The coming of Donald Trump marks the final ascendancy of the G-n world even if more for its symbolism than the culmination of on-going trends. We seem to be, yet again, searching for the right definition of renewed instability and uncertainty. For a while G – 2 was useful in eluding the emergence of China but proved a very partial, even wishful depiction of the future desired by some. G – 20 sought to define a world shifting to the East in times of purported Western relative decline and in the thralls of a global crisis in dire need of institutional containment. Most popularly, G – 0 underlined the crucial fact of stark absence of a dominant, structuring power in a global context of deep uncertainty. Yet, it is somewhat deficient in capturing the dynamic responses of actors over time as the permanence of power diffusion crystalizes.
The G – n world is defined by the decline of the long-term anchoring power of strong actors and relentless, dynamic, assertive and open-ended political and institutional hedging in an inherently unstable and unpredictable world. It suggests an inability of any one or number of actors to stabilize this state of flux politically or institutionally and pushes states into this condition of endless hedging. Hence, national governments are auditing their pooling of sovereignty and recalibrating their readiness to share it. More and more politicians and citizens see it as a zero-sum game as governments are forced to engage in diversification of tools and avenues for foreign policy. An unstable mix of multilateral, bilateral and unilateral actions emerges as alliances are loosened and cooperation arrangements drift and are re-negotiated. Long-standing pillars of foreign relations are becoming mere ad hoc, interest-oriented and potentially transitory clusterings. Governments and citizens are engulfed by a state of permanent anxiety about the effective response and adjustment to never-ending uncertainty, by a nagging sense of inherent fragility and transience of all political and institutional arrangements. As a result, we are moving towards a complex web of formal and informal bilateral, regional and multilateral structures, formats and understandings as the sole, sufficiently robust basis for national foreign policy.
At first sight, the emergence of this new situation might appear to be simply the expected embedding of familiar responses to renewed multi-polarity. Yet, this situation seems to address an intuition of greater uncertainty and fluidity than previous multipolar arrangements have entailed. This might prove a temporary take on current events but is presently a powerful driver of behavior. Most of the reasons for this shift are well-charted. Prime amongst them are Western relative decline due to loss of cohesion and self-confidence, stumbling political leadership and an undermined economic model. Shifts in other actors’ behavior are also making difference. The economic prowess of an increasingly assertive China and a resurgent and systemically disruptive Russia are obvious causes as well as the proliferation and growing complexity of globalization-induced challenges in economy and security. The undermining of multilateralism and stalemates in constructing effective global governance complete the picture.
But there are other reasons receiving undeservedly little attention. Some external, others internal. Among the former, one finds growing global economic power diffusion which is creating new perceptions and realities of opportunity. These new real or imagined avenues to prosperity are changing the rationale for structured cooperation and alliance-building. Another is a persistent sense of loss of governability in the wider world in the face of terrorism, intense illegal immigration, refugee flows and greater organized crime threats. Among the latter, the call and expectation of the strengthening of the nation state and the basic uncertainty of how future growth and prosperity will be ensured stand out. Angry and impatient publics are ever more demanding and critical of weak and ineffectual national governments. The internal politicization of foreign, external matters appears to be irreversibly changing national politics as the EU shows. The re-claiming of national sovereignty is thus a call for return of governmental capacity and an approach appropriate for a state of permanent insecurity. Moreover, this does not simply appear to be ‘the new normal’ but the new future which must be at the core of all policy and security calculations as governments scramble to guarantee stability, prosperity and security for their home constituencies.
At present, this take on the emerging condition is still more evident in conceptual thinking than in actual behavior, in discourse and politics than in policy. Yet, the behavior of more and more countries is providing indicators in this direction. In Asia, India is recalibrating its approach and turning to an increasingly multi-directional foreign policy with countries such the Philippines and Malaysia adopting a far less subtle hedging strategies. Even states like Australia and Japan are taking a new look at their foreign policy diversification. An annoyed Mexican Foreign Minister hops off to China days after the spat between his president and the new incumbent in the White House with the entire recent regional framework under revision. With the EU in crisis and a resurgent Russia, Europe provides even starker examples. Vishegrad is an example of the revival of regional format with states in Central Europe striking wide-ranging bilateral deals with actors such as China and Russia. The Western Balkans are well advanced in implementing hedging strategies with various non-European players as EU enlargement stalls and becomes more problematic. This is by no means limited to Central and Eastern Europe as older EU-member states engage in their own little pivots to Asia, evidenced by their eagerness to join the China-sponsored AIIB, for instance. Non-NATO states such as Finland are back at the policy ‘drawing board’ as Russia grows ever more resurgent.
Current political realities have the appearance of permanence to their contemporaries. Our generations have been here before with the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism tale. Our present condition might turn out to be transitory, what looks solid today might melt tomorrow. Yet, there are deep structural processes underpinning the current situation which suggest durability. Governments seem less and less inclined to ignore them as citizens get more restless, political and economic models crumble and uncertainty becomes embedded.