The dominance of a single narrative of globalization and liberal democracy is over.
MEXICO CITY — As the Bolshevik leader Lenin once observed, there are decades when nothing happens and weeks in which decades take place. The big turns in history tend to go unnoticed in their decisive moments because daily life doesn't suddenly change for most people around the world.
Yet in retrospect, certain moments become crucial. Everything suggests the invasion of Ukraine is one of those turning points, with enormous implications for the world's future.
There have been other dramatic turning points in recent history, like the end of World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union and creation of the European Union, or China's estrangement from the West, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.
Geopolitics are back
While certain elements of the "new" future were taking shape before the invasion of Ukraine — like the militarized artificial islands China has been building in the South China Sea — the direct clash of Russia and the Western block has ushered in a new phase. It is certainly the end of the notion of "holidays" from history put forward by the writer George Will. It means the end of the idea that we could all escape the logic of big-power interests and collectively play under the same rules. Geopolitics are back.
This was an outcome that has been long in the making. After the end of the Cold War, economic decisions became the priority. All nations devoted themselves to winning investments to fuel their economic growth and development. The writer Francis Fukuyama famously wrote of The End of History, which firms and governments eagerly adopted as a mantra. Capitalism had won and the world was now "flat," said the journalist Thomas Friedman.
Apparently it made no difference anymore whether you invested in Germany or in Zambia. While more cautious observers like the historian Samuel Huntington insisted on enduring cultural and political differences, the dominant idea was of the world as a market.
The rise of a series of strongman rulers in the last decade was a sign of change. Regardless of their attributes or defects, their emergence reflected new socio-political realities in countries as diverse as Brazil, the United States, Turkey, China or Mexico.
When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, says economic decisions must be subordinate to political decision-making, the message is clear: to hell with the Davos model. For citizens and business people, this means a government much less concerned with development and more with subordination, power and control.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico
More than Cold War tensions
These circumstances show a clear trend, identified by Huntington, which may very well become a new geopolitical reality with the Ukrainian war. The U.S. government has always tended to take decisions that overlook its commercial commitments: its size and nature lead it to suppose that the rest of the world will simply adapt.
A recent example was subsidies for electric cars, which will remove incentives to set up plants in Mexico (and Canada), showing how economic rationalism has become subordinate to political factors. For Mexico, this is a sign of developments ahead.
The return of zones of influence will not be a repeat of what existed in the Cold War, but will change the way nations interact. The information economy and AI era are changing the nature of political and economic activity, while certain rising powers, like India, will be able to limit the weight and impact of the two or three main zones of influence likely to emerge (the U.S., Russia and China).
In historical terms, zones of influence meant the preeminence of powers able to exert a measure of control and restrictions on surrounding nations. In the digital era and with the prevalence of real power factors like Sino-American rivalry in various fields, the new setup will very likely prove more tense, unpredictable and conflict-prone than the simpler, bipolar Cold War.
Separately, a nation's greatest defense in this new reality is obvious: it must fortify its development, which is only possible with a clearly focused government and a society free of major tensions. Without these, we can expect a complicated future.
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