We are witnessing an unprecedented confluence of major and minor crises. From the COVID-19 pandemic, surging energy prices, and the return of inflation in developed and developing economies, to fractured supply chains, Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine, and climate change, many of these crises are signs not just of decay but of a new world order being born.
As the remnants of the twentieth century’s bipolar order finally disappear, a new global pentarchy is coming to the fore. The United States and China – this century’s two military, technological, and economic superpowers – will be the dominant players, but Europe, Japan, and India will exercise meaningful influence over large swaths of the planet.
A big question mark hangs over Russia, because its future status, capacities, and strategic posture will depend on the outcome of its reckless war of aggression. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has clung desperately to the past, seeking to recreate the twentieth or even the late nineteenth century. But with its catastrophically misguided effort to destroy Ukraine, it ultimately is destroying itself.
A Russian military defeat in Ukraine is already a certainty – a matter of when, not if. But it is still far too early to foretell the likely consequences. Will Putin’s regime survive, or will Russia’s defeat usher in another phase of internal decay and disintegration. Until that question is resolved, we cannot yet know whether Russia will try to maintain its old claim to hegemony in Eastern Europe and much of Eurasia.
If the Kremlin is forced to abandon that claim, its role as a world power would probably be over. To be sure, even a decrepit, humiliated Russia, rather than going into geopolitical hibernation, would most likely remain a major source of instability in the new world order, and especially on the European continent. But it is now clear that Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal is no longer sufficient to secure its geopolitical status in the twenty-first century. Its economy is being decisively weakened as the rest of the world moves to phase out fossil fuels – the backbone of the Russian economy.
Whereas Russia poses new risks because of its fragility and decay, China will do so by dint of its increasing wealth and might. Owing to the massive wave of globalization that began in the early 2000s, China managed to lift itself out of poverty and position itself to achieve high-income status. And with the 2008 financial crisis partly discrediting the West, China has been able to expand its own global leadership role and present itself as a global superpower alongside the US.
Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, however, China has not made the mistake of focusing solely on its military power. On the contrary, its global rise reflects its embrace of integration into US- and Western-dominated world markets by serving as the world’s “extended workbench,” while investing heavily in competing with the West on the technological and scientific frontiers. The Chinese certainly have not held back on military investment, but they have not allowed spending on defense and security to crowd out everything else. The defining difference between China and Russia today is that, unlike Putin, the Chinese leadership has been living in the twenty-first century for quite some time.
The recent G20 summit in Bali laid bare this fundamental difference of outlook and purpose. Whereas Russia found itself diplomatically isolated, China was central to all the discussions and the shaping of the final communiqué. Though they have not adopted the Western line on the Ukraine crisis, large countries such as China and India used the occasion to distance themselves noticeably from the Kremlin, decrying its war policy and nuclear threats. If the in-person talks between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping help to deflate Sino-American tensions, the Bali summit will have opened the door to reshaping international relations in the twenty-first century.
The outcome of the US midterm election offers yet another reason for hope, as the widely anticipated Republican “red wave” failed to materialize. The GOP failed to take the Senate and only barely secured a majority in the House of Representatives. As in 2018 and 2020, former President Donald Trump once again held his party back. Most Americans do not want a return to his “America first” isolationist policies.
Together, the US midterms and the Bali summit offer cause for optimism at an otherwise fraught moment. But we will need much more progress toward global cooperation. Ultimately, our two biggest crises – Russia’s retrograde war in Ukraine and climate change – can be overcome only if the world’s key powers find a way to work together.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
© Project Syndicate, 2022.