A new division of the world is under way. Whether it takes place on the surface with resounding clashes or in less comprehensible subterranean slides, many power relations and inter-dependencies are affected by this undercurrent on whose meaning and manifestations we must shed light. But this transition does not fail to put back the inertias and the keys of comprehension that we use to decipher global affairs. Should we prepare for an “illiberal” and neo-national world, turning our back on globalization, in which the bipolarity between China and the United States will succeed the hegemony of “unipolar globalism”? Will the multilateral approach and international law be relegated to the background as a poor relation of minimum global governance, conservative by nature and led above all by the Hobbesian ball of powers? Beyond the media cacophony and the tune of the times, how to grasp the new and most often fragmented manifestations of global developments and how to make sense of them?
Permanence of a global architecture
While the periods of reconfiguration are often synonymous with dispersion or even confusion of the perceptive compasses, the first quarter of the twenty-first century is particularly rich in agitation. The “Age of the Extremes” and the “Short Twentieth Century”, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called them, had presumably ended with the great perils of totalitarianism, ideologies and fratricidal conflict. The first quarter of the twenty-first century shows that Pandora’s box is far from closing –with the possible exception of totalitarianism– and that other threats are coming to the fore. The nationalist fact seems to have passed through history most solidly, intimately mixed with ideological and religious passions. Economic growth shows a little more each day its unsustainability in the global ecological and social system (endemic inequalities), predicting collapses of different scale and nature in the short and medium terms.
From the geopolitical point of view, in the last two decades there has been a further increase in the magnitude of global heterogeneities –even if indisputable progress has been made in the consolidation of States and poverty reduction– with a constellation of States ranging from democratic to authoritarian, from very rich to very poor, from very weak to very powerful. Faced with these heterogeneities –including those of perceptions and strategic interests– and given the new context resulting from their interdependence, none of the major powers has yet been able to project forward and in new terms the architecture of collective security and global governance. In other words, the international system is still shaped by patterns forged in past power struggles (which is not necessarily a problem in itself), in stark contrast to the contemporary issues and imbalances that call for new types of arrangements.
At the center of this panorama, a frail UN system and especially the United States, a power that was propelled once again on the world stage in 1989 and the only one that really faced the question of global stability, which chose to resolve this dilemma by yielding to imperial temptation and the reduction of heterogeneity through political standardization. For the better and for the worse, and through the perceptive bias of its strategic culture, US politics were structured around hegemonic domination, based on their immense power and imposing their precedence on a more or less anarchic mosaic of national entities.
In the end, world governance, even today converted into a whole much larger than the sum of national and transnational powers, still seems to be trapped in the principles laid down at the beginning of time by Kautilya, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle. Between the relations of power, the mobilizing ideal and the political organization, the first principle persists in its role of rudder of the planetary ship, with a course fixed essentially towards the search for security and power.
Geopolitical and perceptive turn of the last decades
Closer to the field and below this very general landscape, the evolutions of the last twenty years have the merit of having updated some hegemonic perceptions, occasionally overvalued and taken for granted. Let’s go back briefly to the facts to re-situate the spirit of the times and the way in which mentalities are structured. In the post-Cold War period, the American superpower had installed the horizon of a unipolar world, arbitrated and secured by Washington, whose influence was based, in Wilson’s moralist line, on democratic and liberal proselytism with universal vocation. However, this perception, faithfully forged in the American culture, did not have much resistance to the events of September 11, 2001, the Iraqi war of 2003 and the financial crisis of 2008. Each of these three events crystallized the limits of cultural standardization, neoliberal deregulation and imperialist arrogance instilled in the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. While many are alarmed at the current erosion of international law, it is worth recalling that it is as part of an ideological offensive aimed at the repression of the USSR that human rights are spread from 1977, which have been practiced by Washington and many of its allies according to a double standard and a strategic ulterior motive. Without detracting anything from the validity of the law that until the 1990s was the spearhead of the transformers of the international system, this precedent has the merit of underlining the politico-ideological value of the norms and the context in which they are exercised.
At the same time, under US or European influence, the multilateral institutions were dismissed or deteriorated when they resisted the United States’ injunctions expressly confusing unification and homogenization of differences (imposition of liberal democracy), community disintegration and denationalization (interference and erosion of national units). (Re)emerging countries –those that were formidable powers in the eighteenth century (China of the Qing Empire, Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Ottoman Empire)– continued to catch up in silence, affirming their economic and demographic dynamism as well as their oppositional mode of insertion. This contradiction, but especially the illusion of omnipotence that the Atlantist bloc has breathed into a global scene infinitely more complex than what the blinding lens of the superpower allowed to see (the neoconservatives have contributed masterfully in the last phase), gradually gave rise to an alternative discourse, in divorce with an excessively idealistic and universalizing order. It was first materialized around the notion of anti-globalization and then of “multipolar world”, stimulated by the economic emergence of the BRICS (and other groups, like MINT), enabling this idea that new economies had a voice, and politics and law could differ from the Western model.
