Beyond Isolationism vs. Interventionism: Engagement and Cooperation in a World of Resurgent Empires


Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

In my previous essay on Syria, I argued that both liberal humanitarian wars and neo-conservative crusades are intellectually and morally bankrupt. Only the Just War tradition can offer an account of necessary conditions for the ethical use of force in conflicts. I also argued that there can be no just war without a just peace, which requires new forms of cooperation between countries previously at war with one another and new forms of engagement between global powers.

Indeed, the post-1648 Westphalian system of national states and transnational markets is in crisis, and it fails to capture the endurance and resurgence of imperial power as well as a whole host of non-state and non-market actors and institutions – including multi-national corporations, religious movements, global social networks and intermediary institutions. Indeed, we are dealing with a global system of de facto great powers that dominate smaller states and operate a system of tributes – whether of a more Western, ‘liberal’ or a more Eastern, ‘authoritarian’ kind (Both are compatible with non-democratic elements). Such a system absolves great powers of their responsibility and reinforces a sense of exceptionalism that can be variously more secular or more religious.

1. The global resurgence of empire?

After the Cold War, two rival conceptions dominated both academic research and public debate for over a decade: either the ‘end of history’ and the global convergence towards liberal market democracy or a ‘clash of civilisations’ and permanent conflict along religious-cultural fault-lines. However, neither liberal states nor civilisations capture the current dynamic of geo-politics and geo-economics.

The fragile balance between the twin principles of national self-determination and territorial integrity has characterised the modern international system of nation-states since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. Now the era of national state sovereignty is drawing to a close, in the sense that the ‘global risk society’ has created unprecedented forms of geo-political and geo-economic interdependence – financial crises, climate change, epidemics, migratory flows, cross-border crime (e.g. cyber-terrorism), etc. In this process, the transnational market and the national state have converged and are colluding as part of a supranational system of power, composed of international organisations (IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc.), multinational corporations and a combination of both ‘old elites’ and ‘new classes’ – notably a global financial oligarchy and various forms of kleptocratic structures worldwide.

Amidst the shift in power from the west and the north to the east and the south, global geo-politics is marked by the crisis of the nation-state and the resurgence of empire. The principles of national self-determination and territorial integrity are collapsing under the weight of their own inner contradictions (to adapt Marx’s famous dictum about capitalism). Ever smaller territorial entities can break away from their larger parent country in the name of the right to self-rule – South Sudan, Kosovo, South Ossetia, to name but the most recent cases. The modern nation-state also clashes with imperial traditions and contemporary realities.

Global capital movements and supranational institutions like the IMF or the WTO represent a pooling of economic and political sovereignty that constraints the power of smaller states. After post-1945 decolonisation and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989-91, the West expected an ‘end of history’ and a worldwide convergence towards liberal market democracy, as I have already indicated. But the spread of globalised capitalism has led to a paradoxical combination of national fragmentation and imperial consolidation.

This is exemplified by powers as diverse as Turkey, Iran, Russia and China. Their leaders look back to imperial traditions in order to define national roles in a ‘multi-polar’ world and forge links independently of western countries and institutions. That’s why Moscow speaks of its post-Soviet ‘sphere of privileged interests’. Beijing considers Taiwan as a renegade region that must be reintegrated into the Middle Kingdom. Tehran’s power projection across the wider Middle East is raising fears of a revived Persian imperialism.

Likewise, Ankara’s assertive foreign policy has transformed Turkey’s role from being a bridge between Europe and Asia to exercising hegemonic influence in the lands that formerly constituted the Ottoman empire. Cuneyt Zapsu, an adviser to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, was recently quoted as saying that “We are the Ottomans’ successor and should not be ashamed of this”. Indeed, the governing AKP party’s foreign policy strategy has been described as a “double-gravity state” that seeks to balance its shared values as a member of the Euro-Atlantic community with its interest in the Greater Middle Eastern neighbourhood. Crucially, the AKP government has a neo-imperial outlook – the revival of Ottoman traditions closely connected to a newly self-assertive, “Great Power” Turkey that acts as an imperial force rather than a modern nation-state.

The resurgence of old imperial powers is not limited to these four countries. Across the globe we are seeing the rise of ancient empires that never really went away and therefore cannot be ruled out from regaining public prominence. In Latin America, Brazil is exercising a continental leadership role that mirrors some of the ancient kingdoms. In Africa countries such as Nigeria and South Africa reflect older, cross-tribal and cross-cultural polities that project their power well beyond their national borders. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines are engaged in struggles to secure their respective zones of influence. In the Middle East, the growing conflict between the Saudi-led Sunni arc and the Iranian-led Shia crescent shows just how dangerous the rise of imperial power is when allied to a sectarian struggle whose origins go back to the formative period of Islam.

