Late December is traditionally a time to look forward to the hope of a new year, especially in the midst of the worst pandemic for a century. Yet, at a time of growing geopolitical disorder, this month is also a key historical moment to look in the rear-view mirror.
It is now three decades since then-US President George H.W. Bush proclaimed a “new world order” amid the initial promise of the post-Cold War world. At much the same time, Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History and the Last Man,” which argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle signaled the end point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.
Yet, this optimistic vision of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has been replaced by a rather different global landscape today. Many of the key gains of the post-Second World War era are being tested, with the security of Europe and Asia, the advance of democratic government, the resilience of open markets, the centrality of individual rights, and the promise of human progress potentially all in play.
Add to this rampant inflation plus the pandemic, and growing inequality in many countries, and increased global volatility seems likely. Little surprise that numerous commentators today highlight geopolitical risks as being at the highest level in a generation.
It is a world where authoritarian states appear to many to be in the ascendancy amid widespread democratic backsliding, including in the US during the Trump presidency. Plus, several unstable countries, including North Korea, have acquired nuclear weaponry; Washington’s relations with Moscow are at a low ebb; there is a continuing threat from international terrorism, and US-led nation-building efforts in nations including Afghanistan have largely failed. The gravity of these and other challenges underlines how many of the the post-Cold War world’s hopes and expectations have been dashed.
Some critics of the Biden administration, including supporters of former president Donald Trump, see this fragile international picture as being the result of weak leadership in Washington over the last year. However, 12 months is not long enough to judge a presidency, and the expectations sometimes placed on the White House from its most trenchant critics are often unrealistically high.
To be sure, just as at the end of the Cold War, the US remains the most powerful country in the world — certainly in a military sense. It can still project and deploy overwhelming force relative to any probable enemy. However, Washington is not, to use a term of art in international relations, an all-powerful hegemonic power. And this core fact has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the post-Cold War period, from Somalia in 1993, Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and most recently in Ukraine and Syria.
Trump and other unalloyed critics of the Biden administration also often fail to acknowledge that, while 2022 will be another year of high political tension, the international landscape also contains significant cause for optimism. Advances in technology, healthcare, and wider human access to knowledge may yet drive a new wave of post-pandemic global progress.
Moreover, the contemporary global environment also contains multiple opportunities for potentially greater stability in international affairs. One example is the 2015 global climate change deal agreed in Paris which was re-endorsed in Glasgow last month.
While the agreement is far from perfect, it nonetheless represents a shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming. It is a potentially very important stepping stone, and what is now needed are well-informed legislators across the political spectrum to help ensure effective implementation and hold governments to account so that it truly delivers.
Amid this sea of opportunity and challenge in late 2021, the biggest game changer in global affairs since Bush and Fukuyama made their optimistic proclamations three decades ago is the rise of China. That nation has not only surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms, but also become a massive influence in international relations.
China’s rise has the potential to be either a growing source of tension with Washington, as now, or just possibly might yet develop into a more fruitful partnership. Growing bilateral rivalry is especially likely if Beijing’s economic and military power continues to grow rapidly, and the country embraces an increasingly assertive foreign policy stance toward its neighbors in Asia. However, there remains an outside chance of a more cooperative G2 relationship building from collaboration on softer issues such as climate change.
It is uncertainty over this pathway of US-China relations on which much of the future of international affairs hinges in the next three decades. For, as the pandemic has shown, the complexity of managing global affairs may increasingly depend on major state cooperation with others, both competitors and allies, and ties between Beijing and Washington will be central to this.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.