Much has been written about the rise of a multipolar world following the end of the Cold War less than four decades ago. But the G20 summit that ended in New Delhi on Sunday is proof indeed that the old order is truly changing and that parts of the world once sidelined when it came to high-level decision making – particularly nations in the Arab world, Africa and what’s becoming known as the Global South – are now intrinsic to finding solutions to some of humanity’s most challenging problems.
During the G20’s two-day summit, held under the auspices of India’s presidency, the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced the induction of the African Union to the group, as well as inviting four Arab countries, including the UAE, to attend the summit. The announcement of an important multibillion-dollar rail and shipping corridor that will link India, the Middle East and Europe underscored the increasing importance of strategically positioned countries in Asia. In an unexpected development that reflected India’s consensus building, a final joint declaration that included difficult topics such as the war in Ukraine and the phasing out of coal power was agreed upon by all participants.
But this has not been the only example of emerging countries taking their place in a complex geopolitical order. Among the major new alliances and realignments on the global stage was the 15th summit of the Brics group of nations held in South Africa last month that welcomed several new members, again including the UAE. The bloc, which already includes economic heavyweights such as China and India, will benefit from a closer relationship with the Gulf, which is now firmly established as a strategic centre for trade, finance, energy production and technological innovation.
What these developments reveal is that the days of countries in Africa and the Middle East being passively subject to policies and agendas concocted by global superpowers are over. Instead, more and more countries that were previously left outside the room when it came to global decision making are making their voices heard and acting with agency. Given the scale of the global challenges that the world faces, this has the potential to be a game changer.
One-size-fits-all solutions to the interlinked problems surrounding the global economy and the planet’s rapidly changing climate run the risk of leaving developing nations behind. Having an increased number of international forums that represent as many nations as possible could aid the fight to build consensus. Countries like India, which has been championing inclusion for the Global South, have proved adept at managing relationships with other blocs and countries that often have competing agendas, all while prioritising its own economic and political needs.
Having major economies with shared membership of several of these international bodies increases the likelihood of a more joined-up approach. The Middle East and the Gulf will have a decisive role to play, too, particularly given their strategic position.
We can expect to see more of the same in the future. The Cop28 global climate summit to be held in the UAE later this year will be another stage upon which the developing world will be on an equal footing with major industrial powers. The Emirates is a fitting home for such a global gathering and will bring its considerable consensus-building experience to bear. India has passed the presidency of the G20 on to Brazil, another nation championing the Global South, setting up further interesting developments over the next 12 months.
However, it is unrealistic to think that all outstanding differences will be resolved. Divisive issues remain, with the war in Ukraine being particularly polarising. Some commentary that sought to characterise the trade corridor announced at the G20 as a US victory over China’s Belt and Road Initiative reveals the persistence of a reductive approach that still defines the world in terms of competition, not co-operation.
In the past 32 years, since the end of the competition between the Soviet Union and the US, the world has witnessed a radical political and economic transformation, as many countries, particularly those in the Middle East and the Global South, moved away from having to align themselves with one ideological camp or another, instead becoming part of a complex, multipolar system that requires pragmatism, diplomatic skill and a willingness to forge new relationships.
The times when the UN was deemed to be the single, authoritative home of what’s called the “international community” may have changed. This is not to diminish the significance of an organisation that remains a powerful force for good. But the growth and influence of international forums and alliances that include not just the Western powers show that as the world changes, diplomacy and problem-solving are, too.