Does a multi-polar world lead to multi-national governance?


Considering the relative decline of the United States, the rise of Asia, the shift in power to the commodity-producing states, and the continued inability of Europe to become a global military power, multi-polarity is inevitable.  Many analysts assume that multi-polarity facilitates multi-national governance.  Thus, the decline of the US, and with it the post-war Western system, is believed to lead to a new multi-national governance system.

The EU in a Multipolar World: Trying to Lead by Example
An example of this assumption is a recent publication of the European commission, entitled The World in 2025.  In the report, the authors describe how the rise of Asia and other multi-polar players will impact global governance.  The report underscores the following key trends that will create a multi-polar world.

  1. First, Asia will rise.  By 2025, the report states that two-thirds of the world will live in Asia.  This change will allow Asia to be the first exporter and importer within the global trade system.  “The USA-EU-Japan triad will not longer dominate the world, even if the United States preserve their leadership” (page 9). Indeed before 2025, China could become a global economic power second to the US: “if the recent trends continue, in 2025, the United States and Europe will have lost their scientific and technological supremacy for the benefit of Asia” ( page 10).   This development would turn Asia the “main location of business R and D” (page 11).

    India: A nation develops, Joe Leahy, The Financial Times, 01-10-2010
  2. Second, global migration patterns will continue the decline of Europe’s importance. Indeed after 2012, the European population will start to decrease.
  3. Third, there are considerable health and ecological challenges facing the world as it moves towards 2025.  “Although the global health situation is improving, new threats are emerging… and non traditional security issues like pandemics are coming up” (page 13).  These developments which cross national boundaries will cause states to further establish a multi-national governance system to attempt to deal with these challenges with a global reach.
  4. Fourth, a new geopolitics of energy will emerge in which resources of Russia and the Caucuses balances the role of the Middle East.  Notably missing from the EU analysis is the role of the Arctic in this shift in geopolitics.
  5. Fifth, other commodities will become significant as shortages occur, and many of these resources are in poor regions. This will lead to shifts in power among states and regions.  “More than 50% of the major ore reserves are located in the countries having a per capita income of 10 dollars or less per day” (page 13). “Many countries that are rich in resources apply protectionist measures which stop or slow down exports of raw materials to Europe in order to support their downstream industries” (page 15).

Having sketched a realistic view of global trends, the report goes on to argue that the EU will serve as a model for multi-national governance in 2025.  It forecasts that the US will preserve its military power and be able to play an important role with Europe in shaping the multi-national system of governance to cope with the emerging challenges of multi-polarity.

The report sketches growing tensions accompanying “increasing global economic interdependence between the principal poles of the world and their peripheries”. Among the tensions highlighted are the following (page 19):

  • Different political approaches concerning global governance including human rights and the place of emerging countries (cf. “G20”), the need to manage global goods, to initiate projects of common interest, to encourage democracy and to fight totalitarianism and populism;
  • Different economic approaches: after a period where world capitalism seemed to model itself gradually on the model of market finance, the latest report of the National Intelligence Council in the United States (“Global Trends 2025”) foresees, for the coming decades, at economic level, a coexistence and competition between several types of capitalism, some of the emerging and oil producing countries promoting state capitalism; to illustrate that, one can mention, for example, that the number of sovereign funds increased from three in 2005 to more than forty today, and the amounts that they mobilise increased from 700 million to 3 trillions of dollars over the same period (page 17);
  • Territorial or cultural claims within the world’s growth poles or at their periphery, if the political, economic and social cohesion of these poles is not ensured or increased;
  • The non-inclusion in the operation of the world’s “inter-poles” of the marginalized countries: fifty-six countries count for less than 0.01 % of world trade; a third of the world population lives in a state of poverty; if nothing is done to reverse this tendency in the next 20 years, 38 % of the African population risks finding itself in a state of extreme poverty; in other words, even if poverty regresses considerably overall, the wealth differential between the rich and the poor will progress, within nations as well as between nations.


