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In this era of disorder, clinging to bipolarity helps no one

More recently, the war in Gaza has further illustrated the limitations of a Western-centric worldview. (Reuters)
More recently, the war in Gaza has further illustrated the limitations of a Western-centric worldview. (Reuters)
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28 Jan 2024 02:01:03 GMT9
28 Jan 2024 02:01:03 GMT9

In the muddled mess that is contemporary geopolitics, the once-dominant paradigm of a world neatly divided between a collective “West” and some indeterminate “Rest” is slowly unraveling.

The West, long seen as the crucible of global order, is now scrambling to keep pace with a new reality which manifested itself a little more than two decades ago, when the first “coalition” missiles rained down on Baghdad.

Much to the shock and awe of incredulous millions across the Arab world since 2003, the West is itself now slowly waking up to an untreated consequence of its self-inflicted wound.

For the first time in nearly eight decades, the “voice” of the West, once commanding and singular, is resonating less around a world in which diverse players — new and old, state and nonstate — are increasingly asserting their agency.

This phenomenon can no longer be dismissed as a restive world merely capitalizing on a disengaged West that is far too preoccupied with navigating divisive politics at home rather than policing every conflagration abroad.

Instead, it is a growing testament of the dwindling relevance of the West, evinced in part by its traditional thinkers and writers no longer holding sway over the captive audiences as they once did.

More worryingly, the custodians of our global “order” have failed to produce a succession of distinguished elder statesperson — at least in the past few decades — capable of cleverly utilizing the West’s enduring monopoly on convening power to advance an equitable, collaborative and consensus-driven global agenda.

In the past few years, developments on the world stage, and the bumbled responses to them, have been the final signs of an irreversible transition that is likely to accelerate in the coming months. The Global South, a collective previously often relegated to the periphery of global affairs, has emerged with a newfound assertiveness in trying to reshape the international order through pragmatic realism, by prioritizing national interests over stubborn alignment with distinct ideological poles.

The stark dichotomy of the West versus the Rest is giving way to a more nuanced, multipolar world in which each state seeks partners based on specific interests, rather than wholesale allegiance to a single bloc.

In a way, it is “geopolitics a la carte,” underscored by the reluctance of many countries in the Global South, for instance, to join the regime of sanctions against Russia. They are exhibiting a strategic autonomy that challenges the once-unquestioned influence of the West.

More recently, the war in Gaza and the escalations in the Red Sea have further illustrated the limitations of a Western-centric worldview, which demands status quo absolutism, even though the rules of diplomatic engagement have changed dramatically.

Such a confounding stance is incongruous with the appetite of the Rest for malleable approaches to managing the planet’s crises. Untethered from the nebulous idealism of Western designs for the global order, the Rest can make serious headway in addressing complex issues that always expose the West’s hypocrisy by subverting the very values we profess we want to uphold.

The response of the Rest to the situation in Gaza reveals a perception of those double standards at play, wherein the inaction of the West in response to the actions of Israel contrasts sharply with its vehement stance in opposition to Russian aggression.

This hypocrisy erodes the West’s moral high ground and undermines its claims to be upholding the principles of international law while also seeking to transform inalienable rights and liberties into universal principles.

The stark dichotomy of the West versus the Rest is giving way to a more nuanced, multipolar world.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

It is hardly surprising to see muted, non-committal responses around the globe to the escalations in the Red Sea by Houthi militants, even if they represent a serious challenge to the international order that could escalate into a broader conflict with significant global economic repercussions.

The calculus has shifted away from blindly taking cues from the West, toward individual countries among the Rest only expending enough diplomatic capital and effort to mitigate the threats such situations pose to their own national interests, if there are any.

This shift also applies to reactions to other critical hot spots across the Arab region, from the horrors in Gaza and the civil war in Sudan to even the absurd tolerance for Libya’s corrosive political stalemate. Gone are the days of top-down approaches dictated in the polished corridors of far-off Western capitals; efforts to resolve some of the world’s most pressing crises now demand coordinated international responses that transcend traditional alliances and underscore the need for a more inclusive approach to global governance.

Changing realities shine a glaring spotlight on the uncomfortable truth that the West’s seemingly profound proclamations about universal values, along with the burden of defending them, were never really an impassioned dialogue between equals but tedious soliloquies, uninterrupted yet also unheeded, their orators consistently mistaking the echoes in empty rooms for grand endorsements, even as the world busied itself with finding a “new normal.”

This absence of engagement from the Rest was not acquiescence but quiet disregard.

The West need not view the growing assertiveness of other nations as a zero-sum game but rather as an opportunity to forge new partnerships based on mutual interests and shared responsibilities. The multiplicity of voices in the international community does not diminish the contributions of the West but enriches the global dialogue.

A consensus-driven order is not about uniformity but about the harmonization of diverse perspectives, where the burden of leadership and the responsibilities of maintaining global stability are shared among a wider array of actors.

As we navigate this ever-shifting global landscape, the West must reckon with the fact that its influence is contingent on its ability to adapt to a world that favors flexibility over rigid polarization. This new era of a la carte diplomacy is not an aberration but a natural progression toward a global order that better reflects the multiplicity of voices and interests that make up the international community.

The inevitable changes are not inherently a threat to the West but rather an opportunity for evolution and adaptation. After all, the West’s influence has always been dynamic, and in this era of flexibility and inclusivity, its ability to adapt will determine its continuing relevance within an emergent global order that is better suited to the complexities of our changing world.

As we become increasingly interconnected, yet more geopolitically fluid, the West must come to terms with a new reality. The future of international relations will not be shaped by a singular cultural entity but by a chorus of diverse perspectives, each asserting their sovereignty and playing a role in shaping the global narrative.

The success of the West in this new era will depend on its willingness to listen, engage and co-create with the rest of the world, rather than impose a monolithic worldview that is increasingly at odds with the varied and dynamic nature of global geopolitics.

• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
X: @HafedAlGhwell

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