“Prescriptively, world order refers to a preferred arrangement of power and authority that is associated with the realization of such values as peace, economic growth and equity, human rights, and environmental quality and sustainability”.  Encyclopaedia Princetoniensis, Princeton University

A historic perspective

In essence, as the world order changes, we witness “shifts and transformations in the global geopolitical landscape, power dynamics and international relations”.  Historically, these shifts and transformations have been the result of major world events; the two World Wars, the “colonial era”, the Cold War and so on.

Between the 15th and 20th centuries, commonly referred to as the “colonial era”, Europe was the dominant power having colonised vast parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas.  This period saw Western dominance which resulted in exploitation of resources both human and natural.

That period was followed by two World Wars and eventually the Cold War.  The USA and the then USSR became the dominant players in the world and indeed were referred to as “superpowers”.  Both sought global dominance of their ideological thinking; free markets and democracy versus state control and communism. The Cold War period was characterised by an intense fear of nuclear war and attempts by both sides to bring their ideologies to countries across the world.

The mid-20th century saw a period of decolonisation as Europe granted independence to their colonies.  It also saw the formation of the Commonwealth, which determined part of the world order during that period, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, still plays a large role.  However, between the end of World War II and the disintegration of the former USSR in the early 1990s, the world was bipolar with the two superpowers representing the global order.  In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History” in which he predicted the “ascendancy of Western liberal order”.

Western countries and, in particular the USA, began to dictate the world order at least till the end of the 21st century.  This unipolar world was in a sense short-lived with the onset of globalisation and shifts in economic strength as a result of deindustrialisation in the West and factors such as Trumpism and Brexit giving rise to nationalism and protectionism.  As Western economies showed lower growth, countries in Asia began to grow.  China and India were prime examples of this, although China has seen a decline in its economic dominance since Covid-19.  This was clearly evident under the Obama regime with a pivot to Asia strategy in 2009.

The US has played a dominant role in global matters since the fall of the USSR.  But it too has faced difficulties with the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the financial crisis of 2008, the onset of Covid-19, and at one point a Presidency that seemed intent on looking inwards.  That said, the US continues to dominate the world order, but is now facing challenges.  The current Russia-Ukraine conflict is a case in point with many countries ignoring the call for sanctions against Russia, and continuing to trade without using the global currency yardstick of the US Dollar.  Indeed, in a vote to exclude Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, 24 countries, including China, voted against and several other countries that would normally align with the US, including India, abstained.

“The rise of the rest”

Farid Zakaria in his book “The Post-American World” refers to the “third great power shift of the modern era” or “the rise of the rest”.  The economic growth seen in China over the past thirty years has probably never been seen in history.  The same can be said for India and other countries in Asia.  As Western economies declined, Asia seemed intent on filling the vacuum.  The world is seeing similar trends, albeit considerably slower, in parts of Africa.  This is beginning to challenge the US as the dominant world power and as matters currently stand, this might continue into the future.  In response to this, we have seen several Western countries announcing Indo-Pacific strategies in the last five years in efforts to capitalize on the growing dynamism of that region.

The African Continent is home to perhaps the few remaining emerging markets in the world. However, its impact on the global order in the future cannot be underestimated.  It is estimated that by 2050, Africa will account for a quarter of the world’s population and will be the only Continent with a positive birth rate while much of the rest of the world will witness a decline in their population, according to the World Economic Forum.  The Continent’s significant natural resources – estimated to be 30% of the world’s – will make Africa a significant player.  Of course, there will be a need to reform in many countries, and corruption, wars, and high poverty levels could become a deal breaker.  These reforms are beginning, albeit slowly, to pay dividends and Africa’s influence on the world order will increase.  That the African Continent is showing that they can work together and are even voting in multi-lateral forums almost as a block, is evidence of their rising confidence despite current economic woes.

What seems to be clear is that the binary understanding of global politics – unipolar versus bipolar – is not accurate for today’s global environment.  Instead, we seem to see a multipolar world order emerging; in which the developing world will have a greater say.  What could halt this advance is the fact that the world, since Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine crisis, has started to move away from globalisation, and many countries are looking inwards and becoming more protectionist in their policies.  This could mean that the global order remains as it is for the foreseeable future; instead, countries will be further emboldened by their own strategic interests.

What will determine the world order in the future?

