As world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, there is a palpable sense that the global balance of power is shifting. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the unipolar moment appears to have given way to a far more complex system of geopolitics.
BRICS — a non-Western geopolitical grouping led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — doubled its size a few weeks ago when it invited six states from the Global South to join its ranks. And well over a year into the war in Ukraine, most countries have chosen not to join the West in its sanctions regime against Russia despite intense diplomatic pressure.
“As the unipolar era that followed the end of the Cold War recedes, the global South is coming alive once again,” wrote Sarang Shidore in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “But its guiding principle this time is not idealism but realism, with an unhesitating embrace of national interests and increased recourse to power politics.”
To better understand these trends, RS sat down with Shidore, who recently took over the new Global South Program at the Quincy Institute. Shidore brings an unconventional yet realist perspective on the end of the unipolar moment and the rise of a new world order. His message is clear: The U.S. can’t stop the rise of a new order, but it can help shape certain trends in its favor if policymakers can accept that unipolarity is, in fact, dead.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RS: Why do you find the category of the "Global South" useful? Why is it analytically valuable?
Shidore: The key is to understand that the world is not equitable when it comes to power — not just wealth, not just income, but power. Power is a squishy quality, but it is, at the end of the day, what makes things happen.
When you look at the power map of the world, you see some clear winners and some others who are not quite in the room. The winners are the United States and its core allies in Europe, probably Japan, probably Korea to a large degree. You have the other great powers, Russia and China, who by virtue of being great powers can exercise influence and resist various pressures.
What's left is a huge number of states. Now, not all of them are poor. The majority of them are quite poor, but there are some middle-income countries or even some countries that have become wealthy. Nevertheless, they are not in the inner rooms of decision making in the world order. They feel they cannot shape the world order in any substantial way. They're deeply dissatisfied in terms of their status and their influence.
As with all labels, there is ambiguity. It's not a precise formula that you can punch in and get a precise answer. The point is that any definition like the “Global South” or the “West”, if it's useful to describe an important dynamic in the world order, then it is of value.
Of course economics is going to come into it. Of course the colonial past is a part of it. It's a tapestry. But nevertheless, it's a geopolitical fact. Broadly speaking, I would center it on geopolitics and power.
RS: It's the geopolitical haves and the have-nots.
Shidore: That's right.
RS: So we've got this group of countries that's dissatisfied, that doesn't want to play great power politics, that wants to be involved in the system. Is that just a desire, and or is there an actual momentum towards change?
Shidore: This is a debate. I think most people would agree that we are less unipolar than we were in the 1990s. Most people have accepted that something was lost in the war on terror, that America lost significant amounts of credibility and even took an economic hit and [suffered] a strategic setback. Then, of course, you had the financial crisis. With the financial crisis and then the Covid shock, you create a lot of damaging impact in the Global South. But nevertheless, after these three crises have happened, when we look at the world you still see that today, there are middle powers with significantly more influence than they had in 1992. There's easily nine or 10 of those. Not only do they have more economic power, but they also have more political savviness and ability to play the game of international politics, get their preferences noticed and acted upon, and sometimes really chart their own futures in their regions and beyond.
Turkey is an example of that. It plays its game quite cleverly. Of course, it overshoots and has suffered economic shocks recently, and so forth. But the bottom line is, it's no longer the country it was in the 1990s, [when it was] economically much weaker, knocking on the door and patiently trying to get into the European Union saying, "We are Europeans. Please accept us as Europeans." They're now saying, "We don't care if you admit us or not. We are striking out on our own." One can agree or disagree with specific policies, but as an actor, Turkey is asserting itself.
It's a variable thing. If you take military power, there's no doubt that the United States dominates the world, and no middle power can come close. If you take financial power, the U.S. again dominates the world. If you take economic power in a broad sense of the term, there things have really changed. Now you have China, of course, the big other in the room, by some measure bigger than the United States. In material terms, China is actually a bigger economy than the U.S. But all these other middle powers have actually achieved a relative economic level of consumption, travel, connectivity through technology. What they had in the 1990s was much less than what they have now. They're able to muscle their way into the debate, at least in some form. But there's still a long way to go for genuine change in institutions.
This contestation is happening as we speak. It's going to play out over one, two, maybe three decades, and this is when we are going to have winners and losers on all sides. Ultimately, I'm most interested in what we do in the United States about it. Are you going to be in denial until it's too late? Or are you going to understand what's happening in the world and craft a strategy that benefits the American people and allows the U.S. to navigate the shoals of what is a more complicated and, in some ways, more treacherous world?
RS: You're getting at something there about the difficulty of having an American state coming out of the unipolar moment and being in this position where it seems like this trend is a threat to American power. A lot of people will say China is the big problem, but it seems like you’re laying out a much larger, broader threat to American power and its ability to enforce its will. Do you see it in those zero sum terms?
Shidore: I think people are seeing it in zero sum terms. That's the problem. First of all, I think it's futile. If there was a button we could push and return to 1992, would many people press it? I think a lot of people would say, "Let's go back and give ourselves a second chance." Maybe a world in which America in 1992 had taken its victory humbly and said unipolarity is something we're going to sustain through an enlightened understanding of interests, maybe that would have been a wonderful thing. But that's not what happened.
Now, it's too late to put the genie back into the bottle. We are inevitably heading in a certain direction, we cannot have the debates on whether we're gonna return to unipolarity, or whether that would have been a better world. What we have now is the reality of today's world and the world of the future.
There are dangers in all orders. There is no perfect global order where all the bases are covered, everybody's safe, rich, and happy, and the environment is perfect. As it is there are threats. Climate change is a major threat.
If we start adding threats and inflating threats, then we will have one of two reactions. One is that we will take measures that are far in excess of the real threat. And we have done that before, in the war of terror. We could have another version of it. The other end of the spectrum is we lose hope and confidence, and that's not a good thing either.
So let's understand the reality of the world and understand that a lot of what are now called threats are either relatively minor, or they're actually opportunities. There are opportunities here to increase influence in the Global South. Just because country X has invited China to build a port doesn't mean China's going to have a base there. If you push it to choose, then maybe that will happen.
There's an anxiety at work here. Behind the facade of confidence is the deep anxiety of losing America's mojo. I don't think America’s mojo is lost. This is a huge country with a diverse set of people, and people still want to come and live here. It's got enormous resources. It's secure. There's no reason to lose confidence and get so stricken with anxiety.
RS: We've got the General Assembly coming up this week in the UN. Something that Biden and the whole administration have planted a flag on is this idea of Security Council reform. BRICS, too, recently endorsed as a bloc the idea of Security Council reform. Is that one of the key things to move forward into an equitable system for some of these middle powers that really want a higher level of influence?
Shidore: There's no doubt that that's a gold standard. The UN is the only really global body. We don't have anything comparable. But everything that I know about it tells me it's hard to change because the bar for reform is very high.
I'm more looking at the other major global institutions, the Bretton Woods institutions: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There are possibilities there. But because that isn't moving either, alternative institutions are cropping up, whether it's the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whether it's the New Development, whether it's bilateral projects like China's Belt and Road Initiative, they're stepping in and doing things on the ground. The World Bank System still remains among the biggest. It sets a lot of norms and standards. People look to the World Bank for a lot of things. But if it doesn't reform, there's gonna come a day when it just becomes one of many. That's not beneficial to the U.S.
The impatience for change is growing. As we know well, the current design of the order is a 1945 design. We are practically 20 years away from 2045. So how are you going to reach 2045 and after 100 years there's been no significant change to the world order's design? I think that's just not a sustainable proposition.
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