Emerging Powers vs. Immerging Powers

I had some vague thoughts swirling around the cranium, and a French word I ran across in some weekend reading helped crystallize them: s’immerger, which means to immerse oneself, but also to submerge oneself. The word corresponds to the English immerge, which I hadn’t realized existed. (That rumbling sound you hear is my Shakespearian-scholar and Greek- and Latin-speaking grandfather rolling over in his grave.)

It immediately made me think of President Obama’s Camp Lejeune speech, which put the withdrawal from Iraq in the context of a regional diplomatic fabric. The same approach informs the regional approach to the Afghanistan War, and the emphasis on engagement in general that the Obama administration has initially articulated.

Taken together, it suggests that the Obama’s response to the young great powers that are busy emerging rests on the belief that mature great powers should be busy immerging. That compares to the Bush administration’s approach to emerging powers, which was to make sure the United States emerged more.

France under Nicolas Sarkozy has been particularly active on the immergence front, from it’s moves to reintegrate NATO, to its efforts to shore up the EU’s institutional infrastructure, to its Union for the Mediterranean Union. (The latter, as Art Goldhammer points out, now somewhat dead in the water, a casualty of Gaza, although I think that will change in the event of even modest progress on an Israel-Syria peace track.) Turkey, too, has been following its own model of immergence with some success.

The thing about immergence, though, is that there’s a tension between it’s two meanings: immersion suggests an empowered unity, while submersion suggests a disempowered subordination.

So not surprisingly, there’s a resistance to the idea among nations that worry that, in immersing themselves into a regional architecture, they will become submerged by their more-emerged neighbors. See this 2point6billion piece about the slow pace of ASEAN integration, for instance. It also explains some of China’s and Russia’s difficulties in trying to sell the SCO and CSTO, respectively, to their wary neighbors.

Despite its intellectually satisfying ring to foreign policy afficionados’ ears, the same goes for Obama’s approach. Even immerged, the United States will remain dominant, and everyone we’re trying to immerge with knows that. We should also expect healthy resistance to any pressure to immerge from nations that have yet to emerge, and in some cases have yet to even merge. (See Brian Burton’s WPR Briefing on the Afpak acronym as illustration.)

The reality of immergence is that the limits it places on sovereignty are legal fictions for powers that have already emerged, while being real constraints for those busy emerging.