Opinion
Geo-Economics and Politics

Why geopolitics matters more than ever in a multipolar world

As the world faces up to the prospect of a multipolar reality, governments, companies, and nonprofits must prioritize collaboration and common ground between countries. Image: Unsplash/Sebastiano Piezzi

Robert Muggah
Co-founder, SecDev Group and Co-founder, Igarapé Institute
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Geopolitics

  • With the world facing multiple overlapping challenges at once, global leaders are grappling with a world reminiscent of Cold War pressures.
  • Rising militarization, new economic fault lines, and escalating cyber warfare are causing increased tension in international diplomacy and undermining multilateral cooperation.
  • As the world faces up to the prospect of a multipolar reality, governments, companies, and nonprofits must prioritize collaboration and common ground between countries.

Decision-makers are dusting off their international relations textbooks to make sense of our increasingly disorderly world. Some analysts suggest we're already locked into Cold War 2.0 – pitting the US and its Western allies against China and others.

A senior UK official recently warned ominously that we’re moving from a “post-war” to a “pre-war” world. The recently elected Prime Minister of Poland agreed, suggesting that Europe had already entered a "pre-war era". Some have even speculated that a Third World War has already started, with intersecting conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and potentially East Asia. While experts disagree on the precise framing of our predicament, virtually everyone concedes that the risks of missteps that could trigger catastrophic warfare are escalating.

Front of mind are fears of a nuclear confrontation. At least two active ongoing conflicts could trigger a tactical or strategic nuclear exchange, and a third serious dispute has the potential to start a global war. The two-year-old Russia-Ukraine conflict could potentially spread to other neighbouring European countries. So, too, the conflict in Israel and Gaza could engulf the Middle East, drawing in the US and its allies.

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Meanwhile, despite efforts to smooth relations, the potential for conflict between China and the US remains worryingly high. In addition to flashpoints on the Korean peninsula, tensions exist between India and Pakistan and across Sub-Saharan Africa. By one estimate, there were as many as 55 conflicts simmering globally in 2023—the highest number in over 30 years. To put this in perspective, at least one in six people was affected by violent conflict this year.

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Maintaining global order

Instability and conflict are surging because the global order is undergoing a wrenching transition. Put simply, international affairs are shifting from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a multipolar system where power is more distributed across states, companies, and non-state actors. While the US is still the dominant military power, political, economic, and technological influence is shifting eastward to countries like China and India.

There is no consensus about which system is more or less likely to generate stable outcomes. However, there is agreement that the transition between systems can be intensely destabilizing.

As the late Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci observed when the world was undergoing another transition in the early twentieth century:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms emerge.

—Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci

The transition from a unipolar to a multipolar system is generating tremendous volatility and uncertainty. On the one hand, war in Ukraine has enlarged and strengthened alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The US election in November 2024, however, could impact this coalition. On the other hand, wars in Europe and the Middle East are hardening anti-western positions in many countries that make up the so-called “Global South”. Many of these countries have long been calling for a more representative international system.

Meanwhile, global rules, norms, and institutions designed in the mid-twentieth century to prevent military escalation and foster economic cooperation are increasingly under pressure. The global guardrails crafted over the past 75 years seem to be coming unstuck. Unfortunately, there are signs that revanchist politicians, opportunistic warlords, and intrepid criminals are stepping into the vacuum.

Have you read?
  • Global Risks Report 2024

What could come next?

Facing the prospect of a world at war, a growing number of governments are preparing for military confrontation. It is not too alarmist to say that the international community has entered a new arms race. This is made even more unpredictable by the emergence of a host of new weapons driven by advanced robotics and AI.

Indeed, the US designated cyberspace as the fifth military domain (alongside land, air, water, and space). Cyberspace as a domain, incidentally, is the first of these that is entirely manmade. Despite the proliferation of voluntary principles, there are no globally agreed guardrails on how this new generation of weaponry can be used – much less how to prevent dangerous escalation.

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Global defence spending grew by over 9% last year, reaching a record $2.2 trillion. For the first time since 2019, military expenditures increased in all major regions including the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Rising tension and anxiety are rapidly transforming the international defence-industrial landscape.

The West is spending a combined 32% more than it did when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Over 30% of government outlays are devoted to military expenditure in China and Russia. Several nuclear powers have not only ramped up their nuclear rhetoric, they are actively upgrading and modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

Warfare is expanding into the economic and technological domains. The West has launched a barrage of economic and technology-related sanctions against its adversaries in recent years, albeit with mixed outcomes. The US has, since 2018, waged a “preventive economic war” through tariffs and trade barriers.

In 2021, the US imposed export controls to choke China’s access to semiconductor value chains. China has responded in kind, including by banning exports of critical minerals and processing technologies. Meanwhile, the US cybersecurity infrastructure and national security agencies have issued a slew of alerts about past, ongoing, and impending cyber-attacks. These originate especially from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, with the US warning of their “prepositioning” for conflict.

Democracy under threat

These grave global challenges are massing at a time of deepening domestic fissures, including in the West. Democratic deficits have widened over the past two decades, a result of sharpening inequalities and polarization.

Surveys of over 150 countries suggest that levels of global dissatisfaction with democracy are at the highest levels since the mid-1990s. Far-right populist influences are ascendant in France and Germany, while already being entrenched in Hungary and Slovakia.

In the US, the relentless degradation of democratic norms and institutions by extreme groups are undermining trust and confidence in democracy itself. There is increasingly serious talk of civil war in the US, coinciding with the release of a movie of the same name. Nearly half of all Americans fear their country could descend into civil war within the next decade.

Arresting such developments

Domestic anxieties and social fragmentation are being exploited by rival powers, including in cyberspace. Through online disinformation and misinformation campaigns confusion, doubt, and polarization are being sown and forged.

Despite growing government and tech company guardrails to regulate and mitigate digital harms, the manipulation and spread of malicious synthetic content is tearing at the social fabric of societies. Indeed, it featured as the top international threat in the 2024 Global Risk Report.

With leaders and citizens distracted, meaningful cooperation on shared existential threats, from nuclear arms control to the green energy transition and AI regulation goes unattended. The paradox is that at precisely the moment the world needs to come together, it is spiralling even further apart.

Restoring trust

The sheer complexity, scale, and speed of global challenges in a world in transition are overwhelming the capacity of diplomats and decision-makers to respond. Trust – the currency of effective multilateralism – is in vanishingly short supply.

The central question facing every one of us in 2024 is how can we foster global cooperation in an era of international competition?

At a minimum, this will require developing processes and platforms to align interests and incentives to serve both people and the planet. It will require new forms of multi-stakeholder partnerships - including at the regional level - that leverage the capabilities of states, companies, and non-profits to drive collective action.

It will also require elevating a serious engagement with geopolitics to the highest echelons of decision-making from cabinet offices to boardrooms. The only way to manage a multipolar transition in which we all survive and thrive, is if we learn to rapidly identify risks, adapt to them, and find new ways to cooperate.

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