Totemic multipolarity

by Chris Chatteris SJ


If I could draw cartoons, I would depict our emerging multipolar world as a globe bristling with totem poles, each protruding from its centre of power (Beijing, Washington, Moscow, etc) and each topped with a caricature head of the current leader.


Some poles would be bigger than others, of course, and each would be embossed with carvings symbolising the values which the leader and the regime stand for (the hammer and sickle for Xi, a rocket for Kim, an oil rig for Mohamed bin Salman, Aum for Modi, a dollar sign for Trump, etc.)!


The basic message of my imagined cartoon is that we shouldn’t delude ourselves – the postwar bipolar world of the US and the Soviet Union is history, and the brief American unipolar world after the fall of the Berlin Wall has also gone. Although the total eclipse of the US and Western Europe is unlikely, thanks to their naturally advantageous geographical locations, multipolarity is the new reality, the way the geopolitics of the world are now conducted.


Is this good? Well, for those for whom any balancing out and, therefore, diminishment of the power of the USA is an indispensable desideratum, obviously, a multipolar world is to be welcomed with enthusiasm. And this is quite understandable, particularly considering the devastating ‘wars of choice’ waged by the USA since 9/11.


However, I would argue that we need to be somewhat circumspect about millenarian or magical thinking here. It should be obvious that multipolarity will not miraculously solve all our political problems or automatically usher in a new age of peace and plenty. But millenarian thinking often finds it notoriously difficult to accept the obvious, even the palpable fact that so far, this new era has been characterised by an alarming eruption of conflicts across the globe.


The fact is that multipolarity is a human structure, and therefore, like all human structures, it will necessarily be shot through with the shortcomings of the human condition. The same is true for any system of human organisation, local or global. Democracy has long been criticised for sometimes throwing up criminal personalities as leaders. Its critics have not been surprised by people like Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu coming to power.


Hence, if democracy can degenerate into an elective despotism, it’s hardly surprising that systems with far fewer checks and balances also throw up flawed leaders. North Korea and Saudi Arabia are good examples. You don’t get to the top and stay there by being a nice guy in such regimes.


Furthermore, if a critical mass of our poles of influence is headed by criminal personalities, and they make powerful alliances, one could be forgiven for reserving judgement on how multipolarity will pan out. The strange ‘bedfellowing’ taking place in the world today suggests that such alliances are forming. A system of ‘the rest versus the West’ will, of course, limit American and Western economic and military power, but the question here is: what will be the longer-term effects of these regimes moving into the geopolitical vacuum left by the waning West? The Russian Wagner mercenary group has recently set up shop in several West African countries after the French exit. Time will tell whether Wagner is an improvement on the French Foreign Legion!


Hoping for the return of the postwar world order is to indulge in nostalgia. Indeed, from the point of view of the smaller countries that were devastated by the proxy wars of the superpowers, it was, in fact, a disordered and chaotic ‘order’. Many in the ‘global south’, therefore, rightly yearn for a new global political architecture that is more just and stable than the old one. However, if we are naively content for the new world order to be heavily dominated by criminal personalities atop authoritarian regimes, we should not be surprised if justice and stability continue to elude us.


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