International politics is the struggle for the dominant normative architecture of world order based on the interplay of power, economic weight and ideas for imagining, designing and constructing the good international society. For several years now many analysts have commented on the looming demise of the liberal international order established at the end of the Second World War under US leadership.
Over the last several decades, wealth and power have been shifting inexorably from the West to the East and has produced a rebalancing of the world order. As the centre of gravity of world affairs shifted to the Asia-Pacific with China’s dramatic climb up the ladder of great power status, many uncomfortable questions were raised about the capacity and willingness of Western powers to adapt to a Sinocentric order.
For the first time in centuries, it seemed, the global hegemon would not be Western, would not be a free market economy, would not be liberal democratic, and would not be part of the Anglosphere.
More recently, the Asia-Pacific conceptual framework has been reformulated into the Indo-Pacific as the Indian elephant finally joined the dance. Since 2014 and then again especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the question of European security, political and economic architecture has reemerged as a frontline topic of discussion.
The return of the Russia question as a geopolitical priority has also been accompanied by the crumbling of almost all the main pillars of the global arms control complex of treaties, agreements, understandings and practices that had underpinned stability and brought predictability to major power relations in the nuclear age.
The AUKUS security pact linking Australia, the UK, and the US in a new security alliance, with the planned development of AUKUS-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, is both a reflection of changed geopolitical realities and, some argue, itself a threat to the global nonproliferation regime and a stimulus to fresh tensions in relations with China. British Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak said at the announcement of the submarines deal in San Diego on March 13 that the growing security challenges confronting the world—“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilising behaviour of Iran and North Korea”—“threaten to create a world codefined by danger, disorder and division.”
For his part, President Xi Jinping accused the US of leading Western countries to engage in an “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
The Australian government described the AUKUS submarine project as “the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history” that “represents a transformational moment for our nation.” However, it could yet be sunk by six minefields lurking underwater: China’s countermeasures, the time lag between the alleged imminence of the threat and the acquisition of the capability, the costs, the complexities of operating two different classes of submarines, the technological obsolescence of submarines that rely on undersea concealment, and domestic politics in the US and Australia.
Regional and global governance institutions can never be quarantined from the underlying structure of international geopolitical and economic orders. Nor have they proven themselves to be fully fit for the purpose of managing pressing global challenges and crises like wars, and potentially existential threats from nuclear weapons, climate-related disasters and pandemics.
To no one’s surprise, the rising and revisionist powers wish to redesign the international governance institutions to inject their own interests, governing philosophies, and preferences. They also wish to relocate the control mechanisms from the major Western capitals to some of their own capitals. China’s role in the Iran–Saudi rapprochement might be a harbinger of things to come.
The ”Rest” Look for Their Place in the Emerging New Order
The developments out there in “the real world,” testifying to an inflection point in history, pose profound challenges to institutions to rethink their agenda of research and policy advocacy over the coming decades.
On 22–23 May, the Toda Peace Institute convened a brainstorming retreat at its Tokyo office with more than a dozen high-level international participants. One of the key themes was the changing global power structure and normative architecture and the resulting implications for world order, the Indo-Pacific and the three US regional allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The two background factors that dominated the conversation, not surprisingly, were China–US relations and the Ukraine war.
The Ukraine war has shown the sharp limits of Russia as a military power. Both Russia and the US badly underestimated Ukraine’s determination and ability to resist (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelensky famously said when offered safe evacuation by the Americans early in the war), absorb the initial shock, and then reorganise to launch counter-offensives to regain lost territory. Russia is finished as a military threat in Europe. No Russian leader, including President Vladimir Putin, will think again for a very long time indeed of attacking an allied nation in Europe.
That said, the war has also demonstrated the stark reality of the limits to US global influence in organising a coalition of countries willing to censure and sanction Russia. If anything, the US-led West finds itself more disconnected from the concerns and priorities of the rest of the world than at any other time since 1945. A study published in October from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy provides details on the extent to which the West has become isolated from opinion in the rest of the world on perceptions of China and Russia. This was broadly replicated in a February 2023 study from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
The global South in particular has been vocal in saying firstly that Europe’s problems are no longer automatically the world’s problems, and secondly that while they condemn Russia’s aggression, they also sympathise quite heavily with the Russian complaint about NATO provocations in expanding to Russia’s borders. In the ECFR report, Timothy Garton-Ash, Ivan Krastev, and Mark Leonard cautioned Western decision-makers to recognise that “in an increasingly divided post-Western world,” emerging powers “will act on their own terms and resist being caught in a battle between America and China.”
