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Fr. Concert des nations, équilibre des forces, puissance

→ empire, globalization, state, transnational

Conventionally, the field of International Relations is concerned with how governments behave towards one another through diplomacy, war, trade, alliances, dominance, dependency and international cooperation. As an analytical tool, the term has nevertheless led to confusion between nation and state, given that both the League of Nations and the United Nations included sovereign states only. To that extent, a “concert of powers” obviously excludes any other category of actors, such as the third sector, INGOs, international trade unions, private companies, associations of parliaments or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Moreover, when “international” (understood as “interstate”) relationships are seen in a long-term, historical perspective, it turns out that in the ancient world, order meant empire. Even in 1989 when the political systems of three centuries came to an end in Europe, what disappeared under the balance-of-power label was the imperial urge rooted in the past. It was not just the end of the Cold War, but also the end of a state system in Europe that dated from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and ended the religious civil war known as the Thirty Years War through the separation of church and state. What should strike internationalists here is first, that what is called states was mostly made of empires (Leonard 2002), and second, that a dual system appears from the opposition between church and state, since churches and more generally religions are not state entities but rather non-state actors, whatever political claims they may otherwise advance.

The international order based on a concert or balanced of powers in subsequent periods was based either on hegemony of a dominant empire, or on balance between various powers. Logically, order, culture and civilisation were identified with empire and conflicted with the outside world where laid barbarians, chaos and disorder. The image of peace and order through a single hegemonic power has not disappeared, but hegemony does not favour change and is hardly adequate for promoting change. In history, empires tend to expand beyond provisional boundaries until they become self-centered, under an authoritarian political regime that will fear social and political innovation and prefer stability and the status quo, to finally slip into political decline, break up into satrapies or fall under the sway of competing empires (Burbank 2010, Martinez-Gros 2014).

As such, the concert of nations/powers went through three big periods:

- The 1815-1914 period, starting when the Congress of Vienna regulated diplomacy in the quadruple Alliance (GB/Prussia/Austria/Russia, including France 1818), the aim being to maintain conservative legitimate monarchies against revolutions (Spain, Italy, Greece);

- the Cold War, experiencing both an expansion of nation-states (18-19th centuries) and a revival of the Concert of Powers, but it was also characterized by the rise of authoritarian states, in the Third World particularly, with one-party military rulers, and the impact of ideological conflicts.

- the Post-Cold war period, where changes implied the demise of pre-1914 European empires with the rise of nationalism, rival ideological beliefs (US/USSR) and hostility to European imperialism, as well as the expansion of the tasks of governments (democratic institutions; franchise development).

In the early 1990s the idea of a concert of powers was revived as a recipe for managing relations between the great powers and for providing a semblance of global governance in a world without a formal government. Such claims quickly vanished, as a multipolar system was gradually taking shape, if not a non-polar/a-polar system with no clear direction.

The Post-Cold War period was supposed to usher in a New World Order under George Bush Senior, following the 1rst Gulf war 1991. This hope survived in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, with the exacerbation of a deregulated liberalism and a measure of interventionism. A second “New World Order” was imposed by the American NSS (National Security Strategy, 2002), which introduced a number of new concepts such as pre-emption, as opposed to preventive action, and the promotion/export of democracy. More recently, some observers have said that the United States' unipolar moment is over, and that the twenty-first century will be defined by non-polarity. If so, power will be diffuse rather than concentrated, and the influence of nation-states will decline as that of non-state actors increases. The current stage has been illustrated by a relative “return of the state” following the financial crisis, sometimes supported by strong populist movements. However, states are left fundamentally paralysed in the absence of adequate international institutions and regulations, whether political, economic or financial.

In a way, the emergence of a mutipolarity recalls the previous periods and suggests the re-emergence of a kind of concert or balance of powers, but this view is altered by the increasing interference of transnational actors within the international sphere. “Transnational” refers to any entities (organizations, networks) or processes (activities, factors, movements, transactions) that cross state boundaries, like multinational companies or corporations (MNCs), INGOs and mixed actors. This is compounded by regimes within particular issue areas (economics, the environment, security, transport, communications, human rights, arms controls, intellectual property, cultural heritage, etc.).    

As a whole, power to affect international relationships is not only in the hands of a group of states, diplomatic missions or military interventions (hard power), but it also implies the capacity for states and other actors to exercise influence through ideas and ideals, products and trade services on the global market, cultural and linguistic links, information and communication (soft power) and, most importantly, the fate of the ecosystem through new working methods. A new landscape is being designed, a complex whole and multi-layered globalization that can no longer be approached through disciplinary studies and professional orthodoxies, but requires cross-disciplinary efforts to explore the full range of entities and processes that mark world affairs.