May / June 2023
The structural framework for international relationships in the modern era was set largely by the advanced industrial democracies (‘the West’) in the period following the end of the Second World War. All other states either followed or reacted against this lead, with those contesting it not getting very far. For a while the UN and Bretton Woods family of institutions, for all their faults, performed remarkably well in serving global peace and development.
The West then overstepped in certain significant ways:
- It chose not to share its strategic leadership,
irrespective of changes in the makeup of global power stakeholders. Nor has the West really assessed how its leadership might have been compromised by the growth of freedoms and more independent nation-states.
- Wielding a big stick, the West used force and sanction to guard or promote its interests, not always from purely security-related motives.
- In terms of carrots, the West showed limited willingness to fund development, conflict resolution, post-conflict recovery, climate change measures and other requirements of emerging states as generously as budgets might have allowed.
- The West has maintained an insistence on defence superiority, with limited commitment from the nuclear weapons states to fulfil the specific requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to reduce NW holdings gradually towards zero).
- The lack of magnanimity in the treatment of the losers from the Cold War period, especially Russia, has blighted perceptions of the West – particularly in the Global South, and as the colonial age ended and freedom of choice expanded.
- Despite accurately assessing the geopolitical importance of soft power, the actions of the West have consistently undermined its moral authority and legitimacy –
even while upholding their advantages in political weight, economic dynamism, new technological development, capital availability, disease control and general infrastructure.
- And critically, the West has failed to cohere strongly in its shared interests, pursuing often competitive objectives in North America, Japan and Europe respectively.
These errors of judgment and delivery are relative, gradual and cumulative. They need to be measured against the good the West has done in lowering poverty, defending human rights and expanding freedoms in the rest of the world – while non-democracies contributed very little in these fields.
But the net result is that the authority of the multilateral structural framework has now decayed. The international institutions still operate part-effectively; the mutuality in interests and values between Europe and the US retains some relevance; the driving impact of the US economy and the dollar’s global role is still felt. But too many countries and cultures outside the West no longer acknowledge the superiority of democracy as a political system, nor recognise unfettered Western leadership in setting standards and proposing collective approaches.
What remains is a much more open field of choice for sovereign countries to follow. China, with its economic vigour and confident outreach, has established an alternative pole of attraction. Its development offerings have appeared more generous and accessible, especially for infrastructure-building in the developing world. The Middle East, an age-old arena for competitive geopolitics and resource exploitation, has sensed a less active and coordinated US/Western presence, a vacuum that has attracted other players in, notably Russia and China.
This trend has prompted capitals everywhere to reassess their own spread of interests more subjectively. A whole range of middle-income states now pursue relationships in trade, investment, supply chains, security support, defence equipment and development funding, that suit their precise requirements and preferred style. They do not want to be seen as part of a bloc. Even if they retain some need for a relationship with the West, this still comes as part of a hedging strategy. It amounts not to non-alignment, so much as multi-alignment. But it is tilting the playing-field away from the previous norm of Western advantage, whilst simultaneously creating complex webs of overlapping and competing interests.
Fair enough, if this brings the world closer to the UN Charter’s concept of equality between nations, in opportunity and sovereign independence. But those used to the coordinating multilateral structure of earlier decades need to come to terms with this ongoing deinstitutionalisation of international order. It has shown its effect in the spread of responses to the war in Ukraine, many of which discount the West’s depiction of an unjustified invasion.
The areas of overstepping the mark, listed above, are relevant here: there is an edginess to India’s choice of oil and weapons supply from Russia, to Africa’s welcome to Chinese projects for infrastructure, to South Africa’s alleged supply of weaponry to Russia, to the several applications for membership of the BRICS, and even to Saudi Arabia’s decision to mend fences with Iran under Chinese brokerage. They are all escapes from Western lecturing and patronisation, as well as rational decisions for economic benefits.
We are going to have to get used to the fluidity, not to say the unpredictability, of decision-making in the international arena. Individual nations will defend their distinct characteristics, even as capitals attempt to exploit different points of leverage and sensitivity. Governments will need to deploy their diplomacy in much more calibrated ways; and businesses to promote their products to the more precise requirements of a market. The resolving of disputes will take on different shapes; and the value of planning and adaptability will rise.
Talk of deglobalisation has been rife, even if the impact has felt more political than commercial. But global deinstitutionalisation is real, and the governance implications are already being felt. There are, for the foreseeable future, no more norms, and fewer guiding paths. Survival of the fittest has taken on a new meaning on the international stage.
In many territories good geopolitical advice has been impossible to find; Gatehouse always provides a cast of minds on how to consider a problem and uncover solutions.