The tripolar order

22 Dec 2013


WHILE all politics is local, specific issues and events are also affected by the push and pull of global power politics. The bipolar world that emerged after the Second World War was in many ways simple: two powers — the US and the Soviet Union — controlling clear geographical areas with two different and mutually exclusive economic systems.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, this bipolar world gave way to the ‘unipolar moment’ — from 1989 to 2003 — when the US and its Western allies, dominated world politics and economics. This singular structure collapsed after America’s unilateral invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Western financial crisis.

Today, while policy and media attention is focused on several specific events and crises, such as Syria, North Korea and Ukraine, most of these events are being influenced by the interaction of the interests and priorities of three powers: America, China and Russia. The magnitude and scope of the power of each of these three centres is different and unequal.

America is no longer the world hegemon; but it remains the single most powerful nation. Its power flows from its primacy in the military, economic and technological spheres. Its ‘soft power’ and cultural influence is pervasive. The scope of its interests — geographic and sectoral — are extensive. Yet, it is also clear that the ‘power’ of the US and its allies is declining in relation to the rest of the world, especially a rising China and a revived Russia.

China — the Middle Kingdom — was the world’s most powerful and advanced civilisation for millennia. It is now on a trajectory to recover its place as the world’s largest economy within a decade. Its military power and role is growing rapidly. China’s new ‘confidence’ in dealing with other nations, near and far, is evident.

Yet, China’s major strategic concerns are either domestic — to preserve its hard-won reunification; or regional — to ensure that the nations on its periphery are friendly or at least non-hostile. Unlike the US, China does not propagate its ‘values’ to others and holds back from interfering in their internal affairs. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Russia’ power almost evaporated after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and during the Yeltsin era when Moscow largely adhered to US and Western political, economic and diplomatic priorities. Utilising the leverage provided by Russia’s oil and other natural resources, its nuclear and military capabilities and the disciplinary mechanisms of the Soviet state, President Vladimir Putin has successfully revived Moscow’s influence and role especially in Europe and Asia.

However, with an insufficiently developed economic and financial system, growing centrifugal forces, particularly in Muslim-majority regions, and a declining population, Russia’s rise may not be sustainable without major socio-economic reforms.

The tripolar world is similar to its bipolar predecessor in some ways. The US and Russia have ‘areas of influence’. The US leads the Anglo-Saxon countries, Europe, Japan, South Korea and much of Central and South America. Russia’s sphere is limited mainly to the CIS countries and Central Asia.

China, on the other hand, has no ‘formal’ allies. Pakistan comes closest to this definition. China’s influence is exercised largely through economic leverage which is considerable. But Beijing is increasingly willing to assert itself when its national or territorial interests are at stake, as in the maritime disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.

Unlike the US-Soviet Cold War, today’s tripolar world is complex. Rivalry and proxy conflicts coexist with close interdependence and common interests.

Great power rivalry covers support for opposing sides in territorial and internal disputes, contest for natural resources, competition for markets, hostile arms development and deployments and ideological propagation.

Simultaneously, there are significant areas of common interest and interdependence: trade and finance, energy, natural resources, migration, climate change.

In the current power paradigm, there are at least a dozen emerging countries which possess the capacity to play an ‘independent’ power role in future. These are: India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Kazakhstan.

At present, however, they are able to exercise influence only in conjunction with one or the other of the three principal world powers. But their future acquisition of the instruments of power, and their alignments, will determine whether today’s tripolar world will become multipolar or be reduced to bipolar rivalry between the US and China.

In this context, the fate of India’s aspirations for global power are particularly relevant. These aspirations have been badly dented in recent months as the challenges of poverty, a stratified society and endemic corruption accompanying its much heralded democratic governance become fully evident. It would appear that India’s independent great power role will be postponed at least for a decade or two.

Another major determinant will be the final resolution of the internal stresses and divisions within the Islamic world. These divisions are between the modernist and secular visions of Islamic elites versus the conservative and ‘Islamist’ preferences of their masses.

In some Muslim countries, this division has been accentuated and compounded by external (American) intervention and escalated to violence and terrorism — local, regional and global. Now, this modernist-conservative division is being further confounded by the growing conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam.

The Islamic world has the potential to emerge as a fourth ‘pole’ in the global power structure, but only if the internal divisions can be effectively addressed and overcome by Muslim leaders and their peoples.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.