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The emerging order: Hegemony, stability, or anarchy?

The list of challenges affecting humanity at large is long and dangerous. If no one manages to impose some order in the international system, dangerous anarchy will be the outcome

Emerging order
A forest fire in Porto Velho, Brazil.Victor Moriyama
Moisés Naím

Global problems are rapidly proliferating, and no country can solve them acting alone. The list of challenges affecting humanity at large is long and dangerous. They range from the threat posed by artificial intelligence to the harsh realities of a rapidly warming planet, nuclear proliferation, migrations, pandemics, and the criminalization of governments. Some problems, like uncontrolled migrations, are age-old. Others, like global warming, are new.

These problems can only be resolved, or attenuated, by alliances of countries coordinating their actions. If they’re successfully addressed, everyone benefits. If not, everyone pays a painful price — regardless of where they are.

To address these challenges, we need to provide what economists call public goods on a global scale. They mean goods that one person can benefit from without excluding others. The textbook example is a lighthouse that guides ships safely along the coast. Many ships can “consume” the services of the lighthouse simultaneously without depleting them.

Typically, public goods are supplied by governments: for example, a country’s armed forces provide security for all its people, so they’re paid for and organized by the government. But at the global level, there is no government. So, who is to supply global public goods?

It’s a thorny problem without obvious solutions. If a country is powerful enough to impose its system of government on its citizens and on other countries, it is called “hegemonic.” Hegemonic powers have always sought to impose the most basic public good, which is order. This is what the Romans did in the Mediterranean world 2,000 years ago and what Chinese emperors did in the vast Asian territory they controlled.

However, maintaining hegemony is expensive, and the power of its leaders tends to decline over time. To avoid this trap, in the 20th century, the United States attempted multilateralism, a system in which all participating countries voluntarily associate for the common good through organizations like the United Nations. But very soon it became clear that competition with the Soviet Union would make this model ineffective, so over time they drifted towards “minilateralism.” This system involves a dominant power, in this case the United States, leading a web of other countries that collaborate to provide global public goods. NATO is a good example of minilateralism, maintaining peace and security in the North Atlantic through close military collaboration among allies. The International Monetary Fund and many other similar organizations have served to provide global public goods among like-minded countries.

The results of minilateralism have been enormously positive: never before have so many people lived with such prosperity and security as they have under the U.S.-promoted minilateralism. Between 1945 and 2018, global absolute poverty dropped from 55% of the planet’s population to 10%, all while that population quadrupled.

But minilateralism is only viable if the countries allied to maintain it are powerful enough to impose their arrangement on others — and this assumption is increasingly in question. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, supported by Chinese power, is the most glaring proof of how battered the system we relied on to provide global public goods — such as peace — has become. Countries that do not accept and do not trust American leadership are increasingly numerous and strong, and they are unwilling to collaborate with the system led by Washington to continue providing these global public goods.

The issue is that all this is happening just when the world needs to dramatically expand its capacity to provide global public goods. Environmental collaboration, for example, is becoming more urgent just as our capacity for collaboration is diminishing. Instead of collaborating to reduce the risks arising from Artificial Intelligence, Washington and Beijing are in a race to create a more powerful — and consequently more dangerous — system than the rival’s. The framework of nuclear arms control agreements built between Washington and Moscow has completely stalled. Global migration is chaotic.

The demand for global public goods is skyrocketing, while the supply is stagnant. If no one manages to impose some order in the international system, dangerous anarchy will be the inevitable outcome.

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