| THE ENDING OF THREE LONG HISTORICAL CYCLES:
A backdrop for the dilemmas faced in the construction of regional spaces?
by Félix Peña
English translation: Isabel Romero Carranza
The structural changes that are being experienced
at the international level may be reflecting the simultaneous ending of
three lengthy historical cycles which have impacted international relations
during the last centuries.
The first of these cycles started five hundred years
ago when Europe began to occupy center stage in the world scenario and
continued when the United States took this place during the last Century.
It was quite a long cycle centered in the Western World. The other cycle
was initiated by the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th Century
and gave birth, among other things, to the divergence of economic paths
between center and periphery. The third cycle began in the mid 17th Century
with the Peace of Westphalia. It was during this stage that different
modalities of groups of big powers with the ability to preserve a certain
international order were born.
The current structural changes have become the backdrop
to be considered in the analysis of the turmoil that is shaking the European
regional space. They show the end of an era in which both Europe and the
US have been the main focus of the world scenario. However, they also
lurk behind the existential and methodological dilemmas that can be observed
in other regional spaces where coexisting sovereign nations may choose
the path of fragmentation or cohesion in their mutual relations. This
spans the South American regional space and the larger -and often more
difficult to define- Latin American and Caribbean space.
The construction of a united Europe, seen for a long
time as a point of reference for other regions, has now entered a phase
of uncertainties and dilemmas. Uncertainties regarding the future of its
economic and social model, livelihood of a way of life and of each one
of the diverse national political systems. Dilemmas regarding the possibility
and the manner in which to achieve continuity in the construction of an
integrated space that has shown some achievements but also visible failures.
It is still too early to venture a forecast on the
future of European integration. Its past history generates the expectation
that once again Europe will reinvent itself. In any case, this is not
an issue that should leave Mercosur countries indifferent, especially
if we consider certain facts such as, among others, the ongoing negotiation
of what should be an attractive and original interregional agreement.
The current financial and economic crisis that is shaking Europe and
the euro zone countries, but that may have a chain effect at a global
scale, is taking place within a scenario of deep structural changes in
the international system. Understanding such changes will probably be
one of the conditions that will influence the policies applied by countries
in order to face the most immediate effects of the crisis.
We are referring to structural changes that reflect the simultaneous ending
of at least three long historical cycles which have dominated international
relations during the last centuries.
One of such cycles started five hundred years ago when Europe took center
stage in the world scenario, a place that would later be occupied by the
United States during last Century. This was quite a lengthy cycle with
a focus on the Western World (on this regard refer to the book by Fareed
Zakaría, "The Post-American World. Release 2.0" included
as recommended reading in the October 2011 edition of this Newsletter).
Currently, the world has entered a period of decentralization in which
an undetermined number of main players have attained significant prominence
(on this issue see the book by Jean-Claude Guillebaud, "Le commencement
d'un monde. Vers une modernité métisse", Seuil, Paris
2008). As a consequence, the world has become a place in which multiple
options are opening up for the strategic international insertion of all
the protagonists -and not just states-, whatever their relative economic
dimension. Thus, a generalized empowerment of the contestants for world
power and international markets has taken place and the consequences of
this phenomenon are still difficult to anticipate.
The other cycle that is reaching an end is the one initiated by the Industrial
Revolution at the end of the 18th Century, a cycle which gave birth, among
other things, to the diverging economic paths between the central and
the periphery countries, between North and South (on this issue see the
book by Michael Spence, "The Next Convergence. The Future of Economic
Growth in a Multispeed World", included as recommended reading in
The third period started in the mid 17th Century with the Peace of Westphalia,
when different modalities of groups or clubs of relevant nations were
born, all of them with the ability and expectation of wielding a decisive
influence in the preservation of a certain international order (on this
topic refer to the recent book by Bertrand Badie, "Diplomatie de
Connivence. Les dérives oligarchiques du systeme international",
mentioned as recommended reading in the October 2011 edition of this Newsletter).
The G20 meetings -as was seen once more at the recent Cannes Summit (see
- show clear evidence of the difficulty of its member countries to agree
on common and effective answers for the relevant issues of the global
agenda. The specter of the "world power freeze" or the "oligarchic
condominium" -i.e.: a group of powers acting together which are able
to impose and eventually freeze the international order- proposed decades
ago by some prominent diplomats now seems to be less viable.
The abovementioned structural changes constitute a backdrop to be taken
into account in the analysis of the turbulences that are shaking most
particularly the European regional space.
However, they are also behind the existential and methodological dilemmas
that can be observed in every regional geographic space made up of coexisting
sovereign nations that may opt for the path of fragmentation or cohesion
in their mutual relations. This most certainly includes the South American
regional space or the broader -and at times more difficult to define accurately-Latin
American and Caribbean space.
The existential dilemmas refer to the reasons that cause a group of nations
that share a geographical space, to institutionalize a voluntary and permanent
association aimed at granting one another preferential economic treatment
in order to facilitate the transnational productive articulation, to work
together in their relations and negotiations with third countries, and
to facilitate regional governance through the prevalence of democratic
values, social cohesion and, most particularly, peace and political stability.
Thus, the dilemmas concern the objectives that are sought through the
association of the respective nations. It implies the acknowledgement
of the need to transcend the exclusive use of the logic of bilateralism
on their regional relations.
