World Orders: The Global Kaleidoscope in Repeated Motion

World Orders: The Global Kaleidoscope in Repeated Motion
Lecture to a class on Diplomacy and the Policy Process

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video from Washington, DC  21 September 2022

The world is now in a confusing transition to a new order for both its constituent regions and its functional divisions. This is not unusual. In the five centuries since all parts of the globe were brought into mutual communication, there have been many such evolutions.

The first global, as opposed to regional order emerged only in the final years of the 15th century. In 1492, Columbus crossed the Atlantic. This connected the Americas to Europe. Soon after, in 1498, Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa and reached India. These two events for the first time made all the world’s continents and oceans a single geopolitical and geoeconomic playing field. They also inaugurated a four-century-long period in which rapidly advancing European technology, industry, and military capabilities bested all competitors, and Western imperialism, colonialism, and ideas conquered the globe.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans exterminated most of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, became the predominant populations there, and began the transport of millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. In the late 18th and the 19th centuries Europeans and their North American descendants overthrew the indigenous civilizations of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific and began the replacement of their political cultures. A new, Atlantic-centered world order had come into being.

Here is a map showing in white the twenty-two countries that the most successfully predatory European imperialist power, Britain did not invade.


European states sought security and prosperity through competition in their own region. But to strengthen themselves in that competition, they pursued control of overseas resources and markets, established military bases abroad, and settled their citizens in lands with sparse indigenous populations but congenial climates. The result was the political, technological, and military domination of the globe by Europe’s great powers, and mass migration by Europeans to the temperate zones of the Americas and Antipodes.

The first worldwide war (1756 – 1815)

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British and French fought the first truly global war.

Their battle for global hegemony flared on and off from 1756 to 1815. with decisive effects on the countries and regions within the world order it defined. France was an absolute monarchy but its worldwide contest with Britain gave it a compelling interest in supporting Britain’s radically democratic American colonists against their king despite their crime of lèse majesté. Absent French intervention, the decisive battle for American independence at Yorktown would not have occurred and the colonists’ rebellion might not have succeeded. 

Global Europe (1815 – 1914)

After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Congress of Vienna reconstituted order in Europe by reintegrating France into its councils of governance. The so-called Concert of Europe established a balance of power system that prevented any single power from dominating the European subcontinent. But as the 19th century proceeded, outside Europe Britain emerged as the undisputed global hegemon.

A British viceroy ruled India. Europeans divided the rest of the world between them. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia sliced China into spheres of influence.

Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain apportioned Africa between them, leaving only Ethiopia and Liberia independent.

In West Asia, only Saudi Arabia, and in East Asia, only Japan remained completely independent. Japan soon emulated Europe’s imperialist powers by building its own overseas empire, seizing the Chinese province of Taiwan in 1895, subjugating the Empire of Korea in 1905, and annexing it in 1910.

A hemisphere apart (1815 -?)

After its 1815 victory over its French adversary, Britain made a century-long effort to deny the resources of the Americas to its European rivals. The newborn United States shared this British interest, even if it found it impolitic to acknowledge this. U.S. independence, followed by the French revolution of 1789 – 1799, had inspired Haiti and the Spanish fiefdoms in the Americas to throw off colonial rule and declare their own independence. By 1821, Spain was in firm control only of the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In its 1823 “Monroe Doctrine,” the United States declared its opposition to any new European great power presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. In practice, given its weakness and concentration on territorial expansion under the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” Washington relied on London to enforce its declared policy of hemispheric strategic denial. In this way, with tacit British backing, the United States managed to subtract the Americas from the global order, exempting them from the European imperialism, colonialism, and cultural supremacy that were everywhere else triumphant. The Americas became a U.S. sphere of influence.

America joins the club (1898 – 1934)

As the 19th century ended, the United States itself joined the imperialist club, engineering regime change in Hawaii and annexing it, then seizing Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico from Spain. Britain recognized that, in the Americas, U.S. power had eclipsed its own. Rather than allow Anglo-American conflicts of interest and confrontations to spark a war that might cost Britain its Canadian dominion, London decided to appease and court Washington. So, it recognized U.S. rather than Canadian sovereignty in the Alaska Panhandle and withdrew its objections to the U.S. construction and management of a trans-Isthmian canal in Panama.

