The dictionary to orient yourself in a new world order

EL PAÍS has compiled a list of words, places, people and acronyms that can help us understand a time of turbulent change, amidst the strain unleashed by geostrategic forces

Xi Jinping y Joe Biden
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, during the APEC summit in Woodside, California, in November 2023.Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi

The world is going through a phase of turbulent change. New balances of power and new demands — sometimes political, other times violent — are shaking up international relations. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that we’re living in a changing era. And, as if the climate crisis and the technological revolution weren’t enough, our geopolitical reality is an enormous cause of disruption.

Below, EL PAÍS has compiled a kind of dictionary that seeks to offer guidance in this new strategic scenario.


This is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s an emblem of Washington’s willingness to strengthen its cooperation with allies in the Asia-Pacific region, in the face of the rise of China. Beijing is watching angrily, viewing these moves as attempts to contain its rise. Washington, meanwhile, claims that these actions are only elements of legitimate defensive cooperation. The first pillar of the project is to facilitate Australia’s access to nuclear propulsion technology for submarines (not for weapons), which will give that country’s Navy greater reach. The second contemplates common projects in strategic technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, or hypersonic weapons. In this second pillar, the three partners say that they’re open to cooperating with Japan, reinforcing Washington’s influence and Beijing’s anger.


In the expanded version of this group — which, until last year, included Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have joined. Saudi Arabia and Argentina have also been invited: the former is considering membership, while the latter has declined under the present administration.

Today, the BRICS+ nations represent more than 30% of the world’s GDP and have plans to open up to new partners in the future. China has pushed these expansion plans. Unlike Washington, Beijing doesn’t maintain formal alliances. Therefore, it seeks to rebalance global power by spurring new networks that, even if they lack formal treaties or security pacts, bolster synergy. The BRICS+ have considerable weight and share the objective of a reconfiguration of the global order, which they believe is too favorable for the West. But the internal discrepancies are enormous: among the BRICS+ partners, there are adversaries such as China and India, or Saudi Arabia and Iran. Additionally, the intergovernmental organization’s capacity for action is limited.


The European Political Community is a recently-conceived organization, launched after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022. Its objective is to build a political platform that transcends the limits of entities such as the EU or NATO, to work towards Russia’s isolation. It brings together almost 50 countries. However, its prospects for actual effectiveness seem very limited.

The Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands

This group of islands is controlled by Japan and claimed by China. Hence, the archipelago is one of many examples of maritime friction in the region. Further south, the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos are also the subject of dispute between Beijing and other countries in the area. China has an enormous strategic interest in asserting extensive control over waters that allow for the flow of important maritime traffic. Additionally, the Asian giant seeks to build advanced fortifications on natural or artificial islets, which would allow for better military force projection in the event of conflict.

Beijing always remembers its long history without starting wars. So far, these contemporary disputes haven’t entailed military confrontations. Yet, there’s been growing aggressiveness with hybrid actions, which have contributed to bringing several countries in the area closer to the United States.


The term emerged with the pandemic, when the EU decided to respond to the crisis with the issuance of long-term debt instruments that would cover the delivery of aid or loans, especially to European countries with less capacity to finance economic recovery and thus guarantee the cohesion of the single market. It’s likely that Eurobonds will — once again — be at the center of the regional debate.

EU nations are currently considering huge investments to improve their defensive capabilities and strategic autonomy. Many officials believe that the issuance of more Eurobonds is necessary in the new world order. Not every government can afford new, substantial expenses, as they’re weighed down by considerable debts. Given these circumstances, an overall insufficient and also asymmetrical effort may occur, with some countries providing more defense and promoting key industries through subsidies, while others lag behind. This would be a problematic result for the security of the bloc and for the balance of the single market: some nations would be in advantageous situations, although they would bear greater responsibility and financial burdens. Therefore, issuing more Eurobonds may be a solution.


FCAS — or the Future Combat Air System — is an ambitious project put forward by the European defense industry. Germany, France and Spain have cooperated on the initiative, with the involvement of firms such as Airbus, Dassault, or Indra. The project provides for the development of a new combat aircraft and other key elements in aerial combat. The slow (and sometimes contentious) progress of the initiative is indicative of the difficulties of cooperation in a sector in which, for decades, governments protected national companies and had misgivings about pooling resources and expertise.

There’s a fundamental dilemma this time around: if the EU wants greater autonomy on a global scale, the bloc requires large industrial champions at the community level and less protection of national markets. Even so, these major partners will need time to produce aerial weapons, while the EU must decide how much to spend on quickly buying up what’s already available on the global market and how much to invest for medium to long-term results.

