Rethinking World Order – Part II

Polarity is a static concept, and its expression is spatial. Various poles, be they considered of the hetero or multi-polar genus, can be named, mapped and fixed on a world atlas. In the dynamic, de-territorialized environment that characterizes the globalization age, each of these aspects is highly problematic.

To construct a model of international relations that puts people, rather than states or measures of GDP at the centre of notions of security and development, a more fluid and supple approach to modelling is required.

A quick survey reveals this point starkly. Today, parts of the USA, such as the abandoned neighbourhoods of Flint, Michigan or Akron, Ohio, or New Orleans, Louisiana, look as bad or worse worse than much of anything that might be found in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Santiago, Chile, or Accra, Ghana. The downtowns of Shanghai, Sao Paulo or Dubai outshine those found in many major centres in Europe or North America. For the homeless in Los Angeles, life is at least as tough, and likely moreso, than it is for those at the bottom of the social pyramid in Singapore.

All of which is to say that the old distinctions just don’t work any more. First World conditions are enjoyed by many people, and found in many places in what used to be known as the Third World. The upscale opulence associated with the better districts of Capetown or Caracas attest to this emphatically. At the same time, nominally Third World lifestyles and environments are found among many individuals, such as the disposessed, and groups, such as aboriginals, as well in many places, such as inner cities and social housing estates, all over what we used to call the First and Second Worlds.

How might such diverse and shifting characteristics be incorporated in the construction of a new world order model? Not easily. But that is no excuse for not trying.

I would propose moving beyond both the now obsolete First, Second and Third World labels, as well as the centre-periphery model and its variants favoured by the dependency theorists and their successors, to adopt four broad categories of people and places affected by globalization:

•    The A- or advancing, world, whose economic and political advantage is growing

•    The C- or contingent world, whose prospects are uncertain and will be determined by future developments which could tip in either direction

•    The T- or tertiary world, whose relative position is subservient or dependent; and

•    The E- or excluded world, who find themselves for the most part outside of globalization’s matrix.

Put the four categories together and there you have it –  a user-friendly and adaptable world order model, the ACTE.

World order modelling is, of necessity, undertaken at a high level of abstraction, and hence exceptions will be inevitable. But these do not the rule make, and the rules, I think, hold up quite well. Each category could contain individuals, social or cultural groups, cities or parts thereof, states or parts thereof, regions, or multilateral combinations. The hybrid formulation, which is transnational and not ordered by geography, combines the utility of labelling with the dynamic quality of the dependency analysis. It avoids undue association with immobile national political space, while allowing for the constant movement upwards, downwards and sideways within and between the principal groups associated with globalization.

The point here is that it is no longer useful or even possible to attempt to classify entire countries, regions or groupings into this or that particular intellectual or geographic box. There is just too much complexity and swirl out there, and much less stratification and rigidity, for any of that. In the globalization age, the concept of de-territorialization – of power, agency, nationality, language, even of ethnicity – has become a defining attribute. While it is very difficult to avoid completely the use of spatial and geographic terms, economic and political relations in the globalization era are less and less between territorially based units and more and more between social agents – individuals, classes, and other groups of various description.  It is these billions of people, almost one half are under twenty-five and live in cities, rather than entire countries, that experience development and underdevelopment.

The situation of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) is illustrative. In these resurging or aspiring great powers, there are very large elements of A-, C-, T- and E-worlds internally. There are also elements of each in Europe and North America, although in those cases the A- component would be larger, the E- component smaller, and the C- and T- components perhaps more mobile.

Unconvinced? More on all of this, and why it is germane to guerrilla diplomacy, in Part III.