Should you bet with Henry Kissinger on where the world is heading? In his new book, the former US secretary of state argues that “chaos threatens” the world order “side by side with unprecedented interdependence” between nations. He’s right on target. The globalisation of the world economy has proceeded alongside a host of threats that transcend borders: “the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the disintegration of states, the impact of environmental depredations, the persistence of genocidal practices, and the spread of new technologies”. But even as the world’s prosperity and problems become more intertwined, geopolitical conflict between traditional nation-states is on the rise.
The main driver for this growing volatility is a deteriorating US-led world order, what I call the ‘G-Zero’-the notion that we are experiencing a widening global power vacuum that no nation or group of nations will fill for the foreseeable future. America is becoming less willing and able to influence outcomes, precisely at a time when international leadership is increasingly critical. America’s exceptional ability to organise global institutions and the international agenda no longer holds-and there is no useful strategy to try and regain it. That underpins and links the geopolitical conflicts that feel ubiquitous today, from the South China Sea and Ukraine to Iraq and Syria.
If we fail to address these challenges, what comes next in this disorderly world? Kissinger envisions what is essentially realpolitik, but on a regional instead of global level. It’s a world of regions, where different countries have different spheres of influence, sometimes competing, sometimes not. This scenario is wholly plausible, and based on recent events, it looks like momentum is taking us in this direction. This will be a world of winners and losers, with some regions proving more successful at maintaining order and stability. The Western Hemisphere performs well in this world, given its insulation from geopolitical hotspots. Eurasia and the Middle East will be a fundamentally different story, destined for more conflict in a world without global referees and rules. Asia has the most uncertainty: the greatest potential, the gravest potential conflict.
But we have to question a critical assumption behind Kissinger’s prediction: is it appropriate to dispense with the global? It’s reasonable to predict that the world order will cleave off into spheres of influence dictated at a regional level. If I had to make a bet, I’d probably agreeâ€¦ but I wouldn’t want to bet much. That’s because there is tremendous uncertainty, and most importantly around the future of US-China relations.
No matter what happens over the coming years, it is very clear that the US and China will remain the two largest and most influential powers for the foreseeable future. They are the two nations with the most global economic reach; over time, the same will probably prove true for their cultural, political and cyber (if not conventional military) influence around the world. Kissinger’s last book, On China, certainly shows he understands China’s tremendous-and only growing- impact. I see two scenarios that would thwart a world of regions: one in which US-China relations dramatically improve or one in which they fundamentally sour.
If the US and China can begin to coordinate on many of the transnational crises that the world faces, it could undermine Kissinger’s predicted breakdown into regions of influence. A true US-China entente could foster a workable organising structure on a global level. The alternative: the US and China could become so antagonistic that the world’s spheres of influence whittle down to just two all-engulfing choices, where many nations are forced into an ‘either/or’ choice between them. This is far more problematic and comes with Cold Warlike geopolitical ramifications.
China is not prepared to make either choice yet: they remain a self-acknowledged “poor” country and are now embarking on an economic transformation of historic scale. But as that transformation plays out, successfully or not, China’s role in the world will dramatically change-and while there are profound implications for China’s geopolitical backyard, Asia, there are bigger questions, yet unanswerable, about whether that could also truly shape a New Global Order.
Where does India fit into what comes next? On many levels, it’s in India’s best interests to hope that Kissinger’s predictions, however dire, prove true. India is the classic regional balancer; it has much to gain in a world without an overarching, restrictive framework. In a world of regions, India can diversify and hedge its bets with many potential partnerships; it can foster strong working relationships between Western countries, major emerging markets and other neighbourhood players. In a scenario where the US and China descend into conflict, India would be hard-pressed to choose between China’s proximity and economic importance versus the United States’ values and system of government. Even in a collaborative US-China global order, India could very well lose out. China would take on disproportionate influence over Asia. As the world’s two most populous countries continue to grow, there will be more conflict over scarce natural resources, food and water. India could be caught on the wrong end of compromises forged between Washington and Beijing, where the US grants China concessions in return for its support on what it perceives to be the most pressing global issues.
There are two other areas where I would also hedge my bets on Kissinger’s assertions for what comes next. I’ve explained how we could see a global order emerge instead of a regional one. On the other hand, it’s possible that governing structures could collapse beyond the regional level to even smaller units. With risks persisting and no global coordination to address them, terrorist attacks, cyber conflict, widespread epidemics, and fallout from a swiftly changing climate-all against the backdrop of governments that lack the capabilities and coordination to respond-could undermine regional and even state structures. This is already playing out with Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan (not to mention hints in Ebola-stricken West African nations). Will we see such a trend more broadly over the coming decades? It’s plausible, particularly as the global leadership vacuum-and the inequality between rich and poor-continues to grow.
Secondly, Kissinger is resigned to the notion that Europe cannot fundamentally change. He believes that it has set out to “transcend the state” with a supranational project, “tempting a vacuum of authority internally and an imbalance of power along its borders”. Kissinger still stands behind his famous declaration that Europe “doesn’t have an address” or a phone number to call. While that still holds true, Angela Merkel’s Germany is making a strong case that it should be the one picking up the phone. In a more dysfunctional and volatile world order, domestic calls for German leadership will strengthen. Down the road, a German-driven EU could change Europe’s orientation dramatically- possibly enhancing the trans-Atlantic relationship, possibly weakening it and orienting Europe much more closely towards China.
Kissinger is dead right in describing the evolution of the world order and how it is unravelling today. His predictions for what comes next are the most likely of outcomes. But with far more geopolitical volatility on our horizon, I suspect we’re all going to be hedging more than he’d like.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University.