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Polygons, poles and axes

Towards Polyhedral Global Governance: complexifying oversimplistic strategic metaphors (Part #5)

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Polygons: In discussing the so-called "geometry" of international affairs, significant use is made of various polygons as metaphors, whether explicitly or implicitly:

  • triangle: this is used in naming some business groups, social fraternities and other initiatives. Examples include the Central American Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), the Black Triangle of highly-polluting countries of Central Europe (Germany, Czech Republic, Poland), the Coral Triangle countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste), the Weimar Triangle (Germany, Poland, France). The term "golden triangle" is applied to various geographical areas; it has been used to name a deal between three political factions which locks out one or more other factions of an organisation (typically done during elections). The term "triangular trade" was notably used as a description of the shipping route associated with the slave trade.
  • pentagon: this is most commonly associated with the HQ of the US Department of Defense, named as the Pentagon. It is also used to name the geographical centre of Brussels
  • hexagon: Hexagone is a commonly used epithet of France, owing to the shape of its European mainland.

Polygons may be most evident in the layout of negotiating tables where two or more parties meet. The dodecagon is for example implicit in the archetypal roundtable (of Arthurian knights). The polygonal terminology fades into the use of "group" with gatherings of larger numbers (Group of 15, Group of 24, Group of 30, etc).

A strategic metaphor related to the "pillar" is that of the "pole". Superficially it is of the same order of complexity as the "stake". However in its strategic uses, it implies another dimension around which international actors and initiatives may be configured or move in some way.

As noted by Derek Kelly (Unipolar and Multipolar World Orders Are Unworkable, 2005), some have argued for the complexities of a multipolar world order, whereas the US has argued for unipolarity (The National Security Strategy of the United States of America Report, 17 September 2002) even though it is expected that "multipolarity will come in time" (Charles Krauthammer, An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World, 12 February 2004). Metaphorically the use of "pole" of course reinforces tendencies to "polarization" -- without offering any guidance to resolution of the divisive dynamics evoked thereby. These might even be understood as taking the form of a collective bipolar disorder -- with its alternation between manic and depressive conditions.

Curiously use is also made of the geometrically related metaphor of "axis" (implying forms of symmetry in three dimensions as discussed below), but specifically in the pejorative and problematic connotations of the Axis Powers (of World War II), the Axis of Evil (countries supportive of terrorism) and the emerging Axis of Oil. Exceptions include proposals for an Axis of Peace (as in the case of Dafur), occasional reference to the Coalition of the Willing as the "axis of the willing", and reference to the Latin American New Left countries (Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) as the "axis of good". Geometrically an axis is that around which the symmetry of a polygon is defined, and is fundamental to any (possibly intuitive) sense of the coherent dynamic of the group as a whole. Presumably the pejorative connotations are associated with circular movement in the "wrong" direction, as with the two variants of the swastika. There is a question of appropriate chirality.

A two-party "special relationship" does not constitute a polygon in the above sense, although the term "axis" has been applied to describe such relationships (Russia-China: Axis of Convenience, or the Franco-German Axis as the "motor of Europe").

Alternative metaphors of uni-polar global governance
Pogo-stick? Maypole?

Can the pursuit of unipolar, axial approaches to global governance be fruitfully understood in terms of ensuring balanced progress by use of a pogo-stick? How is it that the political "left" is so terrified by the disastrous implications of the political "right", and vice versa? And yet the art of walking, using the left and right foot, is something with which most are familiar -- especially the flexibility of their alternation in response to various situations typically challenging for a pogo-stick.

It is curious that many "lower" animals are able to coordinate four feet, some insects manage six, with arthropods managing eight -- or even hundreds (centipedes and millipedes) -- numbers typical of global governance groups and plenary assemblies. Despite such evolutionary learnings, global governance excuses inaction if strategic unity and coordination are not achieved through application of pogo-stick skills.

Traditionally a tall wooden pole, sometimes with several long coloured ribbons suspended from the top -- possibly festooned with flowers and greenery. The maypole is a common feature of many Germanic countries and has roots in Germanic paganism -- and even in Babylon.

Typically the maypole is associated with a maypole dance in which people (often children) peeform dances around it, each holding a ribbon, in order to create striking patterns.

Given its traditional role in many countries of Europe, and consequently in the USA, it perhaps offers an interesting metaphor for the dynamic of participants in unipolar governance. Like space rockets, maypoles have been associated with phallic symbolism -- traditionally with celebration, community, youthfulness and the arrival of summer.


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