A World System in Disarray

What does this all mean for the future stability of the world and all of us whom live in it?

Ayushman Kaul
Srinagar, Publish Date: Jan 12 2019 10:56PM | Updated Date: Jan 13 2019 3:27AM
A World System in DisarrayRepresentational pic

The world system is in flux. The pace of a retreating United States is matched only by the advance of an economically assertive China, and militarily resurgent Russia. These developments in turn have signaled a re-distribution of economic, military and diplomatic resources among the world’s most powerful states.

What does this all mean for the future stability of the world and all of us whom live in it? It means that irrespective of one’s ideological or philosophical preference, we must accept, the old gods are dying. An economically resurgent China, militarily assertive Russia, a beleaguered, albeit still powerful European Union alongside the growing clout of India and Brazil all represent emerging threats to US power.

As the severity of the new challenges to US primacy in global order increases, so too does the need for us to rethink the dominant paradigms and precepts that have influenced the decision making of national policymakers since the end of the Cold War. From the ashes of Pax Americana, we are witnessing the rise of a new order, albeit one that is inherently less stable than its predecessor.

Within the context of this new volatile and unpredictable world environment there are more questions than answers. Will the US retain its position of supremacy in the face of greater and stronger challenges to its power? If not, then who shall assume the mantle of US hegemony? Moreover, in the wake of the US retreat from the world’s prominent international institutions, who shall set the global agenda? In other words, who shall replace Washington in reaping the rewards as well as shouldering the burden of being the world’s policeman and rule maker.

In this fragmented and bitterly contested multipolar world order, new states, non-state actors and transnational groups are staking their claim, seeking to break free from decades of US hegemony and in doing so, set the agenda for the foreseeable future. As Ward in a Foreign Affairs article entitled ‘A World in Transition’ argues, the answers to these questions are being deliberated in the shadows. This invisible conflict for global supremacy is being waged away from the electorate’s attention in the ‘South China Sea, amidst the ruins and rubble in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan’.

The aim of this peace is to offer you an overview of the central features of this brave new world. Namely, the return of a fiercely contested multi-polar state system defined predominantly by the decline of US power and rise of China.

The End of Pax Americana?

Before, we can discuss what has changed, let us begin by reminding ourselves of what has been lost. The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent collapse of Communism as a viable socio-economic alternative to western liberal capitalism signalled a watershed moment in International Affairs. The collapse of one, out of the world’s two primary powers brought an end to systemic bi-polarity, and ushered in the United States “unipolar moment”.

As the world’s sole super-power, Washington proceeded to construct a world order premised upon the promotion of like-minded liberal-capitalist democracies as a means of achieving a degree of diplomatic predictability instilled through repeated and reciprocal collective bargaining in multi-lateral international institutions such as the United Nations.

Backed up by the US’s prevailing material strength, this liberal internationalist order has since sought to imbue the inter-relations of states upon a shared set of basic political values and norms that asserted the inalienable right to individual liberty. In this manner, Pax Americana set the agenda for the post-cold war world, one that promoted America’s self-interest interwoven into their preference for dealing with countries whom subscribed to democratic politics and opened up their markets to American businesses in order to achieve economic dynamism.

Within the context of this unipolar environment and absence of viable alternatives to the Western Liberal Internationalist model, the debates taking place amongst respective foreign policymakers in other rising powers such as China, Brazil, India and EU was not whether, but to which degree, their countries interests could be aligned with that of the US.

Yet without a distinct external challenge following the collapse of the Communism, the internal debate amongst Washington’s policy-making circles has been consumed by growing differences of opinion between the left and right over the appropriate balance between what Adam Ward in a recent Foreign Policy article described as ‘prioritising domestic needs and fulfilling international commitments – and about the nature of the relationship between these two imperatives’. 

US Withdrawal and the Populist Revolt

This disagreement amongst policy-making circles has reached its crescendo under the mounting economic and political cost exacted by the continued US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, and by the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. The fall-out of the Arab Spring revolutions that shook the Middle East starting in late 2010 and the subsequent collapse of Syria and emergence of the Islamic State have only served to add further fuel to what was already a raging inferno.

As the strain of America’s extended involvement in the world’s conflicts grew in stature and complexity, the 2008 financial crisis represented an existential crisis. In response, the Obama Whitehouse chose to employ a policy of strategic re-entrenchment. Rather than abdicate responsibility entirely as the Trump administration has recently threatened to do, the US under Obama sought to incorporate a more realistic reappraisal of what it could achieve in these environments. Accordingly, instead of an expanded troop presence, this approach was more selective and discretionary in its approach to overseas conflicts.

As a result, Washington under Obama sought to exert influence from afar with a lighter foot-fall of overseas troops, and greater emphasis on diplomacy.  The US endeavoured to achieve its strategic objectives primarily by working with its international partners and sometimes even with its rivals as with Russia in Syria. Additionally, by providing the requisite funding, arms and air-power, Washington has used local governments and non-state armed groups to do most of the heavy lifting in its respective regional battlegrounds. Despite this partial drawback of US overseas presence, the sheer number of Washington’s international commitments, and the importance of these in upholding the US-led global security architecture has necessitated that the American exchequer continue to pay a high cost.

The latest paper released by Crawford under the Costs of War programme at Brown University shows that by the end of 2018 the US treasury will have spent more than $5.6 trillion to finance its post 9/11 wars. This eye watering number boils down to an individual burden of $23,386 exacted from the average American tax payer. Racked by debts and free from the rose-tinted perception of the US-unipolar moment prevalent amongst the Washington’s policy-making circles, a growing percentage the American public and indeed citizens belonging to a range of countries across the Western world no longer desire to see themselves as the enlightened few working to safeguard global stability and uplift the impoverished masses.

For these voters, the neo-isolationism inherent in radical left and right wing popular movements that have won elections in a number of advanced democracies such as Italy, US and France represent a natural reaction to what they perceive as decades of liberal internationalist’s and neo-conservative’s expansionary foreign policy objectives. It is this revolt against ‘more of the same’ that has found home in President Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ rhetoric, with many commentators across the globe (including this author) scratching their heads wondering when this had ever not been the case.

This popular disenchantment with the Status Quo has been capitalised upon by enterprising leaders, whom have presented themselves as outsider alternatives to the permanent political class. Indeed, we are witnessing this style of politics metastasise and spread beyond American borders, infecting popular discourse and influencing elections around the world, with the leadership of Orban, Vucic and Salvini in the west, and  Modi, Xi, Rajapaksa and Bolsonaro in the east and south representing the most potent symptoms of this infectious brand of nationalistic populism.


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