A Tripolar world portends a new Cold War

SrinagarWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: Dec 07, 2018, 11:29 AM IST

File photo of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Photograph:(Reuters)

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The United States, Russia and China appear to be the main contenders and competitors in the emerging international politics and the international system.

The United States has delivered Russia a 60-day ultimatum on Tuesday to come “clean” about what Washington says is a violation of the 1987 nuclear arms control treaty, saying it would be forced to start a six-month process of withdrawal if nothing changes. 

In response, Putin, in televised comments, accused the United States of blaming Russia for violations as a pretext for Washington to exit the pact. A tripolar world is in the offing or appears to have already crystallised as the 21st century meanders on. The nature of this sparring suggests that some kind or sort of a putative confrontation is welling up between the United States and Russia. 

Whether or not, this particular spat denotes into something ungainly might be beside the point. But, what can be culled from it is that world politics is or actually has moved beyond the post-cold war “unipolarity”. We might be witnessing the emergence or even crystallisation of a tripolar international system. (Polarity is a term that denotes the number of “poles” or power centres in the international system).

The United States, Russia and China appear to be the main contenders and competitors in the emerging international politics and the international system. The tripolar world that is emerging is unlike the system structure of bipolarity that was the defining feature of world politics after World War 3. This time around then instead of the two poles, the former Soviet Union and the United States which, obiter dictum, accorded some degree of stability to the system, there are three poles.

But, this is not the whole “ story” or picture.

 The interesting feature of the tripolar system is the different trajectories of the three contenders and the structural context. Consider China first. The country “emerged” after its historic 1978 reforms which entailed a comprehensive modernisation of its economy, opening up to the world, ensconcing the country in the sinews of globalisation but, at the same time, retaining its political system and ideology thereof. All this laid the basis of China’s military modernisation and putative Great Power status.

Russia, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, has been on a revanchist course. It has employed hybrid techniques to what it thinks is reclaiming its erstwhile Great Power status. The country, akin to a judo player, is punching above its weight with great success.

The United States, albeit still a power to reckon with, having a lead in almost all indices of power is in relative decline. And, with an “insurgent” in the White House, in the form of Donald Trump, who is upending the rules, norms and regimes of the post war liberal order, the country thinks that by being pugnacious, it can rejig world politics and international relations to its advantage.

This is the structural context and nature of international relations in the second decade of the 21st century.

The question now is: how will tripolarity pan out? Will there be great power conflict and war? Or, can countervailing factors dampen and ameliorate this potential conflict?

As the spat between the United States and Russia suggests, there might accrue militarisation of foreign policies of major states. This means military build-ups, intense security dilemmas and arms races. The world then might be armed to the teeth, so to speak. That there would be tension is the axiomatic corollary that flows from militarisation of world politics. Various flashpoints in the world, the Middle East, the Koreas and even South Asia would then become more visible and significant in the foreign policies of the troika of Russia, the United States and China. (The site of jostling, jockeying and contention would also include the Indian Ocean Region(IoR).

All in all, the world will be a more tense and fraught place with the likelihood of a major military confrontation looking on the horizon. Will or can there be redemption? Perhaps.

But, this would lie in the return of vigorous and astute diplomacy. However, a more important countervailing force to intense and militarised conflict would be “complex interdependence”, that is, the thick flows and webs of crisscrossing commercial and capital flows that would enmesh countries in a paradigm, coming out or opting out of which would be to the detriment of each.  As of now, however, it would appear that complex interdependence is waning or even dissipating. The challenge then for diplomacy and statecraft is to build and weave together this paradigm together, for peace within and without. The world and its people do not need a conflagration that is either an echo of 1914 or 1945, albeit in a permutation and combination that is far deadlier. Let sobriety, proportion and peace prevail!

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)