Source: Carnegie Europe

 Achieving a liberal and rules-based world order looks more like a dream than a realistic aspiration. However, there is great uncertainty as to what will replace it. China and Russia, the most powerful challengers of the status quo, do not propose an alternative model but rather aim at expanding their influence in the existing system.

As geopolitical rivalries intensify, the structures of the existing multilateral system are weakening. Geopolitical rivalries, stronger emphasis on national sovereignty, and increased economic protectionism are undermining cooperative regimes that have been painstakingly put together over decades. Hopes for a global proliferation of democracy and the rule of law have been dashed. But a lapse into international anarchy remains wholly unlikely. Globalization has slowed but will not be completely reversed. Economic interdependence and international communication will continue to require a considerable amount of institutionalized cooperation. The current multilateral system inherited from the postwar period will therefore survive. But the commitment to its rules will continue to diminish, and power politics and transactional deal making will often prevail.

Even if the current centrifugal tendencies remain limited, they will still severely impede efforts to address urgent transnational problems, such as climate change, biodiversity decline, state failure, food insecurity, poverty, and global health threats. And if the world cannot pull together to effectively respond to these threats, further disruption and fragmentation will certainly follow. There is thus an urgent need to reverse the current disintegrative dynamics and to reenergize and strengthen global governance. There is no time to lose.

The Russian war against Ukraine and the growing U.S.-China rivalry will have a profound effect on the future of the world’s political organization. The West’s hope for an international system based on democracy, rule of law, and multilateral cooperation—which had already lost plausibility in recent years—now looks wholly unrealistic.

Current trends and recent strategic documents point toward a further ramping up of geopolitical competition, increasing economic protectionism and fragmentation, and a loosening of the structures of the international order. However, economic interdependence and transnational ties will likely remain strong enough to prevent a complete lapse into anarchy and unrestrained competition. Even so, there is a great risk that the capacity for meeting global challenges, such as climate change, world poverty, and global health threats, will be badly damaged.

The drawing down of Washington’s international engagement expanded the maneuvering space of stronger states in the Global South—among them Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—which became increasingly assertive players in international politics. They forged new coalitions, enhanced their political and economic influence, and built up their military clout. Sometimes this resulted in regional struggles for hegemony, forcing weaker countries to do what they have always done: seek security either by allying with bigger powers or balancing between them.

Globally, Beijing’s and Moscow’s priorities are to reduce Western influence and strengthen their own positions within the existing multilateral system. However, their declared commitments to the existing order are increasingly at odds with their aggressive power politics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s threatening behavior toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea challenge fundamental principles of that very order.

The future multilateral system will therefore look similar to the existing one, at least on the surface. But it is likely to be undermined by a growing emphasis on national sovereignty and identity politics in many parts of the world and by the fragmentation of the global economy and the rise of protectionism. Current economic and political trends seem to point in the direction of a looser international system, leaving more room for power politics and transactional arrangements between states that insist on preserving their national sovereignty. Whether such an order will be capable of dealing effectively with great transnational challenges is doubtful. In particular, these dynamics will make it harder to confront the climate crisis, which is the most urgent and consequential challenge of the coming years.

The future international system could have several power centers. But one current division could shape international politics for several years: the coming together of the “non-geographic” West on the one hand and the deepening partnership between China and Russia on the other.

China and Russia see themselves as the vanguard in the struggle against Western global predominance, and they are eager to bring others on board. The story of BRICS enlargement shows that as much as China and Russia preach multipolarity, they are actually working toward a bipolar constellation of forces in which they would lead a broad alliance of countries in countering the preponderance of the West. The war in Ukraine has reinforced these tendencies. Weakened by military setbacks and Western sanctions, Russia will likely become increasingly dependent on China and, to some extent, will be forced to align with the strategic interests of its partner. And facing a worsening rivalry with the United States, China will have every incentive to keep Russia on its side, even if that entails further deepening its estrangement from the West.

The war has also significantly strengthened Western unity, revived the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and turned the G7 into an effective mechanism for coordinating the West’s response to Russian aggression. The Strategic Compass calls the United States Europe’s “staunchest and most important partner and a global power contributing to peace, security, stability and democracy on our continent.” The U.S. leadership role in the current crisis could also help Washington persuade European countries to support its policies toward China.

A closer partnership between China and Russia and a more effective Western grouping pose a difficult dilemma for countries from the Global South. Votes in the UN General Assembly on the Russian invasion illustrate this. A majority of UN members (141) supported the initial resolution condemning the invasion. Only 5 countries voted against the resolution, 35 abstained, and 12 did not participate. In 2023, on the anniversary of the invasion, a similar resolution obtained an almost identical result. This broad support was not surprising because Russia had violated two of the core principles of the UN Charter: nonuse of force and territorial integrity of states. But an initiative to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council passed much more narrowly in April 2022, as many developing countries did not vote in favor of it.

The fact that only about fifty countries have implemented sanctions against Russia also shows the unwillingness of the Global South to confront Russia. Apart from a few small states traditionally aligned with Western countries, the great majority of developing nations do not wish to sanction Russia. The Russian narrative that the United States and NATO bear major responsibility for the conflict found open ears in many developing countries. Anti-Western sentiments, partly fueled by the legacy of colonialism and resentment against Western double standards, played a role. A strong wish to stay outside a conflict between big powers was also an important factor.

Many developing countries will likely continue to strive to stay out of the fight between China and Russia and the West. India, which is overtaking China in terms of population and will likely become the world’s largest economy before the end of the decade, will probably be a strong force in favor of such a multipolar world.

In practical politics, bipolar or multipolar structures are not stark alternatives. There are many shades of polarity, and the situation varies from sector to sector. Today, for instance, the West still enjoys a dominant position in the global financial system, whereas the rapidly developing high-tech sector has already assumed a bipolar configuration, with the United States and China rapidly decoupling from each other. In geopolitical terms, a bipolar constellation seems a likely but not the only conceivable scenario for the coming years. An escalation of the war in Ukraine or a catastrophic Russian defeat could lead to estrangement between China and Russia. China’s deep integration into the global economy could act as a powerful mitigating factor in its competition with the United States. Finally, domestic U.S. developments, such as the presidential elections in 2024, could disrupt the transatlantic relationship and result in a more independent European policy.

References to a “liberal world order” in international relations speeches and articles have become rarer, whereas the phrase “rules-based order” has been used more frequently. With democracy in decline across the world, “rules-based” appears more realistic and inclusive.

The U.S. National Security Strategy offers an interesting hierarchy of states that share some of the American vision: the hierarchy “includes our democratic allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific as well as key democratic partners around the world that share much of our vision for regional and international order even if they do not agree with us on all issues, and countries that do not embrace democratic institutions but nevertheless depend upon and support a rules-based international system.” Commitment to a rules-based order is presented as the key criteria of constructive state behavior, whereas a lack of democracy can be excused.

Add new comment