Whither Multipolarity in a Changing World Order

The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci presciently observed: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

This period that we live in is arguably shaped by three elements: two moribund (the implosion of the USSR and the centrality of US imperialism) and one vital (the promise of multipolarity). The camp associated with the US is consolidating at the same time that a countervailing multipolar tendency is emerging. Major changes are reshaping the world order, I contend, but the outcome is not yet clear.

While factors such as the status of US dollar dominance are important, the deeper issue is the condition of the popular classes and the strength of their institutions, which need to be the measure for determining which way the geopolitical winds are blowing.

Moribund symptoms of the interregnum

The first symptom is the implosion of the Soviet Union and with it the dissolution of the socialist bloc. Although occurring over 30 years ago, the long-term consequences may not be sufficiently appreciated in current leftist analyses. Contributing to this oversight is an underlying anti-communist bias which, contrary to all historical evidence, associates capitalism with democracy and self-actualization.

China has emerged as a world power and even as a possible contender to US hegemony. But China has also become thoroughly integrated into the international capitalist market. In the absence of a socialist bloc, countries striving for socialist development – e.g., Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Belarus, People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Laos, etc. – must also struggle in this market. There they are vulnerable to economic warfare designed to overthrow their political leadership.

Chinese initiatives such as the Belt and Road offer trade and a vital life support to countries like Cuba. But the Chinese initiatives do not rise to the level of the socialist solidarity of the former USSR, which enabled countries like resource-poor Cuba in that former time to achieve first world standards in, for example, health care and education.

The second symptom is the US as the sole imperialist superpower. No other nation comes close to its military, economic, political, and even cultural domination. Understanding the centrality of US imperialism, I contend, is essential to comprehending the interregnum.

Yes, we live in what Lenin called the age of imperialism and all powers have some elements of imperialism. But the contemporary political terrain is not primarily characterized as one of multiple rival imperialisms comparable to the run-up to World War I. Then, Lenin argued, the workers of the world had no stake in which imperial power prevailed.

Today, for instance, the working class has a stake if the proxy war in Ukraine leads to the dissolution of Russia. Surely the west would make the Russian working class pay for the sins of its “oligarchs.” As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented, “everything that is happening in and around Ukraine is part of the unfolding fight for the future international order.”

Promise of a multipolar world

The third symptom of the interregnum is the promise – but not yet the reality – of a multipolar world. This hopeful trend portends new openings in an evolving historical dynamic.

A majority of the world’s population has remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict, despite strong US/western pressure. A host of non-western-aligned economies are making tentative steps to transacting commerce in currencies other than dollars, pounds, yens, or euros. A so-called Pink Tide in Latin America has replaced a number of conservative regimes. China is emerging not only as an economic power, but diplomatically has helped broker closer relations between traditional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as floated a peace proposal for Ukraine.

All these favorable developments foreshadow a change in the geopolitical climate. The vision of a multipolar world informs the progressive impulse for a better world.

Such a world is possible only if the centrality of US imperialism is replaced by a new order. Such a reordering is a necessary pre-condition for a better world. Currently a realignment is being led by major counter-hegemonic powers such as China and Russia and more regional powers such as Brazil and Iran (and before its dismembering by Libya in Africa).

Multipolarity is not the ultimate goal, but it is an intermediary step in the struggle against imperialism. More than just a reshuffling of the deck of world power relationships is needed.

War with China

Overarching the interregnum is the specter of US preparations for a war with China, perhaps as soon as the turn of this decade. The quasi-governmental RAND Corporation prepared the strategic planning document, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” commissioned by the US Army. Released in 2016, such a confrontation does not appear so unthinkable today.

Even some mainstream sources recognize that the Ukraine conflict is but a prelude to war with China.

