A world in transition: Will this lead to a new world order or disorder?

China, Russia and the US, however, give little value to international laws. They accept them only if they suit their own interests. They reject them if they conflict with their interests.

Representational Photo

The world is destined to grow more competitive, congested, and contested in the coming years. Any effort to shape a new international order that is stable, inclusive, and beneficial has to be a collaborative undertaking. The logic of cooperation among major economic powers remains inescapable.

Creating a new international order, adapted to the realities of the twenty-first century, is the greatest challenge facing the world today. Two recent developments throw up a sense of urgency as well as uncertainty. One, a return of great power competition as existed during the period of cold war except that the current developments are anything but cold, with dangerous conflicts erupting all around the world. Two, there are increased fears that the West, led by the USA, has entered a period of decline and profound and unsettling technologies have wrought major changes transforming the basis of social, economic, and political life. 

Under these pressures, has the idea of a “liberal international order” lost its value? In this third decade of the twenty-first century, we need new thinking about the future of the international system--thinking that more accurately reflects the era in which we live. The world will become more unstable and dangerous if narrow, nationalistic approaches cede ways to stable multilateralism.

Order and disorder

The international order constructed by the West led by the United States in the aftermath of World War II is still in evidence, yet, simultaneously the global power is inexorably shifting with the rise of new powers with varying degrees of international influence.  With non state actors like Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthis et al and even some allies refusing to follow integrity and international order in dealings, the United States is also growing more reluctant to bear the costs of world leadership, especially when it comes to using military force. China and Russia, along with lesser regional powers, have taken advantage of this reticence in recent years to assert their own interests and to undermine the United States’ international standing and authority.

There were three major events worldwide that changed the dynamics of the existing and emerging world order post WWII. The first event occurred on February 11, 1979 with the Islamic revolution unseating the Shah of Iran.  That day, the United States lost its then best ally in the Middle East transforming the geopolitics throughout the entire region. The second major change of 1979 occurred in China. Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, changed the economy from socialist to market driven controlled capitalism and opened China to trade. He did this progressively and with the pragmatism that characterized his leadership. Forty years later, we see the effects; undoubtedly the fastest and most massive economic and social change in the history of humanity. The third event, which is totally unrelated to the two previous ones, occurred on 25 December 1979 when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, marking the overwhelming rise of the USSR, which was on the offensive not only in Afghanistan, but also in Africa – in Angola as in Ethiopia.

The churning

The benefits of the U.S-led order and, in particular, the many international agreements that the United States has championed to open up the world to the free trade and exchange of ideas, and people, no longer look so promising—not least to many Americans. This shift has caused a public backlash against globalization not only in the United States but also in many other Western countries. Unbridled immigration has not helped the cause. The Trump campaign of America for Americans and many right leaning governments taking control of democracies point to more Nations wanting to put their Nations ahead of the world, rhetoric notwithstanding.

What all these developments hold for the future is by no means certain. The question is whether the major powers comprehend the risks of the current transitional period or do they have a clear vision for a new international order that will be broadly acceptable and thus considered legitimate by most other states. If anything, mistrust and friction is steadily growing among world powers. The prospect of a war breaking out between two or more of the major powers, something that was generally considered to be improbable just a few years ago, is no longer unimaginable. It is really a reality. Military conflict among the major powers, particularly between the United States and China, remains unlikely, however, given the shared incentives to avoid such a catastrophe. Their relationship will nevertheless grow more competitive. If the current international order is to be sustained for the benefit of all, the leading powers will need to work together to reform its working practices and institutions in a mutually satisfactory and sustainable way.

Different scenarios 

Many political scientists agree that the short phase of American hegemony following the collapse of the Soviet Union no longer exists. The world may be moving towards one or more of the following scenarios heralding issue-based resolutions to conflicts and differences.

Multipolar will be a world dominated by several power centers – China, the US, Europe, Russia and maybe India.

Multilateral: A world in which no country alone determines the global agenda; it must be negotiated between all power centers.

Pluralistic: The world must accept different forms of governance and not just liberal democracy.

The moot point is how efficiently will any of this work? China, Russia and the US, however, give little value to international laws. They accept them only if they suit their own interests. They reject them if they conflict with their interests. More and more middle powers too are following suit.

Evolving order

It is potently evident that the liberal international order is tottering. The European Union needs to realize the reality of growing confrontation among the major powers and develop a coherent and practical new strategy for defending EU interests There should be no doubt that NATO is under strain, especially with its depleting resources going to Ukraine for its conflict with Russia. The economic sanctions on Russia and China are stretching the economies of EU nations. The Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East portents widespread conflicts in the area for a long time, changing the geopolitics of the region, with the US bases in the area becoming less effective.

The Chinese offensive in the indo-Pacific and its predatory overtures on Taiwan threatens to destabilize the Southeast Asian region.  A greater risk to global instability seems to rise from the uneven reach and benefits of globalization rather than the power struggle. The current crisis-management mechanisms like the UN are obviously inadequate.

The world is in another transitional phase, evolving in a more complex way with elements of unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity seemingly coexisting uneasily. if current multilateral approaches to international problem-solving become “undermined, bypassed, or disregarded,” then the risk of great power conflict will increase. Existing global governance institutions will need to adapt and new ones have to be created to accommodate rising powers.

Amid shifting global power balances, renewed international contestation, and growing transnational challenges, understanding how the world order is changing has never been more critical.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran and a contemporary affairs commentator. The views are personal. He can be reached at  kl.viswanathan@gmail.com )

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