Contemporary ‘Power’ Shifts Resulting in a Polycentric World Order: Newcoming International Entities Lead the Way

Contemporary ‘Power’ Shifts Resulting in a Polycentric World Order: Newcoming International Entities Lead the Way

With the advent of the 21st century new actors have risen to prominence in the international theatre. ‘Power’ is getting disseminated among these actors and US unilateral hegemony has eroded to a great extent, changing the balance of power equation across the globe. The resulting polycentric world order brings new opportunities but as well challenges and risks, making the present scenario extremely complicated.

1. Introduction to the Concept of ‘Power’

In the context of international relations, ‘power’ is the sum total of the ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ of the states, international institutions, transnational non-state actors and other entities operating at the international level. Today these entities while they exhibit ‘power’, in any form, need to comply with the provisions of international law to attain universal concord of its legitimacy. ‘Power’ is an evolutionary phenomenon that has time and context as dependent variables; it subsists and prospers in a fluid state. ‘Hard power’ refers to the instruments of political and/or economic coercion (like military technology, modern information technology, economic sanctions, etc.) that are applied out of self-interest by one actor to reach desired changes in behaviour of its targets. ‘Soft power’ refers to a state’s ability to influence events through cooption and attraction, rather than military or financial coercion (Nye, 1990).

2. Shift in ‘Power’: 2001 till Today

The year 2001 witnessed a U-turn in the course of unilateral US global hegemony. The 9/11 event which occurred during the very year was an outright revisionist attempt that subsequently ushered in unfolding a new global security order. This event intricately embroiled the US and its staunchest Western democratic allies, though to a relatively lesser extent, in the ‘Global War on Terror’ – the international military campaign led by the US and UK against Islamic militancy, especially Al-Qaeda. The US’s unsuccessful prolonging of its overseas military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan plus its carefree internal public and private spending has eroded its once unrivalled economic, political and military supremacy in the international arena. Prior to the precipitation of the “Great Recession” (Shelburne, 2009) – the worldwide economic slowdown which unfolded after the US subprime mortgage crisis –, many developed states of Europe were perpetuating misconduct on the economic font roughly in line with US; however when the later sneezed the former caught a fever!

The concurrent period has also witnessed profuse international entities, which have accumulated varied forms of ‘power’, carving-out space for itself in the international power-play theatre, be it military, diplomatic, political, or administrative manoeuvres. It is in this context that this paper considers these entities as ‘newcomers’. They have been competing as well as cooperating among themselves to build a new international system that is polycentric in nature. In the following the major actors actively involved in the ongoing power-play game that has been gradually redressing the unipolar world order are discussed.

a) States

The period has witnessed an astounding rise of a few states as global powerhouses to be reckoned with. In the following the four major ones among the many rising states in the international ‘power’ domain are stated.

China, a nation-state, has been able to secure a great power position at the international stage defying all odds against it. In the second quarter of 2010, China overtook Japan to become the second largest economy in the world (Barboza, 2010) and has also institutionalized its Communist party controlled People’s Liberation Army to be the world’s largest (active) standing army in the world. (, 2012).

Russia, as successor state of the erstwhile USSR, while it relied heavily on aids and loans from the US, West Europe and their frontal organizations for mere functioning of its state apparatus in the 1990s, has over the last decade been able to earn the privileged reputation of being the ‘Energy Superpower’ (Rutland, June 2008).

Last but not the least, India, the largest democracy in the world, and Brazil, a highly resourceful state, have been making steady advances in the fields of economy, defence, knowledge-production etc.
Hereby it is interesting to note that while China and Russia have been extensively relying on their economic transactions with foreign players (i.e. ‘hard power’) to gain international assimilation, India and Brazil have been propagating their culture and international peace-broker diplomacy (which are forms of ‘soft power’) respectively to gain international acquiescence.

b) Institutional Regimes

The last decade has likewise witnessed a steady rise in the number of prominent new political, military and legal regimes, which have defined their own order among the participating parties as well as making collective assertiveness of their stance at the international arena. In the following two such entities that have been exhibiting ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ in their own unique ways are discussed.

The Sanghai Corporation, an intergovernmental mutual security organization, came into being in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined its predecessor Sanghai Five, which comprised China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Its official objective is to bring cooperation in different policy fields on the basis of state-to-state relationship on a higher level. However China and Russia have been continually endeavouring to use it as a platform to thwart or limit any form of US and Western intrusion over the broader region, though with limited success (Varadarajan, 2012; Fels, 2009). The ‘Peace Mission’ military exercises being conducted under the SCO framework are officially meant to addresses military and security cooperation among member states to counter terrorism, separatism and extremism (MoFA China, 2004) However these have been subtle attempts of China and Russia to showcase their collaborative military strength i.e. ‘hard power’.

In 2002 there officially came into being the International Criminal Court, a supra-national judiciary body with the ability to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and, in a limited way, crimes of aggression. As of today it remains an institution without universal consent; however it has reviewed 14 cases in seven situations (in Africa), publicly indicted 27 people, has issued arrest warrants for 18 individuals, summonses to nine others and six individuals are in custody (ICC, n.d.). Since ICJ does not have a constabulary force (i.e. a requisite for ‘hard power’) at its disposal, it has been unsuccessful in several cases to effectively bring convicts to justice, as with the currently serving president of Sudan Omar al Bashir. However ICJ verdicts carry symbolic weight as it is widely accepted across the world, which infuses great ‘soft power’ value to this institution.

c) Rouge States

Over this period, there also have emerged certain states that have built-up a limited nuclear arsenal which make them powerful enough to an extent whereby they cannot be directly targeted without the risk of mutually-assured destruction. North Korea and Iran are the two prime states that fit in this category. They are the part of the “Axis of Evil” (Bush, 2002) which has not yet been subjected to any direct military confrontation with the US. North Korea has officially confirmed its possession of a nuclear arsenal (, 2009) that is fairly large in size and also has technology for uranium enrichment which is “ultra-modern and clean” (, 2010).

