As the world moves towards multipolarity, some predict a decline of multilateralism as international coordination becomes more difficult. Others see multipolarity as a potential driver of increased interstate cooperation, forcing countries to form alliances to counteract fragmentation. In either case, regional alliances are likely to become stronger and the regionalization that is already evident in trade statistics will probably continue.
It is likely that, in the next 20 years, there will be no single state that can dominate all regions of the world or all domains of influence. The relative power of countries such as China and India is increasing with respect to existing powers such as Europe, the US and Russia. Alongside these, emerging powers such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey and Vietnam, will also increasingly exert their influence at a regional and global level. The nature of the relationships between these countries will be key to determining the kind of international order that will emerge – if ideological differences and divisions over models of governance grow, then this could foster competition instead of cooperation and “the intensity of competition for global influence is likely to reach its highest level since the Cold War”. But this global influence will not be decided primarily by military and economic power, but by trade flows, aid and technology transfers, plus the number and quality of bilateral relationships. What this multipolarity means for global governance is not yet clear (see ‘Decline of multilateralism?’).
The multilateral system put in place after World War II was designed to foster cooperation between countries and improve their ability to pursue common goals and tackle global challenges. But these institutions may no longer be fit for purpose in a multipolar world and there are already serious signs of weaknesses in the system (as demonstrated by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic).
As global power becomes more diffused, it may become even more difficult to reach agreement between countries within international institutions such as the United Nations. As a result, the universalist approach to international law and human rights could be challenged – “with competing local and regional understandings of international norms likely to prevail”. If international institutions are weakened or even collapse, responses to global challenges such as climate change, poverty or technology governance will become more uncertain. The rise in nationalism, protectionism and populism in some countries has been linked to this sense of increased uncertainty about multipolarity and its effects on multilateralism.
Nevertheless, there is a distinct lack of agreement on which way this trend will go – even if institutions are weakened, some argue that multilateralism will continue, potentially in a modified form involving companies, civil society, governments and international institutions (multi-stakeholder multilateralism). The majority of countries may continue to see value in international institutions and, even if their reform is challenging, these institutions could continue to exist and remain influential.
If globalization has slowed or stalled, then it has arguably been replaced by regionalization – countries are trading more and becoming more interdependent with those in geographical proximity to them. Regional alliances are forming out of economic pragmatism, to strengthen security, and to increase regional resilience to global shocks or crises. However, there is a risk that as integration within regions increases, divisions between regions could grow, especially if nationalism continues to flourish and leads to more protectionist policies.
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