“Multipolarity” and the chronic decline of the West

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By JOSÉ LUÍS FIORI*

The defense of multipolarity will increasingly be the flag of the countries and peoples who are rising up against the imperium global military exercised by the West

The acute crisis and chronic decline of the West

In October 2023, upon returning from a quick trip to Israel to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden stated, in a speech made in the Oval Office of the White House, that “the world is experiencing a historic turn, because the post-World War II world order has lost steam, and it is necessary to build a new order”.[I]

Almost at the same moment, at the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the “New Silk Road”, held in Beijing on October 17 and 18, 2023, presidents Xi Jinping, of China, and Vladimir Putin, of Russia, jointly defended the need for “a new world order that respects the diversity of civilizations”.[ii] A little earlier, on the eve of the 18th G20 Summit, held in New Delhi in September 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi published an article in several newspapers around the world proposing “a new post-pandemic world order”.

Finally, even more categorically, Joseph Borrell, head of European Union foreign policy, declared in February 2024, “that the era of Western global dominance has come to an end.”[iii] A manifestation and categorical recognition of the leaders of the five main powers in the world. However, behind this apparent consensus hide great conceptual and political divergences.

To begin with, they are not necessarily talking about the same thing, nor the same historical period, because there were at least two great “orders” or “world orders” that followed each other, starting from the end of the Second World War. The first was in force between 1945 and 1991 and was supported by the two powers that emerged victorious from the Second World War: the USA and the USSR.

It was, however, de facto designed and led by the USA, thanks to its atomic supremacy achieved in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thanks to its economic supremacy enshrined in the Accords of Bretton Woods, which made the US dollar the reference currency of the world capitalist economy. Almost all multilateral institutions that emerged after the creation of the United Nations in October 1945 are part of this first “world order”, alongside the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, to name the most important ones.

The crisis of this “world order”, however, began in the 70s, when the USA abandoned the Bretton Woods and they unilaterally disengaged from the parity between the dollar and gold that had been defined by themselves in 1944. The abandonment of the “dollar standard” came together with the first major economic crisis in the post-World War II capitalist world. World, which spanned the 1970s and 1980s and was marked by successive “oil price shocks” and increases in North American interest rates.

There was also the defeat of the USA in the Vietnam War, in 1973, and that was why at that time many international analysts spoke, for the first time, of a “terminal crisis of North American hegemony”. But soon afterwards, in response to this crisis, the USA launched a military offensive against the USSR, which was accompanied by the great “conservative revolution” of the 1980s, which broke away from the “Keynesian” and “developmentalist” commitments of the post-Second World War and opened the doors to the advancement of a new global economic project led by the Anglo-Saxon powers: neoliberalism, which advanced like a typhoon, helping to tear down the Berlin Wall and ending the strategic bipolarity of the Cold War.

In the following decade, the US took advantage of its new position of power and dealt a final and definitive blow to the “multilateral order” that it had created when it attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, without prior authorization from the US Security Council. United Nations. The same thing they would do again in 2003, when they invaded Iraq without the approval of the Security Council and, this time, with the opposition of the absolute majority of the UN General Assembly. This is how the first “hegemonic world order” of the post-Second World War ended, definitively and melancholy; and it was at that moment, and not later, that the UN Security Council lost all effectiveness and legitimacy, due to the work of its own creators.

A new “world order” was then born, now supported by the unipolar power of the USA, achieved through its victories in the Cold War (1989/91) and the Gulf War (1991/92). In this new unipolar order, the USA reserved from the beginning the unilateral right to wage “humanitarian wars”, and to declare and attack “terrorism” anywhere in the world, according to its exclusive discretion, and without any concern for the Nations. Unidas and its Security Council, which were literally scrapped in 1999.

This new unipolar global power of the USA further enhanced the neoliberal economic project of opening and deregulating markets and globalizing world finance, which began to be managed, ultimately, by the US Central Bank and its SWIFT system of financial intermediation and payments. international.

This second “world order” – unipolar and neoliberal – of the post-Cold War began to lose steam after the great financial crisis of 2008, which shook the American economy and hit the European economy hard. It was there that the so-called process of “deglobalization” of the world economy began, which would accelerate with the Covid-19 pandemic, with the US economic war against China and, above all, with the beginning of the Ukrainian War, in 2022.

