Foreign Policy Comeback

15 october 2010

What the Erosion of Power Interdependence May Lead To

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: A handgun on the temple of an equally strong partner has always been the most reliable guarantee of relative stability, and not only in bilateral relations but on the global scale. The fear of each other’s power as the main bond keeping the international system together is vanishing.

In September 1939, when the most terrible war in history had just begun and few could imagine the scale of future disasters, eminent British historian and international relations analyst Edward Hallett Carr in the afterword to his work The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, wrote: “The next Peace Conference… will have to concern itself with issues more fundamental than the drawing of frontiers.” He was right. The conference in San Francisco, held from April to June 1945, focused on the problem of controllability of world affairs in the context of the emerging confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.


Today’s peace conferences, for example G20 summits, focus on the same issue that was discussed in San Francisco – the controllability of world politics and of the global economy. However, the processes that have evolved in international political and economic relations after the Cold War give the scientific and political community a happy chance to observe phenomena that will change not only the world around but also the categories of its perception and understanding. And the most important of these processes is the consistent erosion of the international system in the form that has been known to politicians, scientists and diplomats since 1945.

First, there has been continued erosion of the international system as a political practice that defines the entire system of coordinates – the alignment of forces and the capabilities of states, that is, a practice that generally suggests the existence of a hypothetical “world order” – unipolar, bipolar or multipolar. The net effect of this erosion, as Russian scholar Sergei Karaganov notes, is the “intellectual and political chaos.”

Second, the international system is vanishing as a kind of “offline reality,” i.e., an object that is good enough for theoretical analysis and that is not a simple sum of the constituent units, that is, individual states. The existence of this object, proven back in the late 1950s, is based on exceptionally tight links between major players in the security sphere – something that provided a firm foothold for the political analysts.

In 1939, Edward Carr wrote: “Politics are in one sense always power politics.” The main cause of the international system’s erosion, the way we know it, was the gradual transformation of the role of military might and of the structure of relationships based on the balance of power among the main “pieces on the global chessboard.” The integrity of the system of international relations and its ability to act independently, that is, the ability to dictate the rules of the game to individual states, is waning with every passing day, as the interdependence of nations in the security sphere grows weaker. A step made in this direction has been the signing of an agreement between Russia and the United States on further reduction of strategic nuclear arms.

A handgun on the temple of an equally strong partner has always been the most reliable guarantee of relative stability, and not only in bilateral relations but on the global scale. This model was polished to perfection the moment the Soviet Union and the United States achieved a state of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War. This model provided a basis for the systemic approach to the analysis and forecasting of international relations, the one laid down by a leading theorist in this field, Kenneth Waltz in 1959. Today, the links and – most importantly – interdependencies between the states pegged on the power factor are getting loose. In other words, the fear of each other’s power as the main bond keeping the international system together is vanishing. This is manifested, as Sergei Karaganov writes, in the inability to convert even an overwhelming military superiority into political influence.

Great, medium and even small states are beginning to behave more independently. Well underway is a rapid revival of the most archaic form of world politics as a combination of the states’ foreign policies. Their actions are determined not so much by the external environment as internal factors, including the political leaders’ subjective assessment of their relative advantages over the others and very personal – and hence not always adequate – interpretation of risks, threats and opportunities. Not surprisingly, these aspects of foreign policy have enjoyed the greatest attention of such followers of neoclassical realism as Gideon Rose, Randall Schweller, Aaron Friedberg and Fareed Zakaria. The system of international relations is losing foothold and the ability of an independent actor; it gets more volatile and prone to sharp timeserving fluctuations.
An indication of these historic changes is seen in countries’ dwindling willingness to maintain long-term relationships and interdependencies in the military-political sphere.

The stability and permanence of both allied and hostile relations are vanishing. Examples of such policies have been demonstrated by the United States, Russia and the European countries (even those within the EU), not to mention China and India. In such conditions, resolving the problem of injustice towards individual countries and peoples – and this has been the root cause of war at all times – becomes an immeasurably more complex task.

