A More Multipolar but not more Democratic International Scenario: The Geopolitical (dis)Order of a World in Reconfiguration


Idoia Villanueva

Oct, 2022
When we talk about geopolitical reordering, we refer to the collapse of the international order that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although the international institutional structure dates back to the end of WWII—think of the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF—it was the end of the Cold War that brought the unipolar hegemony of the United States and its neoliberal economic model. This hegemony has been supported for decades by a combination of what Joseph Nye called hard and soft power: i.e., through military interventions and economic relationships of dependence and domination over the nations of the so-called Global South. Likewise, the extension of the liberal paradigm and its concept of democracy have been necessary tools to boost different accumulation processes of capital and resources in these nations and create a bloc of alliances that could legitimate and reproduce this hegemony, particularly the transatlantic Alliance.

This order was reflected in the distribution of power within multilateral governance institutions and in the selective application of international law, generally favouring the interests of the so-called Global North. An example is the scarce accountability initiatives from the countries that form the so-called Western Bloc for their actions against international law and human rights. And a key element behind the collapse of this system is precisely the lack of ideological concessions to a segment of the world population. While the western discourse sees the establishment of this system as the triumph of democracy, the political ideas and ways of life of millions remain silenced. After all, the construction of peace after the Cold War never considered the need to incorporate the basic principles demanded by the Non-Aligned Movement, such as non-interference, especially in their capacity to build their own democratic and economic, organisational systems beyond the idea of liberal capitalist democracy.

Foto_ Alpha Penguin_ CC BY 2.0
Although it is still in force, this order has been strongly questioned by the emergence in the last years of new actors with the capacity to influence or compete for part of the hegemony in an increasingly—and not precisely more democratic—multipolar international scenario. The result is a geopolitical system-world disorder in which various architectures of the previous unipolar order coexist with the emergence of new world powers and regional power centres in dispute in many parts of the world.

The clearest case is the ascent of China, which is on its way to becoming the world’s first economy in the next few years and on the same path to reducing the gap in technological and military power. This development has caused a confrontation between the United States and China, which is structuring the international order. However, the ascent of China as a power is expressed far beyond these fields. Thus, to large-scale and mainly economic projects, such as the Belt and Road initiative, diplomatic and cultural objectives are added, with a growing relevant leadership in successful peace negotiations, such as the one between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or the proposal of other necessary forms of mediation, such as in the war in Ukraine. Today, we can see how the United States pressures on all the elements delay this growth, mainly through the technological and commercial war and the destabilisation of territories.

One of the keys behind the collapse of the liberal capitalist system is the lack of ideological concessions to a segment of the global population. One that saw its lifestyles and political ideas silenced in the pursuit of a single concept of democracy and wellbeing.

On the other hand, the institutional system of multilateral governance led by the United Nations, paralysed and under question for years due to conflict, has been left aside by a growing state hyper-bi-lateralization created by the rivalry between the United States and China and by the displacement of international law and human rights. The result is an even less democratic multilateral governance system that affects fundamental issues, such as negotiating conflicts or providing global public goods. Furthermore, this significantly impacts the possibilities of development and reduction of poverty and inequality between countries.

In addition, the international system has also been struck by a succession of global crises. Not only did those break the promise of eternal welfare at the core of the social contract of liberal democracies, but also destroyed all the certainties they operated upon, reopening fractures and generating new tensions. The financial crisis of 2008 brought with it the crisis of the neoliberal model itself, the crisis of a system that since the 1980s has only really been beneficial to enrich the economic elites further and to destroy any hint of social and ecological justice. Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic evidenced our dependence on the import of strategic resources and the fragility of our systems to respond, which in turn showed the need to develop new instruments and care systems. After that, the war in Ukraine has shaken the geopolitical board, bringing the threat of nuclear weapons to the centre of international relations, promoting rearming and militarisation to the detriment of diplomacy, and consolidating two differentiated geopolitical blocks that take us back to a bipolar order.

All this occurs in the context of climate emergency and limited essential resources that endanger our survival. Environmental disasters are already significantly impacting the degradation of natural habitats worldwide, the expulsion of entire populations and the increase of inequality. This impact is added to the compounding of conflicts over resources like water, lithium or rare materials and their impact on the militarisation of territories and the increase of human rights violations. Besides, the need to undertake the energy transition urges us not only to accelerate the decarbonisation of our economies—and do it in a socially fair way—: policies must be global and must question the interests behind the current development model, recovering the sovereignty of peoples over the resources. It is evident that only a few will be able to survive under the current growth model of extractive and neoliberal economies.

In this new map of actors, it is important to highlight the role of big corporations or even individuals that accumulate more capital and resources than many States but who are not subject to the same rules and accountability systems that, despite the limitations, exist for the States. Many of these corporations buy and sell new products showing their importance in the global economy, such as the personal data of social media users. Others trade in well-known goods and services, such as housing (for example, Blackrock and other investment funds), weapons (Lockheed, Airbus, Dassault or Rheinmetall) or even mercenaries (Wagner Group). And others do it directly with products illegally extracted or plundered from occupied territories like the Western Sahara or Palestine. All this turns them into actors significantly influencing international relations and global geopolitics.

The corporate concentration of capital and markets makes them accumulate so much power that in some countries, they put democracy at risk, whereas in other countries, they prevent millions of people from having any chance of a decent life. That is why it is urgent to set binding regulations for large companies and capitals and put an end to one of their most valuable tools: tax havens.

