Coming challenges in the emerging global order

The United States president will need to navigate through very turbulent waters

Shahid Javed Burki April 15, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

No matter who makes it to the White House after the November 2020 elections in the United States, he or she would face a world order very different from any that has existed after the end of the Second World War. This is the theme of a recent book, The Rise and Fall of Peace, by Michael Mandelbaum, emeritus professor at Johns Hopkins University. The world that he describes is the post-post-Cold War era in which there will be a number of challenges that will have to be faced by whoever is in charge of the United States government at the start of the third decade of the 21st century.

The United States president will need to navigate through very turbulent waters. Many foreign affairs experts believe that Trump lacks the temperament, skills and patience that would be required to deal with the emerging situations. As Thomas Freidman writes in one of his columns in The New York Times, “Among President Trump’s greatest foreign policy weaknesses are his inability to build and maintain alliances. Few other countries want to follow him into battle. That is not Trump’s only poisoned legacy. The other is that he shows no interest in democracy promotion, and that, too, is more important than ever because democracies are less prone to war. But we’re in a democracy recession now.”

The turbulences anticipated by Mandelbaum are likely to be created by three huge geopolitical trends. All three are developing in the areas in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood which means that Islamabad’s policymakers need to stay alert. The first is the resurgence of three big regional powers: Russia, China and Iran. All three are able and willing to use force to advance their strategic interests. However, I have a problem in having China described as a regional power. It is now operating on the global stage; nothing demonstrated this more than the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to Europe when the Chinese leader recruited Italy, one of the founding nations of the European Union, to become a participant in the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But the other two at this point are indeed regional players.

Russia has used force to occupy the Crimean Peninsula that was part of Ukraine, thus defying the understanding among nations that force would not be used to change boundaries. In the Middle East, Iran has trained and funded proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Mandelbaum sees China in the regional context by focusing on its claim to most of the Western Pacific as its own territory. This is akin to the United States’ Monroe Doctrine which led Washington to proclaim that it would not tolerate interference of outside powers in Latin America which it regarded as its backwater. The three powers have structural similarities: all are authoritarian states trying to generate support among those they govern by using aggressive nationalism. The emergence of these powers would require a presence in Washington that can manage these emerging strengths.

The second trend noted by Mandelbuam is the weakening of a number of states around the world. They are in most continents: Venezuela, Haiti and most nations in Central America; Myanmar in Southeast Asia; some nations in the greater Middle East, and several countries in East and sub-Saharan Africa. These states are suffering from a combination of developments that include predatory elites who have sucked capital out of their countries and deposited it in European banks or bought expensive properties in Europe and the United States. There is also population pressure and pressure resulting from rapid urbanisation. Then there is climate change that is making some places uninhabitable. The weakened states also affect the world’s rich nations and societies. They are producing waves of migrations that are hitting the shores of Europe and applying pressure on the United States’ southwestern border. The arrival of more than a million people from Africa in the Middle East and further into Europe has disturbed political and social equilibrium in the continent.

The third trend is what Mandelbaum sees as the increasing strength of super-empowered small groups that are taking advantage of acceleration in information technology. This has made it possible to easily communicate and influence the likeminded. These groups are exerting pressure not only on weak states but also in those that have well-established systems for the resolution of inter-group differences. This development is reflected in the pursuit of narrow objectives that are not endorsed by society at large. We have seen this happen in the case of white supremacists and Islamic ideologues.

Is the situation in the post-post Cold War era worse than what it was after the end of the Second World War? For contemporaries — and Mandelbaum is one such analyst — the present always looks more challenging than the past. In 1944-45, there were a lot of countries that were badly broken. But the real difference was that policymaking in that period was in the hands of some extraordinary leaders who had the vision, the imagination, the compassion, and the fortitude to design a system at Bretton Woods resort in the American state of New Hampshire that worked for all. It worked for the victors in the war and those who had lost and surrendered. It worked for the countries that were rich as well as those that were poor. It worked for the nations that had been independent for a long time and those that were emerging from decades of colonial rule and domination. The system that got built then had three features: nations agreed to work with one another, rather against each other; they agreed on the laws that would be followed; and they created international institutions that oversaw the working of the global system. These were the foundations on which the old structure was built. They are now under assault.

But as we head for the opening of the third decade of the 21st century, the fate of the world is in the hands of petty politicians. America’s Donald Trump exemplifies those who occupy leadership positions not only in the United States but also in several places in Europe, in Egypt, in India, in many African countries. What makes the present so much different from the past in that leaderships in many parts of the world lack the qualities the times need.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2019.

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