CSDS POLICY BRIEF • 28/2023
By Sven Biscop
- The basic structure of world politics is multipolarity, but how to deal with the inherent tensions between powers and how to ensure order are burning questions.
- World order must be built on the principles of peace, open doors that do not lead to exclusive spheres of influence and reciprocity where all powers observe agreed rules.
- For the European Union (EU), it needs to promote “Effective Multilateralism” to ensure an inclusive world order. It needs to also combine Realpolitik and solidarity as a way to temper the ill-effects of power politics.
Politicians, journalists, and yes, academics like to identify turning points. But if every event is a turning point for world politics, all that is left to do is to sit down on the sofa, out of sheer dizziness. Not a good starting point to make sound strategy. In reality, the structure of world politics does not change that often, and not that fast. It has, in fact, been the same for three decades now, since the end of the Cold War, and recent events have not changed it. We are living in a multipolar world. The aim of this Policy Brief is to ask: can we keep that world together?
The structure: multipolarity
Multipolarity means that there are several poles, or, to use the classic term, great powers, that compete, cooperate and rival with each other in ever-changing constellations. The other states, the “non-great powers”, typically engage in hedging: rather than aligning exclusively with one great power, most prefer to keep their options open and maintain working relations with all of them, because one cannot know which power will come out on top on which issue.
Many in the West behave as if the statement that the world is multipolar implies condoning an evil Chinese plan to make it so – with some help from Russia. Multipolarity is then understood to be anti-Western. But multipolarity cannot be purposely created or averted. It is just the normal state of world politics, resulting from the interaction between states that seek to increase their power so that they can pursue their interests more effectively.
Throughout history, every great power had several peer competitors, even the Roman Empire: not the Belgian tribes, but the Carthaginians and the Parthians. The Chinese Empire was twice conquered by foreign peoples who created a non-Han dynasty. The British Empire faced France and Russia. The bipolar Cold War was the exception that should not blind us to the rule. And so today the United States (US) has to realise that its unipolar moment, the period in the 1990s when it appeared to be the sole great power, was just that: an appearance rather than reality.
Within the multipolar structure, the balance of power between the poles is constantly shifting. Clearly, China has been gaining power since the turn of the century, while Russia’s military aggressiveness masks that its power has been declining – though not to such an extent that it is likely to disappear as a pole. The EU, for its part, is never quite sure itself whether it is or aims to be a pole. The basic structure, in any case, so far remains multipolar: that is a factual statement without any moral connotation. The question is: how to deal with multipolarity and the tensions between the powers that are inherent to it? Can one bring some order to such a world?
Order within the structure: rules
Many in the West understand a world order as an arrangement in which they give the orders. Recent shifts in the balance of power away from the West are decried as undermining world order. But it is not a law of nature that the West runs the world by itself, nor that it should hold all of the top jobs in the major international organisations (e.g. the United Nations, the World Bank, etc.). This is not a call for the West to abdicate, of course, or for other powers to dominate the world order instead. But an orderly world is possible in which power is shared more equally between more than just the Western powers.
Indeed, that probably is the only way of maintaining a degree of stability. For if other powerful states are denied their fair share in the running of the world, they will be tempted to undermine the order from without. That can only lead to the world being cut up into rival blocs, which decouple from each other, ending global free trade, and making it impossible to tackle global challenges such as the climate crisis. Each bloc will surely attempt to entice, or even to coerce, other states into joining it, producing an ever greater risk of war. All powers have an interest, therefore, in maintaining a certain equilibrium in the running of the world.
Nevertheless, the risk of a return to bipolarity is real, especially if Sino-American rivalry were to escalate. If China had decided to support Russia’s war to the same extent that the European Union (EU) and the US support Ukraine, we would now be in a new global Cold War – but it has not. For sure, the EU has absolutely no interest in provoking such a new bipolarity, for it stands to lose the most from it.
Keeping the world together, therefore, is the main strategic challenge of the 21st century. That requires establishing a core set of rules that all major states subscribe to:
- Peace: do not make war;
- Open doors: do not create exclusive spheres of influence but let all states freely interact with all other states; and
- Reciprocity: observe the rules oneself that one wants others to follow.
