Heteropolis Rising: World Order in the 21st Century

In the previous post,  I argued that the short-lived era of unipolar American hegemony has given way to  a new international dispensation best characterized as heteropolar rather than multipolar. This metamorphosis may be attributed mainly to a series of colossal strategic misjudgements and the profusion of diverse sources of power and influence globally. The implications for security and diplomacy are profound.

To be sure, and as was the case with the multipolar world dominated by the European Empires from the 15th to 19th centuries, there are once again many poles. But this time the differences between them far outweigh the similarities. These players share little in common.  Unlike in previous eras, the heterogeneous nature of today’s competing actors renders comparison difficult and measurement even more so.

That said, and although this is very much a new order in the making, we can begin to trace the contours and discern the content of heteropolarity, a condition which I believe will increasingly define international relations. New poles are forming, and old poles are evolving. In terms of identifying the major heteropoles in the early years of the 21st century, the following thoughts come immediately to mind.

The USA, even with a slightly leaner (but still growing) defence budget, will for the foreseeable future remain the world’s leading military, or hard power. It will continue as a leading centre of R&D, innovation, private enterprise, and post-secondary education; the notion of broad decline is hotly contested. However, as predicted by President Eisenhower in his farewell address over 50 years ago, an increasing reliance upon military strength is rendering America the praetorian pole. Its fundamental economic and industrial position in relative terms is fading fast, a trend accelerated by the hollowing out of its manufacturing sector, and compounded by the continuing financial crisis and the cost of foreign wars. Within a decade or two the mantle of leadership, and pride of place as the epicentre of the world economy, may well pass to the Asia-Pacific region generally, and to China in particular – with India not that far behind.

Together, these two countries will soon represent over one half of the world’s population. China is already the fastest growing manufacturing and industrial economy and the largest provider of consumer goods. With an increasing reliance upon advanced technologies, China is moving rapidly up the value-added chain. For its part, India is now the world’s back office, call centre and software incubator, offering services in the English language at prices no one can match.  Each of these poles is looking for increased recognition and for ways to advance their growing interests. Unlike the old superpowers, however, their middle classes are burgeoning rather than shrinking, and they are not rattling sabres.

Elsewhere, post-tsunami Japan, though often overlooked, is still the world’s third largest economy and a huge participant in international trade, investment and finance. Overtaken in GDP terms last year by China, the prospect of having to accommodate new rivals throughout the rest of rising Asia is likely to present Japan with significant political and cultural challenges.

Brazil today is closer than ever to the realization of its enormous potential. That country has secured its place as the political and economic dynamo of Latin America, and has become much more assertive in the international arena, and particularly in organizations such as the WTO. Brazil’s newfound heteropolar identity may find expression as a champion of cultural diversity or as the leader of the Global South.

Russia, as a residual empire with still-extant nuclear capability, seems intent upon consolidating its role as Eurasia’s energy and resource pole. These ambitions are abetted by its vast geo-strategic presence, memories of greatness and the perceived need to reassert its influence both in the “near abroad” and beyond. Europeans, especially, are wary of their growing dependence.

And, speaking of Europe… Beset by the current debt and monetary crisis, it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. While it will take time, and likely another recession, the Euro-zone’s present problems will eventually be worked through. Over the longer term, the continent’s strong suit of peace, prosperity, safe and livable cities, excellent public infrastructure, a rich historical heritage and thriving artistic and cultural life suggests that the EU is destined to lead the world in soft power, the power of attraction. The source of the Europe’s strength and the basis of its comparative advantage will reside not in a common defence and security policy, but in the demonstration effect, in the ability of Europe to project its success by example internationally.

Heteropoles are forming in all shapes and sizes. Certain countries, such as Turkey, Iran, South Africa, Egypt and Mexico, as well as regions, such as Southeast Asia and the Gulf states, will almost certainly figure in this new order.  Yet the emergence of a heteropolar world, one in which the drivers and ends of power and influence are no longer easily meshed, will inevitably cause friction. Among and between poles, edges are sharp, competition fierce, objectives divergent and interests difficult to align. Direct connection on issues of mutual concern, such as trade, the environment, and intellectual property, has already become difficult. Finding the basis for bargaining will be tough, the identification of trade-offs elusive and the act of balancing dizzyingly complex.

As has happened with the global economy, volatility in international relations is likely to become the new normal. Fragile states will fail. Sparks will fly. The trick will be to find ways to prevent fires. In that regard, while deterrence may still have a role, the actual use of armed force is unlikely to be of much utility.

Ready or not, heterpolarity means that it is now diplomacy which must be placed front and centre.