Power vacuum

There no longer exists a guaranty of order in international relations. The old touchstone of the world order has disappeared and, consequently, the entire institutional superstructure erected after WWII falls. It will take long, if it finally exists, for a new, fairer order to be born, possibly spearheaded by social movements with young leaderships

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Some have attributed to Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer the famous expression “Time and tide wait for no one.” The phrase is valid in geopolitics. When a power withdraws from acquired positions, the vacant place is rapidly occupied by other powers. Thus, it is worth asking, which positions were abandoned? And which qualities bring those who seek to occupy them?

In the city of San Francisco, 75 years ago, 50 countries signed the United Nations foundational Charter. Unlike the unfortunate League of Nations, established soon after WWI and that did not last long, the Organization of United Nations, after WWII, managed to persist for more than seven decades and has included 193 countries, in large part due to the great decolonization movement. It is in part responsible for having prevented so far a third world war. However, 2020 finds this institution decrepit and weakened.

Both the UN, as well as many other collective governance structures established in the 1940s, today suffer from sclerosis and impotence: The World Trade Organization and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty among them, were designed for the purpose of creating a certain world order and preventing chaos. The design of those institutions, in the words of the famous UN General Secretary at its peak Dag Hammarskjold was not to guide member countries into paradise, but rather to prevent them from falling into the hell of another conflagration.

For those same organizations, particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had the United States as their center and guarantor, a “philanthropic ogre” (Octavio Paz[1]) that, together with them, could help others and themselves, quite substantially, as it was the most powerful winner of WWII. The USA had the Soviet Union as the main rival. The USSR was weaker as an economic system but competitive in the ideological and military fields. Such bipolar system, together with United Nations, during the cold war kept a relative but important world “peace.” The collapse of the Soviet socialist world and the metamorphosis of  Chinese socialism into a state capitalism radically changed the equation.

At first, the end of the cold war seemed to place United States in an insurmountably powerful and privileged position. However, the global expansion of the capitalist system towards hitherto out-of-bounds fields led to a surprise: the emergence of new and powerful rivals, specially a dynamic and revitalized China and an aggressive and revengeful Russia. It also led to a new and prosperous Europe that tried a new regional union with global aspirations. The European Union is a half-baked project and, in terms of the USA, an entity that oscillates from ally to rival.

A common characteristic of new rival powers is the following: they are continental and centripetal powers, whose expansion is made at the expense of the territorial neighbors they want to absorb. In words from another era, they try to extend their Lebensraum[2]. USA, instead, have been and still are a marine empire, as Spain and England once were. (Today, marine dominium extends to spatial and cyberspace). In other words, they intrude everywhere and try to establish a world order from the beginning. When these “marine” imperialisms withdraw or decay for different reasons, the world order they established can only survive if another imperialism of the same type replaces them. Otherwise, emergent powers enter regional conflicts and collisions, some of which are deadly.

During WWII, United Kingdom’s and its Commonwealth’s decline were replaced by the American empire, a similarly liberal-democratic imperium. Currently, American decadence does not find a similar replacement. Neither Russia nor China are in a position to organize the planet in a new world order. They advance over their respective peripheries and occupy vacancies left by USA in an opportunistic and volatile way, entering at the same time into conflicts with other medium powers. That is the case of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and, at a lesser degree, Latin America.

This power vacuum is currently potentiated by an American government that today cannot guarantee an order but is rather a focus of great instability. It is a secular tendency, and not just a defect of Trump’s administration. The peculiarity of the latter is the clumsiness with which it manages the retreat, abruptly abandoning old alliances and multilateral organizations.

The American government has fostered the smear of international collaboration. An example: its rejection and abandonment of the World Health Organization has been disastrous. The result is in sight: a global threat received an essentially local and inadequate response. So it goes. With no diplomacy or serious strategy, it remains in its arsenal with the huge military apparatus it has. However, here is the problem: when one has no other weapon than a big hammer, any problem that might emerge looks like a nail.

If this diagnosis is correct, in the post-Covid world we will have to address the following tendencies:

  1. Increase in the relative power of states, for good or evil, according to their previous trajectories.
  2. Multiplication of conflicts, most of them armed, between regional powers in different parts of the planet.
  3. General impoverishment, with different modalities of inequality or redistribution, also according to previous trajectories and the type of political regime.
  4. Multiplication of social protest and populism, with contradictory political biases and more or less repressive answers.
  5. Weakening of traditional international organizations, in favor of new multilateral networks in the assistance and collaboration indifferent and modular theaters of action.
  6. Increase in concentration of huge technological and communications monopolies, in frequent conflict with states that try to regulate them.

In this panorama, we will witness a generalized class struggle between the privileged and the excluded, with some positive strategic though incipient proposals in the field of planetary challenges (environment, climate change,  and sustained and inclusive development). The latter are being elaborated by new social movements.


[1] . Octavio Paz was referring to the Mexican bureaucratic state, however, his expression applies to the American postwar foreign policy.

[2] German term that means vital space. It is the theoretical argument against an expansive imperialist policy adopted by the Third Reich that led to WWII.

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