It is common knowledge that international relations revolve round the great powers and their relations, and that all the rest is detail or, at least, less important than the main hegemonic system that governs the spread of political influence, rivalry in war and peace, and the deterrence of other powers.
It is common practice to describe the main hegemonic system in terms of the number of its poles, as in the multipolar order that prevailed between the two world wars, or the bipolar order that followed World War II and the rise of the US and the USSR to global pre-eminence, or the monopolar order such as that which was dominated by Britain from the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 or that which was dominated by the US from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until the global financial crisis in 2008.
The latter unipolar era went by the name of “globalisation” but, in fact, the US was the world’s sole superpower. So, what is the situation now? How do we describe the world order today?
The short answer, which we will expound on below, is that the world is no longer the captive of a single great power because the US is facing a great and mounting challenge.
But nor is the world multipolar. It was commonly believed that Japan, India and a united Europe would enter the competition to steer the world. Instead, however, the world is inexorably moving towards a tripolar order headed by the US, the Federation of Russia and the People’s Republic of China.
On 21 November, The New York Times ran an article by Edward Wong and Alam Rappeport with the title: “In Race for Global Power, US and China Push Nations to Pick a Side.” The thrust of the article is that we are currently in a bipolar order dominated by the US and China.
Their GDPs are neck-and-neck and, in terms of purchasing parity, China’s GDP is larger.
Moreover, taking its current growth rates into account, China is headed towards greater superiority, especially now that it has taken the lead in the fourth industrial revolution.
As for the mode of Chinese-US interactions, it is highly competitive and fraught. Tensions revolve around the trade war, strategy in the South China Sea, the US’s policy of sanctions against China’s allies such as North Korea and Iran, and the pressures that Washington is exerting on other nations in this regard in order to force them to choose between the US and China.
On the other hand, Foreign Affairs sees a bipolar order unfolding in the contemporary historical framework of US-Russian relations which the American periodical covers in an anthology of previously published articles appearing in April 2018 beneath the title, “A New Cold War? Russia and America, Then and Now.”
The anthology opens with the beginning of the Cold War, which was intellectually declared by “X”, who in fact was US Ambassador George F Kennan, in a 1947 article called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
The article proclaims the end of the US-Soviet alliance during World War II and calls for a strategy based on the “containment” of the Soviet Union. The following articles in the series cover subsequent rises and falls in tensions.
A period of detente, for example, was reflected in Henry Kissinger’s essay, in July 1959, called “The Search for Stability,” and by Nikita Khrushchev’s article, “On Peaceful Coexistence”, in the October edition of the same year.
Yet, the moments of coexistence and concord were the exception to the rule in the long course of the Cold War which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union at the outset of the 1990s, at which point the US assumed the helm of the world singlehandedly for more than a decade.
The articles from this period in the Foreign Affairs anthology focus on rescuing Russia and working together with it within the framework of the G-8, an example being the article “Russia Renewed?” written in late 2002.
But the honeymoon did not last long. Tensions between Washington and Moscow began to rise, as was reflected in such articles as “Russia Leaves the West” (2006), “Losing Russia: The Costs of Renewed Confrontation” (2007), “Mission to Moscow: Why (Vladimir Putin’s) Authoritarian Stability Is a Myth” (2008), “Moscow’s Modernisation Dilemma” (2010), “The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster” (2011), “Managing the New Cold War” (2014), and in 2016:
“Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics”, “Putin’s Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place”, and “The Revival of the Russian Military” (which appeared after the Russian annexation of Crimea, friction with Ukraine and the imposition of US sanctions).
This year, the Foreign Affairs January edition featured “Containing Russia, Again” and its March edition brought us “Has a New Cold War Really Begun?”
History seems to have come full circle. The Cold War has restarted between Moscow and Washington while a new Cold War has begun between Washington and Beijing. The first is essentially strategic and its theatre is Europe and the Middle East. The latter is economic and revolves around trade.
But it, too, is strategic as it involves competition over control and influence in the world.
The two wars are unfolding between three powers: the US, which is still, in theory, the strongest economic and political power in the world; Russia which, despite its modest economy, has more than 9,000 nuclear warheads, or enough to destroy the world several times over, and which also excels in a number of armaments and aerospace technologies; and China, which not only has immense economic might, but also shows promise for greater might because of its growth rates and modern technological prowess, in some areas of which it can, for the first time in history, rival the US.
We are looking at a new situation in contemporary international relations, not just in terms of the number of poles (three) but because it is unfolding under circumstances unlike those that had prevailed in the 20th century and at the turn of this one.
Technological advances have given these three powers something they did not give to other powers such as India and the EU.
The EU, moreover, is weakened by Brexit, the poor economics of EU members such as Italy, Spain and Greece, and the decline of the “European” spirit among its member societies.
All such factors have combined to place heavy pressures on Germany and France which have so far been able to sustain them although it is uncertain how much longer they will want to.
However, perhaps the most salient circumstance of this phase is the Donald Trump administration, which will last to 2024 if he wins a second term in office.
How are the many of the world handling the new reality? How are the Arab countries, in particular, handling it? Will previous strategies, such as non-alignment or falling in with the Western camp or the Eastern camp, continue to work under the conditions of this totally new environment?
In order to answer such questions we need, firstly, to understand what is happening exactly; secondly, to identify our interests clearly and accurately; and, thirdly, to appreciate that Arab collective action and alliance offers us greater opportunities, whatever strategy we choose to adopt.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tripolar world order