The EU is talking about admitting new members again, after years of blanking Balkan neighbors. The US is strengthening security ties with India’s authoritarian leader and assorted Asia-Pacific “strongmen.” Even the Saudi Arabian outcast, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is back in Western favor.
China is courting African and Arab countries, and the “Global South” with seductive talk of a brave new multipolar world, an expanded BRICS and an egalitarian G20. Ostracized Russia clings ever more desperately to Beijing, North Korea and like-minded rogue states.
Say hello to the “new world order,” an ongoing, radical reconstruction of the existing global strategic, legal and financial architecture — intrinsically chaotic, confusing and dangerous, and full of ambiguities, hypocrisies and contradictions.
Illustration: Mountain People
And say goodbye, prospectively, to the post-1945 consensus that placed the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, Western-led constructs such as the IMF and World Bank, and the wealthy G7 countries at the helm of global affairs. In brief, what is happening here is a three-way contest. It pits the established, US-dominated order (democratic, liberalized, discredited) against an emerging global regimen (authoritarian, mercantile, subservient) directed by China.
The third, less combative option, broadly favored by fast-growing “swing states” such as Nigeria, Brazil and Indonesia, is a reformed, UN-centered multilateralism — the Bridgetown debt relief initiative is a shining example — that would ensure a level playing field, especially for poorer, less developed countries. That is the long-shot outcome.
Nothing is settled yet. How the 21st century is run, and who runs it, remains an open question. So, right now, there is a huge scramble by governments to create, join or expand security alliances, coalitions, and economic, financial and trading blocs to suit changing needs, fears and priorities.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has illuminated — and partly triggered — today’s scramble by the great powers,” wrote John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. “Foreign policy success or failure hinges on one’s ability to get large coalitions of states on one’s side.”
“The world is transitioning into a novel international order. The project to Americanize the world has failed,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told the UN last week.
A “great fracture” looms, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
The EU’s answer to disintegration is, predictably, more integration. Talk of absorbing six Balkan states plus Ukraine and Moldova, and of sweeping internal reforms revolving around an EU “inner circle,” is driven not by altruism, but by anxiety to counter Russian and Chinese influence.
“Enlargement is not a bureaucratic endeavor... It’s about exporting and safeguarding a certain model of life of free, open Western democracies,” Austrian Minister for European and International Affairs Alexander Schallenberg said.
This month’s urgent call by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for an enlarged EU that makes “credible security commitments” reflects another upheaval — an expanding, reinvigorated NATO.
The alliance recently embraced Finland and Sweden. Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia and Georgia are in the waiting room. Pressure to join on other non-NATO EU neutrals such as Ireland might only grow.
New alignments in Europe mirror hardening battlelines globally. The US rejects an “Asian NATO” — but it has significantly reinforced security links with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Washington upgraded the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan — and launched the AUKUS pact with London and Canberra. It has suggested Britain should join the Quad, too.
US President Joe Biden’s coddling of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his recent meet-and-greet with Vietnam’s communists, his quest for common ground with Iran after last week’s hostage swap, and his pragmatic dealings with the Saudi Arabians and Israelis reveal a leader bent on exorcising former US president Donald Trump’s chaotic “no world order” — and keeping China in check.
Call him old-fashioned, but for Biden, the G7 — the US, Germany, France, the UK, Canada, Italy and Japan — is “the steering committee of the free world.”
China espouses an alternative vision, forcefully pursued. Its key strategic alliance with Russia has been reinforced despite (or possibly because of) Ukraine. Beijing promotes itself as the peace-loving champion of a non-Western-dominated multipolar world.
China successfully campaigned this summer to admit the African Union to the G20 and expand the five-country BRICS to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Building leverage in the Arab world, it feted Syria’s visiting dictator, Bashar al-Assad, last week.
It hosts its own regional alliance — the nine-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia, India and Pakistan. Iran joined the club in July. Beijing also seems intent on reshaping global financial architecture, notably via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — China’s alternative “World Bank.” Yet China’s offer, in all its various guises, is marred by ruthless high-handedness and lack of democratic accountability. There is no doubt structural change is needed. The UN system is creaking. The Security Council is all but moribund. Institutions such as the WHO are political battlegrounds.
However, let us be clear. This competitive reshuffling of the geopolitical pack is not about creating a better, safer world or equal opportunities for all. Emerging and middle-ranking countries, whichever way they jump, are likely to be manipulated and exploited by the big players, as in the past. This new global contest is primarily driven by competition for power, influence and resources. And by mutual fear, that greatest of common denominators.
The pity of it all is that a world ever more fragmented into opposing blocs and coalitions would be even less equipped than now to tackle the collective, existential challenges of climate, poverty, sustainability and health.
“Cracks in the world order are becoming canyons as we fail to design global solutions for global challenges,” former British prime minister Gordon Brown said recently. “Without a new multilateralism, a decade of global disorder seems inevitable.”
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