It has become a cliché to contend that the first half of the 21st century is different from the second half of the 20th, or that the 20 years after the end of the Cold War are no guide to the two decades that lie ahead of us. While past experiences are somewhat comparable, distinctly different contexts diminish their utility as tools for navigation. As such, how does one respond to what is unfolding at the cusp of the 2020s and what exactly are the markers of change in the international system that should define responses, solutions and statecraft?
It is possible to see this change in narrow and symbolic terms, say by re-configuration of the UN Security Council or by accepting the arrival of Asian candidates to the upper echelons of the Bretton Woods institutions. Other emblems of change would be the entry of India into an expanded Group of Seven as the eighth liberal democracy in that club of industrial economies, or new ocean politics resulting from the growing capacity of Chinese and to a lesser degree Indian naval power in an Indo-Pacific system hitherto underwritten by American maritime dominance.
Several such examples can be given and speculated upon. While some may well be realised and have a compounding impact on politics and society, these would still amount to narrow tactical shifts and to the reimagining of existing frameworks to incorporate rising powers. They would not, by themselves, be considered a clean-sheet redesign of the global order or sufficiently grasp the currents of disruption that lie just below the surface.
The challenges are tectonic and technological. When and if they are spent, they will leave us with not merely a new world order but a new world, the order for which is beyond the realms of current-day perception.
It would be safe to say that the next decade is likely to see the death of many institutions and arrangements that have hitherto been considered central to managing global affairs. At what stage will we begin to shape successor arrangements? And will these retain the agency of the state, or dissipate the powers of governance to big corporations, non-monolithic cultures and an individual’s sense of moral conduct?
Sweeping change, induced mostly by technology, will not just pose questions for the institutional matrices of the early 21st century, but also test the relevance of the very hierarchies of international relations of the past half-century. There is a fundamental mismatch between institutional arrangements currently in place to manage crises or 'keep the peace' and the disruptive tendencies that do not respect the state’s seal of sovereignty.
Four such disruptive developments are worth noting. The first and most salient concerns the very nature of power. The neat correlation of a big economy with big power that bears big responsibilities is under severe scrutiny. In the post-war epoch and in the period after the Cold War, the world’s largest economies were also its ultimate security guarantors. This was, for instance, the logic for creating the permanent membership of the Security Council in 1945. In turn, it was the big powers and, after 1990, the lone superpower that incubated the multilateral order and institutions that constituted the sinews of international cooperation, commerce and well-being.
The roots of this sense of occidental responsibility go deeper than merely the twin world wars of the 20th century. They can be located in the Eurocentric construct that flowed out of the Enlightenment, an 18th century phenomenon that revolutionised Western civilisation but had mixed consequences for the rest of the planet. It promoted both worldwide commerce and colonialism, leaving its imprint on the hierarchy of 20th and early 21st century geopolitics.
The ensuing sense of obligation – almost a noblesse oblige on a global scale – led to great powers and large economies playing an interventionist role in distant societies and informing developmental assistance in the manner of an intercontinental social responsibility charter. They took on global developmental leadership and were the largest contributors to the international provision of public goods, thereby defining the ethic of great-power behaviour.
The emerging powers of the early 21st century are different. For one, they have smaller capacities and political appetites. The economic and domestic political capital of a great power with a per capita income of US$40,000 is just not replicable by an emerging power with a per capita income of US$10,000. The latter faces enormous inequities and developmental gaps at home, and its generosity will perforce be constricted by domestic exigencies. Further, populist politics will make it harder for any power – old or emerging – to be an unremitting provider of global public goods.
Moreover, one of the new powers, China, is neither evangelical or expeditionary but transactional. China does not have a political model and an ideological or civilisational template to export or scale up. China is also culturally comfortable with shades of grey; the Anglo-Saxon quest for absolute, determinist clarity does not obsess Beijing.
China can live with long-term disorder. It can sublimate the moral inconsistency of being authoritarian at home and liberal abroad; or protectionist at home but seeking an open global trading system. Representing a society that is itself in transition, Beijing does not consider itself as default global peace-keeper or net security provider in the manner in which the expression has so long been understood.