US global leadership is hobbled also by rampant domestic dysfunctionality. A bitterly divided and fractured America lacks the necessary common purpose and principle, and the requisite national pride and strategic direction to execute a robust foreign policy. Much of the world is bemused too that a great power could once again present a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for president.
The war has solidified NATO unity but also highlighted internal European divisions and European dependence on the US military for its security.
The big strategic victor is China. Russia has become more dependent on it and the two have formed an effective axis to resist US hegemony. China’s meteoric rise continues apace. Having climbed past Germany last year, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s top car exporter, 1.07 to 0.95 million vehicles. Its diplomatic footprint has also been seen in the honest brokerage of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in promotion of a peace plan for Ukraine.
Even more tellingly, according to data published by the UK-based economic research firm Acorn Macro Consulting in April, the BRICS grouping of emerging market economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) now accounts for a larger share of the world’s economic output in PPP dollars than the G7 group of industrialised countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA). Their respective shares of global output have fallen and risen between 1982 and 2022 from 50.4 percent and 10.7 percent, to 30.7 percent and 31.5 percent. No wonder another dozen countries are eager to join the BRICS, prompting Alec Russell to proclaim recently in The Financial Times: “This is the hour of the global south.”
The Ukraine war might also mark India’s long overdue arrival on the global stage as a consequential power. For all the criticisms of fence-sitting levelled at India since the start of the war, this has arguably been the most successful exercise of an independent foreign policy on a major global crisis in decades by India. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar even neatly turned the fence-sitting criticism on its head by retorting a year ago that “I am sitting on my ground” and feeling quite comfortable there. His dexterity in explaining India’s policy firmly and unapologetically but without stridency and criticism of other countries has drawn widespread praise, even from Chinese netizens.
On his return after the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the South Pacific and Australia, PM Narendra Modi commented on 25 May: “Today, the world wants to know what India is thinking.” In his 100th birthday interview with The Economist, Henry Kissinger said he is “very enthusiastic” about US close relations with India. He paid tribute to its pragmatism, basing foreign policy on non-permanent alliances built around issues rather than tying up the country in big multilateral alliances. He singled out Jaishankar as the current political leader who “is quite close to my views.”
In a complementary interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kissinger also foresees, without necessarily recommending such a course of action, Japan acquiring its own nuclear weapons in 3-5 years.
In a blog published on 18 May, Michael Klare argues that the emerging order is likely to be a G3 world with the US, China, and India as the three major nodes, based on attributes of population, economic weight and military power (with India heading into being a major military force to be reckoned with, even if not quite there yet). He is more optimistic about India than I am but still, it’s an interesting comment on the way the global winds are blowing. Few pressing world problems can be solved today without the active cooperation of all three.
The changed balance of forces between China and the US also affects the three Pacific allies, namely Australia, Japan, and South Korea. If any of them starts with a presumption of permanent hostility with China, then of course it will fall into the security dilemma trap. That assumption will drive all its policies on every issue in contention, and will provoke and deepen the very hostility it is meant to be opposing.
Rather than seeking world domination by overthrowing the present order, says Rohan Mukherjee in Foreign Affairs, China follows a three-pronged strategy. It works with institutions it considers both fair and open (UN Security Council, WTO, G20) and tries to reform others that are partly fair and open (IMF, World Bank), having derived many benefits from both these groups. But it is challenging a third group which, it believes, are closed and unfair: the human rights regime.
In the process, China has come to the conclusion that being a great power like the US means never having to say you’re sorry for hypocrisy in world affairs: entrenching your privileges in a club like the UN Security Council that can be used to regulate the conduct of all others.
Instead of self-fulfilling hostility, former Australian foreign secretary Peter Varghese recommends a China policy of constrainment-cum-engagement. Washington may have set itself the goal of maintaining global primacy and denying Indo-Pacific primacy to China, but this will only provoke a sullen and resentful Beijing into efforts to snatch regional primacy from the US. The challenge is not to thwart but to manage China’s rise—from which many other countries have gained enormous benefits, with China becoming their biggest trading partner—by imagining and constructing a regional balance in which US leadership is crucial to a strategic counterpoint.
In his words, “The US will inevitably be at the centre of such an arrangement, but that does not mean that US primacy must sit at its fulcrum.” Wise words that should be heeded most of all in Washington but will likely be ignored.