As the world moves towards an increasingly multipolar order it is time for nations and institutions that have maintained positions of power to move beyond top-down or carrot-and-stick measures, says Aparupa Chakravarti.
The notion of a multipolar world has been met with all five stages of grief. The spectrum of responses is understandable; change, after all, is unnerving. And true multipolarity promises change of seismic proportions.
Arguably, no single nation is a better embodiment of the advent of multipolarity than Saudi Arabia. Lately, the Kingdom has led the charge in reconfiguring longstanding relations in the Middle East – from the Abraham Accords to the recent détente with Iran; it has challenged the limits of old alliances, notably with the United States, while progressively diversifying its associations; and it is courting investors at hitherto unseen levels.
Western countries appear to cluster around the denial and anger stages of the grief continuum – reluctant to see the potential value of a multipolar planet with numerous power centers. However, for countries in the so-called Global South, trajectories such as that of Saudi Arabia should be viewed as an opportunity. Specifically, the public and private sectors in emerging markets across Africa and beyond should take advantage of the precedents being set by geopolitical wildcards that are challenging the status quo, by pushing the frontiers of existing paradigms in order to help shape the new political economy.
Greater geopolitical maneuverability
In a unipolar or bipolar setting, situations tend to default into zero-sum games. But a world where over 40 African delegations visited sanction-riddled Russia, where German insurers decided to renew coverage for the damaged Nord Stream gas pipeline, where China helped broker peace in the Middle East – without immediately setting off a flurry of diplomatic panic in the US, is a world with options.
Now is the time for nations and institutions that have maintained positions of power to move beyond top-down or carrot-and-stick measures, which are likely to become less effective as countries enjoy greater maneuverability. The World Bank and the IMF, for instance, have historically predicated their financial support for poorer countries on economic and political conditions that don’t necessarily benefit the recipients. Their modus operandi is not known to be consultative. Unfortunately, developing nations have had few alternatives. This may change if the BRICS New Development Bank realizes its full potential as a multilateral bank that faithfully reflects a multipolar world, one based on mutuality underpinned by shared strategic interests.
By the same token, countries that possess comparatively limited influence need to re-evaluate competitive versus collaborative relationships to bolster their bargaining power in multilateral contexts. This is easier said than done, especially as rising minilateralism will likely make it more difficult to maintain principled or ideological positions. The Ukraine war is one example of this, while Palestine’s cause in the broader Arab region is another. Yet, the point stands: countries will need to reconsider zero-sum lenses and approaches.
Intra-GCC competition between the UAE and Saudi Arabia exemplifies how competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive, binary states. Even as economic rivalry between both countries intensifies, there will also be a corresponding increase in opportunities for partnership, given the generally pro-private sector and pro-foreign investment climate that characterizes the GCC region.
Pushing socio-cultural and economic boundaries
While reshaping models of cooperation requires a leap of imagination, it is merely a precursor to a much larger ambition: the chance to reconceptualize the socio-cultural and economic contours that define the international order.
On the socio-cultural front, for example, countries could challenge existing notions of identity by identifying cultural and historical commonalities to yield tangible economic outcomes and amplify soft power. One conduit for this would be disrupting traditional tourism patterns. Turkey, for instance, is advocating for a multi-destination tourism corridor connecting Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries with Islamic-themed tourism destinations in Africa. Similarly, at the intersection of religion, history, culture, and economics, Morocco has harnessed the shared Sufi heritage in Senegal and Mali to promote religious tourism in Fes, in addition to establishing pilgrimage routes connecting Fes to various places in the Maghreb and West Africa.
Meanwhile, amid concerns of de-globalization, the private sectors of emerging markets can take the lead in viewing the interconnectedness of the world with fresh eyes. Oxford Analytica’s 2023 political risk survey shows that global corporations are increasingly impacted by geopolitical events. Companies are worried that Western countries are “willing to treat China as a systemic competitor,” a worldview that makes Western companies themselves especially vulnerable. This adds further impetus for businesses in emerging markets to avoid the pitfalls of seeing the globe in such black-and-white terms. To do so, investment decisions shouldn’t be divorced from geopolitical considerations or merely occur in reaction to them. Rather, businesses that are in or looking to enter emerging economies should integrate geopolitical analyses into the core of their decision-making processes and prepare to operate in multipolar contexts.
You may say I’m a dreamer
Change is unnerving, but it represents the potential for something better. Ultimately, if multipolarity, with all its nuance and dynamism, becomes an entrenched reality, then the world will belong to those who can recognize the possibilities that exist beyond our immediate circumstances. That takes imagination.