Power balance and imbalance in the XXIst century

The theory of the balance of power, well represented today by Henry Kissinger, assumes that each of the contenders in equilibrium enjoys a significant measure of internal unity. What happens when there is a social and political gap difficult to repair inside each, or at least one, of them? The equilibrium breaks down and the established powers become a source of instability.


In the present ethereal and misleading era, geopolitics brings us back to the value of the real (not virtual) world, because it is based on two large variables: geography and the human condition that for better or worse always surrounds and accompanies us. Someone might say that these are not variables, but constants. I beg to differ: also in these formidable dimensions, history does its job of continuous modification, even when it is not immediately visible. It is an underground work, similar to that of a mole. So large is humanity’s work on itself (body and soul) and on its circumstances (environment) that our geological period is called the Anthropocene, the “Humans Age” that ends the one we knew until now as the Holocene.

The Anthropocene is characterized by an irreversible process. The pressure imposed by the human species on the planet has already triggered a climate change that we have been neither able to prevent nor contain. Now we can only mitigate it and adapt to global warming, to the rise in sea level, to extreme meteorological episodes, and to know and yet-to-be-known fires and pandemics. Going forward, the new “normality” will be much harsher and painful than the previous one, even in the case of large scientific-technological advances and public policies coordinated and rationalized at the global level[1]. Future humanity, in a best-case scenario, will be austere and stoical and, in the worst, anarchic and suicidal. In this article, I will restrict myself to making explicit both the obstacles and the possibilities of social change, and always from a geopolitical perspective.

The large variables I mentioned at the beginning of this article—geography and demography—establish the necessary but not sufficient conditions for a country to rise to the level of a world power. With respect to geography, three variables are worth mentioning: its territorial mass, its safety environment, and the physical conditions for its unity. I offer the best-known example, that is, the current United States territory. Such territory has two advantages: a huge extension that we could call continental, which is also bi-oceanic. From east to west, the territory is protected by sea and from north to south by frontiers without serious threats of invasion. In summary, it is a floating continental mass, like a colossal aircraft carrier. Moreover, this continental mass lacks internal geographical obstacles that could make its integration difficult. On the contrary, a network of rivers and lakes in its backbone facilitated internal connections from the beginning.

With respect to demography, it is worth mentioning that the early European settlement was successful and brutal at the same time: nothing less than the bloody  relocation of large human masses—one white and dominant, one native and displaced by a systematic ethnic cleansing, and a contingent of slaves imported by force and on a large scale. Such continental and violent unification was not novel. In other continents, it had already occurred in previous centuries, as in France with the consolidation of an absolute monarchy from the XVI century on and in China during several millennia. As is already known, the Achilles’ heel of American unification was slavery: a forced immigration different from the following migratory waves in that it was not integrated to the rest. In recent times, the Soviet Union made a frustrated attempt to incorporate different ethnicities with Stalin’s brutal policy of nationalities. In China today, Han population dominance over Tibet and western territories makes us remember, on a large scale, the ancient French central oppression over the territories of Occitania and Britain and the severity with which it imposed a grammatical domination over regional languages. In the case of the USA, dynamic and contradictory at the same time, the demographic variable becomes negative when we estimate its weight within the world’s population: only 5% of the planetary total, but it is positive through the migratory contributions of young and productive sectors that prevent the demographic sclerosis that is affecting other “advanced” countries.

Just as the USA enjoys an optimal situation in terms of the large variables, other countries, to a lesser extent, have a comparable potential. Russia, China, and Europe (predominantly continental masses) are favored by those variables, and in the American continent, the Southern Cone has comparable elements. The initial conditions in the rest of the world are more difficult; thus, they must be compensated with some concerted actions. A successful historical example of such compensation is England, and two frustrated examples are Japan and Germany. The compensation variables in the English case were aggressive trade and the power of the navy that lasted several centuries; in the German and Japanese cases, it was pure militarism, as catastrophic as it was brief.

Those who are familiar with ocean navigation, as is my case, know that an ocean crossing is characterized by periods (some of them long) of relative calm and boredom, alternating with others of storms and terror. Something similar happens in geopolitics. In the stage of world power, there are periods (some of them long) of stability and others (always shorter) of violence and terror.

Nowadays, the four large power-generating geopolitical zones, i.e. North America, Europe, Eurasia and the Far East, that is, in their sovereign expression: the United States, the European Union, Russia and China, can be compared in terms of the stability of their respective social systems.

After a belligerent start with the war of independence and the following violence of the Civil War, the United States has enjoyed an extended period of domination with stability, characterized as a republican, liberal, and federal democracy. Despite its defects, it has been an open society with high social mobility, which in turn sustained the legitimacy of institutions, a democratic jostle for influence, and governmental alternation within defined parameters. Its “open” social model facilitated, as an ideological example of soft power, its world dominance.

In this same period, Europe appeared as highly unstable.  It produced two world wars in which it bled out until it finally achieved an incomplete integration with some political moderation.

Russia developed through a highly repressive system (terror and progress), and went from one form of autocracy to another, without passing through democracy. Its current relative stability is based on a precarious social contract, which is as a three-legged table: autocracy, kleptocracy, and social submission with relative distribution of goods and services to the general population.

China is the large rising power of our time, economically more dynamic than all the rest and vertically guided by a state-party that allows for capitalist accumulation in exchange for meticulous social control, which, up to now, obtains general consensus and is organized from the top down.

During the second half of the XXth century, world domination was shared by two of these four centers. The Cold War in reality was a condominium that fell down with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Russian instability was internal and contained and did not produce a geopolitical earthquake. Geopolitics went from a world condominium to a unilateral albeit brief US domination, and by the expansion of its economic model to previously restricted zones of the planet (socialist systems)—in other words, globalization. However, that very expansion paradoxically stimulated the rise of rival powers, in particular, the Chinese.

Thereafter North American power faced new challenges for which it was not well prepared and its own architecture of domination created during the Cold War cracked. Moreover, the very capitalist model of development (neoliberalism) turned against its country of origin, both on the external front (overwhelming and unfinished wars) and on the internal front (deindustrialization together with new and outrageous forms of social inequality). Thus, the United States were no longer the privileged center of world reference and its social model faced the unrest of large sectors of society; especially, the previously integrated sectors that were now in full social regression and that are mobilized against the system. As happened in Europe in the previous century, this secondary mobilization (to use the concept developed by the Italian-Argentinean sociologist Gino Germani[2]) has an authoritarian and reactionary character. As a result, with a mauled institutional framework and a delegitimized social system, the United States has become the epicenter for instability in the geopolitical scenario that is no longer the famous power balance, proclaimed by strategists such as Henry Kissinger.

Rival powers that are relatively more stable now seek to take advantage of the situation, in all the dimensions of dominance: industrial, commercial, cybernetic and military. What they will not be able to impose their own cultural model as an alternative to the American way of life –but stay tuned: they are working on it.

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[1] . For a complete study, please refer to http://427mt.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Measuring-What-Matters-Sovereign-Climate-Risk-427_12.2020.pdf

[2] . According to Germani, “in countries where middle classes have suffered the effects of particularly traumatic changes, their displacement and readiness can cause their mobilization (which is secondary) through political movements that provide a mass base for fascism. Where this process is absent, the rise of a fascist regime will require the intervention of other forces, usually, the military. However, middle class will still provide a substantial support (maybe through its acquiescence) for the emergence of the regime and its consolidation.” https://sociedadfutura.com.ar/2020/10/14/seleccion-de-fragmentos-de-gino-germani-sobre-fascismo/

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