Learn the Key Influencers in Our New International System
Is America’s unipolar moment really over? You bet it is. We are in the midst of a major crisis of legitimacy in our international system. And yet there’s really no need to panic – academics, analysts, journalists and policymakers have been debating the decline of the US hegemony recurrently since the end of the Cold War for a reason. US President Donald Trump’s unilateral, “America First” rhetoric simply confirms what we have been speculating for awhile. But the international system isn’t necessarily bipolar (US vs Russia), tripolar (US vs Russia vs China) or multipolar (US vs Russia vs China vs EU perhaps). It’s more than Zakaria’s post-American world or Bremmer’s G-Zero leaderless world. In fact, it’s more than just about superpowers. It’s a post-hegemonic world deriving legitimacy from many key influencers – state and non-state – and you know what? That’s ok.
First, let’s recap the obvious:
Superpowers Russia, China and the EU have been challenging US hegemony – militarily, economically and politically – for awhile. Since Trump’s presidency began in January, they have stepped up their game. We all know Russia has been strutting its stuff militarily for years – the 2014 Crimea invasion was no accident; but in the post-hegemonic world it is more openly focused on hybrid warfare in the EU and the US, plus proxy wars in places like the Arctic, Afghanistan and Syria. In response to the US pulling out of trade deals like the TPP, China has boldly presented itself as the de-facto leader of globalization since January’s World Economic Forum in Davos. In response to President Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, the EU – in this case led by France’s President Emmanuel Macron – is now vowing to “Make the Planet Great Again” even inviting American climate scientists to continue their research on French soil. Collectively, these superpowers are more aggressively shaping the post-hegemonic world – because well, they can, due to a US with less global vision.
Now, the less obvious:
Smaller states are also key influencers in today's post-hegemonic world, for instance in the area of human rights. The US government historically has been the global promoter of human rights, but clearly there is now a shift away from that. In response to President Trump’s travel ban and his attempted block on the country’s refugee program, Canada has more aggressively welcomed refugees into its borders. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it in his Tweet back in January: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” In response to President Trump’s executive order to ban federal money for international groups performing abortions in developing countries, the Netherlands and Norway have already committed $10 million each in a new fund, with Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and others also pledging support. And in response to President Trump’s position on climate change, more than 7,400 city mayors globally have vowed to fill the US leadership void to tackle this issue – in fact California Governor Jerry Brown recently sidestepped President Trump to sign an international agreement with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Collectively, these smaller state actors are more aggressively shaping the post-hegemonic world – because again, they can, due to a US with less global vision.
And finally, the least obvious:
Non-state actors, beyond traditional civil society, are the relatively new influencers in our post-hegemonic world, in part a response to governments suffering from declining legitimacy. In recent years, we have witnessed the power of the citizen protester, bringing down some dictatorships in the MENA region, challenging austerity policies in certain EU countries and ousting seemingly corrupt leaders in countries like South Korea and Brazil. But this year, such citizen power has gone beyond domestic problems, becoming more globally united against President Trump’s rhetoric on issues like women’s rights, immigration and climate change. Such activism has of course been facilitated by social media – a reminder of how tech companies are also a key non-state influencer in our post-hegemonic world, perhaps more powerful at times in shaping society than governments.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent manifesto for his vision of the world included his technology’s role in promoting “a global community” to “strengthen our social fabric” with a new “infrastructure”. He isn’t the only activist billionaire wanting to influence the post-hegemonic world. Through his LA-based think tank, Nicolas Berggruen is developing new ideas to “shape political, economic and social institutions in an era of Great Transformations”. And again in response to President Trump’s rhetoric, Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million to the UN to tackle climate change while Tom Steyer has said he will spend whatever it takes. Collectively, these non-state actors – the citizen protester, tech company and the activist billionaire – are more aggressively shaping the post-hegemonic world – because once again, they can and perhaps need to, due to a US with less global vision.
So President Trump may have declared that America’s “job is not to represent the world”, but don’t panic – this is part of the global crisis of geopolitical legitimacy that has been building for awhile. And in fact this crisis is also an opportunity for more of us to reimagine our future with new ideas. What we’re now witnessing is a distinct post-hegemonic world taking shape with superpowers, smaller states and non-state actors acting as key influencers on different issues. The presumed post-hegemonic chaos in fact has a structure – we simply have to embrace it and adapt.
With NYU MA International Relations students Doreen Horschig, Yu-Ting (Wendy) Sun, Arsh Harjani and Yueyue Jiang