Since the United States’ unipolar moment ended a decade ago, we’ve heard how the 21st century will be African, Chinese, Asian, or even Latin American or European. Yet 19 years into this century, certainties about the world’s geopolitical future are in short supply. Experts continue to grapple with how to describe the state of geopolitics - is it bipolar, nonpolar, multipolar, or a fast-growing jungle that needs cutting back?

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018 argued that geopolitics is becoming not just multipolar, but also “multiconceptual”. This should come as no surprise. As global power becomes more diffuse, there is more room for divergent values to shape geopolitics. The “end of history” - the idea that world order could be shaped by a set of shared political values - has been indefinitely postponed.

Implications for leaders

To be sure, weakening multilateralism and increased fragmentation could unlock opportunities for agility and innovation. However, three trends foreshadow potential dangers.

First, international partnerships are decaying, as multilateral mechanisms for dispute settlement buckle under the strain of “strong-state” unilateralism. This has been evident in the shift in trade policy from global frameworks overseen by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to state-led regional initiatives and bilateral deals. Or in the wavering commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change and the unprecedented failure to reach consensus at the 2018 G7 summit in Québec.

The divergent values feeding into geopolitics also make it harder to sustain global consensus on ethically charged issues such as human rights and the regulation of emerging biotechnologies, while the disintegration of multilateral cooperation puts protection of the global commons in peril. Outer space, cyberspace and the polar regions will increasingly become sources of international tension.

Second, mounting geo-economic tensions create new risk of instability. While states have always used economic policy as a strategic lever, its deployment against the backdrop of strong-state politics, weakening multilateralism and the complexity of the global economy is fraught with peril. If economic tensions continue to ratchet upwards, so too will associated risks. As global growth stagnates and financial instability rises, deteriorating conditions could even edge rivals toward conflict.

Third, the rapid development of new technologies is disrupting traditional power dynamics. Technologies have always privileged first-mover states. As a winner-takes-all dynamic characterizes many key technologies today, inequalities within and among states are set to grow deeper. The application of major technological advances to new types of weapons could also advantage certain states.

For example, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, drone swarms or new methods of disrupting an adversary’s domestic political system could alter the global balance of power in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, big data and new biometric technology will make state-centred control more effective and efficient, but could prove more difficult for democracies to confront.

What are leaders to do?

In November 2018, I steered a group of leading foreign policy voices as Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Geopolitics at the Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai. A key message that emerged from our work is that international processes must be restructured to allow for cooperation on issues of shared concern, such as environmental degradation and migration, rather than on an assumption of shared values. At the same time, in a world in which values no longer bind even long-standing allies, actors dedicated to liberal values will need to collaborate more deliberately to defend them.

Our Council recommended new mechanisms to create momentum for action among a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including Track II discussions on geopolitical flashpoints or coalitions of business leaders to advance global norms on key issues. Imagine, for example, a group of global CEOs providing input on revamping the WTO system. More flexibility in partnerships, such as through non-regional alliances, may also help hedge against growing uncertainty.

Global leaders will gather once again at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos to consider how to shape a new global architecture designed to encourage cooperation, rather than zero-sum competition. In order to meet the systemic challenges that we all see, but that we are failing to address, leaders must ensure that the principles of inclusivity and sustainability underpin any solutions that emerge.