Military Dimensions of a Multipolar World: Implications for Global Governance

Dr. Ian Anthony is Programme Director, European Security Programme, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Sweden.
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  • May 2018

    For a decade after the Cold War it seemed that multilateral governance might take root under US leadership, including a reinvigorated United Nations and a strengthened international legal framework. The nuclear explosive devices tested by India in 1998 took place in a pivotal period when the so-called ‘unipolar moment’ of the US began to be challenged by states that were not satisfied such an arrangement could advance their national interests.

    To European eyes, India never fully incorporated the implications of the post-Cold War changes into its national approach to global affairs. While many in Europe and the US expected Indian perspectives to be closely aligned with their own, India did not fully integrate into the West. At the same time, India tried to preserve its place in the Global South, even as its interests diverged from those of its traditional partners in certain key issue areas—the role of nuclear weapons being perhaps one clear example.

    While a governance system based on US leadership has corroded, no viable replacement has yet evolved. A further iteration of post-Cold War governance may be in the making, as the US is probably unable (and may not be interested) to play the central role in setting the international agenda or organising (and financing) the key frameworks for interstate dialogue. The main priority might be to insulate the US from any negative effects of events in other parts of the world and create a safe platform for more aggressive economic and financial competition.

    Fluid coalitions of interest form around specific issues, and as a result states that cooperate closely on one issue (such as military security) might take opposing views on another (such as climate). States cooperate and compete in different configurations, depending on how their interests align on specific political, strategic, economic, social and environmental questions. While some analysts draw parallels with the past, in reality there is little precedent or knowledge to guide current thinking and uncertainty contributes to the re-emergence of military factors in international relations as states seek both assurance and insurance.

    Uncertainties are promoting national investment that is gradually equipping military forces in ways that could provide major powers with capabilities that emphasise deterrence and defence. Although it is intended to reduce any risk of conflict between major powers, whether this investment will produce a stable global environment is unknown and untested.

    The pattern described above is challenging and problematic for Europeans, who were comfortable with the concept of enhancing the effectiveness of multilateralism under US leadership. A twin-track approach is emerging. Initiatives to strengthen intra-Western solidarity (particularly the promotion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation–European Union cooperation) promote a traditional approach, while intra-European cooperation is being revisited as a hedging strategy, in case autonomous European action is needed in future.

    In headline documents, India and European states emphasise that they are natural partners and promise to promote rules-based governance of an interconnected and multipolar world. However, Indian perspectives on global governance are largely absent from European discussions, and the promised cooperation appears more aspirational than real.