The US juggernaut is lurching to war. Once pivoted to Asia, it does not appear to be equipped with a steering wheel, let alone brakes. Opposition to such a confrontation is virtually absent at the elite level. Both parties of capital compete with each other over which can be more Sinophobic. The Democrats, in particular, used to have dissenting voices, but now have embraced neo-conservatism. They exhibit an imperialist unity that is the envy of the Tea Party Republicans.

Meanwhile, a mass peace movement is AWOL. Oddly, the libertarian right is sounding more like peaceniks than some putative liberals who are shrieking “Slava Ukraini.”

War with China is not inevitable; China could be blackmailed into accommodation. The US, meanwhile, is crazy enough to precipitate a nuclear apocalypse. Remember that just two days after Hiroshima came the capricious genocide of Nagasaki.

Changes in US imperialism

While the core nature of US imperialism endures, the tactics appear to be altering in the following three instances.

First is the termination of the Pax Americana project. At one time the US exercised its hegemonic role to impose stability and order, such as working to install absolute monarchies in the Arabian peninsula. No longer is the “rules based order” orderly.

Today the hegemon is forever stirring up the pot, promoting chaos. Witness the plight of Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya. Washington has been promoting jihadism in the Muslim world.  As Brookings reported, the US “enabled Al Qaeda.”

The country in the Western Hemisphere which has most “benefited” from US beneficence is Haiti. After two US-led coups and a disastrous US-led military occupation, there isn’t even a functioning government that could be Washington’s puppet.

International nuclear peace agreements are being systematically dismantled as the US leads a deranged race to “modernize” nuclear arsenals. AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines are being deployed in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile Biden bellicosely proclaims, “America is back,” making one nostalgic for Reagan.

The relatively recent (2006-2008) military penetration of Africa by the US AFRICOM unified combat command, with military relations in 53 of the 54 countries on the continent, has already contributed to major instabilities, especially in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

Second, the US has imposed sanctions on over 40 countries, some one-third of humanity. These unilateral coercive measures are in effect a self-imposed boycott and are illegal under international law. Gone is the gunboat diplomacy to open countries to so-called “free trade.” Instead, the battleships are being deployed to close markets and prevent trade such as the US’s pirating Iranian fuelers enroute to Venezuela.

And third, US dollar (USD) dominance is under siege with the country that prints the banknotes complicitous in the attack. It is Washington that expelled Russia from the dollar-dominated SWIFT network, forcing Moscow to explore alternatives.

The way that international finance operates in times of uncertainty is for investment to gravitate to the world’s reserve currency, which is currently the USD. Although dollar dominance does not currently have a contender, the USD share of global central bank reserves has eroded from roughly 70% to under 60% in the last two decades.

Ever since Nixon took the USD off of the gold standard in 1971, and even before, the Chicken Littles have been declaring the demise of the mighty greenback. Yet the dollar still is involved in 90% of all foreign exchange transactions and nearly two-thirds of the issuance of securities. Even a third of the trade of the two countries most in the crosshairs of US imperialism – China and Russia – is denominated in currencies other than their own. Currently only 2% of world trade is denominated in Chinese renminbi.

The would-be BRICS alliance

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are a loose amalgam but far from a unified alliance.

Lula de Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, issued a joint statement with US President Biden condemning the invasion of Ukraine by BRICS partner Russia and voted with the US on most UN General Assembly resolutions on the conflict. Brazil also participated as an observer in recent 30-nation US-Thailand war games.

However, Brazil continues to resist western pressure to directly supply Ukraine with arms. Weapons sales account for 5% of the Brazilian economy with the US being the largest customer. And 72% of the UN Security Council (by population) backed Russia’s call for a UN investigation of the Nord Stream bombing, with Brazil voting for the resolution along the Russia and China.

Although BRICS partner India has ignored US/western demands to boycott fuel from its BRICS partner Russia, India has nonetheless joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad. This US-led anti-China military alliance, known as the “Asian NATO,” is hardly a harbinger of declining US influence in the Global South.

