The Coming Global Orders

There’s been some thought-provoking discussion of the various analytical models of the world order over the past few weeks. Steve Clemons summarized the “next faultline in foreign policy combat” as “The U.S. matters” vs. “No, it really doesn’t.” Sam Roggeveen has some thoughts along with the relevant links here, including this John Ikenberry response to Clemons’ original post.

Obviously, this is a fertile moment in foreign policy theorizing, in part because of the enormous shifts in economic activity taking place, but also because it’s still very uncertain how those shifts will translate into the sphere of real power and influence, and how the global order will respond once they do. Along those lines, Nikolas Gvosdev flagged two interesting developments: joint naval exercises between Brazil, India and South Africa (what he calls the Southern Democracies), and the first Foreign Ministers’ summit between Brazil, Russia, India and China.

There’s always a dynamic interplay between theory, analysis, and reality, whereby sometimes (but not always) the act of imagining a potential future makes it more likely to take place. It’s the foreign policy equivalent of the developer’s rule of thumb, “Build a road and they’ll come,” and it’s exemplified by this passage from the Hindu article cited by Gvosdev:

The Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) will meet exclusively for the first time in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg on May 14 with economics and cooperation at multilateral fora topping the agenda. . .

. . .Although the BRIC Foreign Ministers have discussed the prospects of mutual cooperation on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the agenda here will be solely focused on promoting the concept of BRIC, first articulated by Goldman Sachs in 2003. . .

Though the BRIC concept was articulated by the corporate sector, the four countries found it practical to adopt it as part of foreign diplomacy, especially in view of their reservations towards some of the policies being defended by the U.S. at world bodies.

Here we have an economic forecast articulated by a Western investment bank that then translates into the exploration of a real world diplomatic bloc. How much this and other blocs actually coalesce depends on a lot of factors, including the global order’s ability to integrate the new powers. The more their influence is integrated, the more diffuse and dynamic it will remain. The more it’s resisted, the more likely it will be to coalesce into rival conglomerations.

Given the difficulty already encountered in reforming the multilateral institutions upon which it’s based, Ikenberry seems overly optimistic on this score. On the other hand, given the evidence of a nascent globalization backlash among the developed West, the assumption of an unimpeded Asian rise to dominance also seems premature.

As for America’s place in all this, for the time being, the only formula that seems certain is “Necessary, but not sufficient.”