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Return of geopolitics

A dominant theme at the recent World Economic Forum summit was that the return of geopolitics, turbulence and volatility were combining to shape today’s fraught strategic environment. As the eruption of crisis and tensions in the Middle East, Ukraine and East Asia have demonstrated, 2014 has been characterised by political and economic turmoil and instability, with uncertainty casting a shadow over the opportunities offered by the world. Intensifying competition between the major powers seems to mark a revival of older patterns of behaviour even as it has assumed newer forms. This is being accentuated by a surge in nationalist sentiment across the world.

At WEF’s annual meeting on the Global Agenda in Dubai, a senior minister from the host country pointed out that the summit was taking place at a particularly crucial time, when extremism was raising its head in new forms and a number of global challenges – from scarcity of resources and climate change to the outbreak of Ebola – presented not just looming threats but grim present realities.

Billed as the world’s largest brainstorming event, which gathers over a thousand experts from 80 countries, this year’s WEF summit took up a range of diverse and pressing issues. The aim, as WEF’s founder Klaus Schwab put it, was to shape the future by an innovative spirit to find solutions, especially as the world remained bogged down in crisis management.

In many sessions participants agreed that 2014 had been an unprecedented year because of the confluence of challenges at a time when the institutions of global governance were at their weakest. In previous times, pockets of instability did not seem to impede the world’s march to progress. But today an array of urgent challenges seems to be holding the world back.

The discussions during the conference and on its sidelines identified three or four factors that made the present era an extraordinary one in world affairs. The first was the increasing globalisation of crises. This made the scale and dimensions of today’s crises fundamentally different from those in the past.  Two, these crises have come at a juncture when systems have been disintegrating or are in a fragile state. Three, crises are assuming a long-term and protracted nature. And four, they are not easy to fix, and often involve a good deal of time and much patience and ingenuity.

The session on the challenges of geoeconomics produced a lively debate, which highlighted the theme of the return of geopolitics. According to one speaker, geopolitics was increasingly “interfering with and unravelling” the globalisation of the economy and producing a retreat to nationalism.  This reinforced a key point made by Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, WEF’s flagship annual publication. In assessing the state of global geopolitics, this underscored that nationalist ideologies, opposed to globalisation, were creating “new flash points and uncertainty in long dormant ones”, as the recent experience of the European Union also testified.

Economic interdependence, said another speaker, was supposed to yield cooperation and defuse geopolitical tensions. Instead, economic warfare is becoming more pronounced while conflict between the major powers is also assuming economic forms. Great power competition has in fact taken on a multidimensional character.

Geoeconomics, it was argued during the session was now dividing not uniting the world. Fierce competition between regional multilateral projects was, for example, at the root of the crisis over Ukraine. Even the internet was fragmenting the world community and its discourse rather than providing a common public space to promote integration. Although geoeconomic interdependence was still a reality, economic competition and the intense battle for markets were playing a role that garrisons once played in geopolitical power plays. Participants in this session and elsewhere identified a number of global trends or traits which might be useful to summarise here.

• The international geopolitical environment is much more strained now than at any point in the post cold-war period.

• Multipolarity has altered the landscape, but in the absence of effective global institutions or leadership, this is a source of confusion and disorder.

• The world is moving from globalisation to ‘glocalisation’ – with local issues becoming global in their impact.

• Old approaches are still being applied to a complex new interconnected world, which are proving inadequate.

• Global challenges are being magnified by the intersection of risks – as for example extreme weather or outbreaks of disease in fragile states.

• Nationalist sentiment and separatists forces are growing. This is in part a reaction to the disruptive economic and social effects of globalisation.

• Globalisation is increasingly becoming a ‘gated’ phenomenon as nations relapse into protectionism. This may lead to more de-globalisation.

• Competition for resources is overshadowing cooperation and also exposing nations to becoming ‘new colonies’ for states able to exploit them.

• Asian powers are also ‘pivoting’ to Asia, as indicated, for example, by growing Sino-Russian cooperation, cemented by the latest energy deal.

• The decline of Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and the World Bank) is being accompanied by the emergence of new institutions backed by the rising economic powers. A prime example is the plan for a New Development Bank to finance infrastructure projects and provide an emergency reserve fund.

• Emerging powers are contributing to a new kind of great power politics.

What seems to straddle many of these trends and other key characteristics of the international landscape is the absence of global leadership at a time of rising geostrategic competition. In fact, these two trends are identified among the top ten trends for 2015 by the WEF report.

The annual report relies on a survey that polls WEF members and also factors in the views of the network’s ‘young global leaders’. The survey found that 86 percent of those polled felt the world today is facing a leadership crisis. Respondents also cited the ‘weakening of representative democracy’ as among the world’s top five global trends.

This lack of confidence in leaders is expressed both at the national and international level and this has grown in recent years. The WEF report states, “As citizens lose faith in democratic institutions and geopolitical conflicts proliferate, it is clear that a lack of leadership in the world today is contributing overall to a leadership crisis”

At the international level, the inadequacy of global governance institutions to cope with the complexity and profusion of challenges has long been the subject of international debate. Obviously the shifts in power from the West to the Rest and the global nature of challenges urge the need for international organisations to adapt to and reflect these changes. This has not yet happened.

Meanwhile, the weakness of existing institutions sharply constrains the ability to address a range of international issues, from conflict and poverty to financial imbalances and public health threats. Not surprisingly, the survey on the Global Agenda found an overwhelming majority calling for new structures for global governance. As one writer points out in the report: “the hegemon that in the past could be relied upon to maintain order is now thought to be receding, leaving emerging countries to make a play for strategic assets”.

Moreover, with Western states unwilling to cede or share power in global institutions with the rising powers, the report urges the need for major powers – old and new – to “learn to be partners in this new, more decentralised world”.

This of course is prudent counsel at an unsettled juncture in world politics. But until the strategic adjustments underway in several regions of the world – some violent, others not so – play themselves out, it is hard to see how such partnerships will be built or fostered.

Without such cooperative endeavours, a new global governance architecture is unlikely to emerge to cope with the imposing challenges of our times. Indeed, if existing global institutional arrangements are too slow – or resistant – to embrace change, this will expose the world to even greater disarray than has been witnessed of late.

Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, "Return of geopolitics," The News. 2014-11-18.
Keywords: Political science , Economics , Political geography , International issues , Economic growth , International policy , International relations , Economic relations , Economic survey , International economics , International politics , Economic aspects , Geopolitics , Extremism , Democracy , Dubai , WEF