These are the new middle ages, not a new order

Guardian |

In a time of empires, multinationals and mega-philanthropists, order can no longer be thought of as global.


We are entering - for those keeping track - the new new, new new world order. President George Bush Snr's world order of multilateral cooperation was embarrassed by Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Pax Americana, rebranded as globalisation under Bill Clinton, was shattered by 9/11. For the past seven years we've been living under the "war on terror" world order paradigm, creating more cleavages than it has healed. But this time the conditions are very different. The world has stopped waiting for the US - and its next president - to declare its roadmap for the future. Instead, the other 96% of the planet has decided to move on with its business. And business is booming. The major emerging powers, production centres and financial capitals - Russia, China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates and others - are creating connections among themselves. While some Americans gloat that the global economic slowdown is evidence the world has not "decoupled" from it yet, the situation would have been much worse if emerging markets were not robust centres of growth. This new economics is the foundation for a new geopolitics to which the US is more responding than shaping. To claim the world will warm to the return of the kinder, pre-Bush America requires a heroic leap of faith. Will Russia stop using Gazprom diplomacy and military muscle to bully Ukraine and occupy its near abroad? Will Iran stop seeking nuclear weapons? Will China stop providing military, financial, diplomatic and other lifelines to every country the US deems a "rogue state"? Only if America can change any of these should the next US president have any right to declare the next "new world order". To speak of world order is to speak of a stable distribution of power in the world. But no such predictable pattern exists. Power has diffused not only to heavyweights such as China, but the EU - the most formidable economic force in the world. Militarily, rapid build-ups are occurring in the Middle East and east Asia - and now also Latin America, with Venezuela welcoming Russian bombers for training exercises this week. It would be far more appropriate to speak of a "new middle ages" than a new order, for we live in a world not just of nations, but of empires, multinational corporations, religious crusaders, non-governmental activists and mega-philanthropists operating on all layers of the complex matrix of 21st-century power. Order will have to be thought of as regional at best - with east Asia falling under the Chinese sphere of influence, and north Africa increasingly under the European - rather than global. The institutional underpinning is not only under strain, but has in effect collapsed. Regional and bilateral preferential trade agreements are proliferating at the expense of the WTO, whose Doha round fell apart weeks ago. The UN security council has not changed since before the end of the cold war. The IMF and World Bank have become marginal players in their own fields as aid falls out of favour in competition with faster and more voluminous foreign direct investment. Where is the architecture for a new world order for a new middle ages? It emerges either after a major war or from the bottom up. The latter is happening already in the far east. The only question is how far it will stretch. Asia has the largest populations and the most money. In the past years an alphabet soup rivalling the EU has emerged, with ASEAN+3 among a host of acronyms that reveal how China is co-opting Japan, Australia and Korea through trade, investment and non-aggression pacts. This is not mere cant - Asian diplomacy has achieved concrete results. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's border patrols manage counter-terrorism and trade in central Asia, and might soon be invited to help Nato stabilise Afghanistan. East Asia's major powers conduct defence exercises together, and are planning joint energy exploration agreements. Beyond Asia the Persian Gulf oil producers, and their sovereign wealth funds, are starting to quickly reorientate themselves towards Indian and Chinese demand and markets - far more lucrative than the west. Maybe the west can one day be independent of Middle East oil, but that only increases eastern leverage over the energy-rich lands in between. In Africa, many nations have profited from Chinese investment. Some decry China as the "new colonialists", but in the age of transparency it is likely to learn the power of shame far more quickly than the west did. So perhaps there will be a new world order - but one dictated not from Washington but Beijing. The cold war was never truly an east-west rivalry - only now is the real east rising. Whichever world order project we embark on in the coming years, it will have to balance east and west, north and south, public and private, international and global. Whatever we call this order, it involves all of us much more than any of the past.

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