Before he died in 323 BC, Alexander the Great had overthrown Darius III to conquer the Persian empire. The conquest included Assyria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and the steppes of Central Asia. The 300 years that followed this conquest, the so-called Hellenistic period, are a good example of a multipolar political world. Macedonia, Syria, Pergamon and Parthia vied with one another for domination, but no single state could establish hegemony. In the end, all were left weakened, to be dominated by a surging Roman empire from the first century BC onwards.
Many scholars believe that we have now entered a similar period in world history. The economic troubles of the US, which began during the dot-com boom-bust, aggravated by political and economic actions following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and culminating in the credit crisis of 2008-09, are cited as proof by the “declinists” of the US’ eroding influence. The rise of the East, on the other hand, is evidenced by China’s rapid economic growth, military build-up and overall domination of global manufacturing.
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This combination of the US’ decline and the rise of a new power in the East has had an on-again off-again quality to it. Writing for Foreign Affairs in 1988, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington had noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had come in several waves—in reaction to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, the Vietnam War, the oil shock of 1973, the rise of Japan, and so on. Declinists argue that the US has been living beyond its means for many years, weighed down by an expensive military and a sliding economy. They claim such “imperial overstretch”, combined with intensifying social and political problems at home, has historically led to the decline of other great powers such as the UK and Spain.
The recently concluded BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting in Sanya on the picturesque Chinese island of Hainan provides grist for the declinist’s mill. This was the third annual meeting of the group, and South Africa has just been added to the club. (Though at $350 billion, its economy is a minion compared with that of the others, South Africa owes its inclusion more as a way of including the African continent politically and a window into the rest of Africa economically.)
As yet, the BRICS have been long on words and short on action. But clearly, muscles are being flexed. All five nations are current members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (India, Brazil and South Africa are non-permanent members elected to two-year terms), and the group is dealing with several critical issues. These include the role of the dollar in the international currency reserve system, reform of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) role in crisis management, Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, India’s and Brazil’s Security Council aspirations, and cooperation on food security. Critics charge the group with being a toothless organization, with more rhetoric than action.
Yet the BRICS are not the only group to challenge the US’ singular status. In the wake of the credit crisis, the Group of Twenty (G-20) has already supplanted the traditional role of the Group of Seven and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in global economic affairs. In a new world order, the BRICS could become a similar political counterbalance to the US, though its heterogeneity could make it an unlikely foil for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). Its political clout also has a long way to go—even as Nato, led by France and supported by the US and UK, conduct air strikes on Libya, the BRICS have been powerless spectators despite their opposition to the use of force (South Africa initially supported, but later recanted). Though the Libyan operation is showing signs of fatigue, particularly from the US, only time will tell whether the rhetoric from the BRICS has had any impact on Nato.
But before the world settles into a “positive” multipolarity, we may go through a phase of what I call global coalition politics—a weak form of multiple power centres. Lots of give and take, confusion, acceptance of alternative views and courses of action will probably dominate the world order for a few years. As the globe builds/rebuilds multilateral organizations focused on the next 50 years, this confused state should give way to a more balanced power structure. My bet is that such an architecture will be governed by a modified UN (with Brazil and India as permanent Security Council members), a reformed IMF that is less bureaucratic and more flexible, a more purposeful Nato, and a more cohesive and influential BRICS that forms the political core of the G-20’s economic powerhouse.
P.S.: Mahatma Gandhi said: “A policy or governance structure (my italics) is a temporary creed that is liable to be changed, but while it holds good it has to be pursued with apostolic zeal.”
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org