In 1900, in a culmination of the age of imperialism that included Japan and the United States as its first non-European practitioners, eight colonial powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States) combined forces to suppress the “Boxer” rebellion against foreign control in China and to pillage Beijing.

In 1903, the United States detached Panama from Colombia and began a century of violent interventions and imposed regime changes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under American hegemony, the Western Hemisphere remained a region distinct from the world order at large.

America as transatlantic balancer, rule giver, and cop-out (1919 – 1929)

By 1917, Britain had improved its relations with the United States to the point that it was able to draw Americans into support of efforts to redress the breakdown of the balance of power in Europe brought about by the unification and rise of Germany. Given Europe’s dominance of global affairs, the U.S. entry into World War I had worldwide effects. The unprecedented involvement of the United States in European affairs and America’s status as the world’s largest economy and creditor nation marked yet another transformation of the global order. But it took time for this to become apparent.

The 1919 peace conference that followed victory over Germany in the First World War marked international recognition of the United States as a leading Atlantic and global power. At the conference, President Woodrow Wilson advocated a distinctly American vision of world order based on self-determination – if only for the white nations of Europe – and the replacement of international power politics with a version of the rule of law under a new “League of Nations.”  His support for self-determination reflected both popular American reverence for the U.S. declaration of independence and his own sympathy for the right of secession espoused by his native Virginia and childhood residence in Georgia, both unreconciled members of the ill-fated Confederate States of America. Wilson’s idealistic vision of a new world order based on agreed norms and regulatory institutions gained lip service at the conference, but little else. Translated into ethno-linguistic terms relevant to Europe and West Asia, “self-determination” furnished the justification for the dismantling and partition of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

America’s core ideology had long been the rule of law. The proposal for a “League of Nations” represented a projection of this ideology into international affairs. The subsequent refusal of the United States to join the League incapacitated it, but the idea of a rule-bound order continued to find expression in idealistic projects like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, whose signatories sanctimoniously renounced the use of war to settle international disputes.

The First World War had crippled Germany, gutted and impoverished Britain and France, and catalyzed the dissolution and rebirth of the Russian Empire as the Soviet Union. The victors, including the United States, excluded both Germany and the Soviet Union from any role in a renewed European system of governance or balance of power. This miscarriage of statecraft ensured instability and laid the basis for a renewed violent struggle for hegemony in Europe two decades later.

Meanwhile, the world war of 1914 – 1918 had propelled the United States to global economic, financial, and cultural preeminence. The dollar became a major international medium of exchange, and American music, literature, and consumer products achieved worldwide acclaim. But with the United States self-isolated, the great powers of Europe weakened, and agitation for independence in their overseas empires mounting, the world was in a state of increasing disorder – in transition to something yet unknown.

The great depression and the rise of fascism (1929 – 1939)

In 1929, the American economy succumbed to mass speculation in its unregulated capital markets, blunders by the “Fed,” and protectionist measures that kicked off a series of trade wars  The global misery generated by the knock-on effects of these developments precipitated the replacement of democracy with militarism in Germany and Japan, which joined Italy in developing forms of “fascism” – dictatorial regimes driven by social Darwinist theories of racial supremacy, obsessions with territorial expansion, and government-guided corporatist economies.

In 1931, Japan invaded China and annexed its northeastern provinces. Four years later, Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1938, Germany took part of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, Italy annexed Albania and Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland. In 1940, Germany conquered France. In 1941, it invaded the Soviet Union.

World War II and the world it created (1939 – 1945)

Despite desperate pleas from a battered and beleaguered Britain and a decimated China, the United States stood aside from the wars in Europe and Asia for two years. But in December 1941, U.S. sanctions regarded by Japan as an existential threat provoked it into a desperate attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the Philippines, Indochina, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. With help from its Thai allies, Japan invaded Burma. Four days later, German, Italy, and their satrapies declared war on the United States, which reciprocated. The contest was now global. A second world war had begun.

