21st Century Multipolarity: The Quest for Commonality in a World of Difference

August 08, 2023

About the author:

Warwick Powell, Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Australia; the author of China, Trust and Digital Supply Chains. Dynamics of a Zero Trust World.


The Myths and Realities of Unipolarity
It is now clear that today, globally, we are at the end of the “End of History” moment. Francis Fukuyama made the victorious claim in 1991 that the dismantling of the Soviet Union marked the “End of History.” He meant by this a Hegelian notion that History with a capital “H”—as the unfolding of progress—had concluded, with the ideas that America embodied (or claimed to embody), reaching their apogee. Liberalism (the big “L” variety), as a normative political credo emphasizing the “freedom of individuals” and the triumph of “free markets,” trumped all before it and confirmed the Euro-Atlantic idea that Liberalism was both for the Civilized and tantamount to Human Civilization itself. 
This was, however, a myth; albeit a necessary one that mollified the masses. American unipolarity and its attendant mythologies were not the apotheosis of Human development after all. Indeed, History not only didn’t end, it barely rested. Riding what some have described as the “sugar high of unipolarity,” since 1990 the United States of America embarked on three decades of escalation in military interventions across the globe. In the name of one cause or another, the U.S. pursued a posture of “kinetic diplomacy” first, which consolidated its character as a nation that is “addicted to military intervention,” as Monica Duffy Toft and Sidita Kushi in their Dying by the Sword: The Militarization of American Foreign Policy, recently concluded. 
This addiction saw the U.S. embark on an array of military adventures, leaving a legacy of almost one million direct war deaths in American wars post-2001 in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere as of March 2023, and up to 4.6 million indirect deaths as of May 2023, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. The wars waged have generally left the places worse off than before the interventions. Unsurprisingly, many across the world would not sit still and accept this as the apotheosis of human possibilities. American millenarian zealotry wasn’t universally embraced, even as it spoke strongly to a domestic audience drunk on the mythologies of American Exceptionalism. The United States’ transatlantic allies weren’t always thrilled, but could do little about it aside from periodic complaints of the need for European “strategic autonomy.” Through NATO, the U.S. always held the aces when it came to Western European subordination. As for America’s Asian friends, the sub-imperial powers, as Clinton Fernandes dubbed Australia, simply hoped that the unipolar moment would last forever.  
Unipolarity and Colonialism
The end of American unipolarity is actually an end of two intertwined historical threads; one conjectural—a matter of decades in gestation, the other centuries in duration—or as Fernand Braudel would say, the longue durée. The conjectural closure brings to an end a relatively recent malevolent U.S.-driven neocon evangelism propped up by a supine and supercilious bunch of transatlantic subordinate allies and Pacific sub-imperial acolytes. As for the long waves, I speak of the nearing of an end to a half millennium of European-cum-American global colonialism. 
When Fukuyama spoke of the “End of History,” his tone was entirely Hegelian. Hegel, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, presented history as the development of individualism. The development of individualism marked the distinction between the modern peoples (of Western Europe) and the others whose social cultures were characterized by a “collectivism” or “communalism.” Individualism was the precondition for the emergence of civilization, marked by individual rationality —a capacity for reflective thought and action—and autonomy. The uncivilized, by way of contrast, were barbaric and savage. These contrasts can be traced back at least to Immanuel Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History” (1784) and the Enlightenment more generally. 
John Locke famously distinguished between the habits of Western and non-Western peoples in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). For the former, the habits involved the ability to pause for reflection before action. For the non-Westerns, however, they were characterized by impulsive action, irrationality, and a herd mentality. In Locke’s schema, the Westerner had the ability to be both a subject that could develop a knowledge of themselves and others, which was necessary for both individual self-government and for non-despotic forms of collective government. However, the savages could not know themselves, ergo they could not govern themselves as free individuals. 
Unsurprisingly, colonial conquerors developed governmental strategies that doubted the ability of the barbaric natives to govern themselves. Lord Cromer, for example, drew from his experiences as Consul General in the government of Egypt, advocating a form of indirect rule in The Government of Subject Races (1908). He argued that a form of externally imposed despotic rule was necessary in the early stages of leading these races toward self-government. James Balfour and other liberals at the time were similarly concerned that the populations of the colonies would not be able to govern themselves in the absence of a despotic colonial government. 
