Multipolar World // Analysis

15 september 2015

Avoiding a New Bipolarity — What Can We Learn From the Recent Past?

Andrey Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
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It was only a couple of years ago that most mainstream experts and politicians in the East and in the West shared the common view that the world was moving towards a multi-polar system. Of course, many disagreements arose about the speed of this advance, the specific parameters of the new system, its building blocks, the rules of the game and other fundamentals. However, the overall direction seemed to be more or less clear. Today this clarity is no longer present and new visions for future international arrangements are gaining momentum.

These new perspectives are based on some very visible recent trends in global politics. On the one hand, we are witnessing a trend towards the consolidation of the ‘aggregate West’ (composed mostly of G7 countries) under the leadership of the United States. We are seeing the quick restoration of traditional NATO strategies and mechanisms that many consider to be hopelessly antiquated. A common sanctions policy against Russia has been adopted. New efforts have been undertaken to enhance the level of trans-Atlantic economic and technological integration. This consolidation has been accelerated by the Ukrainian crisis, but, as many analysts have observed, the real driving force behind it has been the rise of non-Western powers that are pushing the West toward a closer political and economic union.

At the same time, Russian-Chinese cooperation is gaining more ground, growing from mostly economic areas to political and security domains. The Chinese-Russian axis creates opportunities and temptations for neighboring and more distant states, resulting in the rapid institutional development of such entities as the SCO or BRICS. In sum, the world is gradually acquiring a bipolar shape, with the traditional divisions between “us” and “them”, global “good” and global “evil”, reminiscent of the decades of the Cold War. Needless to say, the United States and China appear to be the centers of gravity for this new polarization of global politics.

One might ask the question: is there anything fundamentally wrong about a bipolar world? Was it not the Soviet-US bipolarity that served as the foundation of global peace and stability for some forty years after the Second World War? Isn’t it fair to say that a bipolar world – with all its imperfections and limitations notwithstanding – is still much better than the potential alternative of a gradual erosion of global governance and the arrival of anarchy and chaos in international relations? So why can’t we simply accept this new polarity as a plausible and realistic option that can define the hierarchy and structure of the international system in the XXI century?

Some analysts – at least in Russia – have gone even further and maintain that this new global split has been historically predetermined and unavoidable, being based on ‘objective’ realities. It is often argued that the Atlantic and the Eurasian civilizations have opposed each other from the days immemorial, that ‘land’ powers have always and will always be different from ‘maritime’ powers, that the ‘global continent’ (Eurasia) is the eternal counterweight to the ‘global island’ (America). And that it makes little sense to challenge the laws of history and geography. The logical conclusion is that we should take the emerging bipolarity as a natural and, in a way, even desirable state of affairs. The only realistic goal should be to maintain this bipolarity within a mutually acceptable framework in order to avoid an uncontrolled confrontation with unacceptably high risks and costs involved.      

 In my view, such a conclusion is at the very least premature. It is hard to deny that a trend towards a new bipolarity has already manifested itself not only in geopolitics, but also in the global strategic balance and the global economy. But whether this trend can be considered positive and whether it should be regarded as inevitable – these are points that can be disputed. Let me briefly outline a couple of arguments against these assumptions.

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Andrey Kortunov:
The Splendours and Miseries of Geopolitics

I have no intention of going into the details of geopolitical theories here. Let me only observe that in the history of intellectual thought, any rigid determinism – be it religious, ethnic, economic or geographical -  has always failed to explain and to predict social change and international developments. Nor would I like to dig into the chronicles of the Cold War; it should be crystal clear to any unbiased observer that this period can hardly be described as an era of peace and stability – it included numerous regional wars and crises and an unprecedented arms race; furthermore, in a number of cases the world was very close to global nuclear conflict.

But it is even more important to underscore the following. The modern world is very different from what it was in the second half of the XX century. Fifty years ago the world was divided into two systems – the Western (capitalist) and the Eastern (communist) with irreconcilable (antagonistic) contradictions between them. In other words, the bipolar system was based on a solid ideological foundation. This foundation is gone and it is hard to imagine that it will reemerge in the foreseeable future. Nationalism, even in its extreme forms, and religious fundamentalism are unlikely to replace the fundamental ideological divide of the previous century.  

Moreover, all of the main international players today have to confront essentially the same set of threats and challenges to their security, which are very different from the traditional threats and challenges of the XX century and earlier periods. Today state leaders have to deal with international terrorism and political extremism, with transnational crime and illicit drug trafficking, with uncontrolled migration and climate change, with the instabilities of the global financial system and increased risks of technological disasters. Some of these challenges existed during the Cold War, but only in an ‘embryonic’ form, being overshadowed by the all-embracing East – West confrontation. 

One of the specific features of this new set of challenges is that most of them are not generated by other (rival) great powers. In fact, these threats have nothing to do with state actors of the international system, except for a small number of irresponsible, radical regimes (rogue states). The new generation of threats and challenges come from subversive non-state actors; they may represent the negative side effects of technological and economic progress, or the growing shortage of natural resources, or the obsolescence of many key international institutions and norms of international public law. This is a fundamental difference between the period of the Cold War and the today’s world and this is why a new bipolar system, even if it can be established, is unlikely to provide any long term security or stability.

One should keep in mind another important difference between the contemporary international situation and that of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was economically almost completely separated from the West, as the two poles of the world did not depend on each other for their development. Today, in the era of globalization, the level of interdependence between the East and the West, between the ‘global continent’ and the ‘global island’ is unprecedentedly high. Therefore, any political bipolarity, which would have an inevitable impact on the economic, financial, cultural, and humanitarian dimensions of international relations, is likely to have much higher costs for everyone than the Cold War ever had. Not to mention the massive relocation of material and human resources from addressing numerous global problems that are looming on the horizon.

In sum, the trend towards a new bipolarity is troublesome and dangerous. Even in its modified and ‘modernized’ form, a bipolar arrangement is not likely to successfully handle the critical international questions of this century. If the world is split once again, this split is likely to have long term negative repercussions for the whole system despite some tactical gains that can be anticipated by the leaders of the new ‘poles’. It is in our common interest to avoid this option and to move towards a more inclusive, democratic and truly global international system.  Since “no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed”.

 

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Andrey Kortunov, “Avoiding a New Bipolarity — What Can We Learn From the Recent Past?,” Russian International Affairs Council, 15 September 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6577

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Date: 25 september 2015

Author: Subhabrata Chowdhury

My argument based on study of miniature world with geo-culturally diversified India, where after 1995, we see the end of bipolar balance of political control between liberal platform of Congress (I) and communists, the multipolar linguistic regionals ( geo cultural) and caste based (socio-economic) controls increasing. There was the seed of religious and totalitarian extremism was hiding. We have seen as a result, demolition of Babri Mosque, Neo Nazism in Gujarat religious riots, and in turn extreme nationalist and rightist Government controlling nation with religious intolerance and denying history. Was it a better option than old bipolarity of liberals and communists !


Date: 25 september 2015

Author: Subhabrata Chowdhury

My argument based on study of miniature world with geo-culturally diversified India, where after 1995, we see the end of bipolar balance of political control between liberal platform of Congress (I) and communists, the multipolar linguistic regionals ( geo cultural) and caste based (socio-economic) controls increasing. There was the seed of religious and totalitarian extremism was hiding. We have seen as a result, demolition of Babri Mosque, Neo Nazism in Gujarat religious riots, and in turn extreme nationalist and rightist Government controlling nation with religious intolerance and denying history. Was it a better option than old bipolarity of liberals and communists !


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