Multipolarity is Only the Beginning

By Fabio Petito, University of Sussex, specially for

While Western media were focussing on the last tragic episode of the euro crisis, the 7th BRICS summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) met last summer on 8-9 July in the Russian city of Ufa. The Euro zone countries succeeded in agreeing on a last minutes deal that provisionally rescued Greece from bankruptcy and the EU from implosion. The BRICS countries made an initial, but significant, step in challenging to the US-centred Western and liberal structure of global governance: they pledge 100 billion dollars on a New Development Bank, which will start lending in their respective local currencies by April next year.
True, this is not a new debate: a widespread discussion has been ranging throughout the post-Cold War period on whether the end of the bipolar international system would lead to unipolarity or multipolarity.  It is fair to say that the view that we are living in a ‘unipolar era’ is today less popular than it was in the early 1990s. The predictions that the twenty-first century will see the emergence of a post-American world are increasingly common. This view is arguably the result of some critical security and political developments of the last fifteen years including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is also based on less contingent long term economic estimations which suggest the fast progression of the (relative) economic decline of US in favour of the new Asian fast-growing economies of China and India. This reality that has become more visible after the recent financial crisis and global economic recession, whose origins were in the American heartland of the West and from which for the first time the way out, the return to global growth, is also coming significantly from the East. As a consequence, the term multipolarity is increasingly used to point to the growing number and role of emerging regional centres of powers (China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, etc…), a reality which has now started to be recognised also in some institutions of global governance like the G-20.

Recently the discussion has moved to the question of whether the end of unipolarity will also represent a challenge to the international liberal world order designed and supported by the US after WWII. John Ikenberry has been forcefully arguing that the new emerging powers are not going to challenge the rules of the international liberal order to which they have become highly integrated and thanks to which they have gained their renewed great power status. Today’s ‘illiberal’ powers, the argument goes, are not revisionist powers of the liberal rules and institutions of world order for they do not have an alternative visions of order. Opposing this argument, Martin Jacques has argued that as China will become the new (economic) hegemon of the 21st century international system, it will seek to shape a Chinese-led world order with Chinese political and cultural characteristics with a result that is likely to be similar to the hegemonic impact that the US had in the last century on world order (2012).

While the on-going changes in the economic and power structure of the international system have now become part of the mainstream discussion on the transformation of contemporary international relations, what has not been given the deserved attention is how these change are taking place as part of the broader epoch-making process of transformation of contemporary international society beyond its modern and Western-centric matrix. In other words, the economic and power shift towards the East and the BRICS  countries -- now also institutionalised in the form of intra-BRICS cooperation  -- have to be understood within the context of a gradual ideological transformation of the normative structure of international society, which is happening at the same time and is first of all visible in the global resurgence of cultural and religious pluralism as well as in the quest for cultural authenticity of the non-Western worlds.

Whether it is the issue of democracy, development, human rights or secularism, just to mention a few important instances of institutional arrangements emerging out of the single and encompassing civilization of modernity, it is becoming increasingly clear and politically visible that the merging of ‘modern’ political values and practices with traditional local cultural references and ways of living will be the rule rather than the exception in a post-Western world. As Peter Katzenstein has effectively pointed out that: “Modern societies are therefore not converging on a common path involving capitalist industrialism, political democracy, modern welfare regimes, and pluralizung secularism. Instead, the different religious traditions act as cultural sources for the enactment of different programmes of modernity’ (2010: 17). Hence, it is not surprise that the instances of ‘modern’ institutional arrangements I mentioned above - democracy, development, human rights or secularism – are more and more hyphenated or discussed in conjunction with Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and other civilizational traditions.

Today’s international society is experiencing an epoch-making process of transformation beyond its liberal and Western-centric matrix. We are seeing what I would call an alignment among the emergence of a new multipolar world, a new ideological environment characterised by the reassertion of civilizations as strategic frame of reference for international politics and the implementation of political programmes of multiple modernities. This alignment - a new multipolar world in a context of civilizational politics and multiple modernities - requires much more study. More importantly to effectively face this epoch-making challenge at its roots we need to imagine an exit from the strict grid of choices imposed by the contemporary Western-centric and liberal global order. We need a new dialogue of civilizations that provides a conceptual and political framework to answer this momentous challenge and help the construction of a multicultural and peaceful international society of the third millennium.

This article draw on a longer essay entitled “Dialogue of Civilization in a Multipolar World: Toward a Multicivilizational-Multiplex World Order” forthcoming in International Studies Review (2016).