The Unipolar Moment Is Over. When Will the US Get It?

December 4th, 2022 - by Samuel Gardner-Bird / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

These former Global South leaders
don’t mince words when it comes to
America’s diminishing leadership
and the “rules-based order.”

Samuel Gardner-Bird / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(November 15, 2022) — There was no mincing of words yesterday from former Global South leaders who see Washington’s unipolar leadership of the world diminishing and hypocrisy where the United States sees rules.

Speaking at yesterday’s Quincy Institute panel on the Global South and the “Rules-Based Order,” South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor compared the West’s response to Russia to the West’s treatment of Palestine, saying “when it comes to Palestinians … the same international law does not apply.”

Meanwhile, Brazil’s former foreign minister, Celso Amorim, came out against the double standards of the US-backed “rules-based order,” stating, “I saw the rules being changed all the time, and they are still being changed now.”

And former Singaporean diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, shared no love for President Biden’s framework of democracy versus autocracy, calling it a “simplistic black and white division of the world which is multicolored and so different.”

These statements point to the emergence of a new non-alignment within the Global South, a counterpoint to America’s typical posture of world leadership. Of course, these are not popular views in Washington, but that is precisely the point — if prominent leaders in the fastest growing regions don’t buy into the Western consensus, can the United States really maintain its global position for long?

Despite the National Security Strategy’s recent declaration that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over,” the United States is still unwilling to state what the international system has become in its wake: increasingly multipolar.

Rather than rethinking first order assumptions about foreign policy, the United States appears destined to press on its quest for global hegemony — committing thousands of troops to Europe, preparing for a “strategic competition” with China in the Indo-Pacific, and rubber stamping a bloated military budget.

Unfortunately, as yesterday’s panelists revealed, the rest of the world is unlikely to join in any US crusade to “defend democracy” or line up to support a “rules-based order”: a phrase riddled with too many inconsistencies to remain credible.

In responding to the war in Ukraine, the Global South has been reluctant to endorse the West’s view. That is not to suggest that Global South nations support Russia’s unjust and brutal invasion. Most do see Russia’s actions as a breach of international law and have spoken against Russia’s wanton violence towards civilians. A majority of nations either voted for or at least abstained from a motion at the United Nations criticizing Russia’s flimsy annexations in eastern Ukraine.

But beyond procedural UN votes, as the Quincy Institute’s Sarang Shidore noted recently, the war looks fundamentally different in Sao Paulo, New Delhi, and Johannesburg.

The problem facing policymakers in Washington is simple: if the United States cannot hope to rally the Global South to take action beyond mild verbal recriminations following an obvious violation of international law, how can it hope to succeed in “strategic competition” or in winning influence in the world’s most populous regions?

As a new QI brief by Shidore has laid out, if Washington has any hope of winning over the Global South, it must come to terms with the non-aligned posture of many states. Centering US grand strategy on “strategic competition” and making states pick a side, through onerous tools such as secondary sanctions, will only push them toward Beijing or Moscow.

Showing up as a partner for greater trade, investment, and innovation may be more effective. The United States should also look to reform the international system by enhancing the importance of the G20 and pursuing a more inclusive UN Security Council — an idea Washington has proposed for decades.

But before any of this can occur, the United States would have to admit the obvious — the age of unipolarity is over, the world will not accept rules made in Washington, and that developing nations are once again charting their own course. If it fails to do so, it is doomed to pursue a grandiose vision of the world that will neither enhance the security of Americans, nor improve the lives of billions of citizens in the Global South.

Please watch the full conference, ‘Is America Ready for a Multipolar World,’ from Nov. 14: