China-US superpower rivalry grows after war sweeps away multipolar world

The world order that seems to be emerging out of the Ukrainian rubble looks an awful lot like that of the Cold War

Andreas Kluth | Bloomberg
China, China economy

Photo: Bloomberg

If American intelligence is right and China really is about to arm Russia in its genocidal war against Ukraine, we may be entering a new era in international relations. An even more dangerous one? That remains to be seen.
In effect, Chinese military support for Russia would finally turn the Ukrainian conflict into a proxy war between two hostile blocs, with a third trying to stay out of the fray. The US, the European Union and the geopolitical “West” — from Canada to Japan and Australia — would be supplying Kyiv. China, Iran, North Korea, Belarus and a few other rogues — let’s call them the “East” — would be helping Moscow. 

Meanwhile, most other countries — from India to Brazil and much of Africa — will navigate between these camps. Today we call them the “Global South.” In the past, we referred to them as the “Non-Aligned Movement” — led by India and the former Yugoslavia — or simply the “Third World,” a term that only later connoted “poor countries.”
Sound familiar? The world order that seems to be emerging out of the Ukrainian rubble looks an awful lot like that of the Cold War. A democratic and capitalist First World would once again be facing off against an autocratic (and vaguely klepto-capitalist or post-communist) Second, with the Third yet again feeling up for grabs, overlooked, resentful and restive. 

International relations has fancy polysyllabic words for such configurations. The Cold War’s “order” was bipolar. This meant neither that the era was orderly nor that there were only two powers. It merely pointed to the dual centers of geopolitical might, in Washington and Moscow.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 appeared to end bipolarity and introduce a new unipolar era — or “moment,” depending on your view at the time of its durability. The US, as the sole remaining superpower, would in effect act as global cop. Another fancy term for that role is “hegemon.” Depending on where in the world you sat, that was great news, or the worst. 

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It was ephemeral, in any case. For at least the past decade, diplomats and scholars have felt sure that we’ve moved on into a new era. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy supremo, calls it “complex multipolarity.” That system’s main actors, he thinks, are the US, China and the EU — well, he does work in Brussels — with other middling powers making cameos, including Russia, Turkey and India. Far from happy about this arrangement, Borrell worries that such multipolarity actually makes rules-based multilateralism harder. 
Scholars of international relations have been in each others’ hair forever about which of these three systemic flavors is most conducive to stability. Unipolar antecedents include the Roman Empire, or the Chinese Tang or Ming dynasties. One problem is that the superpower, over time, perceives its hegemony less as privilege and more as burden, since it often has to rank the system’s interests above its own. Another is that all other powers will be tempted either to free-ride on, or to gang up against, the big guy.

Bipolarity also has historical precedents, from Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BCE to Britain and France in the 18th and, of course, the US and the Soviet Union in the 20th. If you lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, you may remember this kind of confrontation as scary. But bipolarity can also simplify the game theory between the two superpowers and lead to stability, such as the “Mutual Assured Destruction” (appropriately abbreviated MAD) that saved us from nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. 
Examples of multipolarity include Europe in the 17th century, or again in the 19th after the Napoleonic Wars, or again in the 20th after World War I. Its fans include scholars in the classical “realist” tradition, who think that stability arises out of a shifting balance of power among many actors. But multipolar systems also eventually break down. The 17th century’s was tested in the Thirty Years’ War, which left about one in three Central Europeans dead. The 20th century’s interwar order, such as it was, culminated in Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Stalin.

Another Cold War — provided it stays cold — therefore wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of the world just for being bipolar. But it would require new approaches. One difference is that the cast of characters has changed. The US and NATO are still the main protagonists on one side. But whereas during the Cold War the main antagonist was Moscow, and Beijing its cranky understudy, those roles have now reversed. 
These days, Russia under President Vladimir Putin is the agent of chaos threatening the system as a whole, but no match for the US or the West in the long term. Venting his rage in a two-hour speech this week, Putin sounded more like a raving tinpot dictator than a potential co-hegemon.

China under President Xi Jinping is the obverse. It’s the only power that could challenge the US for supremacy, but also increasingly has an interest in preserving the system as such. This week’s hints by Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, that Beijing would seek to mediate a negotiated peace in Ukraine should therefore be treated with caution, but not dismissed out of hand. 
No matter whether we label our era multi- or bipolar, it’s unlikely to be pleasant. Thinking in terms of “spheres of influence” is back in fashion, to the detriment of smaller countries who find themselves pawns on other people’s game boards. Multilateralism — that is, regulated cooperation among all or most players — will become increasingly elusive, even as climate change makes it indispensable. Only academics will call any of this “order.”

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of or the Business Standard newspaper

First Published: Feb 22 2023 | 12:44 PM IST

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