16 January 2024
Emerging Global AnarchyMany speculate that leadership of the world order is passing from the US to China. But a more likely outcome could be growing world political disorder and anarchy.
Rules-based world order under threatThe United States, Japan, and most Western countries are panicking at the prospect of the demise of the “rules-based world order” that was carefully constructed in the decades following World War 2. This political order provided the foundation for the extraordinary growth in prosperity over this period – especially for China, which is presently contesting this order.
How could this world order that seemed to have been the victor of the Cold War just three decades ago be in such trouble today?
As Henry Kissinger has written, this is almost the natural way of the world –
“Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values…”
Rise and fall of political ordersThe rise and fall of political orders is highlighted in Kissinger’s historical survey of international relations:
“In the seventeenth century, France under Cardinal Richelieu introduced the modern approach to international relations, based on the nation-state and motivated by national interest as its ultimate purpose…
“In the eighteenth century, Great Britain elaborated the concept of the balance of power, which dominated European diplomacy for the next 200 years…
“In the nineteenth century, Metternich’s Austria reconstructed the Concert of Europe and Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it, reshaping European diplomacy into a cold-blooded game of power politics…
“In the twentieth century, no country has influenced international relations as decisively and at the same time as ambivalently as the United States … American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment…
“The collapse of Soviet communism marked the intellectual vindication of American ideals and, ironically, brought America face to face with the kind of world it had been seeking to escape throughout its history … What is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it…
Factors undermining world orderThe most optimistic interpretation is that the postwar world order stands at a turning point for a number of reasons, reflecting both its successes and failures, for example:
1. The challenge and contestation of China. The prosperity emanating from its model of state capitalism has enabled the Chinese Communist Party to clamp down on domestic society. It has also enabled it to foster spheres of influence worldwide, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative, and acquire many leadership positions in the United Nations’ system. The proposition that China might become a more open and pluralist country, and a responsible stakeholder in the world order proved to be nothing but a pious hope.
2. The retreat of the US from world order leadership, especially under Donald Trump’s administration. For example, It withdrew from the World Health Organisation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran nuclear deal. Trump also undermined NATO and WTO, insulted key allies, and cosied up to obnoxious opponents of the rules-based order like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Trump’s America renounced international leadership. He spent much of 2020 denying the importance of the pandemic and insulting China rather than encouraging the world to work together to address the pandemic. This is astonishing. The US led the creation of the postwar order to make the world safe for democracy in the belief that democracies are more peaceful and prosperous. But Trump seems committed to undermining democracy both at home and internationally.
3. Western governments have been reluctant to give emerging powers well-deserved space in the rules-based order. This undermines the credibility of the order. For example, China accounts for about 18 percent of the global economy. Yet it has only been granted a little over 6 percent of the voting share in the International Monetary Fund. France and the United Kingdom are jealously hanging onto their unjustified permanent United Nations Security Council seats. This is denying more deserving cases like India and Brazil (along with Japan and Germany). In an extraordinary case of political petulance, the US refused to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, created by China. While the US bullied its allies to follow suit, only Japan did so.
4. As early as the decade of the 2000s, there were signs that the US had lost its way as a global leader – with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the 2008/09 Global Financial Crisis. The reaction of the Global South to the Ukraine and Gaza wars reveals a regrettable lack of trust in US global leadership. The US has lost so much political capital that it has little to draw on, even when it might be justified.
Where to next?It is difficult to see a clear resolution to the forces undermining world order. President Biden has provided America and the world with a return to sane leadership in the midst of an immensely complex array of problems – Ukraine war, Gaza war, Chinese belligerence, and America’s broken society and political system – although he hasn’t been able to reverse all of Trump’s nefarious actions.
Even so, it is far from clear that he will achieve satisfactory outcomes for these problems. Moreover, the possibility of a return of Trump or someone of his ilk to the US presidency casts a dark shadow over the future world order, as does a US Congress which is reluctant to cooperate with the President, whoever that may be.
For its part, China is a problematic case and incapable of world leadership. Domestically, the economy has deep problems. Also, there are many signs of dissension at the top of the leadership, especially in the military. Internationally, it has very few friends. Most countries are very wary of China’s coercive behaviour. And major international initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative have not been crowned with success.
ConclusionIn sum, the most likely scenario is one of growing global disorder with adverse consequences for the world economy and political stability. The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, inadequate responses to climate change, COVID-19, artificial intelligence, and rising economic protectionism might be signs of the anarchy to come.
Many speculate that leadership of the world order is passing from the US to China. But a more likely outcome could be growing world political disorder and anarchy.