In the end, virtually all political power tends to become imperial. That could be to stabilise volatile backyards (e.g. Turkey and Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh). Or to secure natural resources and market outlets (e.g. China in Africa). Or else to pursue a ‘civilising mission’ (e.g. the US export of democracy by ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power or the EU’s promotion of human rights). Indeed, even the politically dysfunctional EU is best described as a ‘neo-medieval’ empire that tries to project normative power.

2. Imperial power and the importance of trustee- and guardianship

The ongoing revolution in sovereignty requires new strategic thinking that is badly amiss. If power is ultimately imperial, then the question is what this means for relationships between empires – old or new – and other countries. Arguably, there is a choice between forms of colonialism and exploitation, whether through direct conquest or indirect control, and more virtuous forms of protection and cooperation.

The former tends to be less overtly colonialist than in the 19th and early 20th centuries but nonetheless deeply problematic. Today, great powers operate a tributarian system with smaller neighbours and other countries across the world. They provide ‘security’ in exchange for market outlets and inexpensive imports. For example, the USA sell military equipment to its allies worldwide – notably smaller imperial powers such as India or Saudi Arabia but also client states like Egypt. At the same time, the USA buy cheap consumer goods from abroad in order to fuel a consumption binge that papers over growing income and asset inequalities, while also importing cheap (often unskilled and illegal) labour to maintain a young population and keep wages low.

For its part, China needs primary commodities to sustain its buoyant economic growth, which it extracts in the resource-rich regions of Africa and Latin America. Beijing has also established a system of client states which provide either cheap sweat shops (e.g. Vietnam and Cambodia) or market access for its cheap consumer goods.

In the new Great Game, the geo-economics of energy security matters just as much as the geo-politics of territorial control. Instead of national states and liberal market democracy, we are seeing the rise of old empires and new elites who combine bureaucratic capitalism with authoritarian plutocracy.

Faced with this system, there is an urgent need for a much more equitable and more cooperative approach to international affairs, which will displace ‘liberal interventionism’ for rights and markets with an ‘associationist interventionism’ upholding genuine transnational trusteeship and partnership in a fashion  that respects local peculiarities and traditions. What this means is that the international system is best described as a society of states with varying degrees of conflict and cooperation.

And where cooperation prevails, one can even speak of a family of nations and peoples with social ties and cultural bonds – whether in parts of the post-Soviet space or in the British commonwealth or among the members of the Francophonie or the association of Ibero-American states. Properly configured, trustee- and guardianship is a virtuous middle ground to two extremes, which are either ‘splendid isolationism’ and ‘benign neglect’, on the one hand, or interventionism and establishing protectorates, on the other hand.

In international relations, the notion of trusteeship describes a relationship in which one state, country or nation assumes responsibility for the security and flourishing of another state, country or nation which is (thought to be) unable to manage their own affairs without doing damage either to themselves or others. In the contemporary world, there are many cases where this might apply – including transition economies, post-conflict countries or ‘failed states’. In the absence of trusteeship, there is always the risk that purely self-interested powers will fill the vacuum.

However, this is not to minimise or deny the risk that the virtue of assistance can ‘flip over’ and turn into the vice of inequality and tutelage. This is true for all relationships that include forms of hierarchical dependencies, from the family via communities to nations and indeed the society of states. However, the risk of exploitation is counterbalanced by the pursuit of welfare and mutual flourishing. Crucially, this approach rejects a purely formalistic and procedural form of equality in favour of a substantive common good in which all can share. For purely legal and contractual equality ends up producing its own opposite – namely the domination of the powerful and the wealthy.

By contrast, a form of virtuous guardianship upholds the notion of a shared, substantive humanity that is compatible with different degrees of development in different areas of society – poverty is not absolute but relative, such as that economically advanced countries have often become atomised, impersonal, anonymous and uncaring whereas developing countries retain a much stronger sense of dignity, celebration, popular culture, public generosity and hospitality.

If the difference is not between rival values but ultimately between virtue and vice, then only virtue can civilise power and direct wealth to the common good. And virtuous leadership implies a form of trusteeship in the sense of mutual obligation. Indeed, there is a reciprocal responsibility on the part of great powers to protect, preserve and advance the flourishing of smaller nations and countries which without a measure of guardianship would be the target of exploitation and oppression.


Beyond realism and idealism, it is equally clear that both ideas and interests shape relations between countries and that a whole host of sub- and supra-national actors and institutions are coming to the fore, especially the growing importance of regions and civil society in the development and democratisation of different societies across Europe and beyond. As such, the state-centric grammar underpinning traditional theories of international relations is increasingly obsolete and questionable. At the same time, no new conceptuality has as yet found traction with the leaders of the world’s main powers.