“Complexity” and “uncertainty” are the words most commonly in the attempt to understand the current state of the world. I have attempted to approach the subject from different angles, analysing it according to paradigms related to the forces of production, ideologies that drive change, and realist-school balance-of-power theories. From the outset my purpose was to demonstrate that, however true it may be that globalisation is on the decline or that we have entered a period of de-globalisation, the inescapable fact remains that societies and peoples are more in touch with each other and the world at large than at any previous time in history. We can observe this tangibly in travel, trade, culture, education and other human activities. Nothing that happens in the world today is just something that happens elsewhere. However remote countries may be from where a war is raging, that conflict will cast its shadow over their foreign policies and their citizens’ decisions regarding travel, work, education, even shopping. Seeing the world this way is essential, not only because of its bearing on questions of international peace and security at a time when nuclear weapons have proliferated openly and secretly, but also because it is intimately connected with the course of human life.
Many political scientists, including myself, have attempted to distinguish between the “international order” and the “global order,” and between the concepts of a multipolar, bipolar and unipolar systems. We felt that this helped to describe the world in simpler terms. But things are no longer so simple. We are in the midst of a world racing towards a multipolarism in which Germany and Japan are returning to the fray and India and Turkey are trying to stake a place for themselves one way or another. The G7 and the G20 are determined to defend the status quo, while new groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS are gaining momentum and acquiring new members. At the same time, a non-aligned trend has resurfaced and is also carving out a place for itself.
In an article in InterRegional, the eminent international relations scholar, Mohamed Abdel-Salam, discusses the “problematics related to analysing the state of the world in hard times.” He opens with a list of questions that we need to answer in order to understand the world:
How should the world handle epidemics?
Has nature completely strayed from its “normal” patterns?
Has international conflict returned?
What is happening at regional levels?
How can a war of the “Ukraine variety” be ended?
How should non-state actors be dealt with?
What are the causes of social unrest in industrialised nations?
How has social media affected public opinion?
What are we to do about artificial intelligence?
Each of these nine issues has surfaced and resurfaced in public debates on the current state of the world and what lies ahead. They also reflect the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that we can prepare for with wise and rational policies. Undoubtedly, we could add other questions. Some might have to do with identity, others with the fate of the teetering global economic order and whether there is a way out of the dollar’s hegemony, and yet others concerning whether democracy as defined by majority rule is still effective within and between nations.
What we do know so far is that there is no all-encompassing theory that covers “all things” like the Internet, or explains the universe and its evolution like Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwinian theory. What we have are disparate attempts to discuss universal issues that pit “idealism” against “realism”, “hegemony” against “sovereignty”, volatile brinksmanship against the potential of diplomacy. Universal grand theorising has become elusive in a world where the population has exceeded eight billion, three billion of whom live in just two countries: India and China.
Any of the questions that Abdel-Salam posed could lead to heaven or to hell. Along the way to either destination there would be few crossroads left, urging the world to make a choice. Perhaps postponing a choice is a way to avert annihilation by pandemic, nuclear war, or an AI catastrophe. This appears to have informed the US determination to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific while keeping its doors open to China at the same time. The constant promoting of the potential of fair trade or transnationalism may open doors and opportunities, but the international community knows that this, alone, will not rebuild the planet in an acceptable way. The “New Regionalism,” such as that which has emerged in the Middle East, may create acceptable spaces away from the planetary brinksmanship, but it is not enough to safeguard the future. As for the new term, the “Global South,” it might provide a key to understanding the position of developing nations towards the belligerents in the Russian-Ukrainian war, a position characterised by a certain theoretical neutrality, some experimentation, adapting non-alignment policies from an earlier time to present circumstances, and a pragmatism based on prioritising national interests.
As people cast about for solutions, another problem we can add to many is that the very perplexity about the state of the world could in itself lead to policies that would generate more hard times, especially given that governments believe that their only option is to increase their sources of power at this difficult juncture. In the Middle East, nuclear arms might resolve the international community’s inability to “discover” Israel’s nuclear arsenal or to deal with the Iranian nuclear arms programme whose breakout time is rapidly approaching while the world looks on agape at the pace of Iranian uranium enrichment. The longer this continues, the greater the likelihood that Israel will unleash a war no one could avert. To this we can add the problematic recently raised by the Yedioth Ahronoth regarding the idea of solving Israel’s Palestinian dilemma by creating a Hamas-led Palestinian state in Gaza and expanding natural gas extraction from the territorial waters off the Gazan coast. This, it is thought, can give Israel the triumph that has long eluded it in its otherwise politically, economically and technologically successful progress since it was founded three-quarters of a century ago.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.