Some Reflections on the Global Scenario in the New 21st Century

We must work for a multilateralism that allows us to move from the concept of great power competition – a zero-sum game – to a great power cooperation, promoting the cooperation of great powers, including when it comes to climate change, pandemics and mass migration driven by conflicts, writes Ambassador Ricardo E. Lagorio, Secretary General of the Argentina Council on Foreign Relations, CARI.

We are going through one of those historical moments, kairos, in which systemic matters are under discussion: we are facing a crisis of governance. Our global system is largely set up in response to 1945: an international system where there were 51 states, where sovereignty was much stronger, where conflicts were international and not national, and where problems were related to hard power, not soft power.

The great lesson of 2020 – the beginning of the new twenty-first century – coinciding with the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the UN, is the emergence of We the People, the opening words of the UN Charter, as a more visible and central actor in world politics.

Nevertheless, this does not imply, in any way, the end of the state or of national governments.

Likewise, the pandemic showed that security problems are also of a soft power nature, and that they are increasingly de-territorialised. Therefore, the Wesphalian model, centred on the primacy of the nation state and a strictly territorial anchor, has begun to be challenged.

In addition, tension resumes between the vision of great power competition and the need to build – since it is a convention – a multilateralism of deliverance, in line with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

This tension, from my realistic point of view, is understandable since there is a historical memory among the great powers that condition their foreign policies to reflect their conception of national security. However, this is no longer functional, even when it comes to their own national interests. In this new twenty-first century, more and more is happening beyond our national border, and this legitimises the strengthening of the multilateral scaffolding.

For this, it is also essential not only to define international peace and security – the cornerstone of the functioning and role of the Security Council and the veto power of the P5 – in classic terms of military hard power, but also to evolve towards a paradigm that incorporates the notion of human security coined in the UNDP Human Development Report of 1994, New dimensions of human security.

The principle of great power competition – with its corollary of strategic stability – can no longer be the organisational element of the international system, as it was during the Cold War period.

We are facing a systemic problem: how globalisation is going to be directed and what course it will pursue, in the face of the greatest challenges facing humanity as a whole: ecological degradation and the constant irruption of science and technology.

These two tendencies require us, inexorably, to privilege cooperation and collaboration over confrontation.

This option is more readily acceptable among the vast majority of countries that privilege multilateral responses to our global soft power problems. On the other hand, for those who do not approach governance in this way, there is a problem, which I would call psychological: overcoming the hubris complex of great power competition, and accepting the limitations of national hard power.

Thus, we must work for a multilateralism that, in addition, allows us to move from the concept of great power competition – a zero-sum game – to a great power cooperation, promoting the cooperation of great powers, including when it comes to climate change, pandemics and mass migration driven by conflicts.

However, this is not going to happen, unless there is greater activism than I would call the coalition of multilateralists, state and non-state actors committed and convinced of this option.

Then, multilateralism must also be defined in qualitative terms, and in this sense, the normative dimension – sharing norms and principles of conduct – becomes the most relevant. Thus, multilateralism aims fundamentally to help design a global framework that facilitates the harmonious coexistence of the largest number of countries.

That is why the great challenge is how to ensure that due consideration is given to the interests and sensitivities of countries that have historically been left out, due to the great power politics scheme, and/or because they lack systemic relevance despite having a voice and vote in international mechanisms.

It would not be highly recommended to adopt, in the twenty-first century, the option of minilateral cooperation. These ad hoc approaches offer certain advantages, including speed, flexibility, modularity and possibilities for experimentation. But at the same time, it presents dangers, including encouraging unbridled forum-seeking, undermining existing international organisations, and reducing accountability in global governance.

Multilateralism is not limited only to institutions; it also has a strong cultural foundation. A sustainable multilateralism will not endure unless it has solid foundations and is perceived as effective and efficient by its main constituency: We the People. Therefore, the design and construction of a new multilateralism requires, as an underpinning, a multilateral culture. A new culture that includes and addresses the issues that affect We the People, and not just those of states as such.

Looking into the future, we need to move towards new geopolitics: territorial and de-territorial and state and non-state.

We need to rethink sovereignty: virtual and territorial.

Above all, however, we must carry out an ethical debate on the consequences of the instrumental use of scientific and technological advances in this exponential era.

May the necessary advances in science and technology continue to be in pursuit of the common good, and not of an eventual dehumanisation.

Perhaps this would be a good topic of debate for the agendas of the next G20 Summit or for the next UN General Assembly.

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