In practice, (re)emerging countries have had an oppositional discourse on the global order and Western predominance, while appropriating the tools of globalization and capitalism, which are the driving forces of their return to power. At the extreme of this alternative discourse, a conspiratorial or even “fascistic” narrative has recently developed, which is well received by skeptical, nostalgic, humiliated or anti-establishment spirits, whether European Christians, white supremacists, Arab-Muslims, critical citizens or radical militants (right or left), even leaders of the “populist” wave (typically Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Maduro, Orban, Salvini). It draws much of its substance from the resentment of the losers or defeated of globalization, that is to say, in the shadows projected by a globalization that is unequal, judged by injustices and the oligarchic forces who use if for their benefit. In this current of thinking, heterogeneities, neoconservatives, multilateralism, as well as the duty to interfere (originally created to prevent violence against civilians) are each referred to supposedly imperialist ends. Ditto for the notions of economic globalization, democracy, NGOs, responsibility to protect, which feed the variants of this culture broth. Except that, in fact, the complacent posture of resorting to the victimizing and conspiratorial argument, raised as a new variable explaining potential or actual threats, is working and clings to the new spirit of the times. In the media and the minds, this posture also helps to pull down and shrink –by means of epistemological pirouettes such as relativization, whataboutism, stigmatization, Manichaeism, not to mention straightforward manipulation– the field of perception of global developments. These postures are now integral part of the methodological tools mobilized in disinformation flows.
Closer to our times, the general fiasco of the “war of choice” in the Middle East, the counterrevolution of the Arab world from 2010 followed by the chaotic overthrow of Libya in 2011 and the Ukrainian episode further heightened the gap between the disruptive reality and the idealism of the pax americana. Eventually, it was this mixed record which enabled Bashar al-Assad in Syria to escape the fate of his Iraqi neighbor in 1991. With the relatively limited military aid of Russia, not forgetting Iran and the Shiite militants of the subregion, the Syrian conflict has brought war crimes back to the fore, with the helplessness of the “international system” to intervene in a chaotic scenario, against a backdrop of network propaganda cleverly taking advantage of sensitivities locked by the mistakes of imperial interventionism and the Manichean war against terrorism. Since then, the horizon of a multipolar order has not only become synonymous with geoeconomic rebalancing; it opened the way, as it happened after the East-West tension, to the expression of new regional tensions and recalled that warlike violence quickly resumes its gallop when power claims, regional destabilization and the security vacuum meet years of multilateral prosperity and economic co-operation making diplomacy for display.
In terms of trade, the neoliberal consensus –including the predisposition to openness and free movement of people– continued to be challenged, even in its founding homelands: in 2016, in the UK with Brexit and in the United States with a deceptively isolationist Donald Trump. In practice, in the face of clear signs of its relative decline, the American imperium sought to restore its supremacy through virulent diplomacy and its rule of law by projecting its extraterritoriality more and more violently over the rest of the world. Proof of this is since 2016 the short-circuiting of multilateral institutions, bilateral mercantilism and variable-geometry blackmail exercised on many international partners. For this, Washington has been able to rely on a Europe of followers who, lacking vision and will, did not find the means to shift away from Euro-Atlantist conformism and deepen its unifying project. Admittedly, the European Union and some of its members have made positive progress towards the perception of common interests, presaging a possible geopolitical awakening. But on the other hand, the twenty-eight members progress in scattered ranks, with some of their social bases in opposition to the European project and in the grip of frustration recruiters. In the background, China, for whom Europe has become a strategic target likely to counterbalance the US influence, has forged alliances with Greece, Italy, Germany and all the countries of Eastern Europe.
The rising Beijing-Washington bipolarity
It has precisely been in the shadow of media radars and through a perceptive delay of several years that China is forming a new geopolitical pair with the United States, with imperial aspirations and dynamics capable of structuring a new international order. No offense to the reassuring belief in a multipolar world, but the current chessboard is very far from that of the Europe of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, in which homogeneous regional powers, in the aftermath of religious wars, renounced the expansion of their power and agreed to form a stability balance (around some innovative principles that are still present today). On the other hand, neither the United States nor China –nor any of other candidate countries– show signs so far of apprehending this moment of geopolitical inflection in order to work on the bases a regime better adapted to planetary stability. In theory, it is not forbidden to imagine in the future that a group of three or four powers, completing their adjustments, can organize regional balances around them and converge at the world level on principles of stability configuring a kind of neo-Westphalian framework. But for now, the global scene is far too disparate to apply this system as it was designed on a European scale. Above all, the main regional powers today pursue an agenda oriented towards their rise as national powers, with perceptions of priorities and strategic issues extremely variable between them.