By the time it ended in 1945, World War II had smashed the previous world order and taken the lives of an estimated 70 – 85 million people or about 3 percent of the world’s then population. About one-third of the deaths were Soviet, another third Chinese. American deaths came to almost 420,00, British to 450,000, and French to about 600.000.  Germany lost over seven million citizens and Japan almost three million. At the war’s end, only the United States, whose wartime economy had grown to about 60 percent of global GDP, was better off than it had been.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. wartime president, understood the need for a new world order and imagined one built on spheres of influence. In his concept, which Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill found congenial if charmingly naïve, Britain would manage its global empire, China would manage East Asia, the Soviet Union would manage eastern Europe and inner Asia, and the United States would manage the Western Hemisphere. While this proposal died with Roosevelt in 1945, the concept lived on – with the addition of France – in the composition of the United Nations Security Council’s veto-wielding permanent members.

A plan for world order (1944 – 1945)

During World War II, for the first time in history, multinational negotiations took place on a global basis explicitly to craft a new world order. In 1944, the representatives of forty-four independent nations gathered at the Bretton Woods resort in northern New Hampshire to agree on a gold and dollar-based system for the postwar world’s commercial and financial relations. The following year, as the war neared its end, the representatives of fifty nations convened in San Francisco to draft the Charter of the United Nations. This set out the fundamentals of international law and provided the basis for the formal establishment of the UN in October 1945, two months after the Japanese surrender. Reflecting the post-war ascendancy of the United States and concerns about a possible renewal of American isolationism, the headquarters of this improved version of the League of Nations was in New York.

The UN vision of a cooperative system of rule-guided global governance almost immediately fell victim to great power antagonism, but US-sponsored rule-building proceeded apace. The International Convention on Human Rights and the Genocide Convention date to 1948. In 1949, the two Geneva Conventions regulating the conduct of war received an update and gained two new conventions. A wide range of international treaties prohibiting various cruelties followed, including bans on racism, discrimination against women, and torture. But by the 1980s, the momentum slackened, in large measure due to flagging U.S. deference to the UN and international law. The United States worked hard to conclude the 1982 UN Convention on the Law  of the Sea but then declined to ratify it. The same fate befell some twenty other multilateral treaties adopted by the international community since 1981. For the past four decades, the U.S. has participated only erratically in the law-based world order it had worked so hard to establish in the post-World War I and World War II periods.

The Cold War order (1947 – 1989)

By 1947, rival blocs led by Soviet and American overlords had begun to confront each other over both geopolitical and ideological issues. Both sources of contention were evident in the 1947 Truman Doctrine’s support for Greece and Turkey against Soviet pressure, the 1948 -1949 Berlin crisis, and the appallingly bloody Korean War of 1950 – 1953. These events put in place a quasi-feudal bipolar world order that lasted until 1989, when the Soviet Union’s eastern European empire disintegrated, and it ceased to contend for Eurasian or global hegemony.

During the four decades of the Cold War, the relationship – or lack of relationship – of nation states with one or the other superpower determined their geopolitical positions, freedom of maneuver, level of access to public goods, and degree of immunity from foreign-instigated regime change operations. Meanwhile, the contending superpowers came to expect automatic followership from those aligned with them for their positions on each and every aspect of world affairs.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union took care to prevent states in their respective spheres of influence from slipping away or defecting to the other, but both were conscious of the danger of mutual annihilation in a nuclear exchange, and neither was prepared to risk this by engaging in direct combat with the other. Both saw newly independent states that attempted to remain nonaligned – separate from either bloc – as weak-minded and up for grabs, and each sought to sustain or expand its sphere of influence through proxy wars, regime change operations, the manipulation of elections, and economic blandishments and deprivations.

Ideology was a much more prominent feature of the Cold War than it had been in previous world orders. The US-led bloc – the so-called “free world” – was politically heterogeneous. It was composed of a mixture of democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, and imperial outposts with little in common other than a desire to remain unsubjugated by godless communism and to derive material benefits through alignment with the United States. Its member states practiced multiple versions of capitalism, social democracy, and religious faith.

The members of the Soviet bloc, by contrast, were relatively homogeneous. They modeled their politics on Marxism-Leninism, the ruthless elitist dictatorship, atheist ideology, and statist political economic system championed by Moscow.

