As China rises, "grand strategy" talk back in style

  • World
  • Thursday, 12 May 2011

LONDON (Reuters) - As China and other new powers rise, foreign ministries, think tanks and international relations schools are focusing once again on interstate "grand strategy" in a way not seen since the Cold War.

A few years ago, a savvy graduate looking to make a career in foreign service, intelligence or national security would focus on militancy, terror and state building, the buzzwords of the "war on terror" and the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

But now insiders say they need to show a reasonable understanding of an increasingly complex game of geopolitical chess between the great powers in which economic power and the media narrative can be as important as armies and tanks.

While the United States is pulling back its military involvement in Iraq, the Arab Spring has shown that no one can afford to neglect the Middle East and North Africa. Neither does the death of Osama bin Laden mean that the West will disregard militant groups. Nevertheless, the Middle East, Afghanistan and al Qaeda are no longer a sole focus of Western concerns.

"The war on terror really pushed grand strategy to one side, but as that seems to be winding down there is much more focus on it," said Robert Farley, professor of international relations at the University of Kentucky.

"Students know they will need it in their careers, whether in public service or the private sector. We've recently failed students for failing to be able to answer questions on the rise of China, for example."

Numbers of international relations students taking intensive summer courses in languages such as Arabic or Farsi -- which is spoken in Iran and parts of Afghanistan -- were falling off, Farley said. This was partly on expectation that there would be fewer military or diplomatic roles in the region.

The number learning basic Chinese was rising, he said, but students were keen to show they had knowledge of a broad range of topics from economics to cyber warfare and the effect of social media on politics.

As well as China, they need to show knowledge of a host of rising new powers including India, Brazil and South Africa -- in contrast to their counterparts from the Cold War era, many of whom built entire careers on deep knowledge of narrow areas of Soviet policy.

"It's much more complex than in the Cold War, when they were only really two sides," says Farley.


When Israeli-based political risk consultancy Wikistrat launched a month-long online grand strategy competition between universities, military colleges and similar institutions around the world, it was taken aback by the level of interest.

The contest, which begins this month, will cover the next two decades of global history with teams representing roughly a dozen countries needing to form alliances and adapt to shocks such as revolutions and conflicts.

"I really think it's caught the spirit of the moment," says Wikistrat CEO Joel Zamel. "There is much more interest in a kind of 'grand strategy' approach.

"We've had much more interest from around the world than we expected -- Indian universities will be representing India, Israeli universities Israel, Singaporean Singapore, Japanese Japan, U.S. schools the U.S.. We've had to keep adding countries."

Much of the new struggle for power between states will take place largely out of sight, experts say, with confrontation in cyberspace or over economic issues such as currency strength largely replacing military conflicts or colonial struggles.


But as well as facing off against each other, many experts say nation states must also manage relations with a rising range of non-state groups, from militants such as Al Qaeda to international corporations. The leaderless social media-fuelled revolutions of the Middle East suggest public opinion may become more important than ever before -- and perhaps harder to manage.

"There are two power shifts happening at present," said Joseph Nye, a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of state and assistant secretary of defense, now professor of international relations at Harvard and author of one of several new books on shifting 21st-century global power structures.

"One is a transition of power between states, primarily from west to east and the other is a shift of power from nation states -- both West and East -- to non-state actors ... You have to manage both," he said.

It's not that anyone expects the field of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency -- and its associated jobs -- to disappear with the death of bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbotabad and the withdrawal of Western troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there are those who publicly worry that the "war on terror" meant attention was focused on the wrong places, and that there is an urgent need to build wider expertise both amongst young graduates and the most senior policymakers.

"The idea that the main geopolitical threat to Western security came from a guy in a compound in Abbotabad who spent most of his time watching television is frankly preposterous," says Niall Ferguson, professor of history and international relations at Harvard and author of another book and television series on the power shift from West.

"The main geopolitical issue for the United States is the rise of China. You need a strategy to deal with it and if it's not a strategy to build regional alliances that include countries like India and Japan, you have no choice but to face decline."

(editing by David Stamp)

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