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Paradigm shifts | Political Violence Special Edition 2024

Global power balances are shifting, with consequences for both nation-states and businesses. Tamsin Hunt and Asees Bajaj explore the growing fractures in the geopolitical landscape, and assess the sources of disruption that may trigger long-term change.

US dominance on the global stage – driven by its vast economic strength, military might and geopolitical influence – now faces challenges from several directions. Economically, China has cemented its position as the world’s preeminent trading and development partner through its Belt and Road Initiative, among other forays. Elsewhere, side-lined global players like Russia and North Korea have sought to showcase their military goals while seeking to reinforce bonds with any peers that are willing. For Russia, alongside its ongoing war in Ukraine, this has involved bolstering military ties with China, seeking financial securities with stakeholders in the Middle East, and continuing to cosy up to several military juntas in Africa. North Korea, meanwhile, has pulled out of the 2018 North-South Military Agreement, and has bolstered its troops along the border with South Korea as part of broader military posturing. And, with the Israel-Hamas conflict unfolding in Gaza, regional and global watchers are also keeping a close eye on Iran’s objectives and how associated tensions will influence the response of key regional players like Saudi Arabia. All the while, other nation-states in the global south and elsewhere are seeking to bolster their respective influence on the world stage, motivated by a need to reconsider security, development financing and economic opportunities, driving divergence from historical alliances and forging new ties.

These factors, and others, point to a growing shift away from the US-led unipolar world to which we are so accustomed. Such a change will bring with it important considerations for businesses, not least a need to review and reorganise supply chain security to navigate evolving trade restrictions, sanctions and reputational risks while remaining steadfast in response to consequent global economic headwinds. Looking ahead to 2024, key drivers such as a shift away from US alignment, the rise of the global south as well as domestic factors that could impede US foreign influence may well shape a new multipolar world in the coming year.

Coming out of the US foreign policy shadow

Global stakeholders with rising economic power, growing influence and strategic geographic locations are veering away from the US’s position on key issues such as climate change, the global war on terror, defence and immigration, to carve out greater autonomy in their foreign policy positions. This divergence from the US stance has become increasingly apparent in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict. In the Middle East and global south, driven by a combination of popular pressure or government objectives, several countries such as Jordan and Bahrain have recalled their diplomatic staff from Israel, while two – South Africa and Bolivia – have cut diplomatic ties with Israel entirely. This messaging starkly contrasts with the US position towards Israel and comes despite the significant trade and aid reliance these countries have on the US.

Separately, Turkey, has sought to bolster its influence in US-dominated NATO, by pushing back against the ratification of Sweden’s accession to the military bloc. A protracted bilateral issue between Sweden and Turkey – including disagreement over Sweden’s policies towards Kurdish refugees, political dissidents and activists, and residual tensions from Sweden’s support for a European Union (EU) motion to halt weapon sales to Turkey in 2019 – have come to hamper consensus within the international organisation. And this is not the only arena in which Turkey is seeking greater influence. Ankara has adopted a foreign policy approach in the Middle East that has challenged US interests in the region and served as an example for countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to do the same without severe consequences.

Even allies closer to home appear to be forging their own path. Canada has historically let its allies in the US, Europe and Indo-Pacific guide its position on major global developments. However, recent diplomatic spats with India, military confrontations with China in the South China Sea, and global issues such as climate change and pandemic preparedness have forced Canada to play a more active role in international affairs and increase its assertiveness in the defence of Canadian political identity and economic interests separate to the goals of the US. To that end, Canada is re-evaluating its own foreign policy and has pledged to increase its defence spending from 1.29 percent of its GDP in 2022 to its NATO commitment of two percent, and expanded its diplomatic and military presence in the Indo-Pacific.

These factors, and others, point to a growing shift away from the US-led unipolar world to which we are so accustomed.

The rise of the global south

Yet, not all countries are going it alone, as emerging international blocs offer the opportunity for these stakeholders to expand their influence, and to achieve alternative economic and security opportunities. Specifically, August 2023 saw six new members join the BRICS economic bloc that had comprised Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Among them are oil producing heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The BRICS expansion to include these high-income and previously non-aligned states will serve to increase the impact of the global south in shaping the global order, marking an important shift away from previous Western and US dominance. The BRICS countries now account for around 37 percent of the world’s GDP, eclipsing the G7’s 30 percent share; and with the addition of Middle Eastern nations, the group will possess the lion’s share of global energy reserves. Furthermore, China – a leading member of the group – is challenging the widespread use of the US dollar, conducting loan financing and trade settlements in Chinese renminbi, which could become more commonplace within the alliance. The growing lending facility in BRICS will also allow many developing countries to bypass World Bank and International Monetary Fund lending requirements, and alternative currency options for global trade will reduce the vulnerable countries’ exposure to the US dollar.

The BRICS coalition has yet to gain the traction necessary to diminish the importance of the G7 and the global institutions it supports. The bloc remains beleaguered by policy incoherence among its members, and its founding alliance members continue to contend with domestic issues including growth setbacks and conflicts. Nevertheless, the combined resource control and economic might of the BRICS alliance are key ingredients necessary for the global south to increase their role on the global stage.


Election politicking hampering US foreign policy

In 2023, domestic political issues impacted unexpected areas of US foreign policy and nominally hamstrung efforts in the global arena. In May 2023, President Joe Biden was forced to cancel a state visit to Australia and Papua New Guinea to focus on breaking the debt ceiling deadlock in Congress. Further, over the course of the year, heated debates relating to LGBTQ+ issues and abortion rights resulted in Republican senators routinely blocking foreign embassy appointments and military promotions. In the lead-up to the November 2024 presidential election, these domestic political divisions will only deepen, further reducing the likelihood of bipartisan cooperation on topics ranging from climate policy and trade competition with China, to international diplomacy and US military support for its foreign allies.

The resultant spillovers for US foreign policy in the coming year – and uncertainty over the policies of a new president – will drive hesitancy among US allies. Already, Republican opposition towards maintaining the pace of US military aid for Ukraine is raising fears of renewed Russian aggression and regional security concerns across the US’s European allies. Furthermore, Biden's plans to boost US influence through extensive reforms and funding for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is expected to come up against resistance from his own Congress. Without domestic support and cooperation, the US will be challenged in its ability to (re)assert influence in the global arena and to provide the usual umbrella of protection for its allies.

Disrupted, but not discontinued

While winds of change are upon us, the US and its closest allies still hold sway over the world, and still will for years to come. The US’s armed forces are the most powerful and well-resourced in the world, the US dollar remains the preeminent and trusted currency for trade, and its allies and partners include some of the largest economies in the world. But, the US-led global order is in the midst of its greatest challenge. As new alliances, partnerships and conflicts arise, and long-standing hostilities worsen, the resulting shifts will test the limits of US influence. Geopolitical tussles, opposing policies, trade wars, and possible indecision on critical global issues like climate change will redefine the rules of the game for governments and businesses alike, stressing the need for organisations to develop the operational agility with which to face a changing global order.

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