The landscape of international politics is constantly changing, posing a perpetual challenge to the existing global order as trends in high and low politics evolve. Recent events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the 15th BRICS Summit, held from 22 to 24 August 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa, bear the potential to influence global dynamics profoundly.
Realist scholars, such as Robert Gilpin, stated that the international order is a dynamic reflection of shifting power dynamics among states, marked by periodic conflicts and reorganisations, with the rising power shaping post-war settlements and new order. Recent events in the international system suggest that the world has entered an era where two or more powers are poised to challenge the financial and political supremacy of the United States (US). However, it is anticipated that the military superiority of the US will remain unassailable. The rise of the emerging powers, however, promises to introduce a counterbalance.
The early 20th century witnessed a multipolar world system, which shifted to a bipolar dynamic due to two world wars, the Great Depression, and various regional conflicts. That era was characterised by a balance of power between the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The end of the Cold War and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR led to the emergence of a unipolar world system dominated by the US. However, since the start of the 21st century, global power dynamics have been undergoing significant shifts, setting the stage for a transformation from a unipolar to a new world order. The shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world order is driven by the emergence of new power centres, particularly in the East and South, marking the end of an era dominated by a single global power. Fareed Zakaria discussed gradual power shifts in international politics, emphasising the rarity of major changes and highlighting three significant shifts over five centuries.
The new multipolar world is not only driven by wealth distribution but also by a surge in demand for sovereignty and identity, particularly in the diverse Global South.
Simultaneously, there is a prevailing global perception that major international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and numerous other transnational organisations have struggled to address pressing challenges in the modern world order effectively. As a result, there is a global quest for a new multipolar system founded on a more equitable distribution of power among states.
As the world moves towards a multipolar system, there is a growing consensus on the importance of fostering inclusive and effective international partnerships. This calls for innovative approaches to diplomacy, governance, and economic cooperation that can adapt to the complexities of the 21st century.
In a multipolar world, size does not necessarily determine influence. Middle powers hold considerably more influence today than they did in the past, and there is unbalanced polarity. The concept of multipolarity envisions a world where multiple centres of powers coexist, each possessing the capacity to influence global affairs. The transformation of China into a formidable military, economic, and political powerhouse, coupled with the resurgence of Russia, has fundamentally altered the global geopolitical landscape. Notably, China’s sponsorship of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal underscores its increasing influence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, rising economic powers like India, Turkey, and Brazil have assumed more substantial roles in international affairs, signalling a shift towards multipolarity. The conflict in Ukraine has had far-reaching implications, leading to the erosion of the established world order and intensifying the rivalry between the US and China. At the same time, regional powers gain prominence, further complicating the international stage.
Prominent figures in global politics, including U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and others, assert that the world is transitioning towards a multipolar system. This viewpoint, echoed by leaders like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggests that power dynamics are shifting. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, contends that the world has entered a phase of “complex multipolarity” since the 2008 global financial crisis.
Similarly, China and Russia advocate for a multipolar world, firmly rejecting the US domination and prioritising mutually beneficial global security. Russia aims to transform the Bretton Woods financial system, demonstrating a commitment to reshape the global financial order.
However, Jo Inge Bekkevolds, in his article, stated that multipolarity is a misconception and argues that only the US and China possess economic, military, and global influence to be considered as true poles, with other powers not coming close anytime soon. This perspective aligns with the Biden administration’s effort to establish a “network security architecture” in the Pacific and to foster stronger ties between European and Asian Allies, reminiscent of Cold War strategies. Meanwhile, a paper from the Stimson Center challenging the above perspectives examines the shifting order and offers insights to US policymakers to navigate the evolving global landscape. The study concludes that the US no longer wields the same level of military and economic dominance it had in the early Cold War era, and China today does not rival the peak power of the Soviet Union and makes the case for embracing multipolarity as a core tenet of US foreign policy.
Besides, the Biden administration’s strategy to contain China and rely on allies carries risks. The US lacks economic dominance to isolate China, and coercive measures may weaken US economic power. Adaptable strategies are needed by the US in this global order. This shift towards multipolarity benefits both developing and developed nations.
Likewise, BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) mark a shift in the global power dynamics. The expansion of BRICS to include Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and Iran, known as BRICS Plus, suggests the potential for greater collective bargaining and global integration. China supports this for a more equitable world order focused on peace and development. As emphasised by President Xi, BRICS aims to be a force for peace and development, contributing to a balanced global order.
The new multipolar world is not only driven by wealth distribution but also by a surge in demand for sovereignty and identity, particularly in the diverse Global South. Countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are increasingly considering alternative options beyond the West. These alternatives encompass economic, technological, military and ideological dimensions.
It is important to note that the projected decline of the US-led World Order does not imply a total overhaul of the entire global system. The emerging powers are not expected, either individually or collectively, to entirely dismantle or assume complete responsibility for the functioning of the international system. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that they will play a pivotal role in shaping the dynamics of the future world order. This pluralistic approach to common interests among great powers and their partners can lead to a stronger sense of cooperation, akin to the Concert of Europe in 19th-century international politics. This shift towards multipolarity holds the potential to reshape the dynamics of global politics towards collaborative endeavours rather than conflict-driven agendas. So, the emerging multipolarity should not be feared, and it should be embraced.
In conclusion, the current global landscape is marked by a shift toward multipolarity, with multiple centres of power vying for influence. The rise of emerging powers challenges the established political and financial institutions, and recent events have accelerated this transformation in the international system. However, it is important to note that this transition away from the US-dominated world order does not necessitate a complete overhaul of the global system. Emerging powers are poised to play a significant role in shaping a more inclusive international framework. Navigating this evolving geopolitical terrain demands a measured and strategic approach, as it offers both opportunities and challenges for the international community.