The sense of unraveling across the globe is the result of a power vacuum. After the post-Cold War end of U.S. hegemony, no one is ready to impose order. And, no, economics can't fix it.
PARIS — The feeling of powerlessness has rarely been as strong as it is today. The events in Ukraine emanate that sweet smell of Cold War. China is threatening its neighbors, who are very much scared and calling on the United States to protect them. Terrorism is as strong as ever, and so is global warming. Where have you gone, "international community?"
Present it as a pub question. The answer is this: It's the one strutting its impotence. It not longer reacts. The United Nations is paralyzed by the revived antagonisms among current, future and past superpowers: The United States on one side, China and Russia on the other. The era of the American post-Cold War dominance lasted less than a generation, from 1989 to 2003, when the dream for some, and the nightmare for others, of an American empire buried itself somewhere in the sands of Iraq.
Meanwhile, neither of the Gs is scoring any points, be it the G8 or the G20, which are supposed to represent yesterday's and today's most powerful nations. Where are those with even the slightest grip on the tragedies of our time? The hypothesis of a G2, an American-Chinese condominium of world affairs, turned out to be a bluff.
It seems that there is but one rule that prevails in the international system, chaos. There is no conflict-solving mechanism, no institutionalized dialogue among states, no world "governance" forum that seem to be able to weigh in on the dramatic events unfolding all across the planet.
[rebelmouse-image 27088236 alt="""" original_size="500x321" expand=1] Fading glory? (photo - Katelyn Kenderdine)
Why? Why this growing collective helplessness? This is the question that French magazine Esprit tries to tackle in its latest and brilliant issue entitled, Le nouveau désordre mondial (The New World Disorder.)
Economic order v. political disorder
Let's start with a quick assessment of the main actors. With America as its unquestioned leader, the Western bloc is not as much in decline as is often said, but its hegemony is waning, explains the magazine. The United States is in a period of relative strategic "withdrawal." Except for trade, Europe has given up on having a role on the international stage. It chose this even as its neighborhood is more unstable than ever, with the threat of ISIS in the Middle East and the rebirth of a post-Soviet Russia that is tempted by a slightly revanchist nationalism.
In the meantime, Asia is asserting itself as the new economic, scientific and military hub. It is both led and intimidated by China, which, as the new French ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud explains, "is once again finding the diplomacy that matches its geography." An elegant way to say that it intends to be the boss in that zone of the Pacific, at the expense of the United States.
China is happy to play the role of godfather in the family of developing countries, among them India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and others. With the success of their economies and their demographic importance, these countries should be among the world's new power centers. And yet they are not, and don't want to be. So far, they have refused to take the slightest responsibility in solving the world's current conflicts.
Political expert Nicole Gnesotto describes them, and especially China, as "sovereigntist countries," first focused on their own development. They bring no new impulse to world affairs. They are not concerned with such matters, be they tragedies in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, great migrations or climate change.
Esprit thus formulates a first explanation to the current "world disorder," namely that "power isn't transferred from the West to The Rest," the latter referring to developing countries. "We are not in a communicating vessels systems," in which the United States' relative withdrawal, Europe's absolute withdrawal and the United Nations' paralysis would be compensated by an active role of the developing South in the establishment of a new world order.
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Marching forward (photo - Steven Zhang)
The new powers offer no alternative to a World War II-inherited system about to collapse. Hence this feeling of void, of being in between two eras, a good environment for chaos.
But chaos is also fed by the existing dichotomy between the current political and economic orders. Economic globalization has produced a single world market, an economic stage indeed globalized. But there is no such thing, no corresponding unification in the political order. “Strategic globalization doesn’t exist,” Nicole Gnesotto writes. Yet, unlike what the great Montesquieu used to think, trade doesn’t necessarily softens manners.
Economic globalization doesn't remove any of the great regional conflicts, any more than it reduces the hunger for power, domination or the wish to avenge history. It doesn't prevent a sort of new cold war. The behaviors of Beijing in the South China Sea, or Saudi Arabia or Iran in the Middle East, and of Russia in Ukraine show one thing only: that states will always be ready to sacrifice a few percentage points of growth, and even peace, in the name of the defense of what they perceive as their national interest.
The global market doesn't guarantee world peace. It can very well live amid political chaos. This may even be the defining sign of our times.