Historically, even great powers do adhere to rules if that makes it easier for them to pursue their interests than the more confrontational absence of order. Some states thrive on instability and conflict: witness Russian strategy over the last decade. But most prefer stability and a degree of multilateral cooperation in order to build prosperity. Building a rules-based order requires compromise, however.
Setting the rules: compromise
The rules can no longer just be agreed between Washington and Brussels: other capitals must have a say, and all will have to make concessions. On certain issues, the West will have to lower the bar. That only makes sense, of course, if afterwards all involved do observe the commonly agreed rules, and empower the multilateral organisations that they jointly manage to enforce the rules. Will Russia one day adopt a more constructive stance again or will it continue to act as a spoiler? And will China, which professes to want to join in rule-making, be sincere about it, contribute to consensus, and abide by the rules? The US, for its part, is not actually a party itself to all the treaties that it – rightly – accuses China of violating.
These rules order relations between states. Such a rules-based world order can be established by consensus. Few states are willing, however, to accept rules on how to run their own societies. A liberal world order, in which all states converge towards the same democratic way of life, cannot be enforced. Consequently, full respect for universal human rights within states cannot be a precondition for involvement in setting the rules for relations between states. States and societies change organically; only in exceptional circumstances can change be engineered from the outside.
This is Realpolitik. That does not mean that the democratic powers do not have to care about values. But they have to draw the red line in the right place. A value-based foreign policy means, first of all, not doing anything oneself that violates one’s own values. A democracy can cooperate with an autocracy when its interests require it, as long as in doing so it does not become complicit in the violations that the latter commits. To make it concrete: in general, trade with an autocracy is permitted; importing products made in forced labour camps is not. That said, most autocracies have signed the main human rights treaties, so one can and must criticise them when they violate them.
Acting: the European Union
Which role should the EU play in such a world? Is it a great power, at the level of the US and China? Or does it only play a supporting role, as the most faithful ally of another power, the US? This existential question is the core of every grand strategy. The tragedy is that member states remain fundamentally divided about this, and so the Union cannot settle on a consistent strategy. In spite of this obstacle, the EU has been charting its own distinct path in world politics, developing policies that contribute to keeping the world together.
First, under the heading of “Open Strategic Autonomy”, or de-risking, the EU is creating the protective – but not protectionist – measures that precisely allow the European economy to remain open. These include inward and outward investment screening; managing dependencies and diversifying supplies, including by re-shoring and “friend-shoring” production in specific areas; and pushing for real reciprocity in terms of market access, with China in particular. The EU should accelerate, however, and decide what exactly will be allowed under de-risking and what not, or the US will decide for it, as it has already done in the area of advanced semiconductors. By working with individual member states, the US has created a fait accompli and set the rule for export controls; the policy is not necessarily wrong, but this definitely ought to have been an EU decision, for the single market as a whole rather than a decision by individual member state capitals.
Second, the recently launched Global Gateway initiative must become the EU’s “Open Door Policy” for the 21st century. This investment programme in connectivity – in terms of energy, transport and Information Technologies – and in health, education and research, should be grand enough to allow the EU to entice other states, not to push other powers out, but to diversify and build deep relations with all powers simultaneously. The aim is to avoid a scramble for exclusive spheres of influence. That will require more resources than have now been committed, however.
Third, the EU must assume leadership in promoting “Effective Multilateralism”. Multilateralism comes naturally to the EU, but it must play a much more proactive role, both in the existing international organisations and in new, ad hoc coalitions, convening democracies and non-democracies that share an interest in concrete solutions for specific problems.
Fourth, the EU’s defence policies have failed. After 25 years, the Common Security and Defence Policy has not resulted in any significant degree of defence integration. Member states have agreed to create the instruments, but remain unwilling to use them. Meanwhile, the US has identified Asia as the main theatre, while war rages around Europe. Even within NATO, it has become imperative to create a comprehensive European force package, able to deter and defend against all conventional threats to Europe even without a conventional US presence – but still under the US nuclear umbrella.
Finally, the EU must never forget to show solidarity. World politics is driven by states pursuing their interests. The ultimate aim of grand strategy always is to preserve one’s way of life. But the EU is prosperous enough to offer aid to those who fall victim to the power politics of others, even when its own interests are not directly at stake. Indeed, the legitimacy that this can bring will be in the EU interest. Realpolitik and solidarity can go hand in hand.