¿The Age of Pressure Politics?

By Mariano Turzi - 06 August 2020
¿The Age of Pressure Politics?

Mariano Turzi analyses the challenges for weaker countries of the return to global power politics.

The global pandemic has accelerated the academic and policy consensus about the increasingly conflictive dynamics of world affairs and the return of great power rivalries. Cooperation has weakened, dialogue has fallen, interests are increasingly diverging and international institutions seem to be becoming less and less relevant for bringing powers to the table, keeping them in their seats and finding common ground for multilateral solutions. Focusing on relations between powers contending for the future of the international order it is easy to miss how are they fundamentally different from the relations great powers establish with weaker actors within the global system.

For smaller states, however, power politics means pressure politics. Asymmetries create fundamentally different perspectives on international relations. Weaker states from Latin America to Africa and Southeast Asia are more concerned with having their identity respected rather than aspiring to great power status. As a result, foreign policy behaviour is informed more by autonomy preservation rather than power maximization. The guiding principle for such countries will increasingly be their ability to preserve objectives in an increasingly restrictive and hostile international environment. Maintaining wherewithal to act is more important than building a counterbalancing coalition to challenge either Washington or Beijing. 

For the smaller states in the system, the new era of competition is alarming not in its end result but in its development. Immersed in a higher-stakes game, great powers will be more capable of and willing to infringe on the interests of non-powers. Mutual interests will be increasingly lost in the rigidities of a global zero-sum game. This weakens the three main avenues of advancing autonomies: distance, participation and diversification. More power competition and contention means more issues in the global agenda are captured by this rivalry. Climate change, human rights or technological standards become bilateral proxy battlegrounds of a multifaceted clash, drying up any possible space for creative agency, partial autarchy or non-aligned diplomacy. Participation in international institutions or adherence to international regimes will be viewed through the prism of those actions sustaining the principles of the international liberal order or seeking to lay the foundations of an alternative one. Finally, diversification –whether it be global value chains, in trade agreements or security alliances- will no longer be viewed as an attempt to reduce asymmetries vis-à-vis powerful countries but as a willing and willful effort to undercut and undermine.

An age of pressure politics translates into an increased penchant for negation instead of negotiation on the part of great powers. It also implies a much higher probability of bullying even for countries that have opted for alignment or bandwagoning. The intensification of conflict will usher in a global dynamic of pressure not only out of an expansionary imperative, but also due to heightened –real or perceived- fear. A return to a “domino theory mentality“ is already taking root, especially in American foreign relations. The notion that small countries are to fall to US attractiveness like dominoes in succession or succumb to Beijing´s seduction is becoming more and more manifest in Washington´s foreign policy making circles. 

Can this political race-to-the-bottom be avoided? What is the likelihood of preventing a descent into a vicious circle of increasing rigidity on the part of great powers that will forcefully bind and bond weaker countries into submission? Globalization has interconnected states through multiple dimensions: from economics to politics and from physical infrastructure to digital technology. For asymmetric relations between great powers and small states, global-scale shared challenges as climate change, migration, development and health can transform pressure politics into partner politics. Not instead but rather as part of great-power competition. A component of a “heterodox hegemony” in the emerging global (dis) order will be small-power politics. A pragmatic pre-eminence would make recognition and respect cornerstones of foreign policy towards weak states. It would be welcome by these countries. And it would advance American political, social and economic interests abroad in ways and to extents Beijing could hardly match. The United States has a competitive edge. If Washington can recognize the foreign policy relevance of managing asymmetries, then autonomy preservation of small states –allied or not- will become a powerful instrument in great power competition. A post-pandemic global order cannot be built on buying and bullying alone. Boldness in power and policy will be an essential component.




Mariano Turzi has a PhD in International Studies (SAIS, Johns Hopkins University) and is Professor of Global Affairs at CEMA/Austral (Argentina) and Deusto (Spain).

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

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