Fourteen years ago, the understandings forged between the powers of the West and the developing world at the G-20 helped lift the global economy out of the morass of an epic financial crisis. At the time, the bloc was hailed by then-British prime minister Gordon Brown as the vehicle of a “new world order,” one leading the way to a “new progressive era of international co-operation.”
That “progressive” era has not come about. The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine has deepened the chasm between the Kremlin and a galvanized geopolitical West. The toll of the pandemic and climate change keep exposing, in ways big and small, the grim inequities between the world’s haves and have-nots. The United States and other Western countries have soured on the free-trading enthusiasm of an earlier era of globalization and are increasingly beholden to once-fringe reactionary nationalist movements at home. Outside the West, liberal democracies in myriad countries, including India, are ailing in the face of entrenched, illiberal, majoritarian ruling parties.
Then there’s the rivalry between the United States and China. Biden described Xi’s no-show in New Delhi as “disappointing,” but U.S. officials are expected to use the forum as a way to tout how Washington, rather than China, can best help with the development of low- and middle-income nations in what’s broadly referred to as the “Global South.” For the White House, the summit is more a backdrop for a clearer geopolitical agenda — after New Delhi, Biden will go to Vietnam for a state visit, during which a slate of major cooperation deals is expected to be announced. That trip, along with the United States’ efforts to deepen ties with India, showcase how the Biden administration is trying to secure potential Asian bulwarks against China.
“The U.S. is courting India ferociously. Paradoxically, the best comparison to make of this courtship is with the ferocious courtship of China by the U.S. to counterbalance the Soviet Union in the 1970s,” said former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in a recent interview. “Little of substance will emerge from the summit,” he added, referring to the weekend’s meetings. “It may well prove to be, like many G-7 meetings, a photo opportunity for the leaders attending it.”
The G-20 meetings come in the wake of the recent BRICS summit in South Africa, where Xi did make an appearance. It seems Beijing may view that bloc, which does not include the United States and many top Western allies, as a more useful platform for its international agenda. BRICS appears set to expand its ranks next year, raising new questions about the relevance of an institution like the G-20, which may no longer be the principal forum for the major powers of the developing world.
“While China cannot win a battle against a U.S.-led bloc, President Xi Jinping seems convinced that it can take its place as a great power in a fragmented global order,” observed Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, arguing that the arena upon which Beijing and Washington are exercising their rivalry is altogether different from the context that surrounded the binary clash of the Cold War in the previous century.
“The picture that emerges is of a world in which the superpowers lack sufficient economic, military, or ideological clout to force the rest of the world — in particular, the increasingly confident ‘middle powers’ — to pick a side,” Leonard wrote. “From South Korea to Niger to the new BRICS members, countries can afford to advance their own goals and interests, rather than pledging fealty to the superpowers.”
The growing influence of the “middle powers” is changing how we think of global politics. “Welcome to the a la carte world,” wrote Alec Russell in a smart piece for the Financial Times. “As the post-cold war age of America as a sole superpower fades, the old era when countries had to choose from a prix fixe menu of alliances is shifting into a more fluid order.”
Russell pointed to countries like Kenya, which are, “with alacrity and increasing skill,” engaging a host of regional and world powers, from Washington to Beijing, London to Tehran, on their own terms: Participating in a naval exercise here, an infrastructure deal there. This week, Nairobi hosted an inaugural African summit on climate to set the continent’s “common position” ahead of U.N.-backed climate meetings later this year. Kenyan President William Ruto has been outspoken about both the West and China’s obligations to help Africa cope with a climate crisis not of its own making, as well as to redress an inequitable global lending structures that have saddled African economies with huge public debts.
“Don’t focus on U.S.-China competition, as they are not going to be able to discipline fragmentation as Russia and America did in the Cold War,” Ivan Krastev, a prominent Bulgarian political scientist, told the Finatial Times. “The middle powers may not be big enough or strong enough to shape the international order, but their ambition is to increase their relevance.”
It all may seem a bit confusing, a bit chaotic. But out of this geopolitical muddle, a new world older is lurching into motion.