The latest G7 summit, in the beautiful Alpine setting of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, has come and gone.
No longer the G8, owing to Russia’s suspension, the forum is again composed exclusively of traditional western powers. At a time when the emergence of large, densely populated economic powerhouses like Brazil, China, India and Indonesia is challenging western dominance, many believe that the current international system is due for an overhaul.
In fact, a new world order is almost certain to emerge — and very soon. The shape it takes will be determined by two key phenomena: globalisation and digitisation.
Globalisation is enabling economies that are not yet fully industrialised to reap the benefits of industrialisation and become integrated into global markets — a trend that has redefined the global division of labour and transformed value chains. The revolution in digital communication technology has underpinned this shift.
Of course, the impact of digitisation extends beyond economics; it has broken down many cultural barriers, giving ordinary citizens in even remote regions access to information and ideas from all over the world.
As globalisation-enabled economic development continues to raise incomes, this cultural integration will undoubtedly lead to broader political participation, especially among an increasingly large — and increasingly demanding — middle class. Already, this trend is complicating governments’ efforts at domestic monitoring and control.
In terms of the global economic balance of power, however, the impact of globalisation and digitisation remains difficult to predict. While these trends have undoubtedly fuelled the economic rise of some developing countries, the West — especially the US — retains a technological and innovative edge.
Indeed, America’s technological lead — together with its enormous capital assets and dynamic business culture, exemplified in Silicon Valley — could ultimately reinforce its global standing.
But with major emerging economies like China and India working hard to foster innovation, while still benefiting from technological catch-up, it is also possible that continued globalisation and digitisation will propel continued “de-westernisation” of the international order. Only time will tell whether these countries will successfully challenge the established powers.
Even if the US — and, to some extent, Western Europe — does retain a competitive edge, it is unlikely to retain the kind of global geopolitical control that it has had since the Second World War and, especially, since the Soviet Union’s collapse left it as the world’s sole superpower.
In fact, even though the US remains dominant in military, political, economic, technological, and cultural terms, its global hegemony already seems to have slipped away.
The reality is that America’s global geopolitical supremacy did not last long at all. After becoming overstretched in a series of unwinnable wars against much weaker — and yet irrepressible — opponents, the US was forced to turn inward.
The power vacuums that it left behind have produced regional crises and have contributed to a wider shift toward instability and disorder.
The question now is what will replace Pax Americana?
One possibility is a return to the kind of decentralised order that existed before the Industrial Revolution. At that time, China and India were the world’s largest economies, a status that they will regain in this century.
When they do, they might join the traditional powers to create a sort of “pentarchy” resembling the European balance-of-power system of the 19th century.
But there are serious questions about most of these countries’ capacity to assume global leadership roles. With the European Union facing unprecedented challenges and crisis, it is impossible to predict its future.
Russia’s future is even more uncertain; so far, it has been unable to rid itself of the phantom pains over its lost empire, much less arrest the deterioration of its society and economy.
India has the potential to play an important role internationally, but it has a long way to go before it is stable and prosperous enough to do so.
That leaves only the US and China. Many have predicted the emergence of a new bipolar world order, or even a new Cold War, with China replacing the Soviet Union as America’s rival. But this, too, seems unlikely, if only because, in today’s interconnected world, the US and China cannot allow conflict and competition to obscure their common interests.
As it stands, China is financing America’s public debt, and, in a sense, subsidising its global authority. And China could not have achieved rapid economic growth and modernisation without access to US markets.
Simply put, the US and China depend on each other. That will go a long way towards mitigating the risks that a new global power’s emergence inevitably generates.
Against this background, it seems likely that the new world order will resemble the bipolar order of the Cold War — but only on the surface.
Underneath, it will be characterised by engagement and mutual accommodation, in the name of shared interests.
The G7 represents a dying order. It is time to prepare for the G2.
— Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2015
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.