits. And even though the United Kingdom has quit the EU, it is still working out its future relationship with the union. EU membership in a global concert would give both the United Kingdom and the EU a strong incentive to stay lashed together when it comes to foreign and security policies.
Some might question the inclusion of Russia, whose GDP is not even in the top ten and is behind those of Brazil and Canada. But Russia is a major nuclear power and punches well above its weight on the global stage. Russia’s relationships with China, its EU neighbors, and the United States will have a major impact on twenty-first-century geopolitics. Moscow has also begun reasserting its influence in the Middle East and Africa. The Kremlin deserves a seat at the table.
Major portions of the world—Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America—would be represented by their main regional organizations, which would have regular input through their permanent presence at the concert’s headquarters. Nonetheless, the diplomats representing these bodies, along with select leaders from their regions, would join meetings of concert members only when issues of direct relevance are under discussion. This format admittedly reinforces hierarchy and inequity in the international system. But the concert aims to facilitate cooperation by restricting membership to the most important and influential actors; it deliberately sacrifices broad representation in favor of efficacy. Other institutions provide wider access that the concert would not. Countries not included in the concert would still be able to wield their influence in the UN and other existing international forums. And the concert would have the flexibility to change its membership over time if there was a consensus to do so.
Another potential objection is that the global concert would effectively produce a world of great-power spheres of influence. After all, the Concert of Europe did grant its members a droit de regard—a right of overwatch—in their respective neighborhoods. A concert for the twenty-first century, however, would not encourage or sanction spheres of influence. On the contrary, it would promote regional integration and look to existing regional bodies to encourage restraint. Across regions, the body would foster great-power consultation on and joint management of contentious regional issues. The goal would be to facilitate global coordination while recognizing the authority and responsibility of regional bodies.
A global concert should also recognize that great-power solidarity often entails inaction.
Critics might claim that the concert is too state-centric for today’s world. The Concert of Europe may have been a good fit for the sovereign and authoritative nation-states of the nineteenth century. But social movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), corporations, cities, and other nonstate actors now have considerable political power and need to have seats at the table; empowering these social agents makes good sense. Nonetheless, states are still the main and most capable actors in the international system. Indeed, globalization and the populist backlash it has triggered, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, are strengthening sovereignty and compelling national governments to claw back power. Moreover, the concert could and should bring NGOs, corporations, and other nonstate actors into its deliberations when appropriate—for example, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and big pharmaceutical firms when discussing global health or Google when addressing digital governance. A great-power steering group would complement, not replace, nonstate actors’ contributions to global governance.
Finally, if the appeal and efficacy of a global concert stem from its flexibility and informality, then critics could justifiably ask why it should be institutionalized. Why not let ad hoc groupings of relevant states, such as the six-party talks and the P5+1, come and go as needed? Doesn’t the existence of the G-7 and the G-20 make a global concert superfluous?
Establishing a concert headquarters and secretariat would endow it with greater standing and efficacy than other groupings that gather sporadically. Regular meetings among the concert’s six representatives, the daily work of the secretariat, the presence of delegations from all major regions, scheduled as well as emergency summits—these defining features would give the global concert permanence, authority, and legitimacy. The continuous and sustained dialogue, personal relationships, and peer pressure that come with face-to-face diplomacy facilitate cooperation. Daily interaction is far preferable to episodic engagement.
The permanent secretariat would be particularly important in providing the expertise, sustained dialogue, and long-term perspective needed to address nontraditional issues such as cybersecurity and global health. A standing body also offers a ready vehicle for responding to unforeseen crises. The COVID-19 pandemic might have been better contained had the concert been able to help coordinate a global response from day one. The dissemination of critical information from China occurred too slowly, and it was not until the middle of March 2020—months into the crisis—that G-7 leaders held a video call to discuss the rapidly spreading disease.
The concert thus has the potential to supplant both the G-7 and the G-20. The United States, the EU, and Japan would likely focus their energies on the new body, possibly leaving the G-7 to atrophy. A better case can be made for preserving the G-20, given its broader membership. Countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey would resent the loss of voice and stature should the G-20 wither away. Nonetheless, should a global concert fulfill its potential and emerge as the leading venue for policy coordination, both the G-7 and the G-20 may well lose their raisons d’être.
No Panacea, but No Alternative
Establishing a global concert would not be a panacea. Bringing the world’s heavyweights to the table hardly ensures a consensus among them. Indeed, although the Concert of Europe preserved peace for decades after it was formed, France and the United Kingdom ultimately faced off with Russia in the Crimean War. Russia is again at loggerheads with its European neighbors over the Crimean region, underscoring the elusive nature of great-power solidarity. A concert-like format—the Normandy grouping of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—has so far failed to resolve the standoff over Crimea and the Donbas.
Nonetheless, a global concert offers the best and most realistic way to advance great-power coordination, maintain international stability, and promote a rules-based order. The United States and its democratic partners have every reason to revive the solidarity of the West. But they should stop pretending that the global triumph of the order they backed since World War II is within reach. They should also soberly confront the reality that abdicating leadership would likely lead to the return of a global system marred by disorder and unfettered competition. A global concert represents a pragmatic middle ground between idealistic but unrealistic aspirations and dangerous alternatives.
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.
This essay emerged from the Lloyd George Study Group on World Order.