The international system is changing, while our institutions seem to be challenged by a long succession of crises. Policy makers have expressed the feelings that ‘the world is spinning out of control’ and that ‘order is collapsing’ and that we appear to be returning to a multipolar system.
A return to a multipolar system is, however, an overly simplistic reading of the current situation. Rather what appears on the horizon is a completely different international system, which is composed of different international orders rather than by different powerful sovereign states. The coming multi-order world will be characterized by very different dynamics and order-making practices. The current liberal order will continue to exist, but its global reach will be a thing of the past and it will be joined by other ‘orders’ based on different ideas and identities. Liberal order-making practices and values will no longer be universally shared.
The uncertainty about the apparent systemic change in the making is not surprising. Systemic change is a rare occurrence, which has only happened three times in the last 200 years – in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars, in the protracted and bloody process of collapsing order between 1914-1945 and finally in 1989 with the end of the Cold War. Moreover, systemic change is complex and likely to be a long process of subtle changes, whose significance may only be visible retrospectively. The question is therefore how we know if the international system is changing, and if it is changing, what kind of international system lies ahead?
Despite the rarity, complexity and subtlety of change in the international system, indicators of systemic change are all too apparent. They include shifting power, the appearance of new and re-emerging actors on the international scene, and challenges to established practices and ideas, all of which are expressed in the many ongoing crises facing decision-makers.
In addition, strategic foresight analyses point to changes in demographics, individual empowerment, technology and access to technology, resources, economics and the environment. These changes are likely to place increased demands on the institutional capacity and political structures of the current international order. Together these two forms of change add up to a murky picture of compounding complexity and add to the feelings of ‘collapsing order’.
To better understand the significance of the multi-order world, it is useful to compare this system with the three alternative arguments in the academic and policy literature on the kind of new international system in the making.
The first position is the most prevalent. Proponents argue that what lies ahead is a multipolar world in which several great powers will compete and use traditional balance of power politics to balance each other and to advance their own interests. It is anticipated that the international system will revert back to a past system of multipolarity much akin to what was in place during the 19th century. This position assumes continued primacy of the United States, although balancing may either be an active form primarily against China or it may be offshore with a retrenched America focusing on domestic American issues.
The second position is favored by liberal internationalists such as Hillary Clinton and John Ikenberry. Proponents argue that what lies ahead is a multi-partner world. This is essentially a continuation of the existing system in which the United States will attempt to maintain its leadership position. At the same time, it will enter into partnerships with new actors, which they assume can be coopted into a reformed version of the existing order. This position assumes a continued high level of American engagement in global affairs in partnership with allies and other stakeholders in the global order.
The third position emphasizes that the new international system will not only be characterized by a diffusion of power, but will also be characterized by diversity of ideas. The position argues that what lies ahead is a multi-culture world. The challenge will be to reach global consensus on collective security challenges whilst accepting diversity in domestic and regional affairs. The expectation is a new form of international system, which is de-centered and lacking any overall shared values and practices. The position of the United States will be to remain the leader of liberal states and to strengthen the core and the magnetism of the existing liberal order.
Although each of the three positions point to a plausible future, they do not fully capture what lies ahead. Rather, it is necessary to look more closely at the constituent elements of international orders and how the condition of order is constituted through different practices and resting on particular identities. By uncovering the different elements of international orders, it is possible to see how the three previous historical processes of systemic change have played out in very different ways on each occasion. Moreover, by focusing on the elements making up the current international order, it is revealed that the current changes taking place are deeper and perhaps more far-reaching than previous systemic change. The likely coming international system is a new form composed of several ‘international orders’ nested within an overall international system.
The challenge in a multi-order world will be to forge new forms of relationships between diverse actors. This requires convergence involving complex power relations, different partnerships and reformed institutions that are able to reach across dividing lines to forge cooperation between different cultures with different domestic governance structures. The coming multi-order world will be radically different and the changes that are currently taking place are every bit as far reaching as previous systemic changes. Given that it is likely to end 200 years of the expansion of the liberal order, the coming systemic change is likely to be experienced by the West as deeply unsettling.
Trine Flockhart is Professor of International Relations at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. She is the author of “The Coming Multi-Order World”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, 2016, pp.3-30. It is available via OpenAccess here.