Consolidation of NATO

NATO is much more than an alliance. It is an imperial army under US command, whose constituents have relinquished sovereignty for integration.

Just a few years ago French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “braindead,” while key ally Germany was moving in the direction of reducing its investment in NATO. That refreshing breeze has reversed direction and has assumed gale force proportions.

Rather than languishing, NATO has in fact consolidated. Now its partners have upped their military expenditures, sacrificing domestic development, as they increase their purchase of military equipment from the US. Particularly ominous is the inclusion of traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland on or near the borders of Russia.

Meanwhile, Japan is emerging as the third largest military after China. The former Axis power is an immediate neighbor of China and part of the US strategy to militarily encircle China.

The larger Atlanticist project

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the empire’s Praetorian guard, is the military component of a larger project of US world domination in concert with its western European subalterns and Japan. While the outcome of the Ukraine conflict is to-be-determined, its immediate effect has been the successful economic severing by the US of western Europe from the rest of Eurasia.

Berlin could have moved toward closer economic cooperation with Moscow, which would have vastly benefited both economies. Instead, the opposite has been accomplished by US intervention with Germany cutting itself off from Russia in favor of buying far more costly fuels from across the Atlantic Ocean.

Based on the cui bono test (who benefits) and Seymour Hersh’s report, the US can be credited with bombing the Nord Stream pipelines and has done so with impunity. This does not suggest a hegemon in terminal decline.

Notably, however, countervailing movements toward unity among the excluded majority of humanity in the Global South are also occurring. Witness revitalized regional alliances such as CELAC, the BRICS’s New Development Bank as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Group of 77, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, etc. Likewise, greater military cooperation is being implemented by China, Russia, Iran, and some others. These counter-hegemonic efforts hold great promise, but to date have nowhere nearly achieved the levels of integration as the US-led initiatives.

How do we know when a new world order has emerged?

It is important not to confuse aspirations with reality. It is still too early to celebrate the achievement of a multipolar world, though the signs are auspicious.

For sure, the international geopolitical scene has become more volatile, unstable, and disorderly. But that is not the same as advances for the popular classes, which should be our metric. For example, the US defeat in Afghanistan was not the same as a people’s victory.

A further admonition is in order. Due to the failure of neoliberalism – the current form of capitalism – a populist right has emerged in reaction. The new far-right prime minister of Italy has expressed sentiments favorable to Mussolini. Modi in India represents a reactionary fundamentalist Hindi current. Bukele in El Salvador, after trampling civil liberties in a crackdown on gangs, enjoys astronomical 90% approval ratings.

The ever more manifest bankruptcy of the liberal/social democratic model does not guarantee a progressive outcome.

Finally, for those of us who still consider themselves to be socialist, we should not abandon the goal of socialist revolution. Yet there has been no major socialist revolution in the last half century, and no new socialist revolutions are on the horizon. A further sobering reality is that all existing polities, which have been striving for socialism, are struggling for survival, retrenching, and being forced to adopt neoliberal remedies.

The possible exception is China, although it has been experiencing a slowing of economic growth and a slight deterioration of working-class living standards. Nor has China been immune from adopting neoliberal measures. Yet, overall, China holds great promise as the center of a counter-hegemonic tendency.

And even more significant are the internal contradictions of a decadent capitalism, which have not fully matured but which foretell a changing world order. But before the left can write the obit on capitalism, recall the system’s ability to paper over contradictions with military Keynesianism, quantitative easing, and most recently with the post-COVID rebound.

We will know that a new multipolar order has emerged when the material conditions of the people of Haiti, Afghanistan, Syria, Cuba, etc. begin to improve rather than continuing on the current trajectory of ever increasing immiseration. Likewise, institutions of working class power, such as unions and leftist parties, will be ascendant in leading the transformation.

Roger D. Harris is with the human rights organization Task Force on the Americas, founded in 1985 and is on the executive committee of the US Peace Council Read other articles by Roger D..