Diplomacy in the Cold War resembled nothing so much as trench warfare. Its object was less to roll back the spheres of influence of the other side than to avoid giving the other a reason to attack it. Despite the efforts of each side to subvert the other, the two blocs remained remarkably stable over the course of their four-decade-long confrontation. Both superpowers kept garrisons on the territories of those members of their blocs they termed “allies,” by which each meant subordinate states they had committed to secure against attack or ideological conversion by the other. Each restrained such “allies” from actions against the other that might escalate into bilateral warfare between them. The end of the Cold War order removed Soviet constraints on countries like Iraq, which then felt free to launch a war of expansion in Arabia it would never have dared to risk when subject to Soviet supervision.

The greatest shock to the boring stability of the Cold War order was the 1971 – 1979 U.S. enlistment of China in the containment of the Soviet Union. China’s shift to the so-called “free world” rebalanced but did not alter the fundamental nature of the world order of the time. This remained defined by adversarial interactions of the United States and its bloc and the Soviet Union and its satrapies. Aside from the U.S. entente with China and an earlier shift to neutrality by Yugoslavia, there were few defections from either bloc. Only one — Cuba’s turn to Soviet protection – catalyzed the near-death experience of a nuclear standoff between the two superpowers. Deft diplomacy kept disaster at bay.

The end of colonialism (1947 – 1997)

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Europe’s empires had tried and failed to recover the overseas dominions they had lost during World War II. Centuries of European global dominance had imposed elements of the Christian West’s culture on its overseas possessions, including the Atlantic region’s major languages and professed values. These included norms of representative government rooted in popular elections, with which the tyranny inherent in imperial rule was in obvious conflict. Ironically, the ideologies and political cultures of the Euro-American colonial powers ended up inspiring the global South’s struggles for independence from them.

The exported Western ideologies included Marxism, which had begun as a philosophical and social science-based critique of Western civilization’s failure to foster the individual and collective self-fulfillment, egalitarianism, and fraternity that its religious faith and ideals required. In China and elsewhere, Marxism served as a welcome means by which to westernize while simultaneously disparaging the West. Allied with Leninism – a set of political principles for organizing an elite one-party dictatorship to reengineer socioeconomic systems and direct their development – it proved a potent tool of revolution and politico-economic transformation.

The retreat of European imperialism created new arenas for the struggle between the two “superpowers,” both of which were avowedly anti-colonialist. From 1941 to 1945 Japan had forcibly replaced European rule in East and Southeast Asia with its own. Its defeat left a power vacuum that was occupied by the victorious United States. In Burma and India, Japan’s advocacy of Asia for the Asians had resonated with Burmese and Indian nationalists, who wrested their independence from Britain in 1947. Between 1945 and 1949, the US-held Philippines, Dutch Indonesia, and British India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon all achieved independence over often violent opposition by their colonial masters. The casualties involved in the struggles of these countries for self-determination numbered in the millions.

In 1949, as a condition for joining NATO, the French demanded the return of their colonies in Indochina. But, by 1954, Vietnamese communist forces had forced them to accept the independence of northern Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos. Thereafter, in the “Second Indochina War” of 1954 – 1975, north Vietnam defeated both south Vietnam and its American sponsor. In the Vietnamese struggle for national self-determination, three million or more Vietnamese civilians and combatants died. After the north’s victory over the south, as two million Vietnamese sought asylum abroad, another million perished at sea. France gave political independence to its African colonies in the early 1960s but locked them into continued economic fealty.

In 1957, by contrast, Britain followed the precedent it had set in India and Burma and began the process of conferring full independence on its most insistent colonies, beginning with Malaya and Ghana. British settler colonialism suffered a mortal blow in Kenya in the Mau Mau uprising of 1952 – 1963. In 1980, after a bloody ten-year-long war, Zimbabwe emerged from white rule in Southern Rhodesia. By 1990, the last African colonial territory – Namibia – had achieved independence. In 1997, the last non-self-governing British colony, Hong Kong, reverted to China. The five-century-long age of imperialism had ended. The sole remaining practitioner of aggressive settler colonialism is now Israel, which only the U.S. veto in the UN Security Council has shielded from international censure and sanctions.

