During the four decades following World War Two, the world was divided between two competing ideologies: capitalism and communism. This bipolar world seemed an immutable reality to many. It was a world where the West was democratic, liberal and capitalist, while the Soviet Bloc followed a model of centralised communism where the state controlled all levers of power and the economy.
Following the fall of the iron curtain, the world appeared to have entered a new phase, a unipolar world where the United States was the “hyperpower” in the words of French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine back in 2002. Everything seemed to confirm what Francis Fukuyama had written in 1992 about the end of history, intended as “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Today, however, it looks like such visions of world hegemony were premature: democracy has not superseded other forms of government, and there is no such thing as unipolarity.
As the years went by after the fall of the iron curtain, it gradually became apparent that the United States was not the world ruler portrayed back in the 1990s. The US has certainly had some major successes in this new world – in 2001 it invaded Afghanistan, and within weeks the Taliban regime was toppled and the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation was rendered ineffective. But the first signs of the US’s inability to have its way in the world came soon after, beginning with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In restrospect, this event can be seen as pretty much of a disaster in US foreign policy, heralding the rise of anti-US and Islamist movements throughout the Middle East and sparking turmoil in many countries in the region.
The Iraq invasion and its aftermath showed the world that the American hyperpower was not able to impose its will on distant countries. Regional powers and militia groups were able to hinder US plans. Gradually it became clear that the world was much more complex than it appeared to be in the black-and-white age of the cold war. Even in Afghanistan, after the rapid success, the western presence was not able to bring about lasting change. US troops stayed there longer than in any other war theatre. Their recent pull-out, while not occurring as a result of direct military challenge, confirms to many observers the overall failure of US interventionism, and is further evidence of a return of regional power politics after the cold war years.
The seeds of this fall of US dominance were sowed soon after the demise of the Soviet bloc. During the 1990s the religious, ethnic, cultural divisions that had dominated international politics throughout the past centuries but that the Cold War had suppressed, came back to the fore. With the end of the “capitalism vs. communism” confrontation, what remains is a tumultuous world of constantly shifting alliances based on culture, religion, ethnicity, and economics.
The US geopolitical standing took a further blow when President Obama chose not to intervene in the civil wars in Libya and Syria, instead letting Russia, Turkey, and Iran run the show. In Syria, the US played a secondary role, helping the Kurds in the North.
The end of any hyperpower illusion came with the rise of China on the world stage. During the two decades following the fall of the iron curtain, China was often put in the same basket as India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia (the BRICS countries) as “emerging economies”, but the reality today is quite different: China has emerged as the clear alternative to the United States on the world stage – economically, politically, and increasingly, militarily.
No way back to bipolarism
Does this emergence of China as a new superpower mean that we are entering a new cold war? The answer is no, we are not returning to those simple old days. Back then, no other country could stand up to the might of the two superpowers. Pretty much everybody found themselves having to choose on which side they wanted to be. The “non-aligned” movement of countries was never successful in providing a real alternative to this duopoly. Back then, the confrontation was between competing ideologies and was fought mainly through military threats.
Today instead, China is not an ideologically pure alternative to the west, rather it has embraced a form of state-directed capitalism, and despite having nuclear weapons, it is not a global military power comparable to what the Soviet Union was.
Today the conflict is between liberal democracy and alternative forms of government based on high levels of coercion and authoritarianism, but not by a common alternative vision of society. China’s “pragmatic communism” model does not hold the monopoly of the anti-liberalism camp. India, Russia, Turkey among others are ruled by nationalist leaders. In Europe, Hungary’s mini-dictator Viktor Orban is also strongly focused on ethnic purity when he openly theorises “illiberal democracy” as an alternative to the socio-political model incarnated by the US and Western Europe. In other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, religious factions dominate the political scene.
Because of this more complex picture, our world is not a repeat of the bipolar one we left behind with the fall of the iron curtain, and though the US and China stand out among other minor powers, neither of them is powerful enough to carve up spheres of exclusive influence: even if Europe is obviously in the western camp, several EU countries have kept open dialogue and even made deals with China and Russia, sometimes in the face of US criticism; India has developed a rivalry with China – ranging from border disputes to accusations of using technology for spying and social control – but this has not made the Indians fall into the US’s lap; elsewhere, regional powers including Russia, Turkey, Iran, are engaging in a constant ballet of shifting tactical alliances.
The risk of inflating the US-China rivalry
Even so, the US has chosen a confrontational attitude towards China. It is a strategic decision that spans presidencies, started under Trump and so far maintained under Biden. The US approach goes beyond considering China as the main US rival in the world, to treating it as an enemy to contain, much like it treated the Soviet Union. There are undoubted domestic policy considerations behind such an approach, but geopolitically, it is counterproductive and dangerous. It raises the risk of a regional military confrontation, for example in the sea of Taiwan, and causes unnecessary economic damage to both countries. It negates decades of constructive engagement with China, which started with President Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy.
President Obama wanted to engage with China with initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to create a high level of economic “entanglement” between China and the rest of the world. It was US and Chinese cooperation that helped bring about the Paris Agreement, a major breakthrough in climate diplomacy. The new approach introduced by Trump – and currently followed by Biden – negates this constructive approach, favouring a rivalry which is bound not to benefit either side.
In a multipolar world, the benefits of this rivalry are most likely to flow to the middle-sized powers, who can use US-China bickering to their advantage. A result of this is a more complex, dangerous world in which risks of nuclear annihilation may be lower than those associated with the Cold War, but where regional conflicts are as likely as ever to flare, as countries compete for supremacy in their respective regions.
In a multipolar world with many regional powers, world governments need more than ever to work together constructively to promote peace and stability and fight common threats. This could establish a new world order based on respect and limited trust, intended as the first steps towards a more constructive way of running the planet.
Los Angeles, March 2021