What’s Your Order? Why our Framing of the World Matters

A new consensus in Europe and beyond seems to have formed positing that the unipolar moment in geopolitics, following the Cold War, has given way to an emerging 21st-century order defined by multipolarity: i.e., not only China but also Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey and others—not to mention the EU—represent sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing, but ultimately disparate power centres which increasingly challenge the US and erstwhile US-led global order, and which have at last tipped the balance towards a world in which no particular state or system can any longer presume predominance. Chancellor Scholz has expressed this as clearly as anyone.

Another view, less common, is that the unipolar moment remains: that China, beset by economic malaise and lacking true allies, cannot truly rival the US with a competitive, paradigmatic alternative. Still another, strong among US policy-makers, is that we are entering if not a new cold war then at least a new bipolar framework rendering a new cold war not unlikely, with Washington and Beijing the rival superpowers.   

Arguments for multipolarity seem to rely in large part on contrasting our current moment with that of the Cold War. China is so much bigger economically than the USSR ever was, it is argued, and the US and China so much more interdependent than were the Americans and Soviets. President Xi is not pushing a coherent, expansive narrative of international communism like Lenin, Stalin and their successors. Nuclear proliferation has changed the game. And still so much of the world remains unconvinced by either the American or Chinese models, with bickering even between Western democracies and mistrust rife among autocrats.      

And yet we perhaps forget how strong the Soviet economy often looked to Western observers (to say nothing of missile gaps); how much of the world remained nonaligned post-1945 and post-colonisation, a field of ideological competition and sometimes proxy war; or how big the disagreements often were in either camp. France withdrew from NATO; the Suez Crisis was a debacle for the West; not only US nuclear arms in West Germany, but West Germany’s Ostpolitik, were highly controversial. For their part, the USSR and China actually went to war, as did China and Vietnam. Tito always resisted Moscow.      

The recent BRICS expansion certainly gives pause to the notion that the world can be again demarcated, more or less, per countries’ alignment with either of two principal superpowers. India, most of all and most importantly, remains as nonaligned as ever. Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are hard to pin down, too, and purposely so.  

The BRICS agenda ostensibly intends a more balanced world order, as President Ramaphosa stated in Johannesburg. In the long run, however, such a big-tent program, accommodating (among others) anti-Western, post-colonialist, strongman and communist ideologies, seems likely to privilege primarily the interests of China, as by far the strongest actor: undermining the American-led order ultimately in pursuit neither of fragmentation nor true state-based egalitarianism but rather of a Sino-centric order based on values core to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. China’s 4 February 2022 Joint Statement with Russia lays out the principles of a new systemic paradigm whereby states, and not individuals, hold essential and indissoluble rights. China’s ongoing support for Russia’s war in Ukraine makes all too clear the consequences, and the stakes, of such a vision.  

Perhaps most telling of all, indeed, as recently reported by Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations (who has argued for the multipolar analysis), Chinese policy-makers themselves seem to believe what we are witnessing in Ukraine is a proxy war not between the US and Russia but between the US and China. American policy-makers, for their part, have generally argued domestically that Ukraine must be defended in order to prevent a much bigger conflict: by deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Whatever else we may say, therefore, about the merits of a bipolar reading, it seems the leaders of the two biggest economies and likely most powerful conventional militaries believe among themselves—whatever they may tell others—they are confronting not just a disparate array of competing global interests and power centres but fundamentally a single peer antagonist buttressed by stronger or weaker partnerships. From the US perspective, this makes clear not only the September 2021 AUKUS announcement but also the reinvigoration of the Quad, the G7 and NATO; the spring 2023 defence agreements with the Philippines and South Korea; the unprecedented trilateral agreement in mid-August with South Korea and Japan; and the renewed push now to broker a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In each theatre, the US hopes to contain China and its growing influence.

The Cold War was a contest of superpowers as well as ideologies. But if China is not the USSR—i.e., is not the flag-bearer of an expansionary communist ideology—then along what lines should Washington’s and Beijing’s respective axes be understood? President Biden has spoken of a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And indeed, an ideology promoting a global democracy of states, rather than a system of states—and ideally democratic states—representing individuals possessing inherent rights, inclines to authoritarian government.    

But perhaps a more helpful paradigm is not democracy vs authoritarianism but pro- vs anti-order—specifically, the post-World-War-Two order which has survived and largely thrived for so many decades. Such a framework would make sense still of the role which China, led by the Chinese Communist Party, has in leading a revisionist bloc—alongside revanchist neo-fascist states like Russia, communistic North Korea and Cuba, and the reactionary theocracy of Iran—in opposing the basic tenets of the UN Convention of Human Rights. It would also make better sense of the concerns of many even democratic countries which push back in frustration against a post-War order they view as both too rigid and at times rigged.    

What the US and its allies must therefore do is to recognise, first—and this has become less obvious to voters—the need to defend the post-War order as something inherently worth preserving; but, second, to see as well the urgent need to adapt and expand that order, in keeping with its foundational democratic ideals, to achieve greater inclusiveness, responsiveness and legitimacy. For though we may hope core values of liberty and justice, seen from the arc of history, trump mere economic and political efficiency, people in the end also want the goods of security and stability alongside personal and market freedoms. If they cannot get the former, they may come to choose or tolerate alternatives to the latter promising more deliverable trade-offs.    

The EU of course has a vital role to play: as the world’s third largest economy, a respected voice for international rule of law and cutting-edge leader in ensuring new technologies protect, rather than encroach on, democratic norms and human rights. We have seen welcome transatlantic re-alignment under the Biden administration, perhaps most especially in supporting Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. Europe’s emerging de-risking strategy vis-à-vis China, key theme to the broader economic security strategy adumbrated by the European Commission in June, is another example.

But it may be time to put to rest the pursuit of an independent security and defence policy in contradistinction to that of the US, and to expand instead the framework of transatlantic burden-sharing. For if indeed it is China which will define and lead a systemic challenge to the post-War order, then the US will be focused increasingly on the Indo-Pacific; and the EU and Europe’s NATO members will need to take more responsibility for security in their own neighbourhood. This test may come sooner than later, given the political headwinds facing US presidential candidates advocating robust ongoing support for Ukraine.     

Among the costs for the EU of a misleading, because incomplete, narrative of multipolarity is not only greater vulnerability to regional crises but wasted opportunity costs, as with Germany’s belated recognition of the threat posed by the Chinese government to Germany’s next-generation telecoms infrastructure. Such a framework, moreover, serves ultimately a Chinese Communist Party narrative of a new order of fairness for all, with China as arbiter and guarantor, to replace America’s neo-colonial, exploitative—and inherently hypocritical—erstwhile hegemony.

If and when a state of multipolarity ever does obtain (sustainably and foreseeably: that is, assuming in particular the continuity of China’s current system), the US, EU and their partners and allies should neither retreat into isolationism nor celebrate a putative shift towards greater equity, but should rather do all they can, and as fast as they can, to re-establish a winning—including deeper and wider—global consensus around the market norms, democratic ideals, and values of personal freedom and responsibility which have undergirded for so many decades the most peaceful and prosperous period humans have ever known. The alternatives to that order advanced thus far are neither agnostic nor benign; they are unlikely, historically and intrinsically, to yield better outcomes. In the context of the sharp contest of paradigms currently underway, we abandon to our peril—and this goes for Americans too—our commitment to reinvigorating a pro-democratic, American-led answer.