G7 and G20

The two groups aren’t new, but they’ve taken on new meaning in recent years. The G7 — a club of Western industrial powers (and Japan) — has gained new political vigor in these times of confrontation. There are those who advocate for a G9, which would include South Korea and Australia, two advanced economies in the Asia-Pacific, which would join Japan in the group to turn it into a forum with a broader geographical meaning. Meanwhile, the G20 — which began as a platform that brought together the 20 largest developed and emerging economies — has taken on a more political profile, rather than a purely economic one. Tensions frequently rattle the forum, but at the last summit — convened in India — the members showed the political will not to burst one of the few structures of dialogue that have been established between them. They even came to a consensus statement that many experts anticipated would be difficult to draft.


Weapons capable of flying at five or more times the speed of sound are a fundamental part of the current arms race. Various countries are determinedly pursuing advances in this sector, which can have a major disruptive effect on strategic balances of power.

Weapons with hypersonic speed have been around for a long time. But in the past, they tended to be ballistic missiles with a predictable trajectory. Technology now allows for a previously unthinkable maneuverability that greatly complicates anti-missile defense tasks. In this sector, China is considered to have capabilities that the United States hasn’t yet reached, in a clear example of how primacy can be altered with a technological leap of strategic value.


There are experts who believe that we’re facing a new cold war, with a struggle for hegemony being waged between two superpowers: the United States and China. The difference with the original Cold War (1947-1991) is that today, there’s an enormous level of interconnectivity between the adversaries that never existed between Washington and Moscow. Globalization has created networks and powerful economic interests that act as moderating factors for confrontational impulses of a geopolitical nature. The difference is so profound that many experts feel that the analogy of the original Cold War has been invalidated. The majority consensus believes that this interconnectivity — namely, globalization — won’t be broken, but rather is going through a phase of reconfiguration, responding to the desire of the major players to reduce risks of dependency, but continuing the course in non-sensitive areas.


This acronym adds a “J” for “Japan” to the AUKUS alliance. Many advocate for the group to be enlarged, in order to send a message to China. The original partners — Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. — have opened the door to cooperation with Tokyo, although they aren’t offering to incorporate the Asian country as a full member. Among other reasons, this is due to a prevailing doubt regarding the mechanisms that are used to protect the secrecy of sensitive communications within the Japanese system: they are perceived as being insufficiently secure.


North Kivu is a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the epicenter of a terrible conflict that has had international implications since the early 2000s, given the wars over mining concessions and the flow of foreign weapons. The situation hasn’t attracted much geopolitical attention in the past. And, unfortunately, there’s nothing to suggest that it will become a priority issue in the new era of international politics. Without detracting one bit from the battle around Kyiv — or the disruption that another important “K” (that of Kim Jong-un) could create — the Kivu battle should attract more attention.


One of the most famous strategic raw materials, it’s used in products as increasingly important as electric batteries. The European Commission periodically prepares reports on essential raw materials, studying who the main producers are, where there are dominant positions — either when it comes to extraction or processing — and which are the most risky dependencies. The cartography shows a great preeminence of China as a large producer, often due to its refining activities rather than its extractive ones, which are currently dominated by Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. This means that Beijing is the main supplier of dozens of key raw materials — such as cobalt or rare earth elements — on the global market. This is an important ace up the country’s sleeve amidst friction, fights, blows and retaliation.


It’s the concept that defines our era. Already at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Vladimir Putin delivered a fiery challenge to a world order with unipolar features, in existence due to the hegemony of the United States after its victory in the Cold War. Today, the strong rise of China, the advance of India, the brutal challenge posed by Russia, together with the relative decline of the West make up a picture of evident multipolarity. The problem is that it’s an unstable multipolarity, given that institutions aren’t considered to be representative nor effective. In short, our multipolar world is fragmented and prone to confrontation.


The heterogeneous nebula of the non-aligned — those nations that don’t wish to position themselves in a formal and constant manner in one or another of the dominant poles — appeared during the original Cold War. Unlike then, today, these nations receive intense courtship (or pressure) to get closer, and not only from the two main powers, but also from a large number of secondary, yet major actors (the EU, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.). In this context, the majority of these countries seek to hedge their bets and extract the best from the competition between powers, so as to obtain their sympathy.


The letter “O” presents multiple options of great interest for this dictionary, from an expanding NATO, to a WTO paralyzed by the Americans, to a WHO that was hindered by China during the pandemic. But let’s stick with the acronym SCO: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It’s a forum promoted by China, which originally included Russia and some Central Asian countries. Today, it counts India, Pakistan and Iran among its members. It’s also seeking further expansion in the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia in the lead as a new potential partner. The forum has security and economic ambitions. Its heterogeneity makes specific agreements difficult, but it’s a significant reality on the new global chessboard.


