A Multilateral Approach to Integrating Rising Powers

22 novembre 2018

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Instability within a Multipolar International System

The transition towards a multipolar world is not a new development, as noted by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World, nor is it necessarily unexpected.[2] In 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council Global Trends report predicted that the international system would become multipolar by 2025[3]. This was attributed to the rise of emerging powers fueled by truly global economic growth. As rising powers like India and China became stronger economically, foreign policy analysts noted that this would have an impact at the politico-military level, and more countries would be ready and willing to challenge the U.S. as geopolitical powers in their respective regions and in some cases, on a global scale.[4]

Greater geopolitical competition between powerful states can catalyze conflict, which is why engagement with rising powers is crucial. In the 20th century, both World Wars were triggered by balance-of-power politics within a multipolar context, despite high levels of economic integration and the presence of multilateral institutions like the League of Nations, which failed in part due to the unwillingness of powerful nations to embrace multilateralism and cooperation.[5]

Although we have not yet completely transitioned to a multipolar world, we are beginning to see signs that geopolitical competition among great powers has returned. In 2014, Russell Mead, a scholar at the Hudson Institute, observed that rising powers felt more comfortable challenging the established global order, as evidenced by Russia invading Eastern Ukraine and China making controversial territorial claims against the Philippines in the South China Sea.[6] These actions challenged the international order dominated by the West, and were a direct repudiation of the notion that the world had moved on from traditional geopolitical questions of territory and military power (see Francis Fukuyama’s End of History).

More recently, Donald Trump’s determination that America abdicates its global leadership role in developing rules – maintaining alliances and forming institutions – has accelerated the transition to multipolarity. This creates a power vacuum that risks precipitating conflict as there is no one state that can provide stability and actors vie for a stronger position within the international system.[7] For Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, this is especially true in situations “where there’s no single regional actor that can come close to providing stability and security, leaving competing state and non-state actors to drive conflict further”.[8] Unfortunately, this scenario has already manifested itself in Syria, where rising powers seeking regional influence, such as Russia, have intervened to impose their destructive agenda and defend their self-interest while non-state actors continue to fight and kill with the aim of controlling more territory.[9]

A forthcoming multipolar international system will not only present security challenges as a result of geopolitical competition among great powers. The presence of nuclear weapons, regional powers and even rogue states can also pose a significant threat as they seek to revise the international order and assert their positions within a multipolar system that lacks cooperation. Concerns over Iran’s nuclear proliferation program [10] and the recent escalation of a nuclear threat emanating from North Korea [11] highlight this issue. Any nuclear threat carries significant geopolitical implications and could incite conflict in the form of a retaliatory or pre-emptive attack from states that feel threatened, highlighting the need for cooperation and engagement with rising powers.

Multilateralising Multipolarity

To maintain stability in a multipolar world, leading Western nations must embrace multilateralism rather than resist it. Interstate cooperation, however, should not mean blind trust. Rising powers do not share the same view of global governance as the West, and cooperation should not be confused with appeasement. For example, Russia and China see Western-led security initiatives such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as attempts to undermine their regimes and interests.[12] Values that have been integral to the international order since the end of the Cold War should continue to be defended in a multipolar world by normative actors like the European Union (EU) as part of a values-driven global security initiative.

Deeper engagement with these rising powers via multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN), i.e. ‘multilateralising multipolarity’, can promote cooperation between countries. This may also foster collective solutions to geopolitical challenges rather than a decision coming from a unipolar state and its select allies. The UN should be tapped to play a bigger role in mediating relations between nations and adopting policies that are more inclusive, pragmatic and address long-term geostrategic challenges. Reforming the Security Council to foster engagement and share international security responsibilities could help to advance those objectives.[13] Currently, the rotating seats on the Council do not sufficiently make up for the lack of regional balance among permanent members.

