Just having celebrated the anniversary of 25 years since the end of the Cold War a few months ago, it is time we have a conversation not just about what that time has meant for the world, but also where our world is going. In the first years after the Cold War, the discourse talked about a changing global order, founded on the rule of law and democratic values, which are traditional ideals of Western philosophy. At that time, the West had a large advantage relative to the rest of the world in politics, economic and military strength, as well as a degree of moral leadership, given the recently concluded Cold War. In Fukuyama’s idealistic vision, history was essentially over.
Yet, history may leave temporarily, but it always returns. A recent study concluded that the structure of the global economy is changing, with the majority of global GDP being produced not by the first 7 economies of the world, which include the traditional Western democracies, but rather, the second set of 7 countries, which include BRICS and the emergence of the Global South. Simply put, economic leadership is no longer in the hands of the West, even if we remain one of the global economy’s foundational pillars. The question we ask is clear: how do we handle the peaceful transition of politics with a changing economic landscape in a multipolar world?
In order to put the question in context, we have to understand that when a certain region of the world has overt economic primacy, that also gives it political, economic and ideological leadership. A historical survey confirms that with every period of imperial dominance, be it the Romans, British, Persians, Byzantines, Spanish or the Ottomans, regional and global politics were shaped according to the values and interests of that dominant power. That statement also holds true for the last 70 years, during which international relations and institutions have largely reflected American values and interests because the United States retains the largest relative, multidimensional influence in the world. The reality, however, is changing fast with the democratization of the global economy into a multipolar framework.
The problem is that this kind of transition has happened time and again in world history, and it has never been peaceful. Whether we reference the emergence of the Roman Empire and its fall, the subjugation of the Persians by Alexander, the Spanish conquest of Latin America, or the decline of the British Empire after WWI and the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, the fact remains that systemic changes in the global balance of power have never been peaceful.
The challenge we face today, then, is transitioning from a Western-led global order to a multipolar one, while preserving the stability of our global political, economic and security systems. Historically, the dominant global order attempts to keep its relative advantage at any cost, including war. If we take into account the destabilizing situation in the Middle East, Ukraine’s precarious peace and the potential of rising tensions in the Pacific theatre, we see that today’s political, security and economic problems are a symptom of the fundamental nature of the conflict – about what values, world views and visions should govern a reformed global architecture.
It is imperative that the process be managed peacefully, but the current generation of leaders have little experience in managing such a transition. In the twentieth century, humanity paid a terrible price over the same kind of conflict with WWI and WWII, and the subsequent Cold War exacted further costs with the ever-looming threat of a nuclear holocaust and the enforcement of a 45-year security dilemma.
At the beginning of our century, the security conception foresaw low-intensity, subnational conflicts as the main challenge to policymakers. However, viewing the surprising expansion and resilience of the Islamic State, the collapse of Arab states in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine means that regional conflicts can develop unpredictably into international and interstate conflicts with dramatic consequences. It is in this context that we’re seeing a historical sea change in the reorganization of global politics and economics, and it is this change that must be managed without the devolution into a mass armed conflict.
In sum, we are not only facing a changing world, but a paradigm shift in the very way we choose to conceptualize it. The world has been multipolar for most of its history, but its management has never been very peaceful. Our world today is precarious and the challenge facing us is not unique in its conception, but in its complexity and scale – it remains to be seen whether today’s leaders have the vision and capability to ensure that diplomacy triumphs over war in achieving peace.
Georgi Ivanov is a political scientist specializing in the geopolitical questions of the Arctic region. He obtained his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario and his M.A. in Political Science from Carleton University in Ottawa. Ivanov’s interests include international political economy, currency politics, the Middle and East Asia. He is fluent in English and Bulgarian, and currently works with the Atlantic Council of Canada, the Atlantic Community in Berlin, and does occasional consulting for Wikistrat.
This post is a cross-post with our partner, the Freedom Observatory