For the past seven decades, the world has been moulded by a strong, transatlantic relationship with the US and EU underwriting the terms of peace, stability and economic prosperity.
The success of this order has created its own existential challenge. Its rising beneficiaries in Asia and elsewhere increasingly challenge the validity of these arrangements and the efficacy of rules that have managed global affairs. While the historian John Ikenberry described the liberal world order as a “hub and spoke” model of governance, with the West at its centre, it is now clear that the peripheries of the system are developing wheels and engines of their own.
Indeed, the rise of Asia as a whole is recasting the physical and mental map of the world. Proliferating transnational relationships and new flows of finance, trade, technology, information, energy and labour have created three new strategic geographies which are already escaping the shadow of transatlantic arrangements. They essentially represent the collision of erstwhile political constructs – and their management requires new ideas, nimble institutions and fluid partnerships.
The first collision, which is already well underway, is the union of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Popularly defined as the Indo-Pacific, it is a construct encouraged by the rise of China but defined in equal measure by regional actors responding to Beijing’s proposition. Maritime Asia is now larger than the US, ASEAN and China – earlier organized under the Asia-Pacific construct. Its frontier is not limited to the eastern Indian Ocean. From Nantucket to Nairobi, conversations on security, development and trade in this region will now include actors from three continents.
The second is the conflation of Europe and Asia into one coherent strategic system: Eurasia. This is an old idea, steeped in history, but it has a new vocabulary. The interaction of markets and communities from these once separated geographies is creating a new super-continental-sized interdependence.
Yet this interdependence is not without friction: China’s shadow looms large over Europe and its promise to underwrite the continent’s prosperity has proved too difficult to resist. Moscow, meanwhile, is exhibiting a new zeal to reclaim its place as the archetypical Eurasian player and members of NATO continue to bicker over their future role in the region. As these geopolitical tectonic plates both clash and merge, it is clear that East and West will set new terms of engagement.
And finally, we have the Arctic. Born as an unintended consequence of climate change, this geography will, for the first time, merge the politics of the Atlantic and the Pacific, even as it stimulates a clash between the arrangements that exist in these regions. The Northern Sea Route has been a tantalising theory; global warming is renewing it as reality. The global shipping giant Maersk, for example, completed its first voyage unassisted by ice-breakers this August (even though the company expresses scepticism about the near-term viability of the route). The emergence of this geography, however, will be far from frictionless and may well create a new distribution of wealth and power in the region.
While most Western governments currently share Maersk’s ambivalence, Moscow and China are investing heavily in building commercial infrastructure, naval capacity and military capabilities. As part of its Polar Silk Road ambitions, in fact, Beijing now actively encourages its enterprises to utilize the Northern Sea Route. Additionally, de-facto control over shipping routes in the region currently rests with Moscow, which has arrogated the power to grant shipping permits – a position that American officials have already warned might contravene the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas. In 1956, Britain went to war with Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal; without appropriate arrangements for Arctic governance, history may well repeat itself a few latitudes north.
The collision of these three geographies will shape the 21st-century world order. Yet this process has no historical parallels. The post-war order and its predecessors were born after a revolutionary and catastrophic churn in global politics – and devastating, large-scale conflicts.
Today, this change is likely to be gradual, interdependent and evolutionary. There will be no single defining moment when a new order will be born. Instead, global politics will operate in 50 shades of grey for the foreseeable future.
As these three geographies discover themselves, then, there are five trends that deserve attention:
1. The the risk of separate cold wars across geographies. Unlike the 20th century, this tension will not be bipolar and each actor’s motivations, means and goals will differ. Whether it is the Himalayan cold war between India and China, the Arctic chill between Moscow, Europe and Washington, or the Mediterranean melee between the EU and China, multiple powers will exercise influence over these geographies and will compete at the intersection of social, commercial and military domains.
2. More “coalitions of convenience” are likely to emerge across these geographies. In an uncertain and fluid world order, issue-based partnerships may well have outsized influence over certain conversations. Russia, for example, is entering the fray in Afghanistan after nearly three decades with help from Iran and China, while India and France are cooperating on maritime security and development. China is partnering with Greenland – amid much anguish in Denmark – to cement its Arctic claims. If global institutions fail to manage emerging geographies, such coalitions will likely multiply.
3. The possibility for new institutional dialogues. Already, the EU is claiming a stake in the Indian Ocean Rim Association and ASEAN states are making overtures to the Arctic Council. These actors and organizations are transcending their 20th-century mental maps in search of new commercial and strategic opportunities. It is not entirely inconceivable that NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), for example, might one day have a conversation on Eurasian security and connectivity.
4. The opening up of the Arctic will test the ability of powers to provide security as a public good in other parts of the world. In other words, with geostrategic conduits like the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits possibly approaching their expiry dates, the imperative to secure Arctic sea lanes may well leave erstwhile routes bereft of powers willing to protect them. Are parts of the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia, then, destined to become ungoverned spaces – as in the Gulf of Aden – or will regional powers craft an arrangement of their own?
5. Finally, the institutional matrix will also evolve in response to these changes. It is clear that existing international institutions do not fully respond to the needs of developing countries and emerging regional powers. Which institutions, then, will be critical to these geographies? Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) usurp the role of the World Bank in Asia or will new multilateral propositions emerge from countries like India, America and Japan? Will the UN be central to conversations on peace and security, or will regional institutions like the SCO (perhaps in a different guise) and the Arctic Council strengthen their own norms and rules?
In the 20th century, multilateral institutions were perceived to be mitigators and managers of conflict. That conventional wisdom may be turned on its head now, given that competing centres of power will, for the first time since the Peace of Westphalia, create their own institutional arrangements for exerting influence. An organization like the SCO, may, therefore, posit itself as the guardian of Eurasian stability, in contrast to an OSCE or NATO, that has hitherto played this role.
How nation states imagine the world is significant; their mental maps dictate diplomatic priorities, economic partnerships and security arrangements. The collision of new geographies is compelling states to reimagine their worldview.
In the 21st century, East and West are meaningless constructs. More important is how actors and institutions resolve the contradictions that will inevitably arise in Indo-Pacific, Eurasia and the Arctic. This is that strange and rare moment when global governance is more than the sum of its parts or individual regional configurations.
This commentary originally appeared in World Economic Forum.