The paradox of multipolar globalization is that it is at the same time a unified, polarized, and fragmented system.
"From the present time forth, in the post-Columbian age, we shall again have to deal with a closed political system, and nonetheless that it will be one of worldwide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence."
Halford J. Mackinder
We can’t escape geopolitics even if we don’t care about it.
You don’t even need to check the news to feel it. Sometimes, geopolitics hits hard on your pocket. Other times, it meets you while taking a walk in the streets.
The recent war escalation between Israel and Palestine hasn't affected the things we'd normally label as "geopolitical risks," like rising oil prices.
The war in Gaza has interlinked with deep political divisions among Americans. We have witnessed protests in the streets of Manhattan and conflicts on American campuses.
But that’s not entirely new.
Our grandparents could tell stories about campus agitation during the Vietnam War, protest for democracy in Europe, or anticolonial struggles in the global south. Still, at that time, there seemed to be a coherent narrative tying all these events together.
Today, that’s not the case. There is a strong temptation to shoehorn current events into recycled old-fashioned discourses. Doing that will make our ship crash with an overlooked geopolitical iceberg.
The world today is at the same time one and many. Homogeneous, divided and fragmented. The certainty of living in a time of fin-de-siecle is the only thing that gives some coherence to what we are experiencing. Then the question is: if geopolitics is unescapable, but our world is so messy, how can we make sense of a world without order?
First of all, navigating geopolitics.
The only way to chart unchartered waters is to sail through them. We should refrain from hiding from the paradoxes of our time but embrace them. Creating the frameworks to understand them and exploit them.
Today, I want to share some ideas of how I am trying to make sense of the world. I want to give you the tools I am building to help you navigate the geopolitics of multipolar globalization.
Let's start moving away from three common misconceptions about the current state of international affairs.
The centrality of the US-China rivalry doesn’t mean we live in a bipolar system.
De-coupling is not the same as de-globalization.
Global challenges don’t generate global agency.
The rivalry between the US and China is a central feature of our international system. Yet, we don't say we live in a bipolar system but a multipolar world.
Why is that?
To start with, we can explain very little about any of the ongoing political conflicts going on around the world by figuring out if the allegiance of the contending parts is to Beijing or Washington.
The US and China are the actors that matter the most, but not the only ones that matter. The frictions caused by the US and China's competition are already empowering new (re)emerging actors. This reinforces the tendency towards multipolarity.
America's push for decoupling from China feeds the rise of India. Japan, the ASEAN, and other developing nations in South America and Africa are also taking advantage of this dynamic.
That means that our world has little to do with the one of the Cold War. Still, many insist on looking at things through these old googles because are the only ones that can still fit in their heads.
The US and China are fighting an asymmetric conflict.
For example, among recent global escalations, we can, indeed, find countries close to China. Russia, Iran, and now Venezuela with its ambition of taking over Essequibo.
Many analysts try to find coordination behind these actions. A coherent chain of events that would ultimately end with China's invasion of Taiwan. Beijing might still invade Taiwan someday, but not as part of a plan of an axis of evil.
China is not the USSR.
China is not mimicking American-led institutional structures as the Soviet Union did. China doesn't seek to replace the liberal international order with its own. That doesn't make Beijing less ambitious. China is just less concerned about chaos reigning beyond its borders.
The US is still operating at large within frameworks and institutions inherited from the aftermath of the Cold War. They are not entirely obsolete tools, but they were designed to fight the battles of another time.
What Beijing provides to its "allies" is not political and military guidance. But an economic and technological safeguard against Western pressure.
China acts as an enabler, not a coordinator.
The influence of China in the world today is not as much dependent on its actions but on its traction. Its mere existence as a great economic, technological, and political power has been enough to upheave the Western-led order.
The Western-dominated system has already been broken, and there is no way back. A decentered globalism has substituted the old articulation. For the same reason, the idea of bipolarity doesn't work.
Beijing is not yet – and it is not clear it will ever be – the "sovereign" of a coherent bloc of allies. Most of China's "allies" have been following their own agendas. How much the actions of third actors directly benefit Beijing or not is a secondary concern. That's what many analysts aren't able to see.
