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Partially Controlled Chaos and What It Means for Global Politics

by Jordan Curwin

Over the past several months, the world has witnessed a resurgent Russia using military force to impose a sphere of influence, increased Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, sectarian violence ripping apart the Middle East, and the establishment of the BRICS bank as an alternative to the World Bank and IMF.  Each of these phenomena is driven by its own unique circumstances, but together they are characteristic of the growing international instability that began with the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Due to the global nature of the Cold War conflict, the United States and the Soviet Union were involved in almost every conflict around the world after World War II.  This provided these two countries and their respective blocs a significant degree of control in managing global issues. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and its European allies took pole positions, but now the distribution of power is shifting again. Other, previously “third world” countries, such as China, India, Brazil, and Iran, have gained greater political influence as a result of their fast-growing economies and their attempts to achieve regional hegemony.

What has emerged can be characterized as a period of partially controlled chaos. 

In his book Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World, Ian Bremmer argues that the recent rise in global instability is the result of a leadership vacuum: there is simply no single country or alliance currently capable of meeting the challenges of global leadership. This absence brings the international community’s ability to resolve major crises into question, but there is also good reason to believe that, as Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko argues, “the sky is not falling.”

What has emerged can be characterized as a period of partially controlled chaos. World powers can and do come together to react to crises and major issues, but their degree of control and influence over events does not come close to that of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Instead, that era’s relative stability has been replaced by a series of conflicts left to fester in the absence of a de facto leader capable of mobilizing the international community to act with purpose.  

Moreover, rising powers have often acted to prevent international action, as seen in India’s partial blocking of international environmental regulations in the Copenhagen Accords, or in the challenge to Western dominance of existing international institutions, as seen with the creation of BRICS bank.

However, there are still collective outlets for addressing major crises. The leveling of powers has weakened many global institutions, but, in some cases, a greater distribution of global power has actually been a source of empowerment. In a critique of Bremmer’s book, The Economist argues that institutions in which countries have equal weight, like the World Trade Organization, fare better in this post-hegemonic world.  The WTO’s equal vote system helps it better accommodate rising powers and nullify criticism that Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF receive. 

Such criticism made headlines in the months before Christine Lagarde’s appointment as Managing Director of the IMF in 2011. Her appointment continued the tradition of appointing a European as head of the IMF since its founding in 1945. Indeed, this pattern of Europe and the United States blocking developing countries’ attempts to attain greater influence and power in the international system ultimately gave way to the creation of the BRICS bank. 

Providing rising powers with more authority in the international system can strengthen and lend legitimacy to existing institutions, and thereby discourage further splintering and gridlock.  

This break-off institution, however, opens the door to further international gridlock and a lack of cooperation in times of crisis.  To help avoid even greater deadlock, international institutions will need to become more inclusive of rising nations by inviting their involvement in the upper echelons of leadership. In particular, major international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF ought to appoint citizens of nontraditional powers to positions of top leadership, and the U.N. Security Council should increase its number of permanent members.

Providing rising powers with more authority in the international system can strengthen and lend legitimacy to existing institutions, and thereby discourage further splintering and gridlock.  

Although no country or bloc of countries has the same degree of control over global events as existed before, or immediately after, the fall of the Soviet Union, international relations does not have to be governed by anarchy.  Bremmer argues that, eventually, a new equilibrium with a new global leader will be reached, but, in the meantime, steps can be taken to reduce the consequences of this structural instability. 

By revamping international institutions to recognize the importance of rising powers and facilitate their engagement, world powers may just be able to manage the chaos.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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