John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential British Liberal thinkers and an experienced colonial administrator (he worked most of his life for the East India Company) claimed in On Liberty (1859) that, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good… is not a sufficient warrant.” The key point in this passage is that liberty is a right only to those that belong to a “civilized community.” In the same treatise, he would, like Locke, argue that uncivilized populations could not be trusted with this right because they did not have the mental freedom and individuality required to exercise self-governance properly. 
He thus believed the less advanced people of the British Empire “must be governed by the dominant country, or by persons delegated for that purpose by it. This mode of government is legitimate as any other if it is the one which in the existing state of civilization of the subject people most facilitates their transition to a higher stage of improvement.” C. L. Temple advanced a similar theme. He had been an administrator in Nigeria, insisting that the Africans could only be freed from native institutions if “he becomes at once like a kite without a tail.” Alexis de Tocqueville—another famous figure in the Liberal tradition—was readily implicated in French rule in Algeria as Jennifer Pitts showed in her 2000 article in the Journal of Political Philosophy.
Meanwhile, the American settlers massacred the native peoples in numbers that have led scholars to describe it as genocide. David Stannard, in his American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, has described as “the worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed,” the number of deaths caused by the invasion and conquest of the lands of the Western hemisphere by Europeans and their descendants post 1492. In India, according to Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik’s 2017 study, the British would plunder an estimated $45 trillion between 1765 and 1938, and kill 100 million Indians between 1880 and 1920. African nations were plunged into slavery, which in due course also animated the very foundations of American capitalism, as vividly shown by Edward Baptist in his The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The marks of European colonialism across Asia—from China through to Southeast Asia, are still evident today. 
In reality, Liberalism in practice was rarely committed to the promotion of freedom as a principle. Liberalism’s colonialist legacy is clear, and consequently, critics like Ramachandra Guha and Edward Said excoriated the Liberal fantasy for its hypocrisy. The conceptual presuppositions and spirit that underpinned the romance of colonial conquest and rule are little different from those that mobilize and rationalize America’s more contemporary addiction to military intervention. If colonialism formally ended in the 1950s and 1960s, the American unipolar moment gave it another lease of life. Vestiges remain across the world, much of it now reinforced through the rapacious lending practices of the post-WWII financial institutions of the IMF and World Bank that turned developing countries into loan addicts. And of course, we have the persistence of military intervention as the foundational modus operandi of the so-called “rules-based international order,” highlighting the reality that the promise of post-war Liberalism was accompanied by the brutal reality of illiberal hypocrisy, as described by Patrick Porter in his The False Promise of Liberal Order and by John Mearsheimer’s 2019 paper “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order” in the journal International Security.
As for the general disposition, look no further than the EU’s most senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, who said in October 2022 that, “Europe is a garden; we have built a garden… [but] the rest of the world is not exactly a garden; the rest of the world—most of the rest of the world—is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden; and the gardeners should take care of it.” 
A World of Civilizations
The end of the American unipolar moment is often portrayed as a question of “great powers” rivalry. Graham Allison asks whether a Thucydides Trap can be avoided. For Mearsheimer, unipolarity ended around 2017 and the world is now multipolar, with three main powers. I suggest, however, that it’s more than a mere “changing of the guard.” Rather, as Western Liberalism struggles under the weight of its own hypocrisy and autoimmune crises, such as international sanctions and the increasingly illiberal practices of trade restrictions, and the growing domestic practices of illiberal policing in both the real and digital realms, we stand on the cusp of finally closing the chapter on over 500 years of colonialism—as a mode of thinking about human history, governmental practice, economic plundering, and cultural expropriation. 
Chinese President Xi Jinping has advanced a number of high-level initiatives, including the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), focused on framing the possibilities of a new global settlement. Colonialism, in the name of Liberalism, necessitated the amelioration of difference; after all, there could only be one valid version of civilization. Today’s alternative couldn’t be clearer. Xi’s GCI is part of a wider multilateral dialogue that is taking place through words and deeds, reflecting an ethos of finding commonality whilst recognizing differences. Here, multipolarity at once describes emerging patterns as well as establishes something of a normative frame to design ongoing possibilities. 
