The long-expected shift in global power towards a multipolar world is now happening with surprising intensity and scope. How the West reacts to this new reality of the redistribution of political and economic power will have an impact on the world’s future stability. Can global governance mechanisms be adapted to reclaim the legitimacy to effectively tackle such global issues as transnational crime, cybercrime, global trade and climate change?

Today the relative decline in the influence of the West, broadly defined, is widely acknowledged. Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the advance of the Islamic State into a brittle Iraq and Syria, and failure in Afghanistan and elsewhere are hammering home the message that the long-expected shift in global power towards a multipolar world is now happening more quickly than many had anticipated.

Although still militarily and technologically superior to any other power, the United States is no longer globally dominant and even regional powers appear able to challenge its reach. Managing relative decline is never easy or popular, and US President Barack Obama’s low approval figures suggest an electorate struggling to come to terms with the idea of America’s new and more modest place in the world.

History shows that declining empires often try in vain to halt their decline by asserting their power through military means. Will the United States be able to resist the temptation and instead play a role in ensuring a peaceful transition to multipolar global governance?

Many people fear the transition to a multipolar world as they assume it is inherently less stable than having a single, dominant global superpower. However, that is not necessarily the case. A multipolar world can be stable, but it requires strong mechanisms of global governance that are widely regarded as fair and legitimate to counter the trend towards regional “sphere of influence” politics.

Global governance mechanisms that favour the victors of the Second World War have become outdated. Yet, it is widely perceived that the West is making no serious effort to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or other parts of the global security and financial architecture. For example, reform of the UNSC should see regional groups be able to elect one of their member countries onto the Council for a limited, renewable term – as with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. However, while Western powers lecture others on democracy, it seems that they regard democracy as too revolutionary a concept in mechanisms of global governance.

As global governance is seen as less fair and legitimate, respect for international law is weakening. In Africa, for example, there is a strong belief that NATO abused the UN mandate to intervene in Libya in 2011; this will lead to hesitation about future UN mandates ostensibly to restore stability in violence-torn countries, as evident in the UNSC debates regarding intervention in Syria in 2013. Over time the Council will haemorrhage credibility and influence, leading to a stalemate.

Reform of the institutions of global governance is inevitable. The only questions are: when will the transition happen, how smooth will it be and what impact will delays have on legitimacy and effectiveness? The establishment of the BRICS Development Bank as a nascent challenge to international financial institutions is the most recent and palpable sign of future developments in this regard.

Three options present themselves. In the first, the West seeks pre-emptive reform – including to governing structures of the IMF and World Bank, and comprehensive UN reform including within the UNSC – that allows them to set the rules for the future while they still have the influence to do so. Given the gridlock in the US Congress, this is unlikely.

The second is to hold out in the belief that the future is not as certain as some would believe and that democratization in China or even globalization itself could unsettle the current pathway of declining Western influence. However, hope is a poor substitute for strategy. The inevitable result is the eventual delegitimation of the UN and other key institutions, a decline in authority and effectiveness in response to global peace and security issues, and ineffective responses to regional and global challenges.

A third option is insurrection from within, where a country such as Germany reaches out and succeeds in building alliances across the current global divides on an issue such as UNSC reform that allows for global realignment, breaking the current impasse. Seizing such opportunities would require remarkable political foresight and determination, including relinquishing the ambition for a German seat on the UNSC in favour of a single elected seat for Europe. But it would have the potential to re-establish legitimacy in global governance institutions and international law with far-reaching implications for future stability.

What is certain is that the pressure for global governance reform is building up and that the options for a controlled release of that pressure are rapidly declining over time.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Jakkie Cilliers is the Executive Director for the Institute for Security Studies.