The Realist Prism: A Bismarckian Approach to Solving 21st-Century Conflicts

The Realist Prism: A Bismarckian Approach to Solving 21st-Century Conflicts

Given the recent prominence in international affairs of seemingly intractable disputes over maritime rights—from the South China Sea to the Arctic to the Eastern Mediterranean—it appears to be an opportune time for a 21st-century version of Otto von Bismarck, the "honest broker," to convene the next great set of international conferences to settle some of today’s stand-offs. Moreover, since some of the most dangerous flashpoints that could bring major powers to the brink of war, particularly in the Western Pacific, are quite literally little more than rocks, someone with a Bismarckian sense of perspective is sorely needed. After all, as we approach the centenary of World War I, it is useful to recall that this extremely destructive conflict was generated, in part, because Germany, and other European powers, chose to forget the Iron Chancellor's sage advice that, when it came to the peace of Europe, the territorial disposition of the Balkan lands was "not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."

Bismarck's approach, building on the earlier concert system facilitated by such diplomats as Talleyrand and Metternich, was to search for compromises based upon swaps and mutual concessions, with an eye to creating stable balances. The meetings he presided over in attempting to find solutions to the problems that threatened to tear apart the European state system were characterized by horse-trading and bargaining. In particular they aimed to encourage countries to abandon their maximalist aims and be satisfied with a lesser settlement as a price for peace. The process was aided by Germany's own stated disinterest in some of the issues under discussion—territorial settlements in Africa or the Balkans, for instance—enabling Bismarck to be a truly honest broker. It also depended on the collective power of the participants to enforce the settlement against any outliers. Germany's ability to act as the "balancer" to tip the scales against any one European power that was reluctant to sign on to compromise was an important condition in getting all parties to agree to a binding settlement.

Present-day efforts to try and broker settlements to some of the ongoing disputes have not been as successful as Bismarck’s, in part due to the lack of a single driving authority to serve as both broker and enforcer. The United Nations, either through the secretary-general or the president of the General Assembly, has the position to offer its good offices, but it cannot guarantee that any settlement that the parties might negotiate would be enforced. Regional powers that are themselves party to disputes, such as Israel, Turkey, China and Japan, cannot simultaneously broker deals and defend their own interests. Meanwhile other major states, like Russia, that might fulfill Bismarck's first criteria of disinterest are not in a position to guarantee successful enforcement of any final settlement. Finally, nationalism has created domestic political climates where compromises are seen as capitulation.

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