Putin, Trump and Jinping Photograph:( Agencies )
The opportunity provided by the COVID 19 for ‘shared leadership’ between China and the United States has been adroitly squandered)
The world order is in great flux and fluidity. Major geopolitical shifts, redistribution of power and shifts, along with a more unilateralist the United States are all conspiring together to create patterns of the disorder. The impact is perhaps felt on multilateralism and the institutional matrix that supported it. The overall shift is not merely confined to one region but is almost global.
For example, Brexit and its consequences and implications on the EU might be a case in point here. The arena where multilateralism appears to be most weakened is in the use of force- a prerogative of states kept in check and hedged by norms and institutions of multilateralism. All this is overlaid by an evolving but intense geopolitical competition whose main axes are the China United States Faultline (held by some to be a metaphor for the ‘East’-West’ conflict).
Against this backdrop, questions of searing resonance are: should multilateralism be jettisoned? Does it have value under the current fluid conditions? Is there an alternative to multilateralism?
In varying permutations and combinations, the concept and practice of multilateralism kept the peace, to indifferent and varying degrees after World War II. But it must be noted here that multilateralism was never perfect; states ceded some power to organisations like the United Nations for their own purposes and interests. However, even in this perfect form, multilateralism held peace- albeit tenuously and in relative terms. It was the pre-emptive war launched by the United States in 2002 that could be said to have broken the back of multilateralism. The United States, in its unipolar moment, signalled that it was the only game in town, so to speak and no one could place a check on its power and its use. Thus, was the norm on the use of force weakened considerably.
This momentous development was followed or even complemented by power diffusion, and thereby, power transitions that empowered states like China and Russia. Allied to other structural trends like globalisation, and the weakening of multilateralism, states increasingly began to flex their muscles- China in what it holds to be ‘its sphere of influence’ and Russia what it holds to be ‘its near abroad’- Ukraine and Georgia. These developments were coeval with the rise of populism and nativism in the West of which Brexit was a casualty.
If the drift of events continues then there is a noticeably clear and present danger of the world sliding into an ‘anarchic’ zone where there will be no restraints on states even to go to war. Complemented by intense geopolitical rivalries that are growing by the day, this presents a danger to world peace and security. By themselves, states being states will not be and remain at peace with each other, especially when national interest is defined in narrow terms. The only hedge against war and conflict then lies in multilateralism. The caveat here is that the norms undergirding multilateralism must be revitalized and strengthened. The question of jettisoning it then does not arise.
It may even be that under current conditions of fluidity, volatility and geopolitical competition, it is revitalised multilateralism that can salvage peace and world order. Consider a contrapuntal here. In the absence of norms and other restraints, the world and its major states will revert to a pure balance of power competition. While it is not entirely known what configuration of power will emerge, bipolar or multipolar, but what appears to be certain is that the main axis of conflict will be China and the United States, with China being the challenger power. If the Thucydides trap which states that when one great power challenges another, war inevitably results, holds, then China and the US are destined to go to war with each other.
This war, if it ensues will be a catastrophic one that will throw the world backward by decades and will exact a human toll and suffering that will be immense. What would the antidote to this ugly eventuality? Revitalized multilateralism that speaks to the needs of the times is the answer.
The alternatives to multilateralism are too bleak to even countenance. One other alternative could have been leadership provided by the United States. But, post 2016, the country has been on a disruptive insurgent path paradoxically also into a curious kind of quasi isolationism. Moreover, the United States even if it had an appetite for providing leadership, this would be resisted by others. (The opportunity provided by the COVID 19 for ‘shared leadership’ between China and the United States has been adroitly squandered).
This then, by elimination, leaves room and scope open only for revitalised multilateralism. But, as happened in its 20th-century avatar, where leaders and great powers saw eye to eye on major issues and the need for norms and multilateralism thereof, will the leaders and great powers of the 21st century do the same? This is a billion-dollar question whose answer even though it looks bleak now lies in the mists of the future.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)