A relative loss of power by sovereign states to non-state actors, as well as China's ascent, are part of a wider reshaping of power structures that is tense, "anarchic" and far from complete.
BUENOS AIRES — In his book The Future of Power (2011), analyst Joseph S. Nye observed in the early 21st century a double transformation of power in the international order. It was a process of both diffusion and transition of power.
In the first case, power had begun to shift from sovereign states to a range of non-state actors with agendas that were outside national interests and state control. The latter refers to a displacement of the epicenter of world economic power from West to East.
A decade later, the evolution has become starker.
To illustrate the acceleration of the power diffusion, we can see that the technological revolutions not only produce Big Data, algorithms and mass data collection, but also digital currency and transactions barely regulated by governments. Meanwhile, private firms are offering travel services to space. The eastward transition is in turn evident in China's dizzy ascent and the dynamic economies and technological advances of Asian states.
Nation-States still matter
One must observe however that the changes are at a half-way point. The diffusion of power remains a work in progress, while the rise or consolidation of non-state actors has yet to contribute to more or better governance.
Clearly all states, even the most powerful ones, have lost some power to transnational and non-state actors, as shown so clearly in the loss of tax revenue to fiscal havens and in ongoing efforts to control the cybersphere.
Yet in spite of a relative power loss, states remain the only actors able to provide public goods on a global scale (meaning security, financial stability, environmental checks, or food and health security).
The pandemic and a slew of failed efforts to curb climate change have shown that without the collaboration of states, there can be no collective action in response to global challenges. When crises emerge and fears and uncertainty spike, the power-wielding non-state actors immediately turn to the state, as happened in the 2008 financial crash and the pandemic.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a virtual meeting on March 18, 2022.
Drug firms can make millions of doses of a vaccine and firms may embrace social and corporate responsibility to fight climate change, but both are impotent without a commitment from states as guarantors of those public goods.
The world's biggest firms, like Amazon or Apple, are unable and unwilling to assume the task of stabilizing the world order, just as digital currencies failed to act as safe havens for investors fleeing risk.
The "technopolar'"moment is not yet here.
The asset that did precisely that was the U.S. dollar, issued by a sovereign state. So we are not yet in the "technopolar" moment wherein global tech firms call the shots. Power diffusion has increased the weight of non-state actors, but not their capacities and responsibilities in terms of governance. These remain the prerogatives of states.
The transition of power between states is also incomplete. While China's rising power is startling, the United States retains crucial attributes that shape the transition's pace and scope. It still has military supremacy, hosts the world's principal tech firms, and boasts considerable soft power and energy self-sufficiency.
The Chinese may claim they no longer need the United States in these areas, that military parity is a matter of time and that China is itself advancing both in spreading its values and in assuring its own energy security.
Yet while China has clearly achieved military and economic superpower status, it has yet to become a financial superpower, and here it cannot make do without the United States. The latter remains the supplier of an essential global public good, its currency, which is an agent of world financial stability. The yuan has yet to attain anything like this status, globally.
China has an undoubtedly pivotal role in production chains and in the world's economic growth, but shows great limitations in financial terms, trailing behind the United States. The incomplete nature of this transition illustrates a need for cooperation between the two superpowers, to manage complex items on the global agenda.
Today, the world needs leadership from both China and the United States. Neither can lead the world without the other, and even less so impose itself or bend the other to its will.
Why is there such a marked sense of worldwide "disorder" today? It may be because the ongoing diffusion and transfer of power have uncovered the world's complexity. To cite the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, the old world won't die and the new world is struggling to take shape. Ours is a time of transition, inevitably plagued with instability, uncertainty and tensions.
*Actis and Creus teach at the Argentine National University of Rosario, and co-authored La Disputa por el poder global: China contra EEUU en la pandemia (The Dispute for Global Power: China versus the United States in the Pandemic, 2020).
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