Our thinking about the international system is focussed on a new era of great power competition. An assertive China is seeking to refashion the international order and exercise greater regional hegemony. The United States, in turn, will seek to deny China that privilege. Recently, Secretary Antony Blinken outlined the US approach to China: “Competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” This is a very smart formulation. But at a high level of abstraction, this pretty much describes the approach of every country in the world to this geopolitical moment. The big question is whether the competitive and adversarial dynamics are now so deep that the space for “collaboration” is diminishing fast.
Two dynamics were supposed to counteract the risks of great power competition. The first was global economic interdependence. Global trade has rebounded to its pre-pandemic levels. Even China-US trade and investment ties remain robust. The American financial sector has still not given up on China. But it is hard to shake off the sense that the logic of interdependence is now under severe ideological stress. Interdependence has not led to greater convergence on political values or a more open global political order. The domestic political economy in China has shifted to “dual circulation”, while the success of Biden’s plans hinges on reversing significant aspects of globalisation. There is now bipartisan consensus in the US that China needs to be contained; just as China is convinced that the US will not only not tolerate China’s further rise, it will still actively undermine its political system and civilisational claims. In much of the world, the full psychological force of the pandemic is yet to kick in. This will encourage a kind of wariness about excessive interdependence, even if hedged with sufficient diversification of sources. The fact of interdependence will continue by dint of its historical momentum, but it has lost its ideological power, and will crumble.
The second dynamic counteracting competition was the idea that common challenges like climate change, the pandemic and the risks posed by technology will foster greater global cooperation. A lot of global institutional infrastructure created the illusion of greater cooperation. But there are increasing doubts whether any of this global infrastructure will achieve its aims. As Bruno Maçães has often forcefully pointed out, most recently in his provocative Geopolitics at the End of Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis, almost all the global crises that should have been occasions for global cooperation have become the sites for intensifying global competition.
Eventually, Covid-19 vaccines will get to the rest of the world. But it is hard to convince anyone that most countries of the world were willing to treat the pandemic as a global public health crisis, where global monitoring, allocation and production decisions were governed by global health considerations. The shift in the climate change discourse is about intensifying technological competition and maintaining national economic supremacy, rather than solving a global problem. Optimists could argue that it is precisely this competitive dynamic that spurs innovation, and will eventually generate solutions that will benefit everyone.
But this optimism is wearing thin. It is not entirely clear that all the innovations induced by this competitive dynamic will, in fact, limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Second, it leaves the question of a modicum of justice in the international order entirely unresolved. Associating “justice” with the international order might seem like an oxymoron. But a lot of the positions of the West are about preserving its developmental hegemony in a context where that hegemony is no longer tenable. We have also learnt over the last couple of decades that the international system, and all global public goods, including security, can be made extremely vulnerable even by small groups carrying a sense of grievance. So, the distribution of technology, finance, and developmental space will matter.
But there is also something surreal in thinking about the credibility of countries at this moment. There is the litany of unachieved goals and broken promises from the West. The US goes to the COP26 just as it is pushing for more hydrocarbon production. India, in the context of what other countries are doing, takes a very well-judged stance at the international level. But it is difficult not to wonder whether a country that lets its citizens breathe the foulest air, and cannot get its head around a solvable problem of stubble burning, can project seriousness.
So, climate and global public health, rather than acting as a spur to global cooperation are going to be symptoms of a deep pathology.
Now think of all the areas where the risks of the global system are magnifying — cyber threats, the possible risks of unregulated technology, whether in artificial intelligence or biological research, competition in space, a renewed competition in nuclear weapons and an intensifying arms race. In not a single one of these areas is there a serious prospect of any country thinking outside of an adversarial nationalist frame. There is also an almost inchoate sense of a cultural moment across the world, where too many groups are itching for conflicts of various kinds with a blasé sense that the costs of the conflicts can be absorbed. But also a fundamental sense of boredom with being liberal in the broadest sense of the term.
The old multilateral system was undergirded by, and partially an instrument for, US power. It was inevitable that that architecture would become a site of conflict. But almost no one is committed to building multilateralism back better. The term multilateral has also been deeply damaged by a cynical use, where it simply refers to a group of countries rather than a single or a couple of countries acting together. It is high time the term be used only in a context where there is agreement on global rules or an architecture to genuinely solve a global public goods problem. These may still reflect power differentials, but at least they are oriented to problem-solving at a global level. In this sense, one would be hard-pressed to find any genuinely multilateral institutions left.
So, the real choice for the world is not just navigating between China and the United States. It is fundamentally between an orientation that is committed to global problem-solving rather than just preserving national supremacy. It will require reversing Blinken’s formulation. It will require countries to be collaborative when they should be, rather than merely when they can be. There are no takers for this role.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 8, 2021 under the title ‘Divided we fall’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.