A Multi-National System of Governance or a Recipe for Global Conflict?
Having provided this overview, the report goes on to argue that such a multi-polar system will lead to a multi-national system of governance.  In a conclusion worthy of Erasmus himself, the report argues that
the new geopolitical situation which takes shape with the rise to power of emerging countries will probably have as a counterpart a new organization of international relations. The EU aims at leading by example. A common governance system on a world level is likely to emerge (transition from the nation state to new legal-political entities) but one does not know how it will evolve. The creation of an economic level playing field at world level will perhaps lead to a democratisation of (authoritarian) regimes of state capitalism countries but one cannot exclude upheavals in the process” (page 21).

The assumption of a similitude between multi-polarity and multi-nationality is so strong that the report asserts that simply by taking the moral high ground Europe will have a key leadership role.
Europe can prove that it is relatively independent of any other region of the world and that it struggles for the independence of the others and for their cooperation for the common good. To this end it can rest on the fact that it promotes a “constructivist” logic of a projected common future (“community of destiny”) with an opening to the world….The multi-polarity of the world to come could have as an effect a transition towards a new “widened and diversified cohesion” perspective involving the European Union and its Eastern and Southern neighbourhood. This could even imply to enlarge the model of today’s cohesion policy” (page 22).
If such a view were confined to EU researchers, the problem would be contained.  But members of the Obama Administration also act on such assumptions.  For example, the frequent assertion that the US should re-cast its military policy to engage in support of the global commons is similar in character.  It is dangerous to simply assume that the global regions will somehow, with the alchemy of common interest, shape common capabilities to pursue common solutions.

An assumption throughout the EU report is that somehow the US maintains a significant military position, and presumably because the US is capable of doing so, the EU does not need to worry about this problem.  This analysis is clearly an assumption on stilts. The future that the EU analysts are forecasting is one in which US military power would inevitably decline, placing into question the global military and security relationships.

The multi-polarity laid out in the EU report is a recipe for significant global conflict.  Tools to assert national or regional objectives will certainly accompany this conflict.  Not simply classic military tools, but diplomatic and security tools can be used in conjunction with military tools to re-shape the world.
It may well be that emerging states like Iran and China will not build global military intervention tools. However, military means will be part of a state’s exercise of power.  One of the many flaws of asserting the primacy of soft power in the analysis of the next decade of the 21st century is rather simple: US hard power dominated the last decade and virtually all assumptions about the role of soft power exercised by others, such as the Chinese, operated within a distinct historical epoch.  Unless one is a primative Marxist believing in universal laws operating outside of historical periods, then virtually all assumptions about the future – for example, of Chinese behavior based on the last decade – are just that: assumptions.

The history of the modern period has seen multi-national governance only in the presence of a dominant state or a balance of power between two dominant states.  The EU report provides a forecast of significant flux and indeterminate futures.  It is difficult to see how multi-national governance emerges like some 12th century alchemy from such a situation. Unfortunately, conflict among states aspiring to dominance is more likely.  In any case, the “poles” of the multi-polar world will certainly be trying to leverage their relative strengths to re-enforce their power positions. Perhaps the “poles” will bargain out from conflict a “multi-national bargain”. But this is not guaranteed.
It is more likely that we will see something akin to asymmetric warfare.  In this “asymmetric geo-politics” each pole of the global landscape seeks to maximize the value of its core competence or capabilities.  We will see something like a diplomatic poker game in which the various players try to define the game to their advantage.  Rather than a contest of soft versus hard power, states will try to combine their assets and press their advantage to gain ascendancy.  Although a game of diplomacy, it will be characterized by the success of states who are able to combine diverse assets of power into an effective combination of strategy. The multi-national system managed by the EU and the US over the past twenty years is likely to be replaced by a game of multi-power poker, rather than a new system of judicious checks and balances of multi-national governance.

In short, it is difficult to believe that multi-polarity leads inevitably to multi-national governance.  Indeed, the EU forecast is ripe with the seeds for forecasting significant global conflict among the “poles” of the next phase of global development. It is weaker on its proof that multi-national governance will magically take hold.


***Posted January 16th, 2010