Rethinking World Order – Part I

It is Easter Monday in central Canada, and change is everywhere. You can smell it in the air and see it on the land.

Seasons change. The way we see the world, and understand its workings, apparently does not.

Modelling world order is a very high level analytical pursuit. It informs and conditions perception.

During the long decades of the Cold War freeze, it was easy enough to get a handle on the idea of world order. There were two competing superpowers, two clearly identified and associated blocs, and competition, to a greater of lesser extent, for the allegiance most everyone else. One bloc, capitalist and led by the USA, was the widely referred to as the First World; another, nominally communist and led by the USSR, the Second World, and the rest, some affiliated with one or the other bloc and some non-aligned, was known as the Third World. Later in the game the notion of a Fourth World emerged – not less, but least developed countries, the poorest of the poor.

In my Diplomatic Surge? post I mentioned the problems related to carrying over a binary, Cold War era world view into the globalization age. Our inability to imagine accurately the world in transition, however, has implications which extend beyond the persistence of a Manichean sensibility, a mis-diagnosis of the threats and challenges, and a tendency to militarize international policy and relations.   At a very basic level, we don’t know how to name,  or describe, or come to terms with the powerful forces which are re-shaping the planet’s political economy. About two decades after it began, the latest epochal shift remains, in large part, unassessed.

When the dust finally cleared in the wake of walls coming down and an empire imploding in 1991, it was clear that bipolarity did not work anymore. One of the poles had melted away. In the intervening years there have been several attempts  –  by Robert Cooper, Thomas Barnett, Immanuel Wallerstein and others – to reconstruct models which somehow capture the complexity and swirl which has characterized the intervening years. None have stuck, though,  like the familiar First, Second and Third Worlds, and accordingly terms remain in widespread use. Unfortunately, given the sheer flux of contemporary geopolitics, not to mention the disappearence of what had been the Second World, they no longer make much sense.

In the mainstream media, the notion of unipolarity became initially very popoular – one remaining superpower, the USA, leading in just about any category worth measuring, and having its way pretty well whenever, and wherever it wished. With the 2003 invasion of Iraq – no WMDs, but plenty of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Guantanamo Bay, black detention sites, torture, and extraordinary rendition – that period of unparalleled  quasi-imperial dominance quickly eroded away. Associated neoconservative preferences for ideas such as  pre-emptive defense,  the creation of a homeland security state,  and the gutting of domestic governmental capacity revealed so starkly in the inability of government to respond effectively to either natural or man-made disasters, combined to become the Bush administration’s brand. A trickle of defections from the Coalition turned into a stampede for the doors, the economic meltdown discredited the laissez faire economic doctrine embedded in the Washington Consensus, and the result was a near perfect storm over America’s international image and reputation, its soft power and political influence.

All have tanked.

And all will probably recover, but when they do, the environment will be very different, and it is not quite clear just what will emerge. Many commentators are speaking of a return to some kind of multipolarity, based on the sorts of balance of power calculations and relationships which prevailed for a few hundred years following the Treaty of Westphalia and later, in a more deliberately codified form, the Congress of Vienna. I don’t think that model fits, either. The kinds of power that the statesmen of the day were trying to balance were more or less similar and hence comparable, based on benchmarks such as the size of armies and navies, the nature of weapons and armaments, population numbers, resource bases and colonial connections.

But that was then. Today, extant types of power are not easily comparable.  The US leads in military strength. The European Union will soon have the largest GDP and projects broadly attractive social and political values. China has become the world’s manufacturer and is destined within a decade or so to become the single largest national economy. India is huge in back office operations, software design and call centres. Resurgent Russia is a resource giant and rearming fast. Brazil is leading Latin America. ASEAN is integrating Southeast Asia. The concept of multipolarity does not adequately capture the existance of so many different types of power.

A new term, heteopolarity, which suggests different sources of power and influence, just might.   Yet even if it does, finding any kind of balance will be extremely difficult. And any model based on polarity will in any case be too territorially based and state-centric to embody the dynamism and blur which are hallmarks of  the globalization age.

Perhaps the time has come to dispense with the very notion of polarity as an organizing principle of world order. More on that coming soon.

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