As we approach the end of the first decade of this new century, the international political system is once again going through a period of profound change. The fault-lines that now divide the international community are changing, in Ken Booth’s words, the “context of living globally”. They have the potential to redraw the contours of the geopolitical landscape and to reshape many of the rules, norms and institutions that are an integral part of the Western liberal order.
The Western liberal order
With roots reaching back well into history, that order has been evolving rapidly since the end of World War II and shaped the international relations of the second half of the 20th century.
It is an order essentially pluralist in character, one built around the states system with expanding and progressively more open market economies, broadly liberal democratic values upheld by a diverse coalition of Western allies under American leadership, and reinforced by a dense web of rules, norms and institutions.
Although not always a peaceful order, among its many virtues has been its adaptability and capacity to evolve through, for example, expanding economic growth and market liberalisation, the drawing in of new participants such as the remnants of the Soviet empire, and enhancing peace and stability through the development of new global and regional institutions that among other things have helped to strengthen the domain of rule-making in international affairs.
The forces now shaping change within this system defy easy or simple characterisation. While they have a resonance with earlier periods in history, they also have a contemporary character, complexity and ambiguity that make them unique to our age.
The resilience and capacity for adaptation of the existing order may enable it to continue expanding as it has done over the last half a century. Were this to be the case, Australia’s prosperity and security would be more certain than if things were otherwise, but in the end there can be little doubt that Australia’s future will be heavily dependent on the way it responds to the impact of the changes now buffeting the international system.
The challenges of the emerging global order
Much about the emerging global order remains confused and confusing, but the fault-lines that now divide the international community all point in the direction of profound change: strong clashes of ideas and interests are creating widespread instabilities and insecurities which are shaking the foundations of the international order. Several issues will be especially critical in determining the extent of change and its impact on Western liberalism.
First, it will be determined by the way the international community responds to the many disjunctions of globalisation. The third great phase of globalisation since the early years of the 20th century is running in the words of Tom Friedman, “farther, faster, cheaper and deeper” than in any phase before it. As a consequence, its impact is more profound and the debates over its future more intense.
Globalisation undoubtedly benefits significant sections of the international community and is unlikely to be reversed or end suddenly. Its geopolitical impact is profound creating new hubs of global power notably in Asia, but it is also leaving considerable political, economic and social wreckage in its wake and not just in developing countries. The extent to which it can survive in its present form will be one of the most critical issues for the international community in the decades ahead.
The second critical issue and the one that will be the key to determining the contours of the geopolitical landscape in the decades ahead is the future of American primacy.
America’s ascendency began during World War I and continued throughout the remainder of the 20th century to reach the point of unchallenged geopolitical pre-eminence with the end of the Cold War. But after a decade of strategic upheaval in global affairs, America’s primacy shows troubling signs of fragility.
The “unipolar moment” will certainly continue for some time to come, but as other states rise, the issues at the very core of every debate over the future of Western liberalism are America’s global leadership, the way the US will exercise its unique power and how long its status as the unchallenged hegemon can be sustained.
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