It is proverbial that generals always prepare for the past war. The international institutions created after 1945 to address the issues that had led to the Great Depression and World War II, still exist and even replicate themselves in new formats. No mechanisms have been devised to formulate a common response to the challenges of the future. Nor is there a clear understanding of these challenges, because the liberal ideas of world development trends that prevailed for some time at the end of the Cold War are obviously unable to provide researchers with the tools necessary for an accurate forecast. But getting works by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Morgenthau from the bookshelf with the hope of finding an answer there would make little sense. Indeed, in contrast to the 16th, 17th and 20th centuries, the global economy today is witnessing processes that are completely opposite to those in the military-political field.

As shown by the recent global economic crisis, the number and quality of the links between states have acquired such a nature and scale that we can talk about the emergence of an integrated international economic system and powerful interdependences within it. The most striking example is the “mutually assured economic destruction” of the United States and China.

It is in the economic field that we are witnessing the emergence of factors and interdependencies of almost existential nature. Some of them, such as climate change or the exacerbating shortage of fresh water, are ever less influenced by human activities organized within the framework of government policy. Others, such as the functioning of financial markets and the outsourcing market, or the direction of information flows, prove increasingly difficult for governments to regulate.

It is quite another matter that the interdependences in trade are not as existential for the participating countries as interdependences in the sphere of security. Should China ever suffer an economic collapse, quite a few people and companies in the United States will go broke, but that would not lead to massive loss of human life in that country. Therefore, the role of trade and economic relations as links determining the structure of world politics cannot be regarded (even theoretically) as something close to the nature of the “good old” political-military relations which globally relied on the Soviet-U.S. nuclear standoff.

In 2007, Henry Kissinger said: “A gap is opening up between the economic world and the political world. The economic world runs on globalization, but the peoples of the world live in nations.” This results in a disharmony between the global economic system, which is becoming increasingly uncontrollable, and the system of international relations, which is splitting up into the foreign policies of individual states. It is for a good reason that the new economic giants, first and foremost China, are in no hurry to saddle themselves with international political commitments by joining a G2 or any other “concert” on offer from the expert and political communities. This gap between the global economy and world politics may prove to be the most dangerous challenge of the future. Averting it is as impossible as devising a way of turning off the running man-made mechanism of global climate change. Yet it is possible to make its effects less dramatic.


Raymond Aron believed that international relations “take place within the shadow of war.” Historically, it was the military muscle of states that determined the structure of the international system. In Edward Carr’s classical work we find no shade of doubt that military might is primary with regard to all other factors that may determine the positions of the states. This is what Carr writes in this connection: “Economic strength has always been an instrument of political power, if only through its association with the military instrument.”

Also, Carr has another excellent remark about the secondary importance of other sources of dominance over military might. As he looked back on the origins of the disaster that occurred in the late 1930s, he said that after World War I “Western countries… attempted to build up a new international morality on the foundation, not of the right of the stronger, but of the right of those in possession.” It was the inability to present any material – even physically tangible – proof of their superiority that explains why the status quo of the world powers failed to preserve the Versailles order between 1919 and 1939.

Remarkably, after the Cold War it took the Western countries far less time to become aware of what Carr’s maxim was about. The first truly convincing attempt to assert “the right of the stronger” as a foundation of strategic hegemony was NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999. The policy climaxed when the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003. The subsequent events proved, though, it was already too late. It had not been late yet back in 1991, if the West made up its mind, as Karaganov remarks, “to finish off Russia with a coup de grace (the fatal stab the victor knight in the Middle Ages resorted to to end the suffering of his fatally injured adversary)” and then to integrate the countries that would emerge in its territory into a North Atlantic community of democracies, armed to the teeth and hanging over China. Neither was done then. The lucid minds of American political thought, from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Charles Kupchan, now write with disappointment about the missed opportunities.

Let us recognize, however, that the West, the victor in the Cold War, did have excuses for being so careless. By an analogy with the description Edward Carr gives to the state of world affairs on the eve of World War I, one can say that during the short historical period immediately following 1991 “a harmony of interests among the fit, based on individual enterprise and free competition, was sufficiently near to reality to form a sound basis for the current theory.” That harmony, writes 2008 Nobel laureate in economics Paul Krugman, was based on the fact that in 1991 the essence of opposing capitalism vanished. Whereas in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries one could assert with much reservation that the interests of major players were in harmony (precisely the way Carr does this), now a hundred years later, such an assertion looks far more reasonable.