The aftermath of the Cold War (1989 – 2007)

The American diplomat George Kennan based his 1946 proposal for a grand strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union on his judgment that, if isolated, it would eventually collapse of its own defects. It took more than four decades to prove him right. For a few delirious years immediately after the 1991 implosion of the USSR and the independence of its constituent Baltic, eastern European, and central Asian republics, it seemed that, as Francis Fukuyama declared, history had ended in the triumph of liberal democracy. But this was not to be. Western carpetbaggers administered a drastic restructuring of the Soviet economy that immiserated the population but enriched a new class of plutocrats and oligarchs. Russia’s efforts to integrate itself with the West met with an ambivalent, unwelcoming, and off-putting response.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, no one contested the global supremacy of the United States. In effect, Washington presided over a global sphere of influence that excluded only China, Iran, north Korea, and Russia in which it was able to act as it wished without regard for the UN Charter, international law, or other norms of international interaction it had earlier helped prescribe. Meanwhile, the liberalization and globalization of trade and investment brought new wealth to the world economy, including China and the global South.

But a combination of triumphalism and attention deficit diplomacy derived from resource-intensive “forever wars” and counterterrorism campaigns deprived the United States of any strategy for crafting a cooperative relationship with the newly reemerged Russian Federation. Instead, the traditional Western view of Russia as a latent enemy prevailed. Under pressure from Moscow’s Russophobic neighbors and their American diasporas, a military-industrial-congressional complex disoriented by enemy deprivation syndrome, diehard veterans of the Cold War, and force of habit, fear of Russia remained the guiding spirit of NATO.

Russian reactions (1994 – 2008)

As early as 1994, Russia began warning the United States that, if NATO enlargement extended to the Russian borders, Moscow would view this as evidence of hostility and mount a military response. But by 2004, every member state of the former Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact had been inducted into NATO. In the Cold War, NATO had been a purely defensive alliance designed to counter Moscow in Europe. But in 1995, NATO began to take the offensive. It intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1999, it launched a 78-day bombing campaign that wrested Kosovo from Serbia, a state traditionally associated with Russia. In 2001, NATO joined the United States in its twenty-year war to pacify faraway Afghanistan. And in 2011, it supported a regime change operation that threw Libya into anarchy. As NATO expanded toward Russia, Moscow came to see it as an increasingly active military threat.

In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a strong warning against further NATO enlargement.  But in 2008, under U.S. pressure, NATO offered membership to Georgia and Ukraine, both former constituent states of the Soviet Union bordering the Russian Federation. An emboldened Georgia then challenged Russian influence in minority regions on its Russian border. The result was the first European war of the 21st century, which ended in the Russian-aided secession of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia and Russian establishment of suzerainty there.

Proxy war in the Donbas (2014 -?)

In 2014 a US-supported coup overthrew the elected but corrupt pro-Russian government of Ukraine. After the coup, the U.S. again pressed NATO to induct Ukraine. Ukrainian membership in NATO threatened, among other consequences, to deprive Russia of its centuries-old Black Sea naval base in Crimea. In a bloodless use of military measures short of war, Russia then took back Crimea, administrative control of which the Soviet Union had transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.

Meanwhile, the new ultranationalist regime in Kyiv sought to make Ukrainian the sole language of official and interpersonal communication in public institutions throughout the country, ending the official use of Russian and other minority languages at both the national and regional levels. Soon thereafter, Russia conducted a referendum in Crimea, most of whose inhabitants — more than three-fourths of whom are native speakers of Russian – welcomed reincorporation into the Russian Federation. The Donbas oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk, where Russian speakers are seventy percent or more of the population, then declared their autonomy from Ukraine, a decision that Russia endorsed.

Ukraine launched an offensive that recovered parts of the Donbas. Russia countered with military aid to the secessionists. Diplomatic efforts to restore linguistic and other elements of autonomy within a federalized Ukraine produced two never-implemented agreements (at Minsk). As the Donbas war proceeded amidst occasional ceasefires, Ukraine built a line of fortifications in the Donbas from which it daily bombarded the secessionists, whom Russia helped build formidable armies. The United States, Britain, and other NATO members made a major effort to retrain, reorganize, and re-equip the Ukrainian army. Russia simultaneously escalated its military support for the Donbas separatists.

