The first in our 2012 series of dialogue forums was attended by 200 people.
Dr. Steinmeier, Dr. Illinger, Ms. Niejahr and Prof. Weidenfeld discuss global power structures.

Aspiration and reality of power structures

Dialogue forum held on 03 February 2012

The theme of the Munich Re Foundation’s 2012 dialogue forums is “Power and influence: Who controls the world’s destiny?” The panel at the first in the series on 3 February was made up of leading figures from a variey of backgrounds.

Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chairman of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, Prof. Werner Weidenfeld, Director of the Center for Applied Policy Research and Elisabeth Niejahr, a journalist at the Berlin office of German weekly “Die Zeit”, debated the “aspiration and reality of power structures”. At the start of this seventh series, they discussed how the global balance of power will alter as a result of the transformations currently taking place in the world.

There can be no doubt about the fact that we are going through a period of major change, with the debt crisis, the euro crisis, the shift in energy policy and the Arab spring receiving extensive media coverage. In his opening address, Dr. Nikolaus von Bomhard, Chairman of Munich Re’s Board of Management, explained why this is so: “The past year’s events are a consequence of globalisation, and show that there are still a number of issues to be resolved.” He, too, is concerned about who decides what in this respect, and about the legitimacy of the decision-makers.

From soft power to smart power

In the course of history, the power structure has often been recast by the rise and fall of empires, by wars and catastrophes. Today’s bloody conflicts in the Arab world and the deposed regimes of Tunisia and Egypt show the full extent of global unrest. With one notable difference, which Werner Weidenfeld outlined as follows: “Power used to be a matter of ‘hard’ power, like tanks, rifles and missiles. Later, it was about ‘soft’ power, that is to say the attractiveness of political and economic orders.” Weidenfeld noted that a third category, “smart power”, is crucial these days. It is a means of reducing the world’s complexity in people’s minds. Without smart power, complex issues like the debt crisis cannot be solved. Weidenfeld: “These days, if you can explain and interpret the world, you have power.”

Europe ultimately lost this ability to explain due to the pressures of the euro crisis but, overall, the united Europe has acquired greater significance because the crisis can only be resolved at a European level and not at a national level. “The perception of the globalised power architecture is also evolving accordingly. There are currently only two world powers, the USA and China. Soon, the world will be shaped by a different architecture, perhaps involving India, Japan, Russia and Europe”, he prophesied.

No individual state can cope with 21st-century challenges, and this has not only been shown by the euro crisis. The panel believes there is a fundamental issue at stake here, namely the discrepancy between the aspiration and the reality of political decision-making. Many challenges can only be overcome at international level, and decisions have to be taken at supranational level. But the legal capacity to do so still resides with the individual countries. Weidenfeld: “To solve global problems or become active at EU level, you have to ensure you have the authority do so.”

The global growth centres have shifted
Frank-Walter Steinmeier commented that we needed to get away from the old power-structure certainties. “We can’t say precisely what will change, but I can assure you that virtually nothing is as it used to be.” The bipolar world of East-West conflict with its established alliances is now definitely a thing of the past. Summing up the situation, Steinmeier, formerly SPD chancellor candidate, commented: “The old order has gone, and no new order has yet replaced it.” The world is seeking a new structure and the outcome remains unclear, but because the global growth centres have shifted, the emerging countries will have a major say in the future. “We have to realise that the old structures like the G7 or G8 don’t represent the new balance of power,” Steinmeier continued. The problem is that “the world is full of contradictions. The willingness to subordinate our personal interests to the common good isn’t there”, which is why, for instance, it is proving so difficult to solve the climate issue or regulate the financial markets.

“Die Zeit” editor Elisabeth Niejahr is also aware that we have to move away from the idea that the world will be directed by one or two superpowers: “We’ll see how power is divided up in various coalitions, on similar lines to the party political landscape in Germany.” In Niejajhr’s view, the most likely scenario is a world in which major regional powers are locked in a sort of stalemate and experiment with different ways of apportioning power among themselves as time goes on. “We are going through a period where different constellations form, depending on the issue involved. It’s a matter of trying things out to see what works.”

China is a power factor that is very difficult to gauge. The picture is not clear – the country is a major economic power that is difficult to assess as regards its aspirations to global political leadership. Which way China will go is not yet clear. But we should not, in any case, assume that today’s world will develop in a linear manner.

The age of participation

Who will ultimately control tomorrow’s world is a question to which even political scientists have no satisfactory answer. On the contrary, if you put that question to five experts, you will get five different answers. However, in the power-structure debate, we should not lose sight of the influence exerted from the grass roots, by everyday citizens. This is an area where Niejahr would like to see a more positive attitude. While, for example, Americans specifically see a gain in freedom in the age of participation, in Germany there are lengthy debates about citizen participation, as in the case of Stuttgart 21. If you advocate more citizen participation, you also have to get used to the idea that decisions do not always end up as you would wish. “But you can also get used to the alternatives”, Niejahr suggested.

The next dialogue forum on “Raw materials and energy – Is the world’s wealth being redistributed?” will be held on 16 February 2012.