A look at the consequences of the geopolitical rise of the BRIC states and the relative decline of the US.
The past 25 years have been peculiar in terms of world geopolitics – and as this chapter comes to a close, it is worth noting that this period of world history may not be repeated in a comparable manner for a very long time. What makes this period so unique is that it is arguably the only period the world has ever known of global unipolarity.
“Polarity” is a political expression that designates as to how power is distributed amongst different nations in the international arena. Since the Cold War, it has generally been held that the current state of international affairs is unipolar in that global politics has been dominated and directed by US national interests. Yet, this period is a strange one as unipolarity does not seem to be the natural state of the international system – there may have been different clear leading world powers at various points in history but even then, there were generally close “competitors” for hegemony. It must be noted that, though there have been overwhelmingly dominant political entities or states in the past that had no close competitors (e.g. the Roman Empire), such entities were only so in the confines of a fixed space – not on a global level as is seen today.
In terms of recent world history, just look at the past century to see the different forms the world of geopolitics can take. The first half of the 20th century embodies the concept of multipolarity in which several different states have competitive levels of economic strength, military power and cultural influence. Following world war two there was the emergence of the Cold War in which the world found itself in a state of bipolarity with the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, locked in a seemingly endless game of proxy wars and competition for global political/economic dominance. Since the fall of the USSR, the US has stood alone as the sole world superpower, directing trade, international policy, and affecting culture on a global scale – that is until recently.
The past decade has coincided with the economic and political rise of several nations to the centre of the world stage – including nations that have generally been conceived as being under-developed. This can be seen in the rise of what is dubbed the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China. In 2001 Goldman Sachs’ global economist Jim O’neill claimed that these four nations had the economic potential to become four of the most dominant economies by 2050. The rapid economic growth of these nations has undoubtedly shown why they are poised to become contenders for top-notch superpower status in the future and it could be argued that some of them are already there. Besides the recent economic successes of such nations, there is now even more reason to believe the transition from a unipolar to multipolar world is at hand. This can be seen in the recent willingness, and even eagerness, of several of the BRIC nations to aggressively pursue their national interests on the international stage – even if their interests are counter to the United States.
India, though not pursuing policies antagonistic to the US, has recently displayed its capacities to undertake military operations abroad. On June 8, India conducted a counter-insurgency raid against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), a Christian separatist group that had carried out several attacks on Indian security forces. The reason this event is notable is not only because it was an overwhelming success (over 100 casualties inflicted on the NSCN with no Indian causalities) but more so because it was a cross-border operation, in which Indian Special Forces attacked these insurgents within the confines of Burma’s territory. This operation was perceived by the international community as international “muscle-flexing” in which India displayed its capacity to carry out well-planned military procedures beyond its borders – According to The Guardian, this operation has “rattled” Pakistani leaders, including Pakistani interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who said in response “Those who are contemplating any kind of adventure in Pakistan must know that they will get a bloody face in the process… listen carefully, Pakistan is not Burma.”
China is also becoming increasingly confident in its position as a major world power as is evidenced by the rising number of territorial disputes it has had with its neighbours. This is glaringly apparent when it comes to the overlapping claims over maritime territory in the South China Sea (e.g. the recent spat between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands). According to a recent article by The Economist, “America does not take a view on who owns the islands, but it does insist that China should establish its claims through negotiation or international arbitration. China is asserting that in its region, for the island disputes as in other things, it now sets the rules,” and that instead of resolving such disputes diplomatically, “China insists that its case should prevail, and is imposing its own claim by using landfill and by putting down airstrips and garrisons [on the islands]”. Such a brazen disregard of US demands would have been unimaginable 15-20 years ago – yet now, the US has too much to lose if it confronts China head-on and China is well aware of this.
Finally, and arguably the greatest example of the impending end of the unipolar world is Russia. The past two years have been overwhelmingly eventful for Russia in redefining their standing in global politics. Russia has repeatedly ignored the demands of the majority of the international community on a multitude of levels – most notably through their support of Ukrainian rebels, subsequent confrontation with NATO, reoccurring breaches of international airspace (of Finland and recently of Turkey) and finally their intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime. Though all of these actions have some pragmatic element, they are also undeniably symbolic in nature – it is not just a mere sense of rebelliousness that Russia wants to convey but rather, a sign of a fundamental change in international affairs. According to the Economist, “Mr. Putin wants to discredit America’s stewardship of the international order”. And what better way to do that is there than succeeding where the US has failed by showing that, “Russia can be trusted to get things done in the Middle East”. The question is “can they and at what cost?”
What Russia and China are trying to show is that the US is no longer the seemingly unsurpassable world power that they used to be. Evidence of this is not only found in Russia and China’s willingness to confront the United States head-on but also in their recent efforts to cultivate international relationships that exclude the US or are seen as intentionally antagonistic to US foreign policy goals. Such activities generally aim to create alternative economic blocs or military alliances that exclude the US or its allies (e.g. EU, NATO, etc.) and are at times made with what are considered by many in the international community to be “pariah” states – Such recent activity includes China and Russia’s new energy deal (a $400 billion gas deal according to Bloomberg, which will allow Russia to focus its gas market on China rather than the EU), China’s diplomatic courting of Pakistan (including an “economic corridor” which will connect the countries through an extensive infrastructural project), Putin’s new found friendly disposition with North Korea and with Greece’s ruling left-wing Syriza party (who are not on very friendly terms with their fellow EU states) and Russia’s recent extensive joint military-operations with Iran, counter to US and Saudi interests in the region.
For the US, it seems that they should stop asking as to how they could prevent the rise of the multipolar world as it is already here. Rather they should ask what to do in response to this new world and who their true allies are, as it is no longer possible for the US to dominate and direct international policy alone. Other nations should inquire as to how their upcoming future may differ from the present and how to best prepare for it (e.g. future need for self-defence rather than relying on others, etc.). Overall though, with the decline of the unipolar world, international politics has now become a betting game for all nations – “who will fall, who will rise, who has staying power and who is our friend?”