In other words, Beijing and Washington are not at the stage of a G2 emancipating from the global status quo. Their interests are contradictory, both strategically rival (except on specific issues, such as North Korea) and partly complementary in terms of economic cooperation. The last two decades have also seen a centrifugal multipolarity of the geopolitical chessboard that encourages the two giants to use their power to stabilize “from above” an interstate order in dispersion. As a result of this development, many large and medium-sized countries are now being urged, by influence, pressure or blackmail, to position themselves as partners, suppletive clients or vassals, depending on their level of dependence on one or the other pole of this pair in rising tension. Surprisingly, despite the rhetorical resistance to these pressures, the control exercised by the United States and China is working well and it is rare to see the means to oppose it.
With China’s GDP growing eight-fold since entering the WTO in 2001, the Asian giant is now competing with much of the world’s power –apart from cultural influence, rights and “soft power”– including the field of norms (for example, the Shanghai university rankings or the sustainability standards). The United States, braced over its hegemonic position, is implementing orthodox realistic diplomacy, openly aimed at curbing Chinese expansion. Beijing, for its part, invents a “velvet lapel and glove” imperium, draped in a story of “peaceful ascent”. Its influence is projected without proselytism and through a policy of non-binding offer. While the “New Silk Road” has been much talked about –some counter-reactions really not being made visible– is it known today that the Chinese Navy puts every four years at sea the equivalent of France’s naval fleet and that its maritime ambitions go as far as the Indian and Pacific oceans?
The Chinese model is appreciated by the States that favor a multipolar world, seeking a counterweight alliance against the United States. Few are the States that wish to substitute one imperialism for another, so these alliances are mostly tactical, some choosing to circumstantially support China to gain leeway vis-à-vis Washington, and vice versa. In fact, Moscow is getting closer to Beijing, in siege-like fear for Chinese expansionism in the Far East and directing its new defense systems (Kalibr 9M729) to China (not to Poland and NATO). The coastal States of the South China Sea choose, like the Philippines and progressively Tokyo, to negotiate with Beijing bilaterally. India, despite all, opted for a rapprochement with its great rival. Finally, the Chinese offering is measured in Latin America (multiplication by 24 of Chinese investments between 2000 and 2011), in Africa or in Mediterranean and Balkan Europe with prodigality as generous as unusual.
Of a new type, imperfect, dominated for the moment by Washington within a both rival and complementary duo, this embryonic bipolarity inspires a repositioning of partnerships and allegiances following logics of dependence and influence. Unlike the Cold War balance, which imposed an exclusive positioning and capture by one of the two blocs of the national dynamics, it enables non-“totalizing” relations that allow for freedom and overlapping. In fact, this order in formation is not without the fears highlighted by the current of national affirmation that has emerged since the end of the East-West bipolarity and the ebb of imperial gestuality. From Turkey to Iran and from Brazil to Russia, but also in Israel and the United Kingdom, there is a desire of projection and return: patriotic or even nationalistic in the most active emerging countries, wishful and idealized in weak countries, fearful and withdrawn in declining Western powers.
In this hybrid order, it is important to note that gross power no longer has the same impact and is mutating. Coercion tends to hinge on the relative rejection of messianism and hard power, hence the soft power and the narrative reverse of China’s “peaceful ascension”. On the other hand, brute force comes up against complex, less predictable and much more costly environments for the belligerent parties, with ways of spreading violence that go from local to global. The examples of Syria as a globalized conflict, Iraq and other Arab countries are a demonstration. Let us add that since 1945, the Western countries’ superiority is not sufficient to win asymmetrical conflicts that adopt irregular forms and have socio-political and ideological dimensions at the center.
Oppositional turnaround and mutation of power
For the elites and, in general, the mediators facing this geopolitical recomposition, there is obviously nothing obvious to reinterpret the physiognomy of international relations and engage in a conceptual and strategic aggiornamento. The most striking proof of this is the oppositional turnaround that has recently occurred in the face of a globalization delivered to its economic drivers without controlling the political dimension of unification and rebalancing. Conceptual, symbolic and identity ramparts rise here and there. It is as if the dynamic reorganization promoted by globalization has caused in recent years a return to defensive, conservative and Manichaean categories. Some ideological currents cling to anachronistic or residual frameworks of thought (third worldism, anti-imperialism and chaos strategy, abstract anti-militarism, primary sovereignism, imperial restoration, and so on). Solidarity between social movements and socio-political struggles is also suffering from this confusion of genres. One of the most emblematic cases is the Syrian conflict, where we see how these ideological projections are intertwined above a reality that largely departs from simplifications.