However, as far as international politics are concerned, the effect of 1991 proved not very strong. In economic and social terms, Russia suffered a collapse, but it retained practically all of its military and strategic potential. That potential proved strong enough to take liberties once in a while to express discontent on global issues even in the second half of the 1990s – a period of utter failures for the national economy. As Alexei Bogaturov has put it, Fronde-like tactic was selected “for tough bargaining with the West, for defending one’s own opinion and the right to determine on one’s own in what cases it is to side with the Western partners, and in what cases, to distance itself from them.” It is worth recalling that Moscow pursued this sort of policy amid a severe internal economic and political crisis. And after the budget was inflated with petrodollars, Bogaturov says, “the theme of stronger and more self-confident Russia has been on everybody’s tongue.”

The latest studies by authors belonging to the school of neoclassical realism point to the subordinate position of other factors of power (economic and ideological) with respect to the military component. For example, Gideon Rose in his work Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy raises the question of an inter-relationship of economic development and foreign policy behavior. The latter is understood as the struggle the states wage for expanding their influence. In other words, it is a problem of converting the resource as such into a resource of relative strategic superiority that allows for dictating one’s will to others.

But there is an equally important factor (if not a more important one) – the rationality of using military force to resolve foreign policy problems. One of the first explanations of rationality we find in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponessian War. The Athenian ambassadors told the Melian commissioners that the people of Melos “would take advantage of submitting before suffering the worst.” The universal fear of the rationality of war as a means of attaining political power on the global or regional scale has always served as the most durable form of interdependence.

Kenneth Waltz, for his part, offers the following argument to prove the primacy of systemic requirements over internal factors in shaping a foreign policy: “Because any state may at any time use force, all states must constantly be ready either to counter force with force or to pay the cost of weakness. The requirements of state actions are, in this view, imposed by the circumstances in which all states exist.” The point at issue is not the presence of strength as such, and not even a high probability of its application; the core question is about the key role of the factor of strength as the main element determining the behavior of states, the pillar of the ability of the international system to act independently.

These days we are witnessing the efficiency of this factor being eroded. The first (and fatal) blow on the rigid-based structure of the international system was dealt in 1991, when the Soviet-U.S. confrontation vanished. For realizing the extent to which the effectiveness of strength has dwindled today, it will be enough to compare the military might of the United States, which surpasses the combined forces of all other countries many times, with Washington’s very limited ability to pursue and achieve its objectives at the global or even regional level.

Oddly enough, the political irrationality of applying military force is confirmed by the following remark by a prominent representative of the school of neoclassical realism, Fareed Zakaria. In his opinion, the U.S. positions in the world would weaken even if the war in Iraq were absolutely successful and demonstrated America’s unquestioned authority. It was exactly “the high water mark of unipolarity” that caused the world’s negative reaction to the United States’ actions. Thus, a military victory attained at the cost of minor losses, which on all previous occasions in history provided the winner state a firmer position in the international scene, has proved a factor that undermines its might in modern conditions.

The situation appears even more dramatic if one looks at the scale of challenges to the political power and authority of the West from relatively little Iran and North Korea. The firm (sometimes hysterical) determination of these regimes to lay hands on the doomsday weapon would have run into tough military resistance in the past, and the United States and its allies would undoubtedly find the game worth playing. The most powerful state or group of states cannot be regarded as an all-mighty leader whose authority is unquestioned if the “abusers” suddenly feel doubt about the inevitability of severe and effective punishment. But, in order to enforce this punishment, even an absolute military superiority is now not enough.

Therefore, the most important feature of the new world is precisely the disappearance of the rationality of choice in favor of war as a means of achieving political objectives.
This shift has occurred not because the states have subdued their predatory and aggressive nature under the influence of internal transformations or growing dependence on the world around them. The concept of “the paradox of might,” based on the idea that the ability of major powers to subjugate others decreases as a result of some self-restraint, failed to stand the test of international political practice – in Bosnia (1995), in Kosovo (1999) and, finally, in Iraq (2003). After the Cold War, as Alexei Bogaturov notes quite correctly, “there is no material evidence of the leaders’ ability to voluntarily restrict themselves.”

