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U.S.-China-Global South: The New Geometry Of Our "Tripolar" World

Approaching the world as a simple opposition between East and West falls short. An emerging "tripolar" geopolitics requires we establish new ways of thinking and managing both conflict and opportunity.

U.S.-China-Global South: The New Geometry Of Our "Tripolar" World

Chinese President Xi Jinping attending the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in Beijing in June 2020.

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — Has the world become tripolar?

Is there a reformulation of the “classic” confrontation between a Global West and a Global East, happening under the watch of a Global South that does not support Russia's aggression against Ukraine but simultaneously expresses its reservations against the Western world?

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Of course, this new tripolar order is asymmetrical, to say the least. The Global South is infinitely more diverse in its composition than the Global West and East can be. But we can no longer be satisfied with thinking of the world in terms of bipolarity between the U.S. and China. And Europe is far from having become an independent actor within the multipolar world.

In the tripolar world that is revealing itself, each pole obeys its own rules and expresses a specific kind of emotion.

Transatlantic rebalancing

Let’s start with the Global West. Because the U.S. no longer has the moral influence it once had, nor the economic, if not military, superiority that was theirs during the Cold War, the balance among the biggest members of the Global West is greater than it was right after World War Two.

It is not necessarily that there is “more Europe” or “more Asian West” behind countries like Japan or South Korea. It is that there is less of America. When he was describing “The post-American world” in a book published in 2008, Fareed Zakaria, the American journalist and essayist from India, emphasized not the decline of the U.S. but the rise of the “Others”, with China at the front row. It is true that the publication of his essay coincided with the Beijing Olympic Games.

If today there is a kind of rebalancing between Europe and the U.S., wouldn’t it be first and foremost because America is not what it once was? Even if Europe is taking more than small steps in the right direction? The latest developments of the Ukrainian war illustrate this.

Fear and resilience

At the European Council summit held in Iceland a few days ago, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands took braver and more forward positions than the U.S. by supporting the delivery of fighter jets F16 to Kyiv, pushing Washington to get rid of its initial reservations.

United in the face of the Russian threat, the Global West is less united in its rivalry with China. In terms of emotions, the Global West carries a message fluctuating between fear and resilience. The fear of decline and of losing control over its future, but also the desire to preserve, if not extend, the democratic and liberal values that are its own.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, United States President Joe Biden, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, pose for a photo at the US-Africa Summit Leaders in Washington, December 2020.

Oliver Contreras/Pool via CNP/ZUMA

Moscow under Chinese wardship

The second pole, that of the Global East, behind China and Russia (should Iran be added?) is much more imbalanced than the Global West can be. In fact, there is always more China and less Russia.

We are witnessing a complete and spectacular reversal of the balance that existed between the two countries in the 1950s and 1960s. And the war in Ukraine has only sped up the subjugation of Russia by China. As if Beijing was finally achieving in its relationship with Moscow what Moscow had completely failed to do in its relationship with Ukraine: putting de facto its big Western neighbor under its wardship.

Yesterday too, the USSR and China were carried by a socialist project, an optimistic ideal of course contrasting with reality. Today, authoritarianism, if not authoritarian temptation, acts as a doctrine in both countries, even if their absolute cynicism is draped in the cloak of the humiliation inflicted on them by the West yesterday, or the day before that.

A new global giant

We could summarize world geopolitics as a confrontation between the Global West and the Global East, as if it were another Cold War. But apart from the fact that China has essentially replaced the USSR — and that Beijing, unlike Moscow, is a multidimensional power, not just a military one — this vision of a bipolar world does not show a reality that has become infinitely more complex.

Today’s Global South, despite its extreme diversity, is “much more” than the simple non-aligned movement of yesterday. And that is for economic and strategic, as much as demographic, reasons.

The difference is above all expressed by the emergence of a new global giant, India. A country which is at the heart of the attention of Americans, Europeans and Russians alike. At the instigation of Narendra Modi — as much as in spite of him and his religious nationalism — India is progressively becoming aware of its cards and the weight it is taking in the world’s business.

A whole new world

A bridge between East and West, India is most of all becoming the uncontested leader of the South, which it was not fully at the time of the non-aligned. Nehru’s India then had to share this position with Sukarno’s Indonesia, Nasser’s Egypt and Nkrumah’s Ghana. Being non-aligned during the Cold War meant refusing to choose between the socialist East and the capitalist West, two models from the Western World.

In this new tripolar world, we no longer hold all the cards.

Today, the choice is more positive. It is that of a South ready to take revenge on yesterday’s colonial and imperial West. In the vision of the South, the hope of the future competes with the resentment of the past.

What should the West do in front of the emergence of this tripolar world? Above all, become aware of its arrival. It is not only in the context of our confrontation with Russia that we must do everything to rally the Global South to our interests and values. It is necessary to understand, with a mixing of humility, realism and ambition, that in this new tripolar world, we no longer hold all the cards, as was the case for centuries.

It is no longer a question of preaching to others values we don’t practice anymore (or that we do badly). But to find again that exemplarity that should be ours when it comes to democracy.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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