(Note: The following is a draft submission set for publication in ‘The Diplomatist,’ an India-based international affairs journal and magazine)
When one speaks of “multilateral cooperation” and “conflict resolution” and so forth, one must keep in mind that these concepts, terms, policies, or strategies cannot coincide with a concept, policy, reality, or strategy of global hegemony on the part of certain Western powers. Multilateral cooperation and conflict resolution on one hand and global hegemony on the other hand are mutually exclusive conditions and states. Modern powers who pursue a policy or strategy of global hegemony negate the possibility of multilateral cooperation and conflict resolution due to the very nature of the policy and strategy which they are pursuing.
In the modern period which spans the last five centuries, virtually all the major Western powers – namely, the British, the French, the Germans, and now the Americans – have had their go at global hegemony. In turn, multilateral diplomacy and conflict resolution in the modern period come to the fore when there is a breakdown of a Western power’s global hegemonic policy and strategy and when a major conflict has exhausted its lifespan, as in the case of the “Congress of Vienna” when the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ came to an end as well as in the case of World War II when at its conclusion, Germany’s attempts at global hegemony failed and all the major powers agreed on the creation of the “United Nations” (UN).
Between the conclusion of World War II and the advent of the ‘American Unipolar Moment’ at the start of the 21stcentury, the international system was largely a “bipolar” structure which was in turn shaped by a ‘Cold War context.’ As a result, there was a ‘balance of power’ dynamic which shaped both the nature of the conflict between the United States and the former Soviet Union as well as the nature of the dialogue and engagement between the two conflicting major powers during the course of the Cold War. When the ‘Cold War’ came to a halt after the Soviet collapse in the 1990’s, NATO enlargement and NATO expansion towards Russia’s doorsteps in the 1990’s marked the initial stage of a full-fledged global hegemonic policy and strategy on the part of the United States. The policy and strategy then extended into Afghanistan and the Middle East in the 21st century. But the rise of China and the ‘relative decline’ of the United States vis-à-vis China in recent years marked the demise of both the American ‘unipolar moment’ and America’s policy and strategy of global hegemony.
China hails this day and age as a ‘new era of superpower relations’ as stated by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. But the question is whether American cynicism and skepticism of China can be overcome in the way of multilateral cooperation and conflict resolution, and if not, will it mean that this ‘new era of superpower relations’ amounts to a new era or stage of international competition and conflict between the world’s major powers?
Nothing is clear at the moment because the international system is still in the midst of its transition between the demise of the American ‘unipolar moment’ on one hand and an emerging international structure that is being shaped to a large extent by the rise of China on the other hand. We still do not fully know how the international system will be shaped by a rising China. But as I have written before, any prospect of international cooperation or perhaps even international conflict will have to account for three “historical trends” or historical undercurrents which underpin our current day and age.
For one, there is the reality of American economic power, despite the exhaustion and weakening of American bureaucratic institutions and structures as a result of America’s global hegemonic policy over the course of the last three decades. Second, there is the ‘disenchantment’ or ‘demystification’ of European cultural hegemony, which is perhaps related or interconnected with the third historical trend and undercurrent, namely, the ongoing process of decolonization which began a number of decades ago. Moreover, it was this process of decolonization which rendered a rising China and the growth of India into the world’s third-largest economy.
There is also the question of how relevant America will be to Afro-Eurasian affairs post-hegemony. By virtue of its economic power, it would be hard to imagine that America becomes irrelevant in Afro-Eurasian affairs. America also has vested interests in places like the Middle East and East Asia, as well as security arrangements with Europe by virtue of NATO and so forth. Arguably, for the most part, what America must prioritize over all else in its involvement in Afro-Eurasian affairs post-hegemony is exploring the prospect of whether Russia can be fully integrated into a European ‘economic community’ as well as an effort to peacefully accommodate China’s rise as a ‘parallel pole’ to the United States in the international system.
Perhaps in a broader sense, efforts at multilateral cooperation and conflict resolution around the world will revolve around how America addresses these two issues post-hegemony, namely, exploring the prospect of Russia’s integration into some sort of European economic and institutional arrangement on one hand, and the peaceful accommodation of China’s rise in the international system on the other hand. America’s successes or failures on these two fronts will perhaps determine the delicate and narrow difference between cooperation and conflict on a broader and global scale and scope.