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BRAHMA CHELLANEY
STRATEGIC IMPERATIVE

Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

North-South gives way to 4-tier economic divide

oday, the changing global equations are reflected in new power realities. While the world is not yet multipolar, it is no longer unipolar, as it had been from the time of the Soviet Union's collapse to at least the end of the 1990s — a period in which America failed to fashion a new liberal world order under its direction.

What we have today is a world still in transition. This may appear to some as a nonpolar world in which multiple engagements between and among important actors have become a strategic imperative. But with the emergence of new players in the geopolitical marketplace, it is only a matter of time before multipolarity begins to characterise a new international order.

The rapid pace of technological and economic change is itself a consequence of nations competing fiercely and seeking relative advantage in an international system largely pivoted on national security. For example, the tensions between internationalism and nationalism in an era of a supposed single "global village" raise troubling questions about international peace and stability. With greater public awareness from advances in information and communications technologies encouraging individuals and even some states to more clearly define their identity in terms of religion and ethnicity, a divide is emerging between multiculturalism and artificially enforced monoculturalism. The rise of international terrorism indeed shows that the information age is both an integrating and dividing force.

The emerging political, economic and security divides are no less invidious. The world is moving beyond the North-South divide to a four-tier economic division: The prosperous West; rapidly growing economies like those in Asia; countries that have run into stagnation after reaching middle-income nation status; and a forgotten billion people living on the margins of globalisation in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is also a resource divide, with the resource-hungry employing aid and arms exports as a diplomatic instrument for commodity outreach. As the spectre of resource conflict has grown, the contours of a 21st-century version of the Great Game have emerged in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Competition over oil and gas resources, driven by rapid economic growth in Asia, constitutes one key dimension of the emergent Great Game.

Also, with the rise of unconventional transnational challenges, a new security divide is mirrored both in the failure to fashion a concerted and effective international response to such threats (including transnational terrorism, ocean piracy and anti-satellite weaponry) and the divisiveness on issues like climate change. Efforts are needed to bridge the divide between the traditional security threats and the new unconventional threats that are increasingly the focus of international attention and concern. Climate change, although not a new phenomenon, belongs to the list of unconventional challenges.

Yet another global divide is centred on political values. At a time when a qualitative reordering of power is reshaping international equations, major players are playing down the risk that contrasting political systems could come to constitute an important dividing line geopolitically. The refrain of the players is that pragmatism, not political values, would guide their foreign-policy strategy. Yet regime character can hardly be ignored.

Ordinarily, the readiness to play by international rules ought to matter more than regime form. But regime character often makes playing by the rules difficult. In modern history, the fault line between democrats and autocrats has at times been papered over through a common geopolitical interest. But today the failure to build greater political homogeneity by defining shared international objectives carries the risk that, in the years ahead, political values could constitute a geopolitical dividing line.

Today, the main challenge to the global spread of democracy comes from the model blending political authoritarianism and state-steered capitalism together. What if this model — authoritarian capitalism, now deeply entrenched in countries as different as Singapore, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and China — becomes the face of the future in large parts of the world? We already are seeing that where authoritarianism has acquired deep roots, a marketplace of goods and services can stymie the marketplace of political ideas.

As history attests, tectonic shifts in power are rarely quiet. Such shifts usually create volatility in the international system, even if such instability is short-lived. The paradox is that the power shifts are happening even as the United States remains the world's sole superpower and thus militarily pre-eminent. Yet the US, burdened by its internal and external problems, is no longer able to play global guardian or set the international agenda on its own. To secure issue-based support, the US has to reach out to states beyond its network of traditional allies.

Healthy, effective international institutions thus have become critical to building power stability and cooperative approaches. After all, the most pressing challenges today are global in nature and demand international responses and solutions. The rising geopolitical risks have been underscored by the multiple crises the world now confronts. Yet the representational deficit of existing international institutions and their inadequacy to play a forward-looking approach has become glaring.

The world, clearly, is at a turning point in its history. Tinkering won't help because the global crises cry out for fundamental changes in international rules and institutions. While we know the world is in transition, we still do not know what the new order would look like. That has only promoted greater international divisiveness. The divisiveness, in turn, has impeded effective action on international challenges, including climate change, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, international terrorism, global pandemics, food and energy crises and the Doha round of world trade talks.

The new global challenges and power shifts make far-reaching institutional reforms inescapable. What the world needs are far-reaching institutional reforms, not the half-hearted and desultory moves witnessed thus far. Such moves have been geared mostly at establishing ways to improvise and temporise and thereby defer genuine reforms.

To mesh with the international nature of today's challenges and the consensual demands of an interconnected world, reforms in all institutions ought to centre on transparency and democratic decision-making. The UN Security Council cannot be an exception. To help jump-start the stalled reform process, those aspiring to be new Security Council permanent members would do well to suggest an across-the-board abolition of the veto to fashion a liberal democratic institution where decisions are arrived at through a simple three-quarter majority rule.

 
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