Thus, India’s role as the liberal democracy with the fastest-rising contribution to global developmental assistance, as well as a net security provider in the coming decades, will be crucial. Along with Japan, it is the only exemplar of democratic and transparent traditions among the major powers of Asia. In years to come it is more likely to act in a manner that approximates the international obligations of actors such as the US. Yet it cannot do it alone, and its capacities are limited. The liberal world, including traditional powers that now increasingly looking inward, must guard against their efforts being crowded out by large, targeted and self-serving assistance from non-democratic political traditions to the north of India.
Public goods, private provision
The second development concerns the supply of public goods by large transnational corporations. This is not the first time the private sector has assisted in 'development', but the current scenario is unlike any other moment in history. As a result of both technology and the diminution of resources available to governments and public institutions, the early 21st century is seeing a creeping capture of the provision of public goods and services by business corporations and large transnational philanthropic entities.
The developing world’s public health agenda, for example, is being influenced by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in some cases to a greater degree than by the World Health Organisation. The Trump Administration’s resolve to cut US funding for development programs that make allowance for abortion is being supplanted by large American charities and philanthropic institutions that see the right to choose as central to women’s health and empowerment. Such processes will curb the autonomy – and in some cases the excesses – of the state and of national governments seeking to achieve politically desirable goals.
The purpose here is not to make a value judgement; it is only to stress that the power landscape has become that much more diffused.
In the economic sphere too the concept of public goods and private provision – and of where the state, as the traditional provider of public goods, comes into this dynamic – has to be considered afresh. In most societies the internet and data services comprise a public utility being delivered by private corporations. Tesla and Uber (and Ola in India) are current and future providers of public transport networks without which cities will be unable to do business. But they are also networks over which the government – or even traditional political pressure groups such as trade unions – have only nominal control.
Even so, when there are interruptions to data services or public transport or changes to the nature of jobs and labour markets following disruptions by, for instance, app-based intermediation, aggregation and similar technologies, the state will still remain answerable to its citizen.
Large industrial businesses and shared-economy behemoths are conscious of their impact on both markets and communities. That is why suggestions of an income tax to be paid by robots have come from the founder of Microsoft, or why the chief executive of Tesla has urged governments to institute a universal basic income. The devolution of a 'public goods provider' role has in turn generated thinking on quasi-government obligations among futuristic corporations.
In the next 20-odd years, as creation of value and haemorrhaging of jobs carry on in parallel, as wealth generation and concerns over access to the essentials of life occur simultaneously, the 20th century thrust towards inequity mitigation will be subsumed by one centred on inequity management. Conflicts of countries will take second place to conflicts of interests, both between and more so within societies and nation states. How will the international system address these conundrums?
Ghost in the machine
The third development is the uneasy but imminent transition in industrial production from human-intensive to machine-driven ecosystems. The early 21st century is the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For a world still coming to grips with the Third Industrial Revolution and the digital possibilities it continues to throw up, the dramatic change in the lifetime of a single human generation cannot even be fathomed.
In a sense we are all guessing, some intelligently and some wildly. This is the period that will see the maturing and possible commodification of a menu of new technologies – artificial intelligence and robotics, 3D manufacturing and custom-made biological and pharmaceutical products, lethal autonomous weapons and driverless cars.
Take an example. The moral question of how a driverless car will decide between hitting a jaywalker and swerving and damaging the car has often been debated. The answer is both simple – save the human life – and complex: the modalities of saving that life will have social, economic and technological imperatives and implications. At which angle should the car swerve? Just enough to save the jaywalker or more than enough to save the jaywalker and maintain even more distance between car and human? That extra distance swerved will have costs. It could mean collision with an object such as an electric pole, a water hydrant, or a data distribution point. Who decides on what the driverless car must do and the angle at which it should swerve?
If the driverless car is in Dublin, is the decision taken by the Irish government, the car’s original code writers in California or a software programmer in Hyderabad to whom maintenance is outsourced? Which jurisdiction's laws, regulations and normative principles will prevail? If different national jurisdictions have different regulations and fine print on something that should be so apparent – prioritising a human life – how will it affect insurance and investment decisions, including transnational ones, in relation to infrastructure that lies within damage-causing distance of a driverless car while it is attempting to evade a jaywalker?
