Back in the glory days of 1945 when allied armies were sweeping all before them and victory crowded fast upon the heels of victory one of the most common phrases in headlines and news stories was "the big four."
The "big four" meant the USA, USSR, Great Britain, and France. France was there more by courtesy than by fact, yet France was included in the peace conferences and France was given an occupation zone in Germany and an occupation sector in both Berlin and Vienna. France was treated as a great power although it could not rank with the other three in terms of disposable military or economic power.
Besides, there weren't any other important powers. The rest of the world was made up of defeated enemies, exhausted allies, colonies on the way toward independence, and clients. The disposal of the postwar world really was in the hands of the "big four" of those days and France was one of them by virtue of its geographic position in the heart of Europe and because its leader, Charles de Gaulle, was one of the truly great men of his times even though his colleagues wished profoundly that he were not.
Today, no one would think of identifying the leadership of the world in terms of those same four. Economically there is a new big four of USA, USSR , West Germany, and JApan. In terms of political and military power one tends to think of a triangular world in which the main capitals are Moscow, Washington, and Peking. But what in fact are the real proportions of the new world of the '80s into which we now enter?
I submit that it is time to think of today's world in terms of a "big five" but not a big five of specific countries. It seems to me that if the various politicians attempting to talk about world affairs wanted to get the whole thing into accurate perspective they would think and talk in terms of five centers of emerging and future power.
These five are the Soviet Union, North America, Western Europe, the combination of Japan and China, and Islam. And it is the relationship of each one of these to the other four which determines the real shape of the world at any given moment, and will determine its future.
Right now the US has an important but not necessarily permanent advantage over the Soviet union in the pattern of these relationships. It is tied by formal alliances with Canada, Western Europe, and Japan and by emerging new diplomatic ties with China. There is an embryonic grouping here of North America with Western Europe and with the Tentative combination in Asia of Japan and China.
The great uncertainty is the orientation of the major countries of Islam to the other four.
If those Islamic countries grow closer to each other as seems possible, some would say likely, and if they continue to grow in economic strength from their control of much of the world's reserve of oil, they can determine by their own inclination whether the Soviet Union is to be truly encircled and contained within its own immediate orbit, or be permitted to sortie southwards across the Islamic corridor to the whole of the outside world.
Islam lies georgraphically across the line of Soviet escape from such encirclement. The sons of the Prophet marched East and West from Arabia. They never went far to north and South. Their realm, their empire, stretched from "The Pillars of Hercules to Far Cathay," in modern terms from Gibraltar in the West to the southern islands of the Philippines in the East. They conquered and still dominate the northern littoral of Africa, most of the Middle East, and large chunks of Southeast Asia, particularly along the island chains.
One of the main news events of these days is the Islamic revival. None can say how far it will go or what degree of cohesion it will bring to the various political countries of Islam. It might fizzle out in a new fragmentationn of Islam. It might lead to a tightening of the bonds among them and a sense of community as strong as existed at the peak when Islam contained the most advanced civilizations of the entire world. It might again be the most advanced and most powerful community -- as it was in the great days of the caliphates.
Moscow is contained effectively by China and Japan on the East, and by Western Europe on the West. The United States lies across the Pole to the North. Only on the South is there political and military softness into which it might expand. But that depends on how cohesive Islam becomes in the years ahead and whether it chooses to align itself more with or more against the tide of Muscovy. Washington's behavior towards the new Islam will be one factor in shaping the outcome.