- The world is not destined for what Immanuel Kant called “perpetual peace”.
- We envisaged republics living in harmony with one another and not even needing standing armies to defend themselves.
- However, there are too many autocrats and nationalistic demagogues for that.
After a tumultuous year with multiple crises – from war to inflation and climate catastrophes – the world doesn’t have to descend into the dystopia of global chaos or a new Cold War between America and China, let alone a hot one. Another scenario is possible: a “polycentric order” with multiple centers of authority, where the United States is the leading power but not the hegemonic one.
Maintaining Global Order
To maintain order in the chaos, America will need to listen to allies, take account of other powers and avoid throwing its weight around. This will involve salvaging as much as possible of the multilateral system based on the United Nations while reinforcing it with coalitions such as the NATO defense alliance and the Group of Seven large industrialized countries. Indeed, the outlines of such an order may already be emerging out of the conflagration of economic, political and other shocks often labeled the polycrisis.
A polycentric order would be different from what is often called a “multipolar” system – a dog-eats-dog world where big powers have a license to dominate their neighbors. But it will be far from secure. So countries are spending more money on weapons: Japan, Germany and America are planning particularly big hikes in their defense budgets. However, the global economy will not split into two blocs and will still offer big opportunities for trade and investment – especially in arms, computer technology and the green transition.
Looking Beyond America
America and its rich allies in Europe and Asia broadly agree that Russia is a threat and China a challenge. But there are differences of emphasis. European countries, especially Germany, are more reluctant to break lucrative ties with China. The same is true of rich Asian countries such as Japan. There is even less consensus outside America’s core allies. India is buying discounted oil from Russia while it tries to cut its dependence on Moscow’s weaponry. Saudi Arabia has been coordinating the oil market with Russia and rolling out the red carpet to China, while snubbing the United States.
This is the reality of polycentrism. The United States is not nearly as powerful as it was. It accounted for 24% of global economic output last year, down from 39% in 1960. China has risen to 18% from 4% over the same period. America will only win over more friends if it respects their interests. That could be good for global peace. After all, unchallenged American power led to catastrophes such as the invasion of Iraq.
Another big break from the Trump era is Biden’s respect for the multilateral framework. Even though Russia’s veto has neutered the UN’s Security Council, the larger General Assembly has passed several resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine. Biden also brought America back into the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Supporting multilateralism makes sense, not least because America’s partners value international rule of law. But it would be naive to think that multilateralism can on its own solve the world’s biggest problems, given the tensions with China and Russia.America and its allies have therefore been buttressing the multilateral framework with a patchwork of alliances. Sweden and Finland are likely to join NATO, while the United States, Japan, India and Australia are collaborating more closely in the Quad partnership of Indo-Pacific nations.
The G7 has also launched an initiative to help developing countries go green fast. It has so far agreed partnerships with South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam to help those countries transition from fossil fuels. In parallel, the United States is pushing “friendshoring”, an idea that countries should build up supply chains in friendly countries to avoid being too dependent on China.
Most of these initiatives are works in progress. But they offer the best chance of order in a troubled world. As Robin Niblett, former head of the Chatham House think tank says: “If you link polycentrism with polycrisis, you have everything poly-correct.”
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