Threshold of the new world order?

Raouf Saad
Tuesday 30 May 2023

The creation of the non-aligned T25 group of countries has raised questions regarding its power to reshape the international order, writes Raouf Saad


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has confirmed what political experts and observers have been saying for a while, which is that the world is shifting towards a multipolar order.

However, no one had anticipated that the war between the West and Russia would flare up with such ferocity and scope or that the world would be dragged back into a cold war that everyone thought had ended for good with the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Nor had anyone expected that the retaliatory reactions on the part of Russia would strike at the dollar and its hegemony over the global economy.

The continuation and broadening of the superpower conflict has cast into relief three main agendas for reshaping the international order, with Ukraine apparently serving as a platform for pursuing them. 

The first is American, and aims to reaffirm and consolidate Washington’s exclusive hegemony over the international order. Towards this end, it is pursuing a strategy to contain the growing economic, military, and technological challenge posed by China and the expansion of Chinese influence across the globe. 

We should recall that this strategy was actually launched earlier by former US president Barack Obama’s famous “pivot to Asia,” which effectively meant reorienting the thrust of US might in the direction of China as its perceived main strategic threat. The Republican Trump administration and the Democratic Biden administration then followed through on this policy. 

The second agenda hails from Moscow, and its primary aim is to prevent NATO from encroaching directly on Russian borders. Not only would the presence of US/NATO forces in Ukraine present a direct threat to Russian national security, but Ukraine’s membership in NATO would also inflict a stinging political humiliation that would reopen the painful wound of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia also hopes to lay the foundations of a multipolar order that will refresh the Russian taste for superpower politics. 

China is the source of the third agenda, and Beijing is managing it with a flair that has left political analysts in the Global South and Industrialised North awestruck as they struggle to understand its motives and aims. They disagree over almost everything apart from the fact that, in the space of just two decades, China has managed to leap from the pit of poverty and underdevelopment and the shackles of a strictly regulated socialist economy to a unique, Communist Party-governed market economy that has achieved unprecedented economic growth rates and a foreign currency reserve of over $3 trillion – beyond the wildest dreams of even the developed nations. 

China’s progress in trade, technology, and the aerospace industries have defied expectations. On the one hand, it has developed a formidable nuclear military force, and on the other, it has achieved an amazing degree of economic penetration worldwide, including in the US, through investments, human resources, production and trade. This is not to mention the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that is encompassing the world with possibilities and new horizons that approach the realm of dreams. 

The conflict surrounding Ukraine reflects many facets of these rival agendas. As the world follows the progress of the war and its repercussions across the globe, including on the shape of the international order, the signs of another agenda have begun to appear beneath the heading of “The Transactional 25” or “T25.” This recently formed group consists of the largest non-aligned economies that have chosen, independently and without prior agreement, to remain neutral on Ukraine and are unwilling to ally with either the US, China, or Russia. The T25 represents 45 per cent of the global population and 18 per cent of global GDP.

Despite the great differences between their economic and political systems and their sources of wealth, these countries converge on the idea that their neutrality on Ukraine is informed by their determination to prioritise their own national interests and concerns. Even so, the use of the words “non-alignment” here has nothing to do with the old Non-Aligned Movement, which a noted Indian academic has described as a “moribund organisation in need of a decent burial.” 

The creation of the T25 has naturally stirred curiosity regarding its collective potential influence. Given its growing economic clout and geopolitical and cultural diversity, to what extent can it contribute to shaping the international order? 

It is important to bear in mind several considerations. First, the common ground between this set of countries was achieved on the basis of positions governed by calculations relating to their respective national interests and the international power balances. These positions had been formed independently without prior agreement, but the fact that all the members share them lends the T25 a theoretical organisational form, even if it has no formal organisational structure.

Second, the socio-political, geopolitical, economic and cultural differences between the T25 members are vast, which renders this non-institutionalised gathering vulnerable to discord on any number of international issues. Also, most if not all of them have long and close relations with the three leading world powers. That they share a desire to remain neutral on Ukraine does not presuppose a collective stance towards any or all of the three superpowers. 

Third, if the group is able to impose itself as a major factor in shaping international relations, the major powers will need to try to attract its support for their views. More importantly, they will want to secure the huge economic and commercial interests they have vested in many of the T25 member states. This in turn will automatically augment the group’s importance, leverage, and international influence. 

It is difficult to know to what extent this group can reshape the international order, but we can offer some observations.  

First, reconfiguring the international order is not a planned or orderly process involving the implementation of collective decisions. It is governed by the dynamics of international balances of power, as shaped both by peaceful interplay and by war and conflict. It is sufficient to recall that World Wars I and II gave rise to new international orders, one embodied in the League of Nations and the other in the UN. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a third international order in which the US monopolised the leadership. Currently, Ukraine is the nexus of a conflict between the US and Russia over the shape of the international order, with China on the sidelines watching it play out and confident that what will emerge in the end will be a multipolar one.

Second, the T25’s potential for influencing the shape of the international order entails unifying its members’ positions on how to change or set the course of change in ways that could conflict with the will of the giants, who have the ability to deploy their enormous political, economic and military might. The necessary decisions might simultaneously conflict with the determination of the T25 members to maintain and safeguard the various political, economic, commercial, military, technological and other interests they have in common. 

Third, the choice of “non-aligned” as an attribute of the T25 was not an ideological one, motivated, for example, by a desire to revive the Non-Aligned Movement as it stood in its heyday in the 1960s. Rather, it was informed by the need the Ukrainian conflict has created for a neutral power that could contribute to creating a new international equilibrium, precisely by not siding with any of the world powers. 

In my opinion, the T25’s ability to directly influence the shape of the international order still resides in the realm of hope, as opposed to reality. Nevertheless, the fact that we have seen the emergence of an international group that embodies a shared neutrality towards the conflict in Ukraine is significant, especially given that it is an outlook that has steadily gained ground around the world. 

After all, the members of the T25 are among the 127 countries whose voting record in the UN testifies to a resolve to remain neutral on the Ukrainian conflict and not to be drawn into alliances that could harm their own wellbeing. Therefore, the interplay in this framework could ultimately lead to something that might pave the way, at the very least, to the start of an effort to reform the international order.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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