It is inevitable and entirely realistic that the sociology and economy of the machine will determine a specialised discipline in 21st century diplomacy and trade negotiations. Already the large cyber-attack has displaced the nuclear-tipped missile as the proximate threat. This is, however, only the beginning as the human-machine equation is interrogated, and as predatory machines take jobs, rights and ultimately agency from humans.
It is also worth pondering whether automation will free up human resources for political violence. Automation and the widespread use of machines, it is believed, will enhance productivity, but the linear assumption that human beings will use their free time for 'good' is historically inaccurate. Industrial revolutions have brought with them great conflict. Just as technology will drive the creation of norms, it may also deepen old fault lines between states (and often within states, thought that is another debate).
Old Westphalia, new social contract
Finally, the role of the state itself requires re-examination. Technology is blurring national boundaries just at the time politics is defining them rigidly. Innovation and capital have impinged upon the domain of the state at a juncture when statism, nativism, identity and nationalism are in the midst of a comeback. They have emerged at their strongest after a quarter-century of being pushed to the margins by globalisation and its attendant forces.
Of all the major international covenants and formational paradigms, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) has proved the most resilient. At 270 years, it is much older than the UN or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the World Trade Organisation. Even so, it salience and the essential persuasiveness of its conflation of territoriality, ethnicity and religion continues to keep a significant proportion of global public opinion engaged.
Having said that, the early 21st century will entail an updating of the Westphalian charter and the state’s mandate. A new social contract between state and citizen is upon us; the old binary of left and right, of a socialist state and a liberal government, no longer holds. While democratic instincts have sharpened in the infancy of the 21st century, with technology, including social media, as a force multiplier, so have the average household’s economic and income anxieties. As such, while government is expected to intervene as a pillar of economic reassurance, there is a trenchant reaction to any state attempt to tailor cultural choices, undermine privacy or intrude into the home of the citizen.
This duality, where the government is acknowledged to have an economic role but where the state is expected to be almost libertarian when it comes to social freedoms (for natives and citizens at least), has no 20th century precedent. It calls on the state to be the guarantor of security and delivery, even if the state is not entirely responsible for delivery of public goods and services, and even if those public goods and services, not to speak of security threats to them, originate an ocean away, in the jurisdiction of an alien state.
The nation-state will remain the fundamental unit of reckoning in the international system, but it will have to reckon, almost Brownian-motion-like, with other units and stakeholders in a fluid medium where disorder may have both permanence and legitimacy. It will also have to adapt to the truism that technology creates its own normative landscape and its own morality, and that this is the epoch of not just unprecedented production of technology but the almost monopolistic production of that technology by private and transnational corporations. Whether the state will be relegated to a secondary player on developmental concerns is an open question, but global governance institutions must be flexible enough to accommodate new and rising actors, state and non-state.
In particular, these institutions must tackle the problem of technology-driven determinism. Whether it is a Universal Basic Income or 'Robot Tax', social programs being promoted by the Silicon Valley's capitalist class script a new narrative of man, machine, and provision of public goods. These schemes are no longer beholden to the social contract between the state and citizen, and they provide no alternative to their unquestioned belief that technology will improve living standards across the board. Global governance institutions, tempered by political realities as well as a rich history of successful and failed experiments at sustainable development, can intervene and lend new purpose to the provision of public goods by private actors.
In March 2017, the finance ministers of the G20 countries met in Germany and were compelled to upgrade their 20th century hardware with a contemporary operating system. The G20, for the first time in the decade of the institution’s existence, acquiesced to the American call to drop promotion of free trade from its agenda. This was a marked shift for a collective with the explicit aim of rescuing and restating the imperatives of globalisation. Not for a long time, and not since the fall of the Soviet Union certainly, has the international system legitimised the divorce of domestic growth and prosperity from global commerce and economic integration.
In one telling moment, old and new notions of the Westphalian architecture, of the unwillingness of the West – the so-called 'white world' – to continue to bear the burden of welfare of the global deprived, to free itself from colonial guilt that shaped the post-war Western ethic and quest for universalisation of economic organising principles, developmental norms and humanitarian ideals, were all interrogated. In one telling moment, a Hobbesian existence was rationalised and there a shrugging off of the inevitability of a Lockean end state. In one telling moment, the future arrived to shake history by the scruff of its neck.