Do the 2020s Point us to a Multipolar World?

We are just at the tail-end of the second year of the 2020s, and we are already seeing significant historical events unfolding before our eyes. We had the world coming together to fight a once in a lifetime pandemic, to then quickly backtrack and bicker over vaccine diplomacy. As the the world was reeling from the economic throngs of a recession, on comes Russia to shock the prevailing world order. In the backdrop of these events, I see an exemplification of a phenomenon that has been happening for years now. A world moving from a more globalized system to one with multiple power centers and complex, overlapping relationships.

For most of the past century, world power structures oscillated between unipolarity and bipolarity. At the dawn of the 20th century, the British empire came to dominate world politics spreading its governing system and language, among other things all across the world. Two world wars and the cold war ensued, splitting the world into two diametrically opposite sides. Countries like India tried to avoid the cold war era partisanship by attempting to stay non-aligned. But, they were slowly pushed towards the Soviets by the tide of bipolarity. With the collapse of the USSR, the world was firmly placed into the clutches of unipolarity again, this time with the Americans at the helm. The political establishment triumphantly declared that capitalism had won, with Francis Fukuyama concluding that history had ended.

Challengers to the US led order have recently surfaced, chiefly in the form of China. However, I argue that we will not see a return to a bipolar world, and will not witness a “neo” cold war brewing between the US and China. The world is far too complex, far too economically dependent on each other to neatly place nations in one camp or the other. It appears to me that the world is becoming more fractured, more multipolar, with different power centers developing. Paradoxically, globalization and the economic interdependence among nations may actually be helping this splintering.

Recent events provide evidence for this shift. The COVID-19 pandemic was as deadly as it was only because the virus could spread incredibly easily across our globalized world. Nations heroically came together to collective implement measures like lockdowns and mask mandates to combat the virus. However when it came to vaccine rollout, we saw this cooperation breakdown incredibly quickly. The West hoarded a lot of the initially developed vaccines for themselves, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. This fueled a ‘vaccine nationalism’ of sorts, with Russia, China and India developing their own brand of COVID-19 vaccines. With the West unwilling to provide vaccines to smaller developing nations, the other powers attempted to fill the void to score some geopolitical brownie points. Even the West had internal disagreements, with the US unwilling to ship the German made Pfizer vaccine to the EU, significantly delaying the vaccine efforts there. In the end, each power bloc pursued its own interests, and it’s own path to combat the virus.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has only amplified the shift to multipolarity. If it was a clear case of the West vs the East again, we would expect China to strongly support Russia in an attempt to undermine the US led position. While China had initially supported Russia, it had always fallen short of any type of military assistance. China is also more reluctant to outwardly support Russia as the war drags on. This is likely due to a fear of Western sanctions spilling over to them, drastically affecting their export driven economy. India, in-spite of their distaste for China and participation in US led security efforts like the Quad, stayed doggedly neutral on the Russian issue. In fact, to the ire of the US and EU, India attempted to swoop up Russian oil at cheap prices. The West took this as India financing the Russian war effort. If this were the 60s or the 70s, the US would have immediately cut-off all ties with India. It can’t offered to do so in the 21st century.

Even the EU states, famous for being vassals of the US in security and defense matters, have started talking about a common EU led security effort. Emmanuel Macron has intensified his calls for an EU wide army, independent from the US led NATO. He has been buoyed by a similar sentiment from Germany’s Olaf Scholz. Recent events of Saudi Arabia siding with Russia by limiting gas production is another sign of the changing world order. Other smaller countries have refused to be swept up by the war, seeing it as big powers playing games that don’t affect them.

I believe the next few decades could see significant shifts in the world order, with the US hegemony being seriously under threat. But, we probably would not see a single new power come to the fore. Rather the world will be guided by a collection of blocks, each vying for their share of the geopolitical pie. Whether this will lead to more dialogue and cooperation among nations, or further division being sown, I do not know. A lot will depend on whether the new emerging powers — and the current hegemon — can accept their place as one among many and not fight to be the sole world autocrat.

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Bharath Raghavan

Computational Biophysicist interested in geopolitics, science, and culture