The impending change of world order
By a given world order, we mean not only the economic and inter-state organisation of the international system, but also its leading ideas, or more precisely their organic relationship. While the previous world order was defined by unipolar neoliberalism, a multipolar system based on the great sphere order is now emerging.
The impending change of world order
The Economics of Geography

The impending change of world order

Photo: iStock
Márton Békés 25/08/2023 08:00

By a given world order, we mean not only the economic and inter-state organisation of the international system, but also its leading ideas, or more precisely their organic relationship. While the previous world order was defined by unipolar neoliberalism, a multipolar system based on the great sphere order is now emerging.

While the hundred years from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the outbreak of the First World War, the "long 19th century" (1815-1914) was dominated by Europe-based colonial empires - especially Great Britain -, the century that followed, from the Paris Peace Treaty to the end of the Cold War (1919-1991), two non-European superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union determined the fate of the world.

The American moment

British maritime hegemony over the world's oceans was inherited by the US with the Treaty of Washington of 1922, which promised an 'American century'. However, it was not to be until 1989/91 that this promise was fulfilled, as the two post-European, continent-sized empires, the US and the Soviet Union, had, from 1945 onwards, divided Europe and then the world between them. As Carl Schmitt aptly observed in the afterword to his book The Nomos of the Earth in 1955, the outcome of the bipolar system is essentially twofold: either one of the two opposing sides wins and unifies the world according to its own principles, or a new equilibrium is established, namely between "several independent great spheres or blocs, which are different from one another externally but homogeneous internally". The two competing superpowers were indeed organised, in terms of historical philosophy, for the exclusive pursuit of a single ideology, embodied in two global missions: Americanism and Communism.

After the Soviet experiment had been uncompetitive, first militarily, then economically and finally culturally, the bipolar world order (1945-1991) was followed by a quarter of a century of unipolar experimentation by the victorious United States. This meant that the US military-economic world hegemony was attempting to extend free trade on a planetary scale and, in political-cultural terms, to introduce liberal democracy everywhere, as if to end history. This attempt took place between 1991 and 2016, when the neoliberal-neoconservative bipartisan alliance in Washington used various means (humanitarian intervention, war on terror, colour revolutions, Arab Spring) to achieve this.

After liberalism

 However, the global neoliberal zeitgeist began to decline with the US military hegemony, first in Iraq and then in the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and with the economic rise of China, as shown by global figures (China is the world's second-largest and fastest-growing economy, alone accounting for nearly a fifth of world GDP). In addition, since the early 2020s, a multipolar world order has been increasingly emerging, based on cooperation between geographically defined great spheres and promoting a diversity of civilisations rather than a single dominant 'liberal international order'. This process, which has been brewing for a decade, has been deepened by the coronavirus epidemic and accelerated by the international realignment in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

The US, having lost its hegemony in the world, is trying to maintain at least control over the Atlantic and Pacific regions and to dominate Europe ever more closely, while the South-East of Eurasia is becoming more closely integrated with each other and the 'Global South' is also becoming noticeably more organised. Accordingly, alongside the US-led transatlantic-pacific bloc (AUKUS, G7, EU, NATO, Quad), a Eurasian pole is emerging in which, in addition to the Russian-Chinese axis, sometimes individually, sometimes in alliance, several regional middle powers (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) are participating, and the southern hemisphere should also be taken into serious consideration, with players such as the regional superpower India and its allies (notably Indonesia), Latin America (especially Brazil) and Africa (mainly South Africa). The latter two groupings are integrated, in addition to bilateral agreements of varying composition, by a number of international fora, infrastructure investments and initiatives (BRICS, Eurasian Economic Union, Belt and Road Initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Moreover, the centre of gravity of the world economy is clearly shifting towards Asia, which is geographically and economically correlated with the Global South, home to half of the planet's population, which accounts for more than half of world economic growth.

Multipolar order

The post-Napoleonic and the 20th-century bipolar post-European world order is now being replaced by a truly global order, which will accordingly be multipolar rather than unipolar or bipolar.

Signs of this are clear: two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China, are part of Eurasia; two-thirds of the G20 group of countries are (Eur)Asian and/or from the Global South, with Indonesia, India and Brazil as the current troika. The pace of economic development of the emerging economies, the E7, made up of Brazil, India, Indonesia, China, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, has now overtaken that of the G7. The nine countries participating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (India, Iran, China, four Central Asian states, Russia and Pakistan) account for 23 per cent of the world's land area, nearly half of its population and a quarter of world GDP. A common forum for Eurasia and the Global South is the BRICS grouping, a cooperation between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which covers 26.7 per cent of the world's land area, 42 per cent of the planet's population and more than a quarter of world GDP. Its popularity is demonstrated by the fact that Argentina and Iran have announced their intention to join, while Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also seriously considering joining.

In another sign of the transformation of the world order, there are half a dozen challenges to the dollar's hegemony to replace it, at least in bilateral settlements and in Eurasian domestic trade: India is promoting rupee-based compensation, the BRICS Development Bank favours national currencies, 70 per cent of Russian-Chinese trade already bypasses the US currency and a similar pact is being forged between China and Brazil.

The international arrangements of the 19th and 20th centuries were unilateral military and international legal constructs, but the key words of the 21st-century world order, the new world order that will replace the declining old one, will be diversity of civilisations, sovereignty of states and cooperation between the major spheres that integrate the former.

The author is a historian and political scientist, director of the 21st Century Institute

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