Andrew Carr writes:

As so often is the case, Michael Wesley has introduced a fresh and important take on world affairs with his new discussion of polarity, but I can't help but wonder about the significance of the differences, both in how we read the data and what it implies for the future direction of the world.

Michael is right that Asian countries are less invested in the UN than Atlantic countries. This is to be expected given that only one Asian country has a Security Council veto (China, a reluctant multilateralist at best) and the forum was designed and still largely operates in a manner that suits Atlantic countries (ie. a heavy institutional footprint, legalistic focus, preference for decision making over consensus, and a willingness to discuss ['interfere'] in the internal affairs of countries).

If by polarity Michael is suggesting Asia is disinclined for the UN in particular, I would agree, but if he's suggesting this represents a different world 'outlook' in terms of the role of multilateralism, I have to disagree.

Institutions have, if anything, an even more important role in Asia than they do in Europe. As Michael well knows, there is not just a proliferation, but an overload of multilateral institutions in Asia, with an estimated 700 multilateral meetings a year being held. Asian institutions however, operate in a different manner to Atlantic ones. They are often regionally defined (ie. Asian countries are more concerned with neighbourhood challenges than global ones), and they follow different rules about the institutional footprint, decision making styles, and a preference for process and long term socialisation via dealing with common challenges, than seeking speedy majority rulings about hard security issues.

These are important difference of style, but in terms of 'distinguish(ing) the Atlantic from the Asian outlook', both regions share a strong preference for using institutions as the means for avoiding conflict and dispute resolution. Both pledge to work on human rights and advance democracy, but along different timelines. I'm not sure the different approaches and norms that shape their behaviour within institutions should be seen as more important than their common support of institutions.

Likewise, I can't help but note the different economic disparities between the regions when comparing spending on weaponry. Over the period discussed (2000-2011), Asia has witnessed significant economic growth, with many countries moving into middle income status and seeking the modern military capacities that come with it. We should expect a quickly growing region that is emerging from developing into developed status to spend more than poorer and less institutionally capable regions (Africa), and wealthier but already established regions (Europe).

Yet there is little evidence that this purchasing is being undertaken in response to the capability of other states (otherwise known as an 'arms race'). If Asia was gearing for war, we'd see diplomatic moves to match the defence spending, yet these are hard to identify. One explanation for the increased spending is that states, like people, often buy items for status, spending at a level they think is fitting with their income, as much as they purchase based on need or demand. To analogise, the person who orders the biggest TV in the store is not necessarily a couch potato; they might simply have received a big promotion. Asian states are spending more now, in part because they can.

Like all readers, I've really enjoyed Michael's thought provoking posts, but I haven't responded before because I'm not quite sure what the very real differences he is identifying mean.

The Atlantic and Asian regions have long been very different. Globalisation has brought them much closer together and maybe they will drift away again, but given they share common economic systems, largely common political systems (save China), and an increasing cultural overlap, the fundamentals for cohesion are strong. Add to that a mutual embrace of multilateralism as the proper forum for peaceful dispute resolution and I'm not sure what the many differences between these areas imply for how the world will work in the future.