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International Order and the Complex Redistribution of Global Power

By       Message Muhammad Irfan     Permalink
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Since the Cold War ended in 1991, the world has entered a new era of international order. Particularly now, in the second decade of the 21st century, that order is marked by the absence of a dominant national power. Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and senior fellow at the National Defense University, maintains: "The inevitable diffusion of all forms of global power, along with the rebuilding of Europe and Asia, [has] made it impossible for any state to exist as the world's sole superpower." [i]

Ullman's statement suggests that, by their re-emergence, Europe and Asia have helped transform the global power structure. Their own ascendance, however, has been limited. For its part, the European Union, a symbol of Europe's re-emergence, has recently been trapped in an economic recession. At bottom, moreover, it lacks the necessary manpower to dominate the system.

As for Asia...its rebuilding has been based largely on the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and on the long-term policies and potential of India, which could one day become the leading nation in the world. Yet, neither country to this point has taken command of worldly affairs.

The U.S., too, is no longer "top dog" in the international system. It did dominate world affairs for a brief period, but suffered a melt-down of its soft power due to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harlan Ullman agrees, pointing out that "the obvious consequence [of those wars] is a relative dilution of US influence and authority." [ii]

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Today, there are simply no national powers, like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, which can wield a dominant influence in the international system. Dimitry Minin, a columnist for the Strategic Culture Foundation, adds, "There is no power in the world capable of replacing them [the U.S. and U.S.S.R.] in the long term." [iii]

Given the absence of dominant state powers, it seems likely that the international order will be most influenced in the near future by the following factors:

The  China-U.S. Strategic Competition   

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While the U.S. engaged in costly wars, China emerged economically and strategically on the international political scene. The policy makers in Washington perceived China as a challenger, and have sought to contain  it by utilizing the Indian Ocean and the Middle East as policy instruments. The Chinese, on the other hand, have been concerned with ensuring energy security, an objective they've pursued using means like the "String of Pearls Strategy" and "Two Ocean Strategy."

Analysts have begun to perceive an emerging strategic competition between China and the U.S. They also observe that China, along with some other powers in the East, will eventually become the hub of world power by dint of their rapidly growing economies and the changing dynamics of globalization. Dimitry Minin posits that "the balance of world power has been steadily shifting from West to East." [iv]

There is a growing consensus among analysts that the competition between China and the U.S. will be a major influence on the international order in coming years. Robert Manning, writing for the Atlantic Council, states: "Whether US-China relations are more cooperative or competitive will be a major factor shaping the international order in the 21st century." [v]

If the analysts are right in their belief that a strategic competition between China and the U.S. will play a dominant role in shaping the international order, it can be assumed that the country winning that competition will emerge as the predominant shareholder of global power.


In the coming decades, multilateralism will be an important characteristic of the international system. According to an online source, multilateralism is defined as:

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"...an approach to international trade, the monetary system, international disarmament and security, or the environment, based on the idea that if international cooperative regimes for the management of conflicts of interest are to be effective, they must represent a broad and sustainable consensus among the states of the international system. Multilateralism therefore lends itself to issues where clear common interests in the international community are identifiable." [vi]

During the Cold War era, international issues were dealt with primarily by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. However, in the post-Cold War era, the dynamics of globalization have changed and, as we have seen, no state is now capable of exercising a sufficiently authoritative influence to solve conflicts on its own. Robert Manning points out that, "Since the end of the Cold War, ad hoc multilateralism has become a key to solving international problems." [vii]

Under such circumstances, regionalism seems now to be playing a concrete role in the interaction of states, and it is likely that interstate cooperation in certain regions will gain momentum and become the dominant factor in the international order. Some regions will be more influential than others.

Manning sees regions becoming more region-centric, with G-20 economies driving more growth. He also believes that the new global order calls for changes in existing multilateralism institutions. [viii]

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Muhammad Irfan has authored books; (1) The Global Peace and (2) Fighting A Menace. He is an internationally recognized scholar. He has presented his papers in national and international conferences. He is also a freelance journalist and (more...)

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