Historical debates on power transitions must be recovered – University of Copenhagen

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17 December 2015

Historical debates on power transitions must be recovered


It is a widely held fact among Western policymakers and academics that power transitions tend to bring tension and conflict, if not war, to world politics. In a new research project, Peter Marcus Kristensen, Postdoc at the Department of Political Science, will examine how this fact about ‘rising powers’ became naturalized and now limits our possibility for thinking power shifts as peaceful. He will revisit historical debates on power transition and reform of the global order. Peter Marcus Kristensen believes that history can provide alternative visions for how to facilitate peaceful change in the global balance of power. The researcher is awarded a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research Initiative Sapere Aude DFF-Research Talent.

The prospect that countries like China, India and Brazil will be tomorrow's great powers creates tension and anxiety in most Western capitals. There is an expectation - and fear - that these countries will rise to great power status and eventually become so dominant that they will supersede the West in the global hierarchy. Once there was the West, then came "The rest".

According to Peter Marcus Kristensen, Postdoc at the Department of Political Science, it is a widely accepted fact in international politics that the ascent of new powers will lead to tension and perhaps even war between the existing powers and the rising powers. But he believes that this doctrine has become a historic "iron law" that need to be challenged, if it is not to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cracks in old world order

Peter Marcus Kristensen explains that it is still past great powers, i.e. victors of World War II like the United States, Britain, France, Russia and to some extent China, that represents the world order, e.g. if you look around the table in global institutions like the UN and its Security Council.

According to the researcher, the global order is frozen to the advantage of the West – as seen from the perspective of the rising powers. He explains that the BRIC countries have long called for reform of the international order so that it reflects the international political scene of 2015. But without much success.

“The lack of will to reform is caused by our basic fear of how a future without the West behind the steering wheel will look like. There is a fear that non-Western countries will use their power in a way that the West considers irresponsible, in areas ranging from free trade, finance, development aid to human rights, democracy and climate. And then there is simply the fear of global chaos where no one, neither the West nor the rest, takes leadership, says Peter Marcus Kristensen”, adding:

“The problem is that our hesitation to reform is actually further undermining the old order. If we stubbornly defend a Western order, which looks increasingly anachronistic, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the power shift will cause conflict. One of the biggest challenges we face today is a peaceful renegotiation of the global order, so as to better reflect the current reality”, he says.

Debate on peaceful change must be revisited

Peter Marcus Kristensen has just received a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research to his new project "States of Emergence: A Genealogy of Emerging Powers in Wold Politics".

The project delves into our own Western history, especially our vision of rising powers and power transitions, in order to rediscover marginalized, but potentially important, aspects of history in relation to finding peaceful solutions to the current challenges to world order. Although there are many examples that power transition lead to tension and war in European history, says Peter Marcus Kristensen, we can also learn new things from our European past:

“In the late 1930s there was a great debate in Europe among intellectuals and researchers on how to reform and update the outdated world order established after World War I, which had come under severe pressure. Back then there was not the same firm "iron law" that major power shifts would inevitably lead to war. There was a belief that we could navigate our ways around this”, he states.

The researcher explains that the debate in the late 1930s was about to adapt the world order to a world where new fascist powers such as Germany, Japan and Italy, were rising and all wanted a seat at the high table. As we now all know, this did not turn out so well, he explains, and this historical experience has affected international politics ever since:

“The intellectual discussion about peaceful change and adapting to the rise of new powers has been stigmatized and is now a part of history that few scholars of international relations would ever consider revisiting, and certainly not learn from. Peaceful change became synonymous with appeasement and ever since ‘appeaser’ has been a label you would only give to your worst enemies. But the question is how long the political stigma from World War II should prevent us from revisiting and resuming the debate on peaceful change in world politics”, asks Peter Marcus Kristensen.

Postdoc Peter Marcus Kristensen
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