The End of the Vasco da Gama Era is vintage Coral Bell: bold and trenchant, with plenty on which both academics and policymakers might chew. Criticising it – especially with the benefit of hindsight – seems churlish. But it is necessary, I think, because it promotes a deeply problematic idea that still lurks in Australian strategic thought: the notion that a ‘concert of powers’ is the best way to manage contemporary international relations.
In the essay, Bell argued that the relative decline of American power, Islamist jihadism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, the growing prosperity of the non-Western world, and the uncertainties inherent in the transition to a complex, multipolar society of states were together likely to undermine international order. Managing these challenges, she thought, was beyond the capabilities of the US alone and existing institutions of global governance. Instead, she suggested an updated version of the 19th century European Concert.
This idea had surfaced before in Bell’s work, in A World Out of Balance (2003), for example. Her interest in it was long-standing, a by-product of her fascination with Henry Kissinger, the subject of her The Diplomacy of Détente (1977). Bell’s concert of powers is very much Kissinger’s version, outlined in A World Restored (1957), his tale of how an enlightened few conjured continental peace and stability at a series of grand conferences held in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, balancing great-power interests with the needs of systemic stability.
Please click here to read the full “Coral Bell and the ‘concert of powers’ problem” article published at The Lowy Interpreter, written by Griffith Asia Institute member, Professor Ian Hall.