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Are we seeing the return of a multipolar world?

It would be a mistake to overestimate the extent to which the world is multipolar or the certainty of such a moment arriving

Economic CrisisEuropeAsiaGlobalizationUSA Politics

Marco Polo’s caravan from the Catalan Atlas, 1375. Illustration by Abraham Cresques/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s becoming commonplace to suggest that a multipolar world order is emerging, one that will replace the US-dominated world system that has reined since the end of the Second World War and faced no serious challengers since the fall of the Soviet Union. This theory has it that as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) become stronger, and as the US-led imperial core becomes more crisis-ridden, American ruling class efforts to dictate global affairs will face far more constraints than they have in decades.

The evidence of an increasingly multipolar world includes, for instance, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a “staggeringly ambitious project of interdependence encompassing Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.” Multipolarity also entails BRICS countries creating multilateral alternatives to Washington Consensus institutions including the World Trade Organization, and using these to co-operate with each other. China and Russia, for example, have strengthened their ties both bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which India is also a member.

The obverse are the contradictions facing the US-led alliance. Economist Michael Hudson points out that, as Europe faces an energy crisis following US sanctions on Russia, “depreciation of the euro will reduce the value of US investments in Europe and the dollar-value of any profits that these investments may still earn as the European economy shrinks. So reported earnings by US multinationals will fall.” Hudson goes on to write that:

International raw materials are still priced mainly in dollars, so the dollar’s rising exchange rate will raise import prices proportionally for most countries. This exchange-rate problem is intensified by the US/NATO sanctions forcing up world prices for gas, oil and grain. Many European and Global South countries already have reached the limit of their ability to service their dollar-denominated debts, and are still coping with the COVID pandemic. They cannot afford to import the energy and food that they need to live if they have to pay their foreign debts. The world economy is now exceeding its debt limits, so something has to give.

If European countries decide to take steps away from the US and look for partners elsewhere (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for example) then that accelerates the tendency toward multipolarity.

If the international order becomes multipolar, the character of that order will be profoundly shaped by ongoing power struggles inside the BRCIS countries in the coming years and by their multifaceted positions on the world stage. For example, Brazil led by Lula has different international implications than Brazil led by Bolsonaro: Lula’s win is clearly better than the alternative though that does not mitigate Brazil’s harmful role in Haiti during Lula’s first presidency.

India, meanwhile, has a chauvinistic right-wing government but the balance of social forces in the country is in flux as last year’s massive farmer protests evince, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Naxalite–Maoists fighting central government forces in mineral-rich areas, or of the left-wing—largely communist—Left Democratic Front that governs Kerala. As long as the internal politics of BRICS countries remain undetermined, what multipoliarity means in practice remains up for contestation.

Not so fast

It would, however, be a mistake to overestimate the extent to which the world is multipolar or the certainty of such a moment arriving. The US dollar remains the world’s dominant reserve currency. The US has approximately 750 military bases in at least 80 countries; China has one and, according to the hawkish Jamestown Foundation, Russia has 21, all but a handful of them within the former Soviet space. America has by far the world’s largest share of all military spending worldwide: the Pentagon accounts for 38 percent while China’s share is 14 percent and Russia’s is 3.1 percent. While Russia is estimated to have a greater nuclear weapons stockpile than the United States, the US has more nukes that are actually deployed on intercontinental missiles and at heavy bomber bases (“deployed strategic”) or deployed on bases with operational short-range delivery systems (“deployed nonstrategic”): the US has 1,744 known to be deployed in either of these senses, Russia has 1,588; although China and India possess nuclear weapons, none are known to be either “deployed strategic” or “deployed nonstrategic.”

It’s also worth noting that the American ruling class does not surrender control peacefully: witness, for instance, the merciless strangulation of the Afghan civilian population that the US has inflicted through sanctions after its military forces were driven out of the country. The same is happening to peoples living in states that, notwithstanding any internal social conflicts facing these nations, continue to hold out against US dictates: Cubans, Iranians, Syrians, and Venezuelans (to give only a partial list) face murderous sanctions, and other forms of aggression, for defying US orders. While the extent and nature of multipolarity remains uncertain, what is certain is that the old order will not fall without its rulers spilling considerable blood in an attempt to cling to power.

Productive capacities

Multipolarity is not international proletarian revolution but it would also be reductive to assume that such a global shift necessarily means replacing one violent, exploitative empire with others. Radhika Desai writes that:

Successive waves of contender development, of which… that of the BRICs [sic] and the emerging economies is the latest, spread productive power ever more widely, and by the early twenty-first century had made such dominance impossible. Imperialism has not come to an end: the more powerful states, the poles of the multipolar capitalist world, will still attempt to stall further diminution of the unevenness that favours them by new bouts of contender development. However, their very multiplicity works against them, and accelerates instead an evolution towards ever more numerous and less powerful poles, and a world order in which unevenness becomes progressively less consequential.

By “spread[ing] productive power ever more widely” among ever more numerous and thus also less powerful poles, multipolarity can give people across the globe—particularly in the Global South—the capacity to develop independent of US prerogatives.

Dismantling the US-dominated world order is a necessary condition for socialism: American imperialism has sought to crush every socialist organization that has come to power or come close to doing so and, when this imperialism has not achieved total success, it has inflicted grave damage and constrained the options available to the ascendant socialist movement. Replacing the US-led system with one centred on other capitalist powers is also unlikely to achieve to foster socialism on a world scale. Multipolarity, however, would be a welcome development insofar as it enables workers around the world to, as Desai outlines, have greater space to win gains that increase their living standards and their political power.

Whether such conditions take hold depends on working class victories inside and outside of what continues to be the imperial core. As Desai writes, such advancements “enable working people to build more just societies, and through multilateral international action, for constructing a more just international order.” It’s far from certain that we will soon be living in a multipolar world and, if we do, what it entails is even less clear. Multipolarity should be seen as a potential opportunity, the realization of which depends on the organization of workers from the North to the South, and the East to the West.

Greg Shupak writes fiction and political analysis and teaches Media Studies and English at the University of Guelph-Humber. He’s the author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media. He writes a monthly column with Canadian Dimension and his work frequently appears in outlets like Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, The Guardian, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Nation.


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