An equitable world order is gaining momentum as tensions flare between the dominant and emerging world powers
Multipolarity is a code word for more equitable power sharing in the world. Although global power, especially economic, has been dispersing in recent years, mainly towards the East, it is still not adequately reflected in decision-making on global issues.
The West, led by the US, still dominates international political and financial institutions. It seeks to impose its values and norms on others and uses human rights and democracy as tools to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. It has not given up attempts to bring about regime change in other countries to further its geopolitical agenda. It is currently strengthening or building military alliances and partnerships to maintain its global leadership. It tries to shape narratives at the international level in its favor through the global information networks it controls. The power that the US exerts on all transactions in US dollars, along with the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, arms Washington with a unique weapon for financial domination including its use of sanctions as an instrument to bend countries to its strategic goals.
All of these deficiencies in global governance are epitomized in the unfolding of the conflict in Ukraine. Russia has been subject to a series of sanctions by the West without UN approval. Third countries are pressured to adhere to them under pain of secondary sanctions by the US. Losing access to the US financial markets is a risk that countries want to avoid. With multiple Russian banks arbitrarily excluded from the SWIFT payments system, bank transfer arrangements with Russia have been disrupted, affecting trade exchanges. Russian foreign exchange reserve holdings abroad have been illegally confiscated. Not only has the West broken oil and gas ties with Russia, other countries have been pressed to do so. A price cap on Russian oil has been imposed in a bid to limit Russian earnings from oil sales. The declared goal of these measures is to cause Russia’s economic collapse. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been blown up to end Germany’s reliance on Russian gas. The property of private Russian individuals has been confiscated without due process of law, which casts doubt on the sanctity of private property in Western countries. Russian media has been banned in violation of Europe’s commitment to freedom of speech as a fundamental value, and Western media has long been propagating narratives demonizing Russia and its President.
The essence of multipolarity is multilateralism. However, the structures of multilateralism have not functioned well in the field of international security in particular and have been weakened further with the absence of reforms in the international political and economic institutions. The UN Security Council, the World Bank and the IMF still reflect the world of 1945 in many ways and require a thorough overhaul and modern restructuring. The UN Security Council needs to be expanded to give more representation to rising developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. This is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future with the deepening divisions between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other blocking even further an already difficult consensus from emerging. The expansion of the Security Council, in effect, constitutes a transfer of power at the international level, and this will continue to be resisted by the permanent powers for various reasons.
Multilateralism means a willingness to accept the redistribution of global power that has already occurred on the ground, instead of looking for ways to limit its import by strengthening existing alliances and forging new ones, as is being seen today. The transatlantic alliance has been fortified, NATO expansion is taking place, Germany are Japan are rearming, US alliances in Asia are being reinforced, a new AUKUS alliance has been created and the Quad is being deepened as a platform. At the heart of this are the perceived threats from Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, and from China emerging as a rival power economically, politically and militarily as well. Essentially, reinvigorating alliances is meant to constrain the emergence of multipolarity by limiting the growth of independent poles of power and their impact. The attempt is to recognise the shifts in power at the global level but consolidate this shift under the US umbrella as much as possible. The ambition of Europe to nurture an independent role, pushed at one time by France, has effectively been quashed for the time being.
Russia, sensing its loss of power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and seeking to build a non-Western front against US unilateralism began a push for a multipolar world. It was prompted by US’s promotion of color revolutions, regime changes, and even the break-up of countries to serve geopolitical ends, ostensibly in the name of democracy and human rights. The Russia-India-China (RIC) dialogue platform, a concept initiated by former Russian foreign minister Evgeny Primakov back in 1998, was the first step in this direction. The RIC evolved into BRIC with the addition of Brazil and BRICS with the entry of South Africa. This gave a multi-continental base to the concept of multipolarity. BRICS has since been raised to summit level. Its agenda of institutional contacts and promotion of economic and financial cooperation has produced tangible results. Today, many countries seek BRICS membership such as Algeria, Argentina and Iran who have applied, while Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are potential members. Greater connectivity, transport, energy supplies, trade, alternative supply chains, and de-dollarization could all be promoted concretely under the aegis of BRICS.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led by Russia and China is another forum to promote multipolarity. India is a member and will be hosting the SCO summit this year. Iran has been accepted as a new member, and according to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, a total of about 20 countries wish to join BRICS and the SCO. Western powers are notably absent from both BRICS and the SCO, allowing the organizations to identify spheres of cooperation and create structures together that provide more autonomy from the Western-dominated system in pursuing shared interests.
The failure of the West to isolate Russia is evidence of growing multipolarity. Russia is weathering coercive sanctions. Its oil is flowing internationally despite Western embargoes. The strengthening of Russia-China strategic ties, India’s readiness to expand its ties with Russia despite Western pressures, and New Delhi’s refusal to condemn Russia on the Ukraine issue are other examples. African countries reaching out to Russia, China brokering peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, despite being a NATO member, refusing to sanction Russia and, indeed, expanding ties with it, flow also from the emergence of multipolarity in the international system. The increasing use of national currencies for trade rather than the US dollar promises to be a major step in that direction as well.
There is no doubt that the current play of tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine, especially its effects on the interests of the Global South, will give a boost to multipolarity. It is important, however, that multipolarity should function in a multilaterally cooperative, equitable and peaceful framework and not one of competitive power plays based on alliance systems and military tensions.