The multipolar nature of today’s international system will again be on display at next week’s G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Global problems are no longer solved, crises managed, or global rules defined, let alone implemented, the old-fashioned way: by a few, mostly Western, powers. Incipient great and middle powers, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and South Africa, also demand their say.
Some of these powers are still emerging economies. However, politically most of them have crossed the threshold that has long limited their access to the kitchen of international decisionmaking. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5) still defend their right to veto resolutions and their military power is unmatched. However, they can no longer dispose of sufficient resources, competence and legitimacy to cope with global challenges or crises on their own.
Bipolarity is a thing of the past, and it is unlikely to re-emerge in a new Sino-American “G2.” It is equally unlikely for the foreseeable future that any one club of countries, such as the G7 or G8, will again assume a quasi-hegemonic position. Even the G20 in its current composition may not really represent the forces that can and will shape the 21st century.
For the US, the EU, Japan and other members of the “old West,” the good news is that most of the emerging powers that are positioning themselves for a more active global role are also democracies. Within the G20, only two states — China and Saudi Arabia — explicitly do not want to be liberal democracies, while a third, Russia, has developed into an autocracy with a democratic facade.
The not-so-good news is that these new democratic powers do not necessarily share the old West’s political agenda. For example, they differ about climate policies, seeing a threat to economic development. Similarly, while new middle and great powers do not always agree, they are generally more skeptical of both international sanctions and military interventions.
Moreover, some of the most important of these states differ substantially with the US, and often also with the EU, about the right approach toward regional conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Thus, in 2010, the US found itself in a serious diplomatic dispute with Turkey and Brazil about how to resolve the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Without actually admitting it, the US was clearly unhappy that these two states tried to play a diplomatic role of their own in the dispute.
Differences are also apparent where new democratic middle or great powers have formed new groups or clubs, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), together with non-democratic powers. India, Brazil and South Africa are using such formats in a pragmatic way to pursue their interests, or simply to demonstrate their increased international weight. There is little agreement between them and Russia or China — both P5 members — with regard to political values or to fundamental questions of international order.
However, along with many other states in the global South, Russia and China tend to defend the principle of non-interference and they are generally reluctant to support any US or European attempts to project democracy or defend human rights in other countries.