Five new seats could be added in order to improve representation for the Asian-Pacific and African Groups in particular, with at least one permanent seat reserved for India. The inclusion of more states in a way that represents the changing power structure of the international system would lead to better dialogue among nations and thus increase the odds of adopting smarter and more inclusive policies that share the responsibility for maintaining stability among rising powers in the absence of a global hegemon.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an example of what can be achieved through diplomacy and a multilateral agenda.[14] While it may have its detractors, former Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon described the agreementas “a comprehensive, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue [that] will contribute to peace and stability in the region”.[15] In following this diplomatic achievement, Western nations should embrace a multilateral policy agenda that addresses the key security challenges facing the world today. Tensions left to fester outside a multilateral framework will only make matters worse as revisionist or rogue states accrue power and leverage (see North Korea), leaving the stability of the international system at the mercy of these actors who have shown they are willing to rebel against the established order.[16] Let us trust multilateral cooperation to effectively integrate rising powers into a new international system and avoid such a scenario.


Picture: UN Photo/ Manuel Elias

[1] Barry Posen, “Emerging Multipolarity: Why Should We Care?”, Current History108(2009): 347-352.

[2] Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1st Edition, 2008).

[3] National Intelligence Council. 2008. “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World”. Global Trends. National Intelligence Council (2008): 1-13.

[4] John Humphrey and Dirk Messner, “Unstable Multipolarity? China’s and India’s Challenges for Global Governance,” Bonn: German Development Institute(2006): 1-5.

[5] Ana Swanson, “The World Today Looks A Bit Like It Did Before World War I – But What Does That Mean?”, World Economic Forum, 2017, accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/why-the-world-looks-a-bit-like-it-did-before-world-war-i.

[6] Walter Russell Mead, “The Return Of Geopolitics”, Foreign Affairs, 2014, Accessed March 1, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2014-04-17/return-geopolitics.

[7] Richard Haass, “America And The Great Abdication”. The Atlantic, 2017, Accessed March 1, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/12/america-abidcation-trump-foreign-policy/549296/. 

[8] Bremmer, Ian, and Cliff Kupchan, “Top Risks 2017: The Geopolitical Recession”, Eurasia Group(2017): 2-4.

[9] Azmi Bishara, ”Russian Intervention In Syria: Geostrategy Is Paramount”, Doha: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies,(2015): 4-21.  

[10] Greg Bruno, “Iran’s Nuclear Program”, Council On Foreign Relations, 2010, Accessed March 10, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/irans-nuclear-program.

[11] Zachary Cohen, “Mullen: Nuclear War With NK Closer Than Ever”, CNN, 2018, Accessed March 6, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/31/politics/north-korea-trump-mullen-graham/index.html.

[12] Álvaro de Vasconcelos, Feng Zhongping, Robert Hutchings, Radha Kumar, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Paulo Wrobel, and Andrei Zagorski, “Global Security In A Multipolar World”, Paris: European Union Institute of Security Studies (2009): 5-15.

[13] Jeffrey Saches, “3 Reforms The UN Needs As It Turns 70”, World Economic Forum, 2015, Accessed March 10, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/08/3-reforms-the-un-needs-as-it-turns-70/.

[14] William Broad and Sergio Peçanha, “The Iran Nuclear Deal – A Simple Guide”, New York Times, 2015, Accessed March 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/31/world/middleeast/simple-guide-nuclear-talks-iran-us.html.

[15] United Nations, “Statement Attributable To The Spokesman For The Secretary-General On The Political Framework Agreed By The E3+3 And The Islamic Republic Of Iran”, 2015, Accessed March 9, 2018, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2015-04-02/statement-attributable-spokesman-secretary-general-political.

[16] Benjamin Haas, “North Korea is still developing nuclear weapons, says IAEA”, 2018, Accessed November 6, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/22/north-korea-still-developing-nuclear-weapons-iaea-report-un



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Matthew T. Jabłoński

Matthew T. Jabłoński is working within the Disarmament Section at the Delegation of the European Union to the UN in Geneva. He holds a masters degree in European Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and a bachelors degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster. His research interests include European foreign and security policy and the political future of Central and Eastern Europe. The author can be found on Twitter @JablonskiMT.