War over NATO enlargement, Sino-American estrangement, and Sino-Russian entente

In late 2021, Russia demanded negotiations to rule out Ukrainian membership in NATO. The U.S. and NATO refused to discuss this. Russia massed troops on its border with Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO again rebuffed Moscow’s demand for talks about NATO enlargement. In early 2022, Russia recognized the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, garrisoned them, and invaded Ukraine.

In response, the United States, joined by the EU, Britain, Australia, and a few other security partners, declared all-out economic war on Russia, cutting it off from the global dollar-based trading system, attempting to ban its energy exports, and seizing its dollar reserves, while initiating massive arms transfers and tactical intelligence support to Ukraine, which is now mired in a thousand-kilometer-wide war of attrition with Russia. The information war that accompanied the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the fiercest and most comprehensive in world history. With all sources of information other than those favoring Ukraine cut off, it is impossible to understand what is actually happening there. Whether a Western policy of support for proxy war in Ukraine can save it and restore peace in Europe is at best doubtful, but the economic war on Russia, its knock-on effects, the concomitant paroxysm in US-China relations, and the worldwide turn to protectionism driven by national security rather than economic concerns are together catalyzing the emergence of a very new pattern of international interactions.

The disorderly birth of another, yet unnamed world order (2022 -?)

The immediate U.S. war aims in Ukraine are to preserve Kyiv’s freedom to remain aligned with the U.S. and EU, if not now to join NATO. The longer-term U.S. strategic objective is avowedly “to isolate and weaken Russia.”

U.S. policies toward China parallel these objectives. Washington seeks to keep Taiwan in its sphere of influence and to isolate and weaken China in order to retain its regional and global economic and technological as well as politico-military supremacy. It should surprise no one that Beijing and Moscow have come to perceive a common interest in thwarting and countering U.S. policies aimed at subordinating them and retarding their growth in wealth and power.

U.S. policies of confrontation with Russia and China have unenthusiastic support from most NATO countries and Japan. But rising and resurgent powers, like Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey, oppose the effort to perpetuate the U.S. “unilateral moment” that they represent. With the notable exceptions of Australia, Britain, Japan, and south Korea, other major countries clearly prefer a multipolar, polycentric world order to one dominated by the United States or any other single power.

So far, the protectionist trade and technology policies the Trump administration launched against China in 2018 and the current economic and financial war on Russia are having pernicious results. China has accelerated its scientific, technological, and military advance. Far from collapsing, the Russian economy now has the second largest balance of payments surplus after China’s. Meanwhile, Europeans face recession, energy shortages, and other hardships. Both China and Russia are finding new markets for their goods and services. The war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending, and the probability of war in the Taiwan Strait is rising dramatically.

The shape of things to come

The world order that appears to be emerging is one in which:

