Following the Napoleonic Wars, the European powers gathered at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) and agreed on an informal but substantive collective consultation process that became known as the "Concert of Europe."
The victorious Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and post-Napoleonic Bourbon France recognized that unlimited wars among them would destroy the very system in which they had secured their great power status. Thus, they committed themselves to regulate in concert the various disputes and local conflicts that would erupt in the periphery of the Eurocentric international system. The central rule for the preservation of a favorable status quo was that none of the great powers would attempt to attain hegemony or create an economic, political or military imbalance at the expense of the others.
For the rest of the 19th Century, Britain and France focused on imperial consolidation in Africa and Asia; Prussia, the German principalities and the Italian states focused on unification, and Austria consolidated its position in central and southeastern Europe while Russia did the same in Siberia and Central Asia. The inevitable conflicts (such as the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War) that did arise were limited as all the powers wanted to avoid the kind of continental conflagration triggered by the French Revolution and Napoleon.
But the relative peace of the 19th Century was brutally shattered early in the 20th. The principles of concerted consultation were first undermined by unbridled antagonisms flowing from great power colonial expansion, restless, relentless nationalism in the Balkans fanned by continued decline of Ottoman power, and later by Manichean revolutionary ideologies exploited by flawed populist leaders.
The cost was gigantic: two World Wars (with over 100 million dead) followed by 45 years of Cold War - which did not turn into World War III only because of the gruesome balance of nuclear terror. Great power wartime alliances collapsed after both world wars, and by 1947 "containment" and "proletarian revolution" became the rallying cries in a bipolar global system. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union financed many smaller, regional conflicts and supported multiple brutal, authoritarian regimes.
Following the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the bankruptcy of central economic planning, the mercy killing of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, some analysts - including U.S. President George H. W. Bush and his foreign policy leadership - spoke of a "new world order." An able and remarkable proponent of world optimism, Francis Fukuyama, predicted "the end of history" for a planet of sustainable democracies and free markets.
But soon this unfettered optimism was succeeded by new questions and uncertainties. Russia turned inward and entered a long period of rowdy transition, including an untidy attempt to adopt unregulated capitalism and adjust to the shock of a disintegrated Soviet empire. Absent an enemy, the West appeared rudderless as it attempted to deal with new realities such as energy shortages, climate change and mass illegal immigration. Another academic, Samuel Huntington, saw portents of a "clash of civilizations."
In the 1990s, the center of geopolitical gravity shifted to the Persian Gulf with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and to the western Balkans with the bloody wars of Yugoslav succession. As American military might reigned supreme in both these theaters of warfare, serious analysts - spearheaded by neoconservative thinkers and activists - expansively predicted a forthcoming "American Century" with the U.S. as the sole global superpower.
But the dawn of the new century was overshadowed by the September, 11 terrorist attacks. An "asymmetric threat" posed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden was instantly transformed into a nightmarish reality. President George W. Bush declared America's war against terror and uncritically energized neoconservative doctrines of unilateralism, preemptive war, coalitions of the willing and active spread of democracy through regime change.
His decisions entangled the United States and the West in the long wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, opening up years of friction with traditional allies such as Germany and France, complicating relations with Russia and much of the rest of the world. Today, President Barack Obama seeks an exit from the war zones in south-central Asia in a way that will not replicate the desperate and humbling final withdrawal of American forces from Saigon in 1975.
As the second decade of the 21st century begins, we can predict - fully realizing the risks facing prophets and prophecies - a new "concert of great powers" that could manage relative peace among the strong political and economic actors of our planet. Direct military conflicts among the great powers are in no one's interests, and they all seem to realize that. Instability and threat of tragic consequences will continue to come from 0other sources - such as nuclear weapons or dirty bombs in terrorist hands, fragmented, tribal, unstable and corrupt regimes, failed states and the hubris of leaders driven by irrational political and religious extremism.
So it is reasonable to expect the new great powers to back their shared interest in peaceful development and stability with mechanisms to support those goals.
One such mechanism is emerging: the G-20. It can play a role modeled on the post-Napoleonic concert of European powers. This time it will be genuinely global, with emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil joining the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, Japan and Germany as regulators of global geopolitical and geo-economic developments. Institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization will act as lubricants of genuine globalization. The challenge will include sustainable development in the poorer parts of our planet to reduce the deeper causes of alienation that, unchecked, will once more threaten the peace.
This does not mean that Russia will stop reasserting its influence in the "near abroad" of its former empire in Central Asia or making energy-supply-based mischief in Europe. China will continue its relentless focus on securing energy and other natural resources through skillful aid and development programs, in Africa and Latin America especially. India will assert its influence not only in the Indian Ocean, but also into the African littoral, southeast and central Asia where it and China are already colliding.
Europe needs to regain sufficient confidence to assert a meaningful and coordinated presence. And the U.S. needs to play a more nuanced leadership role, mobilizing the full range of "smart and soft power" more prominently, and making it clear that where necessary (and in concert with others) it will also resort to military action - such as to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa or in the Straits of Malacca, or to safeguard or retrieve fission materials.
The new great powers are increasingly aligning on basic interests and ways of supporting them, though resource rivalry will intensify. Their leaders must clearly explain the objectives, means, and limits of that new concert of powers to secure the domestic support required for success.