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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-04-2018 15:50

Realism, geopolitics and the G20

Recent international events have reignited geopolitical tensions that could affect the G20 meetings being led by Argentina.

The G20, led this year by Argentina, can be visualised as a forum for cooperation that strives to ensure the world continues to function in the best way possible, in spite of the existing rivalries between established powers – such as the United States or the European Union– and emerging economic powers – such as China and Russia. But recent international events have reignited geopolitical tensions that could affect and manifest themselves within the workings of the G20 meetings.

These events highlight the existence of a clash between two viewpoints in of international relations: the liberal and the realist. The liberal order is the one that, in spite of its imperfections, has reigned after World War II. It is based on international cooperation, on rules and agreements, on institutions, and it tends to recognise that no country alone can establish a world order. The G20 embodies this spirit, in spite of being an informal forum and having the dynamic of a directory of sorts.

On the other hand, we are seeing the general resurgence of a more realistic diplomatic approach, in which countries and geopolitics play a key role. 

 The ‘realistic doctrine’ reaffirms what the Greek historian Thucydides noted with respect to the position of the Athenians toward the habitants of the Island of Milos, during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The powerful Athenians stated "in the world of men, the arguments of justice are only relevant to the degree that adversaries dispose of equal attributes of power." He added that "if this is not the case, the more powerful will take the maximum possible advantage for his power, while the weaker will have to bow before him."

Today we can note some conduct that indicates a return to the "law of the mightiest," as well as a diplomacy that corresponds to a balance of power that is pluripolar in nature. In this type of realist diplomacy – which according to philosopher Raymond Aron "ignores and must ignore feelings' – there are no such things as friends or enemies. In other words, the enemy of today can be the enemy of tomorrow. Given its egoistical characteristics, Aron noted that "so-called realist diplomacy, which implies a pluripolar equilibrium, is not at the highest standards set by philosophers." 

The clearest indicator of a return to the realist approach is the new US national security strategy, presented in December, 2017. Among its  stated objectives, the document promotes a balance of power that must be favourable to the Unitad States, its allies and partners. It then mentions that a central factor in its history is the struggle for power, and then presents China and Russia as the most important threats to the United States, describing these two G20 members as "revisionist powers." Given these geopolitical challenges, it goes on to affirm that regional balances of power must be fostered, avoiding changes that can affect US interests, particularly in Asia and Europe.

 Argentina will additionally have the possibility to strengthen its links with those countries that are not so involved in existing geopolitical confrontations, and that hold a common worldview. This opportunity reinforces the idea that Argentina should keep as far as possible from the geopolitical disputes taking place today and allow its neutrality and objectivity to earn trust. 

Accordingly, maintaining a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, seems to be a key priority for the United States. The most evident disputes present themselves in the South China Sea where, curiously, both the United States and China justify their actions as a means of ensuring the free navigation in those disputed waters.

The growth of China's military certainly might worry the United States, which assumes that the Chinese international infrastucture projects there and its trades strategies reinforce Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations. China does not hide its intention of becoming the most powerful nation in Asia, although for the moment, as Henry Kissinger has stated, "development is the absolute principle." In this context, the United States naturally sees with friendly eyes the emergence of India as a global power. It is also counting on a "quadrilateral [form of] cooperation" with Japan, Australia and India (all G20 members), to defend its interests in Asia.  

A second regional balance of power that the United States is willing to maintain is the one in Europe. It considers that Russia has acted in an aggressive fashion in Ukraine and Georgia, trampling over the sovereign rights of these nations. Given this, the United States is demanding that his European partners in NATO – which includes five G20 members – invest more in their military capabilities to confront Russia. At the same time, it has practically invoked the principle of collective defence enshrined in article 5 of the NATO treaty through the expulsion of Russian diplomats, a move that followed the apparent killing attempt against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on British soil.

In this context, Moscow has not hidden its intentions of maintaining itself as the paramount military power in Eurasia. It argues that its actions in Georgia and Ukraine – areas considered within its sphere of interest – have been defensive actions justified by the pretended expansion of NATO into these two countries.  

In spite of the existing geopolitical tensions between G20 member countries, Argentina’s diplomatic officials must capitalise on the high symbolic value of their summit meetings this year, ensuring that all leaders travel to Buenos Aires for the main event later this year. Our diplomatic staff must be ready to react in case geopolitical disruptions translate into agenda disruptions, demonstrating flexibility and imagination. In the current international context, it is probable that bilateral meetings may take on an unusual level of importance, and may include moments of high tension. This must be factored into the summit’s organisation beforehand.  

In this context, Argentina must try to play the role of "honest broker" between established and emerging powers, especially within the scope of the topics being discussed in the G20. Leaders will be meeting on neutral ground, hosted by a country that does not have a position on major disputes between their nations. This effort should be in line with the implementation of the government’s "diverse horizons" strategy for foreign relations, striving to maintain positive and simultaneous relations with established and emerging powers, and with our "near abroad” neighbours and regional allies.

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Patricio Carmody

Patricio Carmody

Patricio Carmody is author of "Looking for Consensus at the End of the World: Towards an Argentine Foreign Policy With Consensus (2015-2027)," published by CARI and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

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