In this counter-discourse, which follows in the footsteps of the anti-globalization started in the 1990s, there are intersecting movements that claim to be militant Islamists, sovereignist groups, anti-capitalist or nostalgic for the age of the empires. These currents sometimes crystallize in a “red-brown” convergence, so named after similar reconfigurations of the inter-war period. These movements of opinion are to be taken seriously. They do not derive only from the manipulation of sensibilities, but prolong a crisis of the imaginary which is elaborated within the void of identity sufferings and the weakness of the answers that the emancipatory movements could provide. Indeed, even if these movements exist, they remain for the moment in a draft state, without any overall development or in-depth realization. Few can claim today to oppose an alternative to neoliberal globalization by articulating socio-environmental aspirations and the defense of cultures, living territories and identities, without being those who project the rejection of the other and conceal a return to the archaism behind the rebalancing horizon of the world.
For other currents, the Sino-American bipolarity feeds the horizon of an exit from the dependence of one of the two poles or conversely the temptation to merge in one or the other model. In absolute terms, today’s interconnected world would require sovereign States to be capable of drive and initiative, generate ideas and influence, take advantage of regional frameworks by intelligently interpreting relations and power and promote international rules aimed at predicting and containing crises. “Primary” sovereignty, coinciding with territorial boundaries, no longer exists and it is clear that the current cycle is not characterized by progressive initiatives. Very schematically, China remains as much halfway in this relationship to globality as the United States, the first being absorbed by its internal imbalances and especially advocating free trade as a vector of its imperium, and the second hit by its internal affairs and lightening its geopolitical role to tighten its network imperium (commercial, technological, normative, etc.). In the vacant and interstitial spaces, emerging countries are asserting themselves, taking advantage of their power in formation and developing areas of regional influence, adopting more pragmatic and realistic postures. They can be criticized in the light of their arrogance or drifting apart from multilateralism and rights. Nevertheless, they have the merit of putting the balance of power at the center of an international system that has never ceased to be constraining and predatory for candidates of more active participation in international diplomacy.
Another perceptual reversal refers to a significant change in the spirit of the time in the international system. It is related to the rejection of the duty to interfere and the responsibility to protect, in other words, that which refers directly or indirectly to solidarity, the transcendence of traditional sovereignty and the projection of brute force into the world space. Until 2011, it was still conceivable for some States –not only Western as shown by the current interference of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Russia– to violate a UN mandate, act in the shadows or even openly disrupt the sovereignty of a weaker country. With the military balance of the Crusades in Iraq and Libya (Yemen opens a new chapter), the action of interference in weakened nations tends from the outset to become both ineffective and suspicious, at least against refractory opinions and new forms of conflictivity (proliferation of armed groups and proxies in particular). At the same time, the overtaking of national sovereignty is hampered by reluctance in regional integration processes, as if national priorities and areas of influence had become paramount. All of this highlights the need to devise new diplomatic arrangements capable of tempering brute power, co-operating and articulating political and social dimensions. But for the moment, these experiments are minimal and contrast with a global chessboard that is destabilizing, giving the possibility to some regional powers to take advantage of imbalances.
Adapt our reading grids
Faced with these developments and what Cornelius Castoriadis called the “rise of insignificance” noting the rise of confusion in mass societies, it is becoming a priority to adapt our reading grids, favor dynamic thinking and renew the perception of the strategic cultures that shape these transformations. In the absence of a new emancipatory momentum, observers and the media are at the forefront of this renewal and are even part of these upheavals. On the one hand, the media and the “tyranny of opinion” have changed the geometry of international relations, including in the autocracies that must take them into account. Other information flows are now competing with post-unipolar rebalancing. On the other hand, they confer a semantic and temporal grammar that stumbles on new realities. For this reason, the entrepreneurs of disinformation are the first to use the mistrust in the traditional media to fill the gaps and develop their own interpretations.
It should be noted that some initiatives1 are emerging to embrace this shift towards more complexity, realism and pragmatism. We see the emergence of investigation networks and a journalism more apt to be rooted in local realities and articulate globally by internalizing a critical work on the geo-cultural and ideological filters. Modest, these initiatives are no less strong because they convey some sensitivity on this new division of the world and the immense challenges it implies. More than a single shift in perspective, it is probably about forging a new ethical relationship to the world, able to combine solidarity, ideals and pragmatism more creatively.