Fragmentation is the current leitmotif of international geopolitics.
In his masterpiece Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger describes, probably too idyllically, the international balance-of-power system that, following the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, produced what came to be called the ‘Concert of Europe’. As Kissinger describes it, after the Napoleonic Wars, “There was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substantial harmony.” Of course, the concert ended in cacophony with the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.
Today, after the brutality of the first half of the 20th century, the temporary bipolarity of the Cold War, and the United States’ brief post-1989 hyper-power status, the world is once again searching for a new international order. Can something like the Concert of Europe be globalised? Unfortunately, global cacophony seems more probable. One obvious reason is the absence of a recognised and accepted international referee. The United States, which best embodies ultimate power, is less willing - and less able - to exercise it. And the United Nations, which best embodies the principles of international order, is as divided and impotent as ever.
But, beyond the absence of a referee, another issue looms: the wave of globalisation that followed the end of the Cold War has, paradoxically, accelerated fragmentation, affecting democratic and non-democratic countries alike. From the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia’s violent self-destruction, and Czechoslovakia’s peaceful divorce to today’s centrifugal pressures in Europe, the West, and the major emerging countries, fragmentation has been fundamental to international relations in recent decades.
The information revolution has created a more global, interdependent, and transparent world than ever. But this has led, in turn, to an anxious, Balkan-ising quest for identity. This effort to recover uniqueness is largely the cause of the international system’s growing fragmentation.
In the Concert of Europe, the number of actors was limited, and they were mostly states, whether national or imperial. Essential values were widely shared, and most actors favoured protecting the existing order. In today’s world, by contrast, the nature of the actors involved is no longer so clear. Trans-national forces, states, and non-state actors are all involved, and their goals are complex and sometimes contradictory, with no universal commitment to preserving the status quo.