Multipolarity without multilateralism

26.09.2023

HRVP blog – Last week, I attended the UN General Assembly in New York, a key event for the international community. I used this opportunity to discuss the current crisis of multilateralism in a conversation with Professor Joseph Weiler at New York University. I presented my views on a world that is increasingly multipolar and less multilateral, and on how to avoid its fragmentation.

We live indeed in a more and more multipolar world, but multilateralism is in retreat. It is a paradox. Why? Because when the number of participants in a game increases, the natural response should be to strengthen the rules governing the game. However, we are facing the opposite trend: the rules governing the world are running out of steam. We must find ways to overcome this paradox.

The three aspects of multipolarity

This new multipolarity results from the combination of three dynamics. First, a wider distribution of wealth in the world, second, the willingness of States to assert themselves strategically and ideologically and third, the emergence of an increasingly transactional international system, based on bilateral deals rather than global rules.

In 1990, the G7 accounted for 67% of world GDP, today, that share has fallen below 40%. In 1990, China’s share of world GDP was 1.6%, today it stands at 18%. Inside of the G7, the United States' share has decreased but much less than that of Europe and Japan and, in the Western world, the United States continues to predominate clearly.

Beyond the G7, multipolarity is first and foremost the result of China’s impressive rise. Hence the reconfiguration of global relations around the United States and China. Together they account for more than 40% of global wealth and, as a result, exercise significant power over the international system. In coming decades, we could have also India catching up on China and the United States.

Multipolarity as a plurality of views, voices and truths

But multipolarity is not just the result of distribution of wealth. The new multipolar world is characterised also by a growing demand for sovereignty and identity. Especially in the so-called Global South, although it is a very heterogeneous group of countries.

“The new multipolar world is characterised by a growing demand for sovereignty and identity, especially in the so-called Global South”.

In Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East and North Africa and, of course, in Asia almost everyone think now that there are credible alternatives to the West, not only economically, but also technologically, militarily and ideologically.

This does not necessarily mean that with the rise of China, a new global model is emerging. Nor does it mean that China will try to convince third countries to adopt its model in all its dimensions.

Rather, countries are seeking alternatives to the Western model on a case-by-case basis, as it is currently happening in different countries in Africa. These countries seem to be willing to work with whichever player that looks opportunistically able to replace the old ones. These new players offer the advantage of not asking who is in prison or where the money is really going. This suits many regimes.

This reality is reflected in the reactions to the war of aggression against Ukraine. Most Global South’s countries share the idea that Russia is the aggressor and voted to denounce its aggression in the UN. But many of them are not ready to go beyond that point.

They do not want that Ukraine dominate the world agenda. For example, they are afraid that funding for the green transition in the Global South could suffer due to the need to finance the reconstruction in Ukraine. For many countries far away from the EU, the Ukraine war looks like a simple border dispute between a large country and its smaller neighbour. Not such a major issue after all...

“China and Russia are challenging the universal nature of human rights and many countries in the so-called Global South are receptive to this approach.”

Beyond that, there is the question of values. We Europeans still react based on a worldview enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, China and Russia are challenging the universal nature of these rights and many countries in the so-called Global South are receptive to this approach. Universalism is seen as a simple vestige of Western domination, forgetting that they are all signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One argument often put forward is that the West itself does not always follow the rules it purports to defend. Clearly, this criticism is not entirely unfounded.

As an alternative, they put forward a form of political culturalism, whereby every society would be entitled to have its own values. With this approach, a country’s sovereignty should take precedence over upholding of human rights and civil liberties. China in particular is playing this card for all it is worth.

A transactional world rather than a multilateral one

This new multipolarity triggers a lack of international consensus on almost every issue. At a time where the need for global regulation increases, it fuels dissent. If we give up on a global collective capacity to set rules, everyone will do whatever they can or as they please.

We witness in particular a deadlock on security issues. For nearly 10 years now, the Security Council has been rendered ineffective by Russia’s inappropriate use of its veto right, systematically opposing many decisions on Ukraine – naturally – but also on other crisis like Syria or Mali. We have a deadlock in the Security Council but also on a reform of the Security Council. No permanent members is willing to give up their veto right.

“We have at the same time more and more influential players and more and more global challenges, but it is increasingly difficult to reach a consensus to face them.”

So, we have at the same time more and more influential players and more and more global challenges, but it is increasingly difficult to reach a consensus to face them. There is no longer a coalition of dominant powers capable of imposing a global order. On the contrary, competing powers tend to neutralise each other. This situation is likely to persist until the balance of power between the dominant players has stabilised.

The risk of the split into competing blocs

It could lead to the split of the world order into competing blocs in areas of security, economic integration and technology. The lack of consensus will then fracture the world and force third countries to align on one of the competing systems. It could be the case for example for the Internet where countries like Russia and China could impose their own specific standards and split the cyberworld. Such a fragmentation will of course create huge economic costs, and reduce incentives for cooperation on global issues like climate.

In this context, what could we and should we do? First, we must not delude ourselves: it is difficult to imagine a comprehensive overhaul of the world order while there is no consensus on this issue between the major powers, in particular between the United States and China. Traditional ‘top-down multilateralism’ involving major conferences during which all countries take decisions together on issues is less and less working.

Minilateralism and concerted unilateralism

However, if we cannot find a single global alternative to the crisis of multilateralism, could we find partial ones? A more promising approach would probably be to pursue what is increasingly called “minilateralism”: agreements on different issues between like-minded states. However, to avoid the bloc-to-bloc confrontation I mentioned before, we must therefore imperatively adopt an approach that goes beyond the North or the West and attracts the support of key countries in the South. We need to expand the circle of like-minded countries to embrace others gradually and pragmatically.

For example, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations pointed out recently, the G20 members are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the G20 countries could decide to break the deadlock as regards the urgent problem of financing the green transition and the necessary commitments to guarantee this transition. Although we saw clearly in Delhi that, while the general principles were restated, there was no consensus on this issue.

This approach could be useful in particular in new areas, like for example AI, where international regulation is still weak. However, we must never forget that regulation ever reflects the balance of power. This is an important issue for Europe, which is often regarded as a normative power that does not necessarily have the means to match its ambitions. In other words, we are more willing to regulate AI than capable of developing a European AI ecosystem. To remain a normative power, we need to develop our technological firepower.

The example of the 2015 Paris Agreement

Another possibility is the so-called “concerted unilateralism”. The term may seem illogical since unilateralism is not, by definition, concerted. Nevertheless, after the failure of Copenhagen in 2009, it is already what the world is doing on climate change with the 2015 Paris Agreement. This Agreement is built on what states declare they are ready to do to limit climate change. A reliable global agreement on climate change could hardly result from a top down approach, but more probably from the sum of national unilateral commitments made by each state. The Sustainable Development Goals agenda is also based on that principle and we could extend this logic to other areas.

Will this way of working be good enough to solve all global issues? Probably not. On climate for example, the sum of these national commitments is clearly not sufficient and there are still critical bottlenecks, particularly regarding green finance. However, during this critical period of growing multipolarity and decreasing multilateralism, we need to use all practical ways to address global issues. The main risk today is the fragmentation of the world order into political, economic and technological blocs and we must prevent it.