Populism is a plague that’s eating away at a good part of Western democracies. The mix of frustration over the adverse effects of globalization, poor crisis management and the advent of social media has given wings to populist forces. These promote a polarization of societies that makes the search for democratic consensus difficult. The ineffectiveness and gridlock that this brings to the decision-making process of democracies is a big problem.


Another forum emerged from widespread concern about the characteristics of the rise of China, which is an increasingly authoritarian power when it comes to internal affairs, while demonstrably assertive in international affairs. The forum — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), commonly known as Quad — includes the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. Here — and across the board — the importance of India as a factor of imbalance between the Western and Eastern poles is evident. Washington is trying to take advantage of New Delhi’s suspicion of Beijing to bring it deeper into its sphere of influence. However, India has its own plans as an autonomous power.


This German firm — the fifth-largest arms manufacturer in Europe — is crucial in the production of ammunition, which is essential for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. With U.S. aid on hold due to opposition from the Trump-led Republican Party in Congress, Kyiv is experiencing a dramatic shortage of bullets. If the Europeans fail to increase supply, the outlook for Ukraine is very dark.

The Global South

One of the fundamental concepts of our time, the term “Global South” attempts to give a political contextualization to a diverse array of emerging and developing countries, with a generic indication of the Southern Hemisphere (although other nations that are north of the equator are often included). These nations share a desire for a reorganization of the world order — and especially of financial institutions — that better takes into account their interests. They are also attempting to compel the Northern Hemisphere to implement measures that will mitigate the climate disaster that its emissions and extractivism have caused. World powers such as China, India and Brazil are seeking — via the use of different tactics — to position themselves as leaders in the Global South. The political reality, however, is that it’s a constellation of countries with starkly different interests and strategies.


Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited (TSMC) is a benchmark in the production of high-end microchips, an essential component for the manufacturing of any advanced technological product. The production chain for semiconductors of this type is hypercomplex. Depending on the different phases — design, production machinery, assembly, etc. — there are different companies that emerge as essential (with the U.S., Japan and the Netherlands standing out). Washington is restricting the necessary elements to manufacture these chips from being exported to China, resulting in a hot spot of competition between superpowers. Neither side wants to facilitate the technological development of the opposition.

TSMC is a key player in this sector. The Taiwanese firm has just announced the construction of a new plant in the U.S. to manufacture the most advanced chips on the market — an initiative undertaken with the support of heavy federal subsidies.


An institution from another era that needs to adapt to the present. The central debate is about to what extent the EU can provide itself with strategic autonomy, which implies large investments and reflection on what new powers to cede to the community (rather than individual nation states). In parallel, work on enlargement is taking place, which requires internal reforms. This is happening at a time when it’s clear that leaving gray areas on the continent’s board causes enormous risks… and not only for the people who live in those gray areas. The EU will have to decide where and how it places itself in the new atlas. This will involve tough decisions.


The so-called Visegrád Group brings together four EU members: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland recently voted to turn the page on the far-right populist experience embodied by the Law and Justice party. But Prime Minister Orbán is holding on, while Slovakia is sliding down the extremist slope. This internal flank of the EU may prove problematic down the road.


The capital of the still-leading power on the planet is a symbol of the serious tribulations of democracies, mired in a dysfunctionality that harms them in changing times. The assault on the Capitol after Biden’s victory — along with the prolonged legislative gridlock ever since — are warning signs of what is to come.


President Xi Jinping is probably the most powerful person on the planet. Although the United States retains a margin of economic and military superiority over China, Xi Jinping’s personal power is superior to that of Biden, as he isn’t subject to the limitations of democratic checks and balances. The Chinese leader has built an increasingly authoritarian and personalistic system, seeking to rise to a mythical height comparable to that of Mao Zedong. Personalism often leads to negative conclusions. In this case, the biggest question is whether Xi will want to go down in history as the leader of reunification with Taiwan at any cost.


The Global South is a disjointed entity. However, some of its members are gaining real strength. Indonesia — whose capital is Jakarta — is a country of 280 million inhabitants, has growth rates of over 5% and will gradually be an actor with a voice to be taken into account in the international community.


A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech in the Bundestag, in which he mentioned the concept of zeitenwende (which translates roughly as a “change of era”). Accordingly, Germany has since tried to adapt. It has heavily increased military spending — this year it will hit 2% of GDP — and has disengaged itself from dependence on Russian energy. But much more remains to be done and the diverse coalition that holds power in Berlin complicates things, leading to hesitations and slowness. The future of the EU depends largely on how its wealthiest and most industrialized country will interpret the zeitenwende.

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