The factor of strength still retains the role of ultima ratio – the most powerful argument in a dispute. For example, as the events surrounding the armed conflict in the Caucasus in August 2008 have indicated, the use of force can have a decisive impact on both international political processes (NATO’s enlargement) and on their interpretation. Charles Kupchan wrote: “The strategic landscape has since (the 1990s – Ed.) changed dramatically… and the costs of excluding Russia from the Euro-Atlantic order have risen substantially… Russia now has the confidence and the capability to push back against NATO.”

It is very unlikely that such a prominent American author would have made such a strong conclusion had Moscow in August 2008 not demonstrated its determination to stop the expansion of the alliance. Even at the cost of an armed conflict.

Similarly, the transformation of the military might factor does not spell the triumph of those who are impotent in military-strategic terms. The brightest example of this is seen in the attempts to bring a united Europe into the world scene. By virtue of European countries’ significant budget constraints most of such attempts have been made with pen and paper, and not “by blood and iron.” As a result, the hope for seeing the European Union as a “global non-military power” has remained a dream in which ever fewer politicians and scientists have faith with every passing year. In the meantime, Europe’s becoming an independent military-strategic actor looks possible only if it takes truly radical measures, for example, if it admits Russia to NATO, as many have proposed. This is because acting on its own, as the prominent American author writes, “even under the most optimistic scenarios, the EU is likely to make only halting progress in aggregating its defense capabilities.”

Mao Zedong used to say that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. This maxim still works. The countries and regional groups that have no real military might are not considered as significant players by others. China understands that pretty well and over the recent years it has been building up its defense capabilities to bring them in line with its economic potential. Conversely, as the example of Russia indicates, even the lack of economic, political and ideological muscle can be compensated for by the military resources of the state.

At the same time, relations among countries in the sphere of security based on mutual military threat no longer play the role of the world order’s backbone at the global level. One can assume that the international system is being eroded (or has been eroded) as an integral object for analysis, and world politics is regaining the form of a sum of foreign policies of individual states that avoid stable political interdependences.


An immediate consequence of both objective and subjective erosion of the military might factor is seen in the impossibility to build any stable structure of international relations at the theoretical level and in practice. Apparently, this explains why most discussions of multipolarity are still so fragile and volatile intellectually, although the advent of multipolarity as such is a hard fact recognized by one and all, even by the architects of the new National Security Strategy of the United States. Also, this may be the reason for continuous attempts to discard the very term and to replace it, as prominent American expert Richard Haass has proposed, with “structured nonpolarity” as an alternative to chaos, which makes everybody feel scared.

Not surprisingly, many scholars and political figures speculating about multipolarity have great problems with identifying the parameters that allow this or that state to call itself a pole. It is equally difficult to formulate conditions that would define the primary sphere of relationships (cooperation, competition, confrontation, etc.) among them. This analytical uncertainty explains different assessments of the possible number of poles. Multipolarity is recognized as an international system that emerged on the ruins of the United States’ attempts in the 1990s and the early 2000s to create a unipolar world. However, it lacks the degree of clarity and transparency inherent in the bipolar system. This fact underlies the attempts to recreate the latter, for example in the form of a G2 (the United States and China), or promote the idea (quite popular a couple of years ago) about some upcoming confrontation of the “authoritarian capitalism” and “liberal capitalism.”
Ideal multipolarity can be described in theory, but it is hardly feasible in practice. A mandatory prerequisite is a parity of military capabilities of more than two countries, each surpassing (many times over) other states that remain outside of the “concert.” For the time being nothing like this is in sight.

Richard Haass considers that “the principal characteristic of twenty-first-century international relations is turning out to be nonpolarity: a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power.” This assumption rests on the idea that the world in the 21st century “differs in a fundamental way from one of classic multipolarity: there are many more power centers, and quite a few of these poles are not nation-states. Indeed, one of the cardinal features of the contemporary international system is that nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well.”