Iran has been making considerable progress in its much-controversial nuclear program despite varied forms of sanctions from the US and EU. Though states are legally sovereign entities that have the right to pursue any self-defense measures, it is morally wrong on part of state authorities – e.g. the Kim dynasty in North Korea or the Ahmadinejad led Islamic government in Iran – to pursue self-defense measures that appear to be offensive for other states. The possession of such extreme forms of military ‘hard power’ by rouge states has distorted the balance of power in the region as well across the world.

d) Islamic Fundamental Groups

There has been a horizontal spawning of organized Islamic terrorist groups, implying their spreading-out all across the world. These groups have been relentlessly endeavouring to propagate and establish a reign of ultra-orthodox Islam. Within the broad spectrum of this category there are certain extremist fractions like Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, Caucasian Front etc. and political fractions with stand-by militant forces like Hezbollah, Hamas, Salafists etc. It needs to be stated that these extremist forces are powerful in the sense that they have manpower, muscle-power and even hold political ‘power’ in certain quarters (i.e. varied facets of ‘hard power’). However the means they opt for pursuing and exercising ‘power’ is bereft of international legal validity.

3. A New Set of Opportunities and Its Corresponding Challenges and Risks

The emergence of these new entities and their individual and combined manoeuvres to construct a self-benefiting international order have brought about new opportunities but as well corresponding challenges and risks.

First, today there is an opportunity for developing states to create a more equitable international political order by securing more space within existing supra-state organizations and creating new ones. The growing ‘power’ of the particular fast-developing economies (namely China, Russia, India and Brazil) has enabled them to secure their respective prestigious seats at the global high-tables of policy formulation, like G-20. This brings about a challenge for the group of developing countries to optimize their collective stake while their flag-bearer states bargain with the group of developed states over sensitive issues that are common to the members of the former. However in the process there is a risk of formation of small inter-group cliques that attempt to make gains for the constituent parties at the expense of larger groups they represent. Prime example is the strategic alliance between the US – as representative of the developed world – and India – as representative of the developing or G77 countries –, reflected by the US-India Civil Nuclear Arrangement in 2008 that enables full civil nuclear cooperation between the two states (Office of the Press Secretary, 2005) despite India being a non-signatory party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). (FoAS, n.d.)

Second, the present volatile international environment created by the worldwide economic recession 2007-09 and ongoing European sovereign debt crisis (AP, 2010) that has hit hard the industrial states of North America and Europe that belong the core of the world system (Wallerstein, 2004) provides an additional opportunity for the peripheral and semi-peripheral states to team-up and bargain for the creation of a new egalitarian global economic order. Recently there has been a concrete development in this regard: In December 2010 the completion of the “14th General Review of Quotas led to a doubling of quotas [reflecting permanent IMF resources] from approximately SDR 238.4 billion to approximately SDR 476.8 billion and shifting more than 6 percent of quota shares from developed to developing member states” (IMF, 2011). But it is a still an uphill challenge for the presently fragmented group of developing countries to act cohesively against the group of developed countries that act relatively united. There are colossal unseen risks infused in this ongoing power-play game, as any major erroneous manoeuvre on part of any of these newly powerful entities will surely spoil the currently stable international order.

Third the active ongoing political conflicts occurring at the sub-state (Arab Spring revolutions, etc.), state (Palestine-Israel conflict, etc.) and supra-state (Al-Qaeda and NATO, etc.) levels are presenting enough opportunities for rogue and radical entities to come-up as organized political forces. A common factor among these entities is that they attempt to either break-free or defy values (democracy, individual freedom, etc.) and principles (Westphalian sovereignty, free market etc.) imposed by the West by espousing ultra-orthodox practices of their respective religion, creed, political ideology, including the extreme nationalism of e.g. North Korea or Iran, etc. There is every possibility that certain rogue entities unite in future against their common enemy. This presents a tremendous threat for the democratic actors around the world to unite and play safe for sustaining the present relatively peaceful international order transfusion.

4. Conclusion

There has been a relative loss of ‘power’ wielded by the traditional power centres (primarily US and Western European states) as the new entities have augmented their share. However, the inflow of power into the later has not come through the transfusion of power from the former. This has rather happened as newcoming international entities have become ‘powerful’ per se. The nature of the flow of ‘power’ that has been happening at the global level is not linear, rather it is multi-dimensional i.e. ‘power’ is getting unequally infested in the above-mentioned (as well other) entities that have recently risen to eminence. The ‘power’ gain or loss that has happened can be rightly measured only during a large-scale overt conflict at an international level. However in the present post-globalization era the excessive criss-cross interdependence among different actors, be it at sub-state, state and supra-state level, greatly diminishes the possibility of a global war. Hence it is to stated- regardless of the fact the newcomer ‘powerful’ entities are able to fulfil their individual or collective goals in future but their efforts in this direction have made the contemporary world order truly polycentric in character.

By Hriday Ch. Sarma

Hriday Ch. Sarma is a MPhil student at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University (India), where he is also the present Vice President of the Subject Association. He is as well a Researcher (Level I) at Wikistrat.

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