Bloc Diplomacy: How Might It Work?

by James E. Goodby & Ken Weisbrode

French president Emmanuel Macron threw down a gauntlet last month: “We don’t want to get into a bloc versus bloc logic,” he said, and added that Europe “should not be caught up in a disordering of the world and crises that aren’t ours.” His declaration was echoed a few days later by Christine Lagarde: “We are witnessing a fragmentation of the global economy into competing blocs, with each bloc trying to pull as much of the rest of the world closer to its respective strategic interests and shared values. And this fragmentation may well coalesce around two blocs led respectively by the two largest economies in the world.”

Both statements apply an outdated understanding of what a bloc is.[1] Today’s emerging blocs are different from those that existed during the Cold War and in earlier periods because these blocs are not autarkic and are already existing within a single international system that remains economically and politically interdependent.[2] They are not closed, contending systems based on an ideology or geopolitical orientation, but instead best resemble variable circuits within a global network. They have emerged not as alternatives to globalization but as auxiliaries to it, and have formed in order to gain leverage, status, and power within the international system.

What Macron and Lagarde should have said was, “Today’s blocs are not like your father’s or mother’s blocs; they are a fact brought about by 21st century technology and society. We must begin to understand them so we may encourage new-style blocs to contribute to peace and stability rather than superimposing old-style blocs upon a new reality.”

How blocs relate to one another is, on the other hand, not a fact but a choice that must be informed by effective diplomacy. In our previous essays on the subject of bloc diplomacy, we discussed why the proliferation of blocs may not be an entirely negative development in contemporary geopolitics so long as the blocs do not become hostile. Here we address how bloc diplomacy might actually develop peaceably.

Who or what group of nations (or NGOs) might be recruited to encourage that development? In principle there’s no reason why any new-style bloc cannot reach the same kinds of optimal arrangements that other forms of diplomacy have done. It’s too soon to tell exactly the manner and nature of optimization given how nascent today’s blocs are. A good case has been made, for example, that the European Union works as well as it does because it is designed to reach something like a Pareto optimum among its member states and their interests. One may hope for the same thing for a world of blocs. But that would raise a bigger question of what sort of wider structural reform is necessary (in the UN, for example) for an optimum to come about before a hostile logic of rivalry takes hold and the world of blocs reverts to a Hobbesian nightmare.

In the event, we are witnessing a transition point in the development of international society, and though it may seem too early to try to influence its development, it is nevertheless important to chart a course. Until now, recognition appears to be the major problem. It would be expecting too much to think that encouraging old-style blocs to help new-style blocs be more effective would be an easy sell. But so too would be presuming that new- and old-style blocs are inherently alike. Instead, traditional (i.e., Cold War and post-Cold War) practices of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy based primarily on discrete territorial and/or functional “issues” will need to be rethought and revised if they are to serve as the basis for a pragmatic, open diplomacy among blocs.

To understand the potential exercise of bloc diplomacy, one must first recall its essence, that is, what blocs are. They depart from the standard understanding of multilateralism in reversing the order of ends and means: They may contain multiple polities but they do not exist primarily to share burdens, enlarge participation, or enhance representation among them.[3] Instead, they act to sustain and enhance their collective power, and may do so multilaterally, bilaterally, or even unilaterally. They differ from historical blocs – the Warsaw Pact or Axis, for example – in that most of them are not formal alliances and are not mutually exclusive. Many overlap. Defining a particular bloc thus begins by determining its origins and rationale. Blocs may be geographic (usually regional, e.g., ASEAN) or functional (e.g., SWIFT), but several are a mix of both (e.g., BRICS), as are groupings which may possess some features of a bloc (e.g., the Anglosphere, sister city networks) but are better understood as zones.