Such assessments were prominent in international debates in the second half of the 2000s, when the failure of the project for building a U.S.-led vertically integrated international system became clear to one and all. The main practical thrust of the debates was, in fact, creation of an alternative to the multipolar world concept that was advanced by Russia, France and, partly, by China. Haass’ idea of nonpolarity, which is reflected in the Barack Obama administration’s foreign policy, denies the possibility of restoring the classical multipolar structure, because virtually every participant in international relations (state or non-state) can play a truly decisive role in some matters without possessing a combination of attributes mandatory for being regarded as a pole.

Consonant with this concept is Charles Kupchan’s model of “autonomous governance” designed to lend maximum flexibility to the United States’ foreign relations. It is assumed that the possibility to enter into tactical alliances with countries that are most important in each particular issue (regardless of their political and ideological system) reduces chaos in international relations while simultaneously bolsters the role of the United States as a power capable of playing “on several boards at a time.”

It follows that there is a theoretical probability that Papua-New Guinea, for example, might take center stage in the global system of relations as a major provider of palm oil, and become an equitable partner in international negotiations precisely in this capacity. An attempt at practical realization of such a strategy could be observed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (December 2009), when economically strong and politically motivated but little polluting Europe was barred from the final phase of negotiations.

Let us not forget, however, that in international relations any theoretical construction should have practical value and, also, practical evidence. By pushing Europe away as a potential partner, Washington made China, India, Brazil and all the others with whom condescending Obama decided to talk to in earnest, less compliant. The negotiations only with those countries which, in the opinion of Washington, are worth talking to resulted in an insignificant formal document, which confirms the correctness of Carr’s idea that it is “no longer possible to create an apparent harmony of interests at the expense of somebody else.”

The proximity of Moscow’s and Washington’s views on the issue of nuclear proliferation has little impact on the behavior of Iran and North Korea. A united position of the United States and the European Union on certain aspects of international economic regulation is no argument for other countries to accept the rules of the game proposed to them by the West. Moreover, it is no guarantee that the two sides of the Atlantic will never develop fundamental contradictions on some important financial and economic approaches. “Multilateralism a la carte” based on the assumption that relationships, as Haass puts it, “will instead become more selective and situational,” persistently fails (as did “unilateralism a la carte” formulated in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous dictum, “the mission determines the coalition”).

Right in front of our eyes Barack Obama’s strategy of “concerted non-polarity” is running at idle, and the idea of an effective multipolar world order has not received any visible evidence so far. Instead of concerted action by most significant players in each particular issue the world increasingly often sees examples of strange combinations, like the proposal made by Brazil and Turkey regarding the Iranian nuclear program. But should anyone be astonished at such behavior by two countries – far from the world’s most influential ones – at a time when the factor of power has been utterly discredited?
Edward Carr says that power is a necessary instrument of governance. “In so far as the alleged natural harmony of interests has any reality, it is created by the overwhelming power of the privileged group.” In situations where instrumentalizing such power is impossible in principle, a harmony of interests can be only dreamed of.

In response to lamentations from part of the political and scientific community over the loss of “global governability” and “the triumph of national and government egoism” one can offer a quote from Carr: “What was commonly called the ‘return to power politics’ in 1931 was, in fact, the termination of the monopoly of power enjoyed by the status quo Powers.” However, today the power-based monopoly was not undermined by the efforts of countries determined to get their share of global power, but faded away by itself, got dissolved in the fundamental irrationality of the use of force.

The anxiety that the status quo powers, including Russia at times, may feel about the growing foreign policy ambitions of China, and even of India and Brazil, is easy to explain. Reinhold Niebuhr says with a good reason in his study Moral Man and Immoral Society: “There is no possibility of drawing a sharp line between the will-to-live and the will-to-power.” However, earlier, when war was a rational way of achieving political dominance, the will of peoples to power was restricted by independent external factors built into the system of international relations. Today, they are unprecedentedly weak.
As for the idea of a shift of power to non-state actors that many respected scholars and experts enthusiastically propagate, it fails now and then, too, when put to test in practice. Of all the “new” players the most effective one – in terms of independent action – is international terrorism, a modern Leviathan that has claimed several thousand human lives. However, its impact on the state of the international environment proves very limited, too.