The US has also grown less dependent on the outside world in terms of energy resources and is keeping Europe closer to Washington than ever before. But everybody knows that America has lost its appetite for overseas wars.
In this topography, international actors of every kind have become less risk-averse. More prone to take military actions and cross lines unthought of a decade ago.
Paradox of Multipolar Globalization
This world doesn't provide for parsimonious one-size-fits-all explanations. Yet, we can still craft the charts to sail through the waters of geopolitics.
To navigate globalized multipolarity, we need first to understand its apparent paradoxes. Multipolar globalization is that it is, at the same time, a unified, polarized, and fragmented system.
Unified because everything happens within an interconnected system. A problem overseas rapidly becomes a problem at home.
Pandemics, climate changes, resource scarcity, economic crisis, demographics, migration, digital alienation, social antagonism, and political obsolescence to mention a few are global challenges with global consequences.
Polarized because the rivalry between the US and China plays a transversal role in global politics. Every country in the world is forced one way or another to navigate through its gravitational forces.
Fragmented because global events are not happening as side-plots of a main geopolitical narrative that ties everything together.
Global political centers have lost the global disciplining capacity they used to have. Increasingly, more actors with their own agency and agendas play a leading role in highly localized contexts that still manage to provoke global shifts.
Think about the Houthis, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Ukrainians, the Azeris, or the Tigray, to mention a few. They can play the game of the great powers, but they won't let themselves be treated as disposable pawns.
We can use these features of globalized multipolarity to chart contemporary geoeconomic waters into three interacting dynamics:
Bifurcating Supply Chains
For a century at least, we have heard about the advent of the regional self-sufficient economic blocs. However, any attempt to create successful large, developed, closed economic systems has failed.
Markets are global for goods, commodities, technology and innovations like AI. But also, in a broader sense, for cultural and political products or solutions to shared problems.
As long as the material conditions of the possibility for a digitally connected sea-bound global civilization exist, all economies will operate in interlinked global markets. The consequences of disruptions and radical changes abroad, sooner or later, hit domestic markets.
Bifurcating Supply Chains.
The rivalry between the United States and China, coupled with the goal of addressing geopolitical, environmental, and security risks inherent in an interconnected market, is nurturing the diversification of global supply chains.
Economic actors adapting to the risks generated by the US and China decoupling will have to choose one of them: to find creative solutions to work with both or to create totally independent supply chains.
Most likely, that will produce a diversification of supply chains that will go beyond mere bifurcation. In the next decades, we won't be talking only about Chinese or American lead supply chains.
That will allow for new technological powers to rise. We should include India's, ASEAN's, and maybe others. Countries in the middle will adapt to bifurcated supply chains, generating new articulations.
Problems might be global, but action still remains local.
Economic policy is no different. Global trends are built through a myriad of interactions at local levels. Depending on the issue, "local" can refer to different levels, ranging from companies, cities, states, and regions to even religious and ethnic groups.
The appreciation of shorter supply chains to mitigate global risks will increase the value of localized economies. Even in contexts where there exists degrees of transnational coordination, like the EU or the Belt and Road Initiative, national and local contexts are the ones that decide the eventual failure or success of economic policy.
No matter how much national politics are influenced by global events, they are still decided in "local contexts." International dynamics might influence local actors. However, local actors are still the ones who will have to deal with and use the opportunities emerging from global challenges.
A quick look at the war in Ukraine shows all these three dynamics at play. The war uphealed global energy markets. Russia had to reshuffle its supply chains to get substitute components from China and India. European governments relaxed their green policies, fearing unrest caused by the demand for affordable electricity.
Navigating geopolitical waves
Finding a new order in the world might be beyond our reach, but we can still find orientation within it. The ideas I shared today are all still works in progress. And maybe this is the only way they can be.
Charting contemporary geopolitical waters is still possible as long as we repudiate the human tendency to seek comfortable fictions of order to mask unsettling realities of uncertainty.
To navigate the current geopolitical shifts, we need a navigator’s mindset. We must use charts, compasses, and sextants to navigate, but yet steer the wheel with a firm hand through changing winds and stormy waters.
This is all for today. If you enjoyed this article, please leave a like or share it with your contacts. I’m also very interested in your comments and opinions on this topic!
Have a great weekend!