Just as there is no exhaustive list of today’s blocs, there is no agreed-upon typology because they tend to mix form and function. A better way to distinguish them from one another is the extent to which they are open or closed in both membership and relations with other blocs. That is the basic distinction to guide an analysis of how blocs work. Some may be filtered out, as it were, because they either cannot be linked to other blocs or should have a lower priority, following the presumption that managing threats to peace and stability come first. Even so, for most blocs, an important aim is to contribute to building viable security communities, internally as well as externally.

For this purpose a bloc is defined as demonstrating:

1. A commitment to a common goal, which, over time, becomes for some members the prestige and preservation of the bloc itself.

2. A self-definition in contradistinction, and sometimes in opposition, to another polity or set of polities. This definition derives from the above goal inasmuch as a bloc forms to distinguish itself from some but not all other blocs.

3. A basic choice of whether to extend the definitional distinction to a policy of resistance or opposition; or, by contrast, to see the interests of the bloc being better served by collaboration with other blocs.

4. A related choice of whether to overcome the things that brought about the bloc, in which case, to persist in opposition; or whether simply to offer an alternative, in which case, creating options that may, over time, give hope to the idea of peaceful cooperation among blocs.

5. Finally, another related choice between developing an open or a closed bloc, with regard to policy, membership, and “identity.”

This list suggests some additional points: that, in theory, blocs are (or ought to be) value-neutral, that is, inherently neither good actors or bad ones; that blocs are already complex and becoming more so; that some have already begun to acquire the functional and essential characteristics of a regime; but that the language – the discourse of some blocs – has tended more toward confrontation and even hostility regarding those outside the bloc and/or competing blocs than toward coexistence and collaboration. Such discourse can be at odds with reality: The proliferation of overlapping blocs in itself suggests the possibility of developing frameworks that accentuate the latter over the former without appearing to contest the existence of blocs or their normative identity per se as, again in theory, the act of “interblocking” gestures toward “interlocking.”

The challenge for today’s bloc diplomacy is two-fold: multiple blocs already intersect by membership and function; and both the members and issues are transnational as well as multinational. They include non-state actors with global interests, and sub-state actors (cities, regions, etc.). The emerging blocs satisfy a need to bring order to geopolitics, no matter how much their own internal characteristics differ. But here they carry a risk, once again, in emphasizing distinctiveness and differences over win-win arrangements – within as well as among blocs – even when win-win arrangements are clearly in the interest of the bloc and its individual members. What makes bloc diplomacy unique is the multiplicity, and to some degree the fungibility, of members and functions coinciding with a promotional language that emphasizes a uniformity of purpose. A schematic version of the case is as follows:

Bilateral diplomacy: two participants; multiple issues; a choice whether to link the issues or to negotiate them a la carte. Example: Cold War summitry.

Multilateral diplomacy: multiple participants; usually single or single type of issue; a choice whether to rank the interests of participants or to reach agreement more democratically. Example: UN climate conferences.

Bloc diplomacy: multiple participants; multiple issues; a choice whether and how to group and rank issues and participants, and whether and how to link them. Example: The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1970s.

How then can blocs take the sharp edges off inter-state relations? They may do so by having to harmonize multiple interests internally and, ultimately, externally while at the same time better aligning their language with their actions. Harmonizing must have some institutional basis. Therefore, governments might encourage: (a) blocs to admit non-member observers; (b) the UN also to make possible a formal, observer status for blocs conditioned on their having some form of secretariat; (c) greater use of informal relationships like contact groups, etc. among blocs.

Those are some small, initial steps to better master today’s evolution of blocs rather than allowing them to master us.

[1] See also Aaron Friedberg, “A World of Blocs,” The Marshall Papers, CSIS, 6 April 2023.

[2] Bilahari Kausikan, “Navigating the New Age of Great-Power Competition,” Foreign Affairs, 11 April 2023.

[3] For some recent thinking about multilateralism, see Matthew Burrows and Robert A. Manning, “Is the US Getting Multilateralism Wrong?” Stimson Center, 11 April 2023, following on Stewart Patrick, “Four Contending Approaches to Multilateralism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 January 2023.