Xi’s framework has two explicit anchors: firstly, recognition and acceptance of human diversity across time and space and seeing it as a source of human strength, and secondly, embedding this diversity within a governance architecture at the heart of which are nation states, whose relations with each other are grounded in ideas of territorial sovereignty and non-interference that have a Westphalian resonance. It’s also clear that Xi—and others—draw from a rich pre-colonial history of cross-national and cross-civilization interaction, to inspire the concrete measures taking place that are contributing to the fabric of contemporary multipolarity. 
Trade has been foundational to the interaction of societies throughout the ages. Initiatives like the Belt and Road seek to inject additional verve into cross-border trade through the development of critical and necessary infrastructure for trade to take place. It’s not, however, just the BRI. New connections are being formed that open up trade frontiers including the International North-South Transport Corridor, a multimodal network that moves freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and ultimately to Europe. Türkiye is revitalizing the entrepôt status of modern-day Constantinople (Istanbul) as a pivotal link in Eurasian trade interconnectivity. Saudi Arabia, amongst other Gulf States, is investing heavily in the infrastructure needed to become a hub for the digital economy, linking the region with North Africa and beyond. 
The ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is the world’s largest free trade agreement, involving ASEAN’s 10 member states and China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Pan-Asian transport infrastructure continues to develop, reducing time and costs. The Kunming-Singapore railway, when it is completed, will link China to Thailand, with routes via Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Marine linkages through southeast Asia to ports around the Indian Ocean recall the cross-civilization interactions of past centuries that took place between the Persian, Indian, and Chinese worlds. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 1500s followed by other European colonial powers, these commercial routes were anchored in decentered relations between different civilizational and city-port states that recognized the mutual benefits of trade. The nations and entrepôt governors were able to modulate the necessary political balances to keep trade flows happening, rarely seeking to impose their own “versions of the world” onto others. These kinds of “open orders” of 15th-century decentered hegemony, described by Manjeet Pardesi in his recent study on 15th-century Melaka, point the way to the possibilities of 21st-century multipolarity. 
Physical infrastructure, like transportation, communication, and energy systems, are coupled with the intangible regimes of data governance that can support the intensification of cross-border flows of goods and services. The digitalization of payments, coupled with blockchain technologies, creates the means by which the exchange of value can take place in dependable ways. The People’s Bank of China has been working with the Bank of International Settlements Innovation Hub Hong Kong Centre, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the Bank of Thailand, and the Central Bank of UAE on a digitalized blockchain-enabled cross-border platform – Project mBridge - which has successfully trialed over $150m of payments in October 2022. In some regards, as I have argued at length in my book, the nature of blockchains embodies some of the design features of contemporary multipolarity by enabling a multitude of participants to interact by utilizing a common infrastructure—indeed, being part of the operations and maintenance of the infrastructure to ensure systemic integrity—whilst maintaining their own autonomy. Currency multipolarity and national currency trade settlements are growing and reflect the decentered nature of the emergent multipolar world. Countries of southeast Asia are also forging ahead with cross-border digital payment convenience through the harmonization of multinational QR code payment systems. An African national currencies payments network is emerging, and South American nations are having similar conversations, not to mention talk of a BRICS currency. The proliferation of open-source software standards and their adoption by some major technology firms create the conditions for more diverse and inclusive participation within a common framework.
Colonialism and Enlightenment Liberalism have run out of puff, hastened by the demise of its most recent progeny, American unipolarity. The old is dying. The new remains to be fully formed. For Antonio Gramsci, a great variety of “morbid symptoms appear” in this interregnum. The beneficiaries of colonialism, old and new, are rallying. The Gardeners are hanging on for grim death. Those from Borrell’s jungle can, however, see an alternative. China’s heft has made it possible. The time for the Global South has come to be part of creating a decentered world that finds commonality as humans on a shared planet, whilst celebrating and accepting the diversity that defines the human condition. 









Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the July issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the October issue, please click here:






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