On the other hand, when the dilemmas are methodological they refer to
the modalities of working between neighboring nations and, in particular,
to the mechanisms, institutions and disciplines that are employed to achieve
the common objectives sought by a voluntary association of lasting intent.
Due to the crisis that has been affecting particularly the euro zone
the European case currently deserves special attention. This is also so
because of the incidence that it might have in the construction of the
South American regional space and in the relations between both regions,
as evinced by the difficulties to move forward and conclude the interregional
negotiation between the European Union and Mercosur.
The construction of a united Europe has entered a phase of strong uncertainties
and, at the same time, of great dilemmas. Uncertainties, regarding the
future of its economic and social model, livelihood of a way of life and
of each one of the diverse national political systems. Dilemmas, as to
how to continue building an integrated space that has shown some achievements
but also visible failures.
These uncertainties and dilemmas reflect the end of a period largely as
a consequence of the deep international changes mentioned before. These
have an impact not only on the economy but on the political life of several
of the EU member countries, or at least of those most affected by the
crisis of the euro. The impacts are felt not just by debtors but by citizens
as well. They feel disoriented and at times express their outrage through
protests, though in general they have little to propose.
The fact is that the survival of the European Union, and not just of
the euro zone, has started to come into question. The crisis is thus taking
an existential dimension. This means that what might be at stake is the
notion of an integrated European space. Some signs indicate an inclination
towards the return of the logic of bilateralism. Even certain ghosts from
the past have started to emerge. Chancellor Angela Merkel subtly brought
them back when, on the eve of this November's European Summit, she pointed
out to the German Parliament that the achievements of fifty years of European
peace were at risk. And many Europeans still remember the situation before
the inflection point meant by the Schumann Plan of 1950.
It is precisely this existential dimension what could complicate the
repeated idea of surmounting the current crisis with "more Europe",
that implies moving forward in the development of common policies and
institutions. The difficulty of this idea lies in that, for certain apparently
growing sectors of some member countries -and this would seem the case
in various countries of the original founding group- by including such
a diversity and number of countries, united Europe itself has become the
problem precisely because within it they can visualize some of the causes
of the current crisis.
There is evidence of the erosion of the European identity, manifested
by expressions such as "their problem is not my problem" when
some citizens of European countries refer to what is happening, for example,
to the Greek, or what might happen to the Italian, Spanish or Portuguese.
By thinking thus they show that they are ignorant to the fact that their
own country probably lacks a reasonable "B plan" as an alternative
to the idea of an integrated Europe.
It would be possible to draw three conclusions from what is happening
to European integration that would be useful at the moment of promoting
the construction of a South American regional governance space that involves
overcoming Mercosur's visible insufficiencies. Especially so, if the future
of such construction is visualized within the context of the new structural
realities of the system of world power and of global economic competition.
The first of these conclusions is that the permanent reengineering of
the common policies and institutions to adapt them to the new realities
and circumstances is a constant demand in the construction of an integration
space between sovereign nations sharing a same regional geographic space.
This requires constructs that are extremely flexible and predictable at
the same time and that take into account the signs that those making localization
and investment decisions will try to read, especially in the area of productive
chains and transnational supply chains.
The second conclusion is that such reengineering -and much more so the
original design- should not follow any preconceived or text book models.
The prescriptions of economic or political theory are not usually taken
into account in reality. In a certain way all of them have been, and still
are, "tailor-made suits" based on the assessment of concrete
national realities and the perception of the leeway allowed by the external
context. They respond to the needs of member countries and, above all,
to what they are effectively able to accomplish.
The third conclusion is that cruising through the current world reality,
especially between an integrated set of contiguous nations, is not eased
by the use of any "GPS" as there are no preset roadmaps. On
the contrary, it requires much instinct, economic realism, flexibility
and technical skill. But, above all, it calls for an enlightened and firm
political leadership in each one of the countries and, in particular,
in those with the greatest capacity to influence reality and to mobilize
the partners. Ultimately, it requires a great deal of luck.
It is still too soon to venture a forecast on the future of European
integration. Its history of over fifty years generates the expectation
that Europe will certainly know how to reinvent itself and that such reinvention
will be characterized by continuity and innovation at the same time. This
means that it will truly be a metamorphosis in the sense advocated by
Edgar Morin in his book "Ma Gauche", FB, Paris 2010).
In any case, this issue should not leave Mercosur countries indifferent,
particularly in view of the ongoing negotiations to achieve an interregional
agreement that should be both attractive and original. Neither would it
be convenient for this agreement to be conceived following theoretical
models or rigid preconceived formulas. On the contrary, it would be advisable
to visualize it as a long term process that helps take advantage of the
flexibilities made possible by an accurate interpretation of article XXIV,
paragraph 8, of the GATT (on this regard refer to the April 2011 edition
of this Newsletter on www.felixpena.com.ar). In order to do this, it will
be necessary to summon much political will and technical imagination on
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Félix Peña Director
of the Institute of International Trade at the ICBC Foundation. Director
of the Masters Degree in International Trade Relations at Tres de Febrero
National University (UNTREF). Member of the Executive Committee of the
Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). Member of the Evian
Group Brains Trust. More