The world order game has new players

The US and Russia dominated 20 years ago but the situation has changed

US President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington last week. AFP
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There are significant realignments taking place across the globe. Old alliances appear to be experiencing stress or outright fractures, while new ones are being born. Media commentary on these developments, too, can sometimes take a microscopic view, focusing on individual conflicts or shifting alliances without historical context. Seen through this myopic lens, the shifts that are occurring are at times presented in overly dramatic terms.

However, if we take a step back and look through the long lens of history, we see that the past century has, if anything, been characterised by dizzying twists and turns of nations and power blocs that have developed from the end of the First World War to the present day.

In this light, the change we are witnessing is not so much the “Doomsday” end of some sacred “world order” (especially since this particular “world order” has only been in existence for a few decades). Rather, what we are seeing is just another reordering of nations based on evolving priorities and changing realities. A look at the last century is instructive.

The First World War concluded with Western Europe as an ascendant power bloc. At the 1920 San Remo Conference, these nations arrogantly divided up among themselves the “spoils” of that war, consolidating their control over much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The US, which absented itself from these proceedings, was left as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, with extensions of its “empire” into the Pacific.

Despite the hubris of those who at different times have dominated, change is the one constant

While that war had been dubbed “the war to end all wars", three factors contributed to unravelling the post-First World War order leading to the Second World War: the punishing economic hardships imposed on Germany helped to fuel an extreme nationalist backlash leading to an aggressive, racist regime bent on revenge; the communist revolution beginning in Russia, laid the foundation for the ascent of the Soviet Union; and the rapid growth of industrial Japan coupled with a trend of religious nationalism led them to seek greater influence in the Pacific.

The end of the Second World War left the former Western European powers in a weakened state – their economies in shambles, dependent on American support and largesse. With its decisive victories over Nazi Germany and Japan, and its expanding economy, the US emerged from the war with an even stronger role as leader of the West.

At the same time, Soviet Russia moved quickly to consolidate its control over the countries in Eastern Europe that had been ravaged by Nazi Germany. As the colonial empires of the West were crumbling, their demise was hastened by Soviet support for “national liberation movements”, which in a few decades led to the independence of nations across Africa and Asia and the emergence of a Non-Aligned Movement – which, though functionally anti-West, was technically unaffiliated with the two superpowers.

From the 1950s onwards, for at least three decades, the world order was dominated by these two hegemons, the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, who engaged in a Cold War, which was often characterised by “hot” conflicts fought by surrogates for these two powers. During this same time, both the US and the USSR suffered humiliating and exhausting defeats – the US in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan – which weakened but did not completely end their respective roles.

HF47W0 A convoy of US Marine Corps (USMC) High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMVW), assigned to D/Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marines Division, arrives in Northern Iraq, during a sandstorm. USMC personnel are in Iraq in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Several vehicles are equipped with Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) missile launchers. Iraqi Sandstorm. Alamy

When the Soviet Union did collapse at the end of the 1980s, the US emerged, for a time, as the world’s dominant military and economic force. That lasted for a decade until American hubris led to its unravelling. The Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate American power and usher in an expansion of “pro-US liberal democracies” across the Middle East produced the opposite result.

Instead of securing “an American century", those wars left the US exhausted and demoralised. And instead of consolidating America’s hegemonic role in the “new world order”, they bred resentment of American arrogance and violations of international law, fuelling the growth of extremist movements. These wars also emboldened global powers (the "Bric" countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China) and regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Arab Gulf countries) to extend their influence in defence of their own interests.

The US’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and now Russia’s war with Ukraine have revealed new contours in the changing world order. While the US and many of its allies in Western Europe have imposed punitive sanctions on Russia, the country has countered these sanctions by demanding that its significant fuel and grain exports be traded in Russian roubles, bolstering their value. And many nations, including American allies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, have either not agreed to sanction Russia or are supporting its war in Ukraine.

While the US and Russia are exhausting themselves and depleting their political capital in wars they cannot win, another critical development has been taking place. China has slowly become an economic giant, as a result of decades of exporting American industry, jobs and technology to the country. And while America is struggling to impose itself in regions of the world where its influence is waning, China has made major investments in these same countries in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Western Hemisphere. Consequently, China, once called a “sleeping giant", has quietly and non-confrontationally emerged as a new influential pole in the still-forming new world order.

Everywhere we look, new alliances are being formed in recognition of rapidly changing power dynamics. Countries that once relied on the US for security and investment have formed new blocs, as they pursue their own national interests. There are trade pacts in Asia that are centred on China. In the Middle East, some Arab countries have signed far-reaching agreements with Israel, China and India. And many of the Bric countries have refused to adhere to western sanctions against Russia.

The US and its western allies still have enormous economic and political assets; it would be foolish to count them out of the game. But clearly the game that is unfolding is not the same as it was 20 years ago. A new order is emerging and there is no certainty about what it will look like 20 years from now. This should come as no surprise; any review of the past century’s twists and turns make it clear that despite the ethnocentric or ideological hubris of those who at different times have dominated, change is the one constant.

Published: April 25, 2022, 3:08 PM