Observatory on European Studies - Are we ready for a multipolar world order?


Peões no globo do mundo com fundo azul

Manuel Becerra-RamĂ­rez*

One year after the last stage of the Russia-Ukraine war started, it’s hard to imagine a way out of the conflict and moreover, it is becoming even harsher and more complex, with the risk of more actors getting involved and then the whole of humanity.

As a matter of fact, armed conflict transcends merely local or regional matters. It concerns the emergence of a multipolar world order which opposes the hegemony of the big one power which dominated the West after the end of the Cold War, and which has been trying to expand urbi et orbi its cultural influence and domain.

It is usual to consider the international order established in 1945 as intended to create a system of international security that would keep humanity safe from another global confrontation. For this, a system of checks and balances was created in the Security Council (SC), with States that, as great victors of the 2nd WW, could guarantee international peace and security[1]. This idea did not last long, as the outbreak of the Cold War between two hegemonic poles proved the system deficiencies, for example, with the exercise of veto power by its permanent members, which prevented the effective execution of international rules regarding peace and security as to the violations of the same permanent members of the SC.

The end of the Cold War meant a great opportunity to create a more democratic system, with the CS working based on multipolarity. Since the dawn of Soviet perestroika, President Mikhail Gorbachev had expressed the idea of Europe as a "common home", including the USSR in it. Even later, the CS's reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where all its permanent members seemed to act in unison, made us think that the future operation of the UN body was headed that way. However, it was only a momentary good signal.

Instead of accepting a plural, multipolar reality, the theoretical point of view of the "end of history" prevailed; which states that a great victorious power (in the rivalry between capitalism vs. socialism), armed to the teeth, can dominate and disseminate its way of seeing life (American way of life), with the premises of a market economy, and a democratic system similar to that of the United States. For this, the US disregarded the reform of the United Nations system, which by the end of the 20th century was already overwhelmed by the new geopolitical reality, and seeking to strengthen multilateralism, got involved in changing trade rules, exercising its influence through international lobbying and bilateral free trade agreements. In addition, it promotes the expansion of NATO, under the ashes of the Warsaw Treaty, to create a system that strengthened the Anglo-Saxon hegemony.

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 seemed at first to constitute a threat to the hegemony of the United States. However, economic globalization was strengthened, causing an unequal world with the concentration of wealth in a few hands, putting transnational companies at the center of the world economy. The most present example is the political and economic power shown by transnational pharmaceutical industries during the Pandemic. In addition, in the post-Cold War international scenario, the United States has shown a tendency towards asserting its global hegemony. The wars of Iraq II, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria exemplify this same political trend and let's not forget the disastrous and bloody war that tore Yugoslavia to pieces.

Towards a multipolar system

Russia's war against Ukraine shows how surpassed the post-war international order of 1945 is and gives us clues of the emergence of a new system that breaks with the hegemony of the United States. In principle, the urgency of a negotiation as to China and the BRICS nations. The system of unilateral sanctions overwhelmed the Security Council, the only body which, according to Chapter VII of the San Francisco Charter, has the power to dictate such sanctions. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the recent ruling on Iran v. The United States of America, regarding the US Supreme Court authorization of the confiscation of nearly 2 billion dollars of Iranian funds supposedly as "compensation for the victims of terrorism." Although a case-by-case examination of the United States' acts of sanctions against its political enemies is required, the ICJ, in its ruling of March 30, 2023, sheds light on the legality of unilateral sanctions.

On the other hand, we have a so-called de-dollarization that is being generated in world trade, as we see that the Chinese yuan is now the currency with which 90% of commercial exchanges are carried out. Between China and Russia, as was also raised at the last meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The BRICS group, which is looking for a new currency for its commercial exchanges, is heading in the same direction. In other words, there is a phenomenon of de-dollarization of commercial exchanges in one part of the world.

Where is Europe going to?

Here, the questions are: where is Europe going?; is Europe going to keep supporting the model of hegemony of the United States or will it accept the idea of a pluralist world in which Europe would undoubtedly be a relevant political actor? We do not forget that Europe has been the cradle of many ideas and institutions, including international law. We owe to the Greek, German, French, English, Dutch and Spanish thinkers the fundamental ideas of international law. Let's put these ideas of Western culture as a wall to defend world peace among them: respect and tolerance for others, especially those who are different or politically waker. There is no doubt that the international order needs a substantial reform of its institutions. As the Portuguese professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos says:

   “The UN is a state organization, and Kofi Annan's attempt to make it more open to civil society failed. After the crisis in Iraq and Ukraine, the UN will continue the path of discredit. And this will only deepen the greater its submission to the geostrategic interests of the United States. If we live permanently at war despite the fact that the common people of the world (except those linked to the military industry or mercenary armies) want to live in peace, isn't it time we had an organized and global voice that was heard?”

Is it posible to negotiate?

Regarding the Russian War against Ukraine, the press at this moment floods us with information about the weapons that are being sent to Ukraine, about the next offensive of the contenders that may be very soon, but we know close to nothing as to peace proposals. We’ve already heard about those raised by Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Turkey and even that of China, which could be more viable, considering its weight and agency as a political and economic power.

In addition, there is a compelling example that negotiation is possible. We are referring to the agreement on cereals so that it could export cereals and fertilizers from the ports of the Black Sea and that was negotiated and signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN. This Agreement has already been extended a couple of times to date. In general, all conflicts, even the most complicated ones, are resolved sooner or later, but we must prepare ourselves for the arrival of a multipolar system if it is not that history overtakes us.

[1] The security system contained in Chapter VII of the UN Charter is “the most powerful instrument of the UN, the adoption of enforcement measures in case of threats to the peace, breaches of peace or acts of aggression”  Simma, Bruno; Khan, Daniel-Erasmus; Nolte, George, Paulus Andreas, The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, volume II, p. 1273.

* Manuel Becerra-RamĂ­rez

Investigador del Instituto de Investigaciones JurĂ­dicas de la Universidad Nacional AutĂłnoma de MĂ©xico (UNAM).