Given his many-sided career in journalism, in research and action for security and peace, in the United Nations, in foundations and in think-tanks (among them, the Transnational Institute) the author can draw on a formidable range of experiences and connections. His book puts that knowledge and know-how on display, and makes use of current perspectives by other observers, with due attention to disputes about those perspectives.
In constructing his book, Aguirre draws on his previously-published articles in Spanish newspapers and foreign affairs journals, BBC Mundo, reports for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and other policy research bodies, re-crafting and up-dating them to take account of the war in Ukraine, China-targeted economic warfare and the climate emergency, among other tensions and outright conflicts that together may – or may not – return us to something like the Cold War period that ended more than three decades ago.
Here follow selective, and thus by no means complete, sketches of the book’s chapters.
The opening chapter ‘From the Cold War to Globalization’ notes the decline or irrelevance of some factors that had been at work in the decades after 1945. In contrast to that period, Inter-state competition no longer pivots on ideology, but on economic performance. Further, US global supremacy has suffered erosion, while on the domestic front, political polarization is rapidly displacing consensus. Yet some features of the old Cold War years have not gone away: intensified arms build-ups, new technologies of warfare, unilateral armed interventions and nuclear weaponry. Progressive movements, especially when they gain leverage over policy or public opinion, offer grounds for some optimism, but those movements have often met serious setbacks, including the advance of well-funded nativist and chauvinist movements and right-wing parties.
The following chapter, ‘One Global System’, critiques a widely-held view that today’s global order differs greatly from that following the Second World War. That original Cold War is commonly portrayed as a clash of fundamentally different politico-economic systems. But as the historian Immanuel Wallerstein and others long ago made clear, for the past 400 years there has never been more than one world system. Within it. a ‘communist’ (state capitalist) version briefly co-existed and competed unsuccessfully with the always-dominant version of capitalism. The fact remains, however, that many millions of people – most of them in non-Western places – perished in proxy wars promoted in the name of two rival models. Today’s conflict around Ukraine shows certain lines of continuity with the old Cold War. Meanwhile risks of nuclear proliferation continue, worsened by the advent of automated and lightning-fast weapon systems. All these look certain to weaken efforts to control the spread and use of arms.
The third chapter, ‘Multipolarity and Emerging Powers’ discusses the shift from a bipolar, US-dominated world order to an inchoate one composed of major powers with global capacities – the USA, China and Russia – and those of lesser significance, notably the EU, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose capacities are largely regional or only weakly ‘global’. The chapter cites recent works by specialists who question the hype about ‘emerging powers’ that might revive bygone commitments to solidarity and non-alignment against the big powers. That discussion serves to introduce the fourth chapter, ‘The Big Powers and the Global South’. It considers diverse taproots of state weaknesses and internal conflict, especially as promoted from abroad in proxy wars and as shaped today not by ideological crusades but by scrambles for resources.
The fifth chapter, ‘United States, internal crisis and leadership’, begins with an overview of the country’s self-reinforcing problems of self-harm: rising inequality, an obsolete constitutional system, violence, money-drenched electoral politics, ‘culture wars’ and the state’s incipient loss of its monopoly of violence. It then turns to forces driving US foreign policies, or neglecting them amidst strident calls for attention on the home front. It notes that, rhetoric aside, external policies adopted by the Trump administration (such as toward Israel & Palestine) have not changed markedly under Biden, except for his abandonment of talk about ‘withdrawal’ and his proclamation that ‘America is back!’. Indeed, the US is again asserting old claims of its ‘leadership’, and of its ‘rules based order’. Such pretentions today face a range of actors much less ready to be led by the US and its self-serving rules. The chapter concludes on the swingeing economic warfare the US is mounting against China, notably around semiconductors – the ‘chips war’.
The sixth chapter, ‘China: towards consolidation of major power’ widens the previous chapter’s examination of US-China relations. It lays out China’s spectacular emergence from semi-autarky to massive inter-dependence with, and influence in the rest of the world. It explores a number of contradictions, counter-currents and risks now looming as the USA begins to face up to serious competition – and to uncooperative stances by erstwhile Western and ‘Southern’ allies.
The seventh chapter, ‘Russia, a military giant with weaknesses’ reminds readers that Russian leaderships have always, over generations, given paramount priority to national security. It then reviews numerous sources of Russian weakness, including economic and technological backwardness and poor social cohesion, failings worsened by post-soviet ‘reforms’ that enriched new strata of Russian oligarchs as well as many ‘enablers’ in Western jurisdictions, whose services helped drain resources from Russia and former Soviet republics.
The eighth chapter, ‘A world of challenges for the EU’, poses at once a central issue: can the EU ever gain strategic autonomy from Washington DC? This question is, with the war in Ukraine, more acute than ever. Other challenges arise within the EU itself: national prerogatives versus Union-wide imperatives (increasingly nettlesome given the war-driven ascendency of east European members); clarity and coherence among EU consultative and policy-making bodies; gaps and contradictions in foreign relations; and policy coherence and public legitimacy undermined by EU adherence to neoliberal orthodoxies.
The question posed in the title of the ninth chapter, ‘A different security?’ is discussed against the grim reality that militarization and its strategic and economic logics are once again riding high in national budgets and editorial pages. Yet that spending and those logics lead to yet more destructive, self-defeating outcomes. This chapter finds Mariano Aguirre on his main professional terrain, where he can draw on decades of professional engagement in discussions, research and action for authentic peace and security. He elucidates and amplifies voices calling for new approaches aimed at conflict prevention, the eradication of its chief drivers and the reinforcement of genuinely cooperative multilateralism. Should a new cold war crystallize, the prospects for such options would be dim.
The tenth and final chapter, ‘The Future’, brings readers back to major problems of debilitated democracy and diminished legitimacy both within and among states. Further, it reviews the persistence of poverty in many places and rising domestic inequality almost everywhere. Competition for material resources compound tensions, triggering yet further destabilising, militarized reflexes in the name of stability and peace. Amidst these hazardous and darkening circumstances, only a little light is detectable. Here, as briefly in the first chapter, Aguirre notes the unrealized potentials of progressive social protest against policy orthodoxies that favour the rich, and against unsustainable extractive systems that fatally damage planet’s environment. The book’s concluding invocation is for urgent political action.
To sum up: in this amply referenced book, Mariano Aguirre presents a tough-minded and nuanced overview of forces at large in international politics today. It probes arguments employed in support of those forces, offering ample reasons to oppose and counter them with alternative propositions. In these and other ways, this book merits the attention of publicists, students of world issues, and the informed general reader.