First, it is not a problem for all big states. The “effectiveness” of a terrorist threat is proportionate to the degree of the quality achieved by a country that Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have described as “risk society.” It is when the level of well-being (in other words, the overall amount of what most people can lose in case of collapse of the existing order of things) reduces many times the threshold of tolerance for non-conventional threats. Societies that have not yet attained this level (and they are in the majority) see no extraordinary threat in terrorism, or at least they do not single it out from the long list of other everyday threats.

Second, secondary importance of the terrorist component of international relations is confirmed by practice. The last major battle fought in the “war against international terrorism” was the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, a sovereign state where not the slightest trace of Al-Qaeda could be noticed before 2003. The preceding victory over Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan was insufficient for Washington to prove its right to global political dominance. So, as apparently many in the then Republican Administration thought, only a classic interstate war and eventual victory in it was the sole way possible of persuading the doubting skeptics.

As for transnational corporations or NGOs, these “actors” are getting ever more traits of a cash cow and quasi-state Soviet-style “social activists.” This is not only the case in Russia, which, regrettably, is easily proven by the soaring number of NGOs that enter the international lists of GONGOs (government organized non-governmental organizations).

However, it would be wrong to accuse the White House, whose foreign policy is shaped by a team of the most brilliant intellectuals of our time, of being short-sighted and unable to realize that the tactic of selective cooperation will produce nothing but an illusion of global governance. It was not by accident that Edward Carr said in his book that “When the passions of war are aroused, it becomes almost fatally easy to attribute the catastrophe solely to the ambitions and the arrogance of a small group of men, and to seek no further explanation.”

The main reason why the world is moving towards a new quality – let us call it “ungovernable nonpolarity” – is the fundamental impossibility of building any more or less stable structure at a time when the importance of inter-state relationships in the sphere of security has dwindled sharply. As a result, foreign policies of the leading states – both on the global and regional scale – prove sheer failures in terms of building a structure of international relations in conformity with their likes and ideas. More important, however, is that their foreign policies become as independent from everything and everyone, as the policies by countries like Iran, Israel or Turkey, whom the great powers are trying to call to order.


That the use of military force has sharply lost significance as a rational factor and that there followed an erosion of the international system is an event of tremendous importance. This is so because, as Kenneth Waltz wrote in 1979, “Theories must deal with the coherent logic of ‘autonomous realms.’ Because foreign policy is driven by both internal and external factors, it does not constitute such an autonomous realm, and therefore we should not strive for a truly theoretical explanation of it.” Now that the “integrated autonomous system” (of international relations) became a thing of the past, scholars and politicians who make use of their ideas are posed with far more complex issues.

The most important consequence of the erosion of international relations in the traditional sense is the decreasing influence of external factors – systemic requirements. They act as an independent variable that determines foreign policy behavior of states to the same (if not greater) degree as their own resources and capabilities. Waltz wrote: “A theory of international politics can tell us what pressures are exerted and what possibilities are posed by systems of different structure, but it cannot tell us just how, and how effectively, the units of a system (states) will respond to those pressures and possibilities.”

Does the qualitative reduction in the significance of the external independent variable mean that the decisive role begins to be played by internal factors – political organization, ideology, national identity and the socio-economic structure of society? If so, we should expect a triumph of the old liberal idea that foreign policy is a derivative of the internal political system, or, as has been amply put, “democracies do not go to war with each other.” If not, then most probably we shall have to deal with fundamentally new categories of understanding the motives of foreign policy decisions and actions.

According to American scholar Gideon Rose, the list of such categories include the impact of the changes in the relative power of a state on the emergence and development of other factors that shape its foreign policy, i.e. how significant the relationship between objective opportunities and their subjective evaluation by the leaders is, and what factors eventually determine the state’s growing stronger or weaker. All these possibilities lie at the junction of political science, sociology and economics. And the most significant thing is that one of these spheres – the economy in its global dimension – is assuming an increasingly external character. It looks as if it is even beginning to play the role of an external variable, replacing the old power-based system of international relations.

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