Global Governance
Polycentrism in the Era of Great Power Rivalry

When imagining a list of the central norms enshrined in the contemporary international order, the most elementary principles usually come to mind: sovereign equality, the territorial integrity of states, national self-determination, multilateralism, rules-based interaction, and respect for international law. Theoretical approaches such as the English School of international relations go so far as to label some of these norms as “institutions”, reflective of their cardinal importance in sustaining a stable order. 

However, there is an additional norm that has endured for centuries – that of polycentrism, which should be distinguished from multipolarity. While the latter refers to a specific distribution of material power that has periodically prevailed in international affairs, often centring on the interaction between great powers, the former is an idea for organizing the global system that enjoys more persistent and universal appeal across time and space. 

As the world potentially descends into a bipolar confrontation between Washington and Beijing, the enduring character of this norm will be tested. Specifically, a sustainable international equilibrium will partly depend on the extent to which the next tier of powers – Western and non-Western alike – can put their differences aside to mitigate the impact of the US-China rivalry on global affairs.

Polycentrism’s presence in international politics is longstanding. The Peace of Westphalia and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire fostered an anti-hegemonial tendency in European interstate relations. This was further entrenched after the Treaty of Utrecht, which brought the 18th-century War of the Spanish Succession to an end, rendered the balance-of-power system more explicit. The norm was then exported as the European model of statehood spread, eventually inaugurating an international order of global scope that itself is a product of diverse cultures and diffuse power centres.

Today this norm of polycentrism is in tension with a Western-led liberal international order that has advanced its own interpretations of globalism and universalism – a clash that has produced uncertainty and instability. It is an open question whether the “secular” trends surrounding democracy, free trade and human rights promotion will supersede the more “cyclical” trends that have preserved polycentrism for centuries. Polycentrism persisted even during the Cold War as Third World countries sought to shape global norms surrounding national independence and non-alignment. To a non-negligible extent, it is likely to remain resilient in a post-Cold War era where open trade and multilateralism have strengthened transparency and buttressed the sovereignty of lesser powers.

Still, increasing Sino-American enmity comes at an inopportune moment. India and Southeast Asia have yet to emerge as sufficiently powerful counterweights capable of providing balance to an Asia-Pacific region increasingly framed by zero-sum rivalry. The United States is only in the early stages of its relative decline and therefore remains prone to hubris and overstretch, while China – having yet to complete its rise – experiences lingering vulnerability and insecurity. The global configuration of power remains stuck in a fragile intermediate position between unipolarity and multipolarity.

As such, while the potential for delineating the contours of Beijing’s regional and global roles may remain strong over the long term, not least due to its geographic encirclement, the next several years are likely to prove challenging. If the further consolidation of Europe, the rise of the rest of Asia and the erosion of the Chinese demographic dividend all imply that China will experience relative decline over the long term, then Beijing will be encouraged to take sterner measures over the near-to-medium term to secure its core interests.

While states in the Indo-Pacific face mounting pressure to abandon their balancing act between the US and China, the Euro-Atlantic theatre is already starkly divided, largely due to the persistence of incompatible visions for regional order. However, these dynamics – already more than six years old and largely centred on the wider European space – appear to have been overtaken by a more generalized great power rivalry of more far-reaching geographic scope. In this context, the question is whether Canada, the European Union and Russia can find a way to compartmentalize their disagreements on regional matters to cooperate on issues of global geo-strategic importance.

The logic behind such cooperation is compelling. Although Russia is likely to retain its great power status due to its military prowess, diplomatic assets and sprawling geography, the Sino-American confrontation reduces its room for manoeuvre. This stands not only to affect Moscow’s sovereign decision-making ability on the world stage, but also curtail its capacity to shape the contours of the wider Eurasian order. And while the transatlantic relationship is strained and the EU’s approach to engaging with China is in flux, Brussels has already reached a modus vivendi of sorts with Moscow in their shared neighbourhood that both sides appear willing to live with despite their sharp disagreements. 

Canada, for its part, appears to stand at the beginning of a protracted downturn in its relations with China following the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, while the two principal pillars of Ottawa’s postwar foreign policy – the US and the UN – have been damaged by the election of Donald Trump and a second consecutive failed bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Together, these developments generate a need for Ottawa to strengthen other vectors in its foreign policy.

All three actors – Canada, the EU and Russia – share an interest in avoiding the spillover of great power tensions into their shared Arctic neighbourhood, value the independence of their foreign policy, and benefit politically and/or economically from a diffuse distribution of global influence. All of these would be undermined to a significant extent if a logic of bipolar, zero-sum rivalry envelops regional orders across Eurasia.

Even without considering the constraints imposed by existing alliances and strategic ententes, enhanced dialogue between these three players would face considerable obstacles. Rather than regionally focused initiatives between global adversaries as during the Cold War, it would involve selective cooperation on global issues between parties to a dispute over the shape of a regional security system. However, the current Sino-Russian entente may offer a precedent, albeit an imperfect one. While Russia and China often disagree on the shape that regional institutions in their shared Central Eurasian neighbourhood should take, their strategic coordination on the global stage has deepened in recent years despite the occasional tensions that have accompanied the growing power disparity between them.

“Business as usual” is unlikely to resume in Russia-West relations without a satisfactory roadmap for resolving the standoff over Ukraine. But one would do well to remember that the stability of international orders is enhanced when their established institutions and norms – including polycentrism – are strengthened.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.