  • Sanctions-induced commodity and food shortages, breaking supply chains, and rearmament fuel persistent inflation.
  • The fiscal burden of rising interest payments forces a turn to domestic pay-as-you-go policies and a choice between “guns and butter” that the U.S. has long evaded.
  • The bloc formed by the United States, EU, Australia, Britain, and Japan to ostracize Russia and China is itself marginalized by the rest of the world, including its fastest growing economies and markets. Countries outside the US-led bloc refuse to choose between it and its designated adversaries, remain open for business with both, and reject the West’s imposition of end-use and retransfer restrictions on its exported products.
  • The ability to mount planetwide responses to issues like climate change and pandemics is impaired. Every region is on its own and, in terms of its impact, the sum of the parts is less than the whole.
  • The principal strength of the United States – its military prowess – proves irrelevant to most of the challenges in the emerging world order, which require economic responses that Washington cannot muster.
  • Russia permanently abandons its three-century-long effort to integrate with Europe to seek an Asian identity through intensified relations with China and India.
  • Turkey does the same, redefining itself as a West Asian and Islamic country rather than a European one and further attenuating its commitments to other members of NATO.
  • Smaller countries resist affiliation with either the West or its designated adversaries.
  • China’s “Belt and Road” initiative gradually extends Chinese economic influence throughout the Eurasian landmass and beyond in Southeast Asia and East Africa. Chinese political influence in the areas covered by the BRI gradually displaces that of the United States.
  • NATO and other multinational alliances become less cohesive, with members gradually reducing or withdrawing their commitments to them.
  • Germany, Japan, and other post-World War II dependencies of the United States rearm and develop more independent foreign policies.
  • Latin America develops relations with China, India, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and other countries that increasingly undercut American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Africa is where most of the world’s industrial labor force comes to reside, and its economies become more connected to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Turkey than to the EU or United States.
  • Technology standards differ from region to region, and new technologies are often unavailable in regions beyond those that originated them.
  • The internet evolves into regional and national zones, separated from each other by firewalls.
  • Inexpensive Russian energy, metals, minerals, and other natural resources nourish economies in the so-called “global South” but are no longer reliably available at favorable prices to the U.S. and members of its anti-Russian coalition.
  • U.S. sanctions give China and Russia a compelling incentive to form consortia with Iran and others to eliminate dependence on the United States for civilian, military, and dual-use products like passenger aircraft.
  • The ability of the United States to finance its government and global power projection by issuing Treasury bonds is in increasing doubt, given the reputational damage of its confiscation of Iran’s, Venezuela’s, Russia’s, and Afghanistan’s dollar reserves.
  • The rising risk from U.S. unilateral dollar-based sanctions causes ever more countries to price exports and imports in their own currencies, use swaps to pair their currency with those of their main trading partners, switch to hard currencies other than the dollar, institute point-of-sale digital cross-border currency exchanges, and create new units of account for transnational trade settlement. The “exorbitant privilege” that has underwritten U.S. global primacy unwinds.
  • China, India, Russia, Arab oil producers, and other rising economic and financial powers respond to the incentives to build a separate financial world order that provides alternatives to the dollar-based SWIFT system and can destroy the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. They do so.
  • Deglobalization generates multiple regional trade and investment regimes and divides global markets, from some of which specific great powers, like China, the EU, India, Russia, or the United States are excluded.
  • Disputes over international transactions are handled bilaterally or by region-specific processes rather than by global dispute resolution mechanisms like those of the WTO.
  • The world continues to rely on UN specialized agencies to address technical problems, but the UN Security Council and other international policy organizations, paralyzed by great power rivalries and disagreements, have diminished diplomatic utility.
  • There are few, if any, new global – as opposed to regional — rule-setting treaties and arrangements. The worldwide regulatory regimes of the post-Cold War era atrophy.
  • U.S. military supremacy erodes as regional forces strengthen themselves and new weapons systems and capabilities emerge in China, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia.
  • Given the escalation risks of the US-NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, the increasing likelihood of a Sino-American war over Taiwan, north Korea’s reliance on a nuclear deterrent for regime survival, the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff, and the incentive to acquire nuclear weapons that Israel’s nuclear arsenal provides to other countries in its region, the danger of nuclear war is now significantly greater than at any moment of the Cold War.



There is great dissatisfaction internationally with the now decaying “Pax Americana” of the late 20th century and a desire to see it replaced by a multipolar world order or orders in which different countries play leading roles in different sectors of world affairs. Current trends suggest that the kaleidoscope is once again rearranging international actors and their relationships in new patterns in which economic, financial, political, cultural, and military prowess is distributed regionally and functionally rather than centralized. But there has been little consideration so far of the likely consequences of an international system that entails much more complex interactions among states and peoples than before. If nothing else, this is a timely reminder of the old saying: ‘be careful what you wish for. You may just get it.’

To cope successfully with the challenges of a world with many competing centers, statecraft must take the long view, focusing on abiding interests rather than the passions of the moment. To manage a world in which rapid, unexpected change is the norm, diplomacy must be nimble rather than steadfast. And to be able to compete, countries must not only get their act together at home but employ all the instruments of statecraft – political, economic, financial, technological, and military – to shape the views and actions of their competitors to their advantage.