Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder


Asia and Europe are my main areas of interest, but the world does not sop there. Of particular importance to me is this vast wedge of hardship that stretches from the Gulf of Guinea all the way to the southern slopes of the Himalaya. In this area, the population is expected to expand by at least 1.5 billion people in the next 30 years. That is a huge potential for growth but it also requires a growth model that advances employment and dignity.


Schermafbeelding 2014-07-03 om 14.18.42 Before I shifted more to Asia, I started my research in Africa. Between 2003 and 2005, I spent time in Congo and other African countries to look at the fragmentation of rebel groups and the economic causes of rebellion. It was, fair to say, one of the most intense experiences in my lifetime and left a strong impression about the resilience and creativitySchermafbeelding 2014-07-03 om 14.18.56 of the African people. From time to time, I still write shorter comments about the African continent. In The Power of Paradise I write about the future of its important agricultural sector and urbanization. But most of my research papers are on the role of the emerging powers in the region.

China’s New Mercantilism in Central Africa was one of the first academic articles to discuss China’s renewed interest in the African continent. Describing the drivers of this re-entry in Africa, the paper examined which tools and levers China used to gain influence and concluded that China’s rise confirmed the current economic position of African countries: that of commodity supplier and a modest consumer’s market. This preliminary research was a reason for the European Parliament to ask me to prepare a comprehensive report on the emerging powers’ resources and energy policy towards Africa. This report lay at the basis of an official report of the Parliament, which in turn prompted the European Commission to launch an official trilateral dialogue.

Another important study, appearing in 2007, was China’s Diplomatic Victory in Darfur. It posited that Beijing’s engagement evolved from a rather passive posture, to taking a clear position, and finally, to active persuasion and mediation, yet without imperilling its interests in the energy sector. At that time, Vice-Minister Du Qiwen told me that this paper had been discussed at the highest level of the Chinese government and had an impact on the leadership’s decisions. This study on Darfur was followed by a paper that evaluated to which extent China adapted its Africa policy to external criticism and expectations. In 2008, a paper on China’s security policy towards Africa was published in Parameters, the journal of the US Army War College, and in 2011, I completed a study on how China responded to African coups.


In 2006, I paid my first visSchermafbeelding 2014-07-03 om 14.17.27it to South Asia: to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Since, I continued to visit the region about once a year. It is impossible not to be struck by the entrepreneurialism in the country. In one village in Uttar Pradesh, I met a guy who ran a company that rented battery-powered lamps to poor farmers. In another place, a young woman had invested in an internet connection and a laptop and provided information about food price fluctuations to hundreds of smallholders. I also worked with a few icons of Indian innovation, like the Tata Group and Reliance, and was always amazed by their ambition – and scale.

But the challenges remain vast and intimidating. The Indian labour force will expand dramatically and the agricultural sector is struggling. Take the car from the headquarters of the large IT companies in Bangalore of Hyderabad, and you are catapulted back into the Middle Ages in less than half an hour. In 2014, a paper questioned whether India could get its act together and pave the way to durable growth. Narendra Modi had won the elections and promised to turn India into a leading manufacturing hub, but in the paper I present several reasons for being cautious about such promises. It is very unlikely, it concludes, that India will be the next China.

The new power politics

This global order is characterized mostly by fragile powers. None of the titans is able to lead as the United States did in the last few decades and there is not much chance that one of the new pretenders like China soon will be able to take over that role. One can expect such fragile powers to be more interested in cooperation, but, it seems, the contrary is true. They tend to behave more selfishly and are increasingly distrustful towards one another. In my work, I try to follow five different arenas in which the new global power politics manifests itself.

This starts with the new economic power politics. We come from a period that was marked by great enthusiasm about globalization. That is unlikely to last. The main countries might not yet be erecting tariff barriers as they did in the twentieth century and before, but their government do intervene more aggressively by means of monetary policy, strategies geared to develop national champions, and export promotion. Statecraft is thus not about stopping globalization, but about manipulating globalization. The problem, though, is that this approach will sooner or later make some states so dissatisfied about the existing international economic regime that they will pull out.

Next comes the battle for resources. Thus far, the Malthusian thinkers have proved wrong. There is no scarcity of most natural resources yet. Each time alarmist claim that we are reaching the limits of the global fossil fuel reserves, we find new important bonanzas, become able to drill deeper, or to extract it from rocks. The same goes for many ores. This is true, but states still try to be able to control prices to the advantage of their producers. Moreover, some resources, like water and food do become scarce. Despite the availability of technologies to solve that scarcity, there are not implemented or not implemented fast enough so that competition will become fiercer.

The third battleground concerns international organizations. Most organizations were our babies. We established them after World War II to advance the interests of the Western world. Today, however, a majority of developing countries is closing the ranks more frequently against the minority of developed countries. In principle we can expect those developing countries to take a greater interests in the standards and norms that we find important, as they become richer and more demanding, but that will take time and it will thus unlikely abate the tensions within international organizations in the short term.

Fourth comes the new military power politics. Global military spending is again at the level of the Cold War. Military balancing as such does not need to lead to war. Options for a tit-for-tat game are almost endless. But military competition in a climate of growing nationalism, in a context of historical distrust, and in regions with many territorial disputes is much more unpredictable. There are no indications that economic ties or international rules mitigate these factors.

The military tensions spill over into the fifth realm, or more accurately in a series of new spheres. The deep oceans will become more important if China successfully starts to build its new generation of nuclear submarines. Military deterrence has also moved to the cyber realm and, despite pledges to prevent the militarization of space, into the galaxy.

These different levels of contest are discussed in The Power of Paradise, but they also run as important themes throughout my research in general.