Last year, the buzzword of the geopolitical memeplex was “polycrisis,” a term that seemed to capture the pervasive vibe of cascading global turmoil: pandemic, war, climate change, the energy crunch, deglobalization, inflation and global debt.
This year, the equivalent term might be “multipolarity,” a squishy and somewhat shape-shifting word for a squishy and shape-shifting global situation: the way that an intensifying rivalry between the United States and China appears to be opening up diplomatic and economic opportunities for entrepreneurial actors across the world stage, in a historical echo of the nonalignment movement of the first Cold War a half-century ago.
President Emmanuel Macron of France stunned allies this month when he made what seemed like a grand convention-breaking gesture by pronouncing that Europe should become a “third pole” on the world stage and raising doubts about following America’s lead on Ukraine and Taiwan.
But the global leader who has most theatrically flouted American leadership is President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Since he returned to office in January, Lula — whose defeat of Jair Bolsonaro felt like a sigh-of-relief replay of our own 2020 election — has been doing his iconoclastic best to reshape an unsteady world order. He has declined to condemn Russia’s invasion and support Ukraine; dispatched a delegation to meet with Venezuela’s reviled president, Nicolás Maduro; allowed Iranian warships to dock in Brazilian ports in violation of U.S. sanctions; announced plans to pursue a kind of common currency with Argentina that might grow into a sort of Latin American euro; and traveled to China with dozens of Brazilian business leaders to sign more than 20 bilateral agreements. Once in China, he lashed out at a global financial order that effectively requires all countries to do business in dollars — a bête noire of the Chinese — and did so at the “BRICs Bank” in Shanghai run by his onetime protégée, Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded him as president of Brazil from 2011 to 2016.
Perhaps these gestures should not be so surprising. In Lula’s first two terms in office, which ended in 2010, this onetime revolutionary trade unionist crusaded against the World Trade Organization, pushed for a permanent Brazilian seat on the U.N. Security Council, and recognized Palestine as an independent state. Similarly, Macron’s rhetoric follows Jacques Chirac’s rebuke of George W. Bush over the Iraq war, as well as the chorus of European leaders during the Trump years insisting that the continent could easily drift from America’s side and go it alone.
But these days Lula and Macron look less like world leaders seizing the limelight to speak out of turn and more like avatars of an emergent, more fluid geopolitics. For my money, one of the best places to read about it is a newsletter published by Phenomenal World and spearheaded by Kate Mackenzie and Tim Sahay — named, actually, Polycrisis — that has been incisively documenting the emerging shape of this “new nonalignment”: India’s Narendra Modi negotiating green-energy agreements, tech transfers and weapons deals with the European Union shortly after a high-profile summit with China; refusal across the developing world to take a side in the Ukraine conflict; the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen talking of “derisking” rather than “decoupling” from China.
For Americans squinting bleary-eyed into the post-pandemic world, this landscape may look a bit disorienting. Last week, during International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, the former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers half-jokingly complained that it was getting “lonely” on what he called “the right side of history.” He went on, “There’s a growing acceptance of fragmentation, and — maybe even more troubling — I think there’s a growing sense that ours may not be the best fragment to be associated with.”
But American fears of a great shift may well overstate the size of the change, ultimately — a reflection of our tendency to measure the direction of world history less against the benchmarks of the past than against our expectations for the future (whether those are the unipolar predictions of the 1990s or the “bipolar” forecasts of the last decade). Is it truly a New Cold War, for instance, if the vast majority of our phones, most of what goes into our solar panels, and a critical share of antibiotics used by Americans are produced in China, despite growing tensions between Washington and Beijing? Are we really watching deglobalization unfold, if despite some new trade protectionism, world trade’s share of the global economy has, at worst, only slightly declined since the financial crisis? Does it make sense to panic about “de-dollarification” when 88 percent of foreign exchange trades involve American currency?
This is not to say that nothing is changing, or that those changes aren’t disruptive, only that in our rush to shape a narrative for the near future some stories may be getting ahead of some facts. To me, that is one of the strengths of “multipolarity” as an idea — it is less a finished map of a new world system than a statement about the direction of drift.
For Americans, the drift may feel dispiriting. As my colleague Ross Douthat wrote last week, there has been a striking turn in global opinion against the United States in the past decade, with the invasion of Ukraine only slightly denting the otherwise steady trajectories. According to “A World Divided: Russia, China, and the West,” a report published in the fall by the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy, public opinion among developing countries is more favorable to Russia than to the United States, even in the aftermath of invasion of Ukraine. For the first time, it was more favorable to China, as well.
But one curious feature of this turn is that, by some conventional measures of global status, the United States is not experiencing any great decline. As The Economist recently emphasized in a cover story on America’s “astonishing economy,” whatever the problems of our society and our politics and however bleakly Americans themselves regard the state and future of the country, by topline economic standards the U.S. remains a serious juggernaut.
Since the end of the Cold War and through the post-9/11 era — a period often characterized by America’s stumbles and China’s rise — the U.S. share of global G.D.P. hasn’t fallen at all. Its share of the output of the Group of 7 nations has grown by almost half, from 40 percent in 1990 to 58 percent today, and, “adjusted for purchasing power, only those in uber-rich petrostates and financial hubs enjoy a higher income per person.” Those same adjusted incomes are higher in Mississippi, America’s poorest state, than in Macron’s France; subtract Paris and the comparison looks even worse. In Britain, the adjusted average income is only as high as in Arkansas (and that’s including London, of course.)
Cross-country comparisons like these aren’t perfect, as anyone admiring the social-welfare states of Northern Europe or lamenting America’s Covid response — or life expectancy crisis — could tell you. But they do say something about the enduring economic clout and status of the United States on the world stage.
At the same time, China’s star isn’t as inarguably ascendant as it might have appeared just a few years ago. The country’s population, long seen as the engine of future global dominance, has probably already peaked, and seems set for a pretty precipitous decline. It has hit a number of speed bumps — once-unthinkable quarters of recession, crises in the real estate and construction sectors — that have already forced analysts to reconsider near-universal predictions that China would soon become the world’s largest economy. And despite the outward triumph and political pageantry of the recent Communist Party congress that reappointed Xi Jinping to an unprecedented third term as president, the abrupt and messy end of “zero Covid” signaled considerable internal social and political tumult.
Abroad, China’s spending and investment is still significant; indeed it remains a much larger creditor to the developing world than the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. But that spending has also been curtailed in recent years, as the country pulled back on its Belt and Road project to build or finance much of the infrastructure of the developing world, with overseas investment falling from a high of over $80 billion to less than $10 billion just before the pandemic, according to analysis by the Rhodium Group. China is now collecting more in payments from the developing world than it is disbursing, according to the World Bank, and has written off $78 billion in Belt and Road loans over the last three years, a quadrupling over the previous three.
Which is all to say that, however neat a formulation like multipolarity may appear, the world it describes is not very neat, or even predictable. The war in Ukraine has shaken up quite a lot already, not just in Eastern Europe or among the allies of either side, but all around the world as well. That fallout will likely grow, and at the moment it does not appear to be leading quickly to anything as settled as a new status quo.