Furthermore, after the failure of the Western bet on a real war of economic sanctions against Russia, which did not achieve its objective and, on top of that, produced a boomerang effect on the European economy, which entered a deep and prolonged process of economic stagnation.

Long before all this, however, the “endless wars” of the USA, which began at the end of the 700th century, gradually revealed a “hidden dimension” of this new world order, hidden behind the rhetoric of globalization: the construction of a global military infrastructure, with more than XNUMX military bases distributed around the world, and controlled directly by the USA, even in the case of regional organizations such as NATO.

In other words, little by little it became clearer that the condition sine qua non of the project of economic globalization, without limits or borders, was the installation of a new kind of “global military empire”, a secret that was kept under lock and key by the missionary rhetoric of neoliberalism defended by the USA, England and their G7 partners. And it is precisely this global military project of the US and NATO that is being challenged by the military rise of China, the resistance of Iran and the limit imposed on it by Russia, first in Georgia, in 2008, and then in Ukraine in 2022. And it is this “cosmopolitan imperial” world order that is “losing breath” and has already entered an accelerated process of disintegration.

Likewise, when Joseph Borrell declares that “the era of Western domination is over”, he is referring to another crisis, much more complex, profound and prolonged: the crisis of Western power and hegemony in the international system that Europeans conquered and dominated. , almost absolutely, in the last 300 years.

To get an approximate idea of ​​the size and impact of this crisis, just remember that at the beginning of the 35,5th century, right after the First World War, the British Empire had an extension of XNUMX million km2 and occupied 23,84% of the earth's surface. Together with the colonial empires of France, Belgium, Portugal and the Netherlands, Western Europe came to dominate around 40% of the world's territory and population.

Today, however, England is threatened with losing its dominance over Scotland and Ireland, where the British Empire actually began. France is being expelled from Africa and is no longer more than a simulacrum of the imperial power it once was, and the same must be said of the other European states that survive hidden behind NATO's atomic protection. In the last two decades, the United States itself has suffered successive military defeats and political failures in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, not to mention its own internal “civil-electoral war”. At the same time, they watch paralyzed as their moral credibility is progressively eroded, thanks to the military and financial support they gave to the massacre of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

As a consequence of these successive setbacks, the “old West”, which was considered synonymous with the “international community” until very recently, has been losing strength and legitimacy, and today it no longer has the capacity to impose its criteria, its discretion and power over the world. rest of the world. Even so, there is not the slightest sign that this “reduced West” is willing to give up the power it has accumulated in recent centuries. Furthermore, history teaches that great powers and empires do not usually give up their power without resisting, without fighting.

“Multipolarity” – a violent and indefinite dispute

It is very common to hear politicians and international analysts state that the international system is transitioning from a “unipolar and globalized world order” to a new “multipolar and deglobalized world order”.

But this apparently simple equation hides an enormous complexity, because the word “transition” suggests linearity, direction and knowledge of the place from which you are leaving and the place to which you are going, and today it is not even clear where you are. the transformation of the world system, much less what would become a new multipolar world order.

Regarding the starting point of this “transition”, what can be said is that we are witnessing a process of implosion, fragmentation and decomposition of an established order, and this process is taking place in a disorderly and conflictive way. The world is not at the end of a war with clear winners; on the contrary, it is in the middle of two wars, with no prospect of ending, involving multiple actors, in full combat, and with no willingness to negotiate peace.

In very broad terms, it can be said that, on the one hand, there are several “rising” regional powers, and on the other, the bloc of “Western powers” ​​that resist giving way to these new regional or global powers, and They are not willing to give up the global supremacy they have conquered and exercised over the last 300 years, at least. This confrontation is taking place in an increasingly direct and violent way, without rules or major concerns with international ethics, and without respect for the “rules” of the “market economy”, through war, or through the political manipulation of currency, finance and economic competition.

We are not living in a moment of victory and submission, nor of negotiation and agreement between countries that compete with each other and that are willing to negotiate a new hierarchical ordering of world power. On the contrary, the world is in full conflagration and no country or group of countries today has the capacity to impose its will on the rest of the world, and there is not the slightest consensus on possible negotiation paths, no matter how much the leaders of the great world powers talk about the need for a new world order.

What actually exists is war, militarization, economic decomposition and social crisis, and a general loss of ethical references built by the West in recent centuries. Especially after the United States and its European allies became prisoners of the trap they themselves set in Palestine, being forced to arm and support the State of Israel, even though they are aware of the genocide that is being practiced against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. A trap that has been corroding the idea of ​​the “moral exceptionality” of the West, and eroding the ethical foundations of its cultural hegemony within the international system.

However, regarding the “arrival point” of this “transition”, there is not the slightest consensus or the slightest idea of ​​what exactly a new “multipolar world order” is or could be. The only thing we know from a purely formal point of view is that a multipolar order should not be the same as a “bipolar” order like the one that prevailed during the Cold War, between 1945 and 1991; nor should it be the same as the “unipolar” order, which came into force after the end of the Soviet Union and the North American victory in the Gulf War in 1991/92.

But it is not possible to go much further than this formal speculation without knowing the outcome of the ongoing wars, and without being able to define who will be the members of the “club of great powers” ​​of this new multipolar order. No one doubts that this club will include at least the USA, China, Russia, India and, perhaps, a modified European Union, militarized and recentralized from Germany. Still, it is not known whether there will be a hierarchy and what it will be between these countries? If there will be some internal hegemony, or if everyone would accept a horizontal configuration between powers considered equivalent and equipotent?

It is quite possible that this new world order would be “more democratic” than the unipolar order that is being destroyed, but there is no guarantee that it will not quickly transform into an “oligopolitical order”, monopolized by a group of at most six or seven large powers. Likewise, it is not impossible to imagine that there could also be a pact or entente between the United States and China, the two largest powers in the group, as long as they were able to manage their differences and competition to the death, in the technological field.

In this case, the world could be approaching Karl Kautsky's classic hypothesis about the possibility of “super-imperialism”, as happened with the gods pacified by Jupiter after being reincluded in Olympus. In any case, even on a purely hypothetical level, it is very unlikely that this could happen, considering the degree and intensity of the current competition between the two superpowers.

All of this is speculation, obviously, because it is impossible to predict what will happen. But one thing is absolutely certain: it is impossible for the world to move peacefully and harmoniously towards this multipolarity. On the contrary, what lies ahead is a borderless and limitless dispute of any kind between rising powers and a group of other powers that have dominated the world over the last three centuries and that do not want to give up their global power.

In this context, there is not the slightest possibility that something of the type that some theories call a “hegemonic transition” will occur, with regular and periodic replacement of a leading power by another that would assume economic and military command of the world, in place of its predecessor. China has no intention and should not assume a place equal to that occupied today by the United States within the global system. Russia and India do not have this intention, nor do they have the resources to perform the function of the world's “military police”. But certainly, none of these countries, and several others, such as Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa, are not willing to continue accepting the discretion of the former Western powers.

Having taken stock, what is certain is that there is not the slightest space or willingness for negotiation between the great powers, quite the opposite. On the other hand, there is not the slightest space for a “world war” that does not turn out to be atomic, and therefore it is most likely that it will continue to be transferred or postponed. The world is changing at a very fast pace, and the post-Cold War world order has come to an end. But the “West” must resist, and has the power to do so; and in any case, it will remain within the world system as one of its most powerful poles from an economic, technological and military point of view.

At this time, looking to the future, what we can see, beyond the immediate conflicts, is a world going through a very long period of turbulence, instability and unpredictability, with a succession of local conflicts and wars. And if this is what is being called a “transition to multipolarity”, then it is better to “tighten your seat belts”, because the trepidation will be intense, and should last for many years or decades.

In any case, during this time of trepidation, which could last until the second half of the 21st century, the defense of multipolarity will increasingly be the flag of the countries and peoples that are rising up at this moment against the imperium global military exercised by the West, during the last 300 years of the history of Humanity, even if they do not know exactly, at this moment, what this multipolar order of the future will be.

* Jose Luis Fiori He is professor emeritus at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Global power and the new geopolitics of nations (Boitempo) [https://amzn.to/3RgUPN3]

Originally published in the magazine International Observatory of the XNUMXst Century, no. 5.

Notes


[I] Reuters, UOL News, 23/10/2023.

[ii] Ministry Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 18/10/2023, fmprc.gov.br “The new post-pandemic order”, https://www.estadao.com.br, 07 / 09 / 2023.

[iii] “Era of Western global dominance has come to an end”, 26/02/2024, sputniknewsbr.com.br


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