The US as the unipolar power in the world today, has led in many areas such as “technological, financial and military to scientific and cultural” according to Leonid Grinin in his 2016 paper “Evolution of World Order. Evolution and Big History”.  However, the 9/11 attacks saw a change in US policy both at home and in its dealings with the rest of the world.  Freedom, whilst still there, may have become somewhat questionable as the country enhanced security at the expense of its citizens.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were led by the Americans with other countries adding support.  Globally this may have had a negative impact on the rest of the world’s perception of the US, bringing into question its dominant world role.

Subsequent events may have made this even more apparent and when coupled with the rise of Asia, a shift in order may already be underway, particularly with globalisation, which by all accounts is now reversing so may be of less impact.  In all likelihood, the world may see different countries leading different facets.  Perhaps, one key determinant will be the outcome of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict.  Should Ukraine survive as an independent nation, then clearly there will be little or no change to the world order.  A Russian victory may well bring about change.

There are numerous factors that will determine a change in the world order in the future.  Some have already started and their impact is being felt globally.  It is unclear when a material shift will occur but one is certainly likely to happen in the medium to long term.  While this may be given, it is probably impossible to say which way the world is headed, and should we see further shocks in the global environment going forward, the equation may change again.

“The internet and technological advancement are battle grounds for the future of the liberal order, between different forces, instincts, and human traits. This moment could present an unparalleled opportunity to further the principles that underpin that order: empowering democratic participation; facilitating global cooperation; further opening the global economy, and advancing the rule of law. Whether or not it does will depend on what we do and how quickly we are able to do it”.  Amy Studdart, German Marshall Fund

Perhaps one key factor will be technology which is already playing a big role in the world with Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and the constant cyber security threat.  As technology becomes the forefront of daily lives, countries that are leading the pack are likely to be in a position to dictate a change in the global order.  They will need to make hard choices about whether to “decouple” or “derisk” from China.

The technology race today is akin to the nuclear arms race of the fifties and sixties.  Technology will likely determine which country controls much of what happens in the world in the future.  Its use to destabilise countries is already evident and has been used to disrupt national elections.  New forms of Artificial Intelligence are going to change the way the world operates and countries that do not recognise this as being inevitable, will probably not have a role in the global order.

Geopolitical competition will also be a key factor.  Currently, US influence seems to be falling as countries walk their own path and do not necessarily follow suit.  China’s economic colonisation of the African Continent is a case in point.  This competition will not just be on the economic front but also on the ability to influence other countries, technology, and military prowess.

The world is made up of many regions and economic blocks and the dynamics both within and between them are going to have an impact on what changes will take place in the global order.  These blocks are constantly seeing changes in their alliances and power bases.  The votes on the Russia-Ukraine crisis are a prime example of how traditional allies of the US went their own way or abstained from votes at the UN.  Alliances are likely to shift, even as access to natural resources becomes greater, over time which is something that has happened throughout history.

Multilateral and international institutions are also being questioned on their effectiveness and whether they are fit for purpose in today’s global environment.  They have traditionally been part of global governance and cooperation ensuring financial stability and this is perhaps being reconsidered if nothing else, in the court of public opinion.

While globalisation seems to have slowed down somewhat since the pandemic, it is clear that viruses such as Covid-19 are probably still prevalent and global movement has made it easier to spread.  The three years following the Covid-19 virus emergence saw many countries look inwards to protect their citizens with varying degrees of success.  Another pandemic will probably be the last nail in the coffin for globalisation that will certainly impact the global order.  However, as the world becomes more inward looking, the risk of conflict probably increases.

Last, but probably not least, the impact of Climate Change and sustainability is gathering greater focus as the world is affected by changing weather patterns and increasing natural calamities.  This need for action is a global issue that is now also affecting both the developed and the developing world with everyone being asked to take action to reduce carbon emissions.  Migration, both within and across borders, is now a reality that is sparking unrest in many parts of the world.  It is having a marked impact on economic, political, and social issues everywhere with no permanent solution in the offing, currently.

So, what next?

“The experience of earlier transitional periods suggests that any effort to reform or create a new global order must be a collaborative undertaking. Although the world seems destined to grow more competitive, congested, and contested in the coming years, the logic of major power cooperation is inescapable”.  Perspectives on a Changing World Order, Council on Foreign Relations

It is difficult to predict what comes next as the world becomes an even more complex place.  There are clearly changing dynamics that have been occurring since the fall of the Soviet Union and the breaking of the Berlin Wall.  While the US has been the undeniable leader of the global order since then, there are signs that a shift is taking place.  Perhaps the world will move back to a multi-polar system of global order but there is a lot that may happen before then to stop it.

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