The European Union in the New Geopolitical Era

In this scenario of decomposition US hegemony and of the idea of global democracy, the European Union (EU) is in a crucial moment. It must decide its own role in the new world order: whether to establish itself as a global actor and for a global and sovereign democracy, or to remain as a subordinate one, reduced to fodder for the superpowers.

The war in Ukraine has exposed the European compliance and dependency to interests that have nothing to do with the European peoples.

This dilemma is not new, however. For years, the European Union has been undergoing a profound identity crisis and a pressing lack of a geopolitical vision. The financial crisis and austerity policies favouring the authoritarian reaction, the Brexit crisis or the latest multidimensional crises knocked down the idea of a community project and European foundational values. During those years, the Visegrad group of countries was progressively reinforced, as well as the axis of far-right parties and reactionary and far-right governments. After the victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, we already have a post-fascist government leading one of the EU’s founding countries. It will be a normalised government as long as it is willing to accept the liberal doctrine and reinforce the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) without questioning its position.

Around 2019, it seemed that the EU was waking up: we still remember how Josep Borrell, the Spanish High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy that took office in 2019, stated the need for more awareness of the global challenges and a “more geopolitical” European Union. Or the French president, Emmanuel Macron, referred that same year to NATO’s “brain dead” status in what seemed to be an attempt to bury the transatlantic organisation in favour of its roadmap to build a strategic European autonomy.

Many changes have accelerated since then. Only a decade after the 2008 crisis, the coronavirus pandemic’s economic, social and health consequences caused a new multidimensional crisis in the EU. It seems the EU has already set aside the most orthodox neoliberalism with the funds Next Generation EU, launched during the pandemic and sustained in time by the Ukraine war. The agreements reached in response to the crisis derived from Covid-19 were undoubtedly historical and have posed a significant volume of funding for energy transition and digitalisation. Even so, these funds work under a neoliberal logic: the State receives the money and transfers it to a series of corporations without clear guidelines or economic planning, which gives up the opportunity to develop autonomy through energy, food or technological sovereignty that can be rooted in the territories, and making them into a new accumulation-based business.

On the other hand, we have the EU’s answer to the war in Ukraine. After Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, we are facing a European war that the EU never wanted or foresaw and for which it is a military ally of the United States at the same time as it is energetically dependent on Russia. After Ukraine’s population, the Europeans have been the most affected by the impact of the war, with inflation and energy and food prices increasing. Moreover, it suffers the nuclear threat from the first line. In the face of this, the EU has withdrawn and renounced being an actor with a voice to defend its citizens’ interests and the order to be built. It pretends to be more united but not more integrated than before, and it is more dependent on the US than it used to, both in terms of security and energy dependence: NATO is as alive as ever, and Europe now depends on American gas imports and American investment priorities.

The war in Ukraine has exposed the European compliance and dependency to interests that have nothing to do with the European peoples. In a tremendously irresponsible display, the EU has adopted a strategic concept of European security that puts China in the bullseye, just as several member governments liberalise sectors and sell strategic resources to foreign companies, including Chinese companies. An example is the sale of the management of the main Spanish train stations and strategic ports by the last government of Spain’s Popular Party (PP) to the Chinese company COSCO.

However, it has also evidenced how the EU, which has always described itself as an agent for the promotion and protection of human rights, makes an opportunist use of them, further eroding the legitimacy of the EU.

The war has also exposed how this dependence on energy resources can impact our societies. Therefore, to advance in the real strategic autonomy of Europe has become inescapable: not only in terms of security and defence—which requires a redefinition of our own interests and strategic concepts of security, not linked to the interests of other actors—but also in terms of sovereignty over all the strategic sectors, such as energy, technology or food.

Social movements like those built around feminism, anti-racism and ecology have enough transformative potential to already be considered actors that ought to be respected and listened.

Furthermore, to do it, it is necessary to reflect on the need to re-industrialise Europe, end resource dependence, relocate the strategic sectors, and increase our productive and material processing capacity. The United States has already approved its Green Deal and is planning its economy to improve its infrastructure and re-industrialise the country (in consumer goods and High-Tech) while investing in the production, storage and distribution of green energy. The Biden Administration has recently announced the approval of the Inflation Reduction Act, a package of protectionist measures offering billions of dollars in subsidies for top technological development in strategic sectors like green energy and battery production (only for companies that produce in US territory). Europe sees this as a call for company offshoring because they will be more competitive if they move production to the United States. In the face of this, the EU can only double down on its economic autonomy using European funds with clear economic planning guidelines, just like the US has done.


We find ourselves in a critical moment for the redefinition of the international order. Global challenges ahead make cooperation and regulations an inescapable path to avoid a world configuration in which the law of the strongest prevails. We must strive towards a truly multilateral governance system, capable of reinforcing international law and human rights, and of building new mechanisms to respond to crises. This entails supporting the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and doubling down on a fair energy transition. One that is not conceived as a new big business to the detriment of entire populations and their survival.

Faced with this global reordering, other actors are fighting for a position outside imperialistic models that also seek to guarantee their strategic sovereignty and autonomy. We are talking about the potential of Latin America and Africa as global actors with strengths that strive to consolidate democracy, international law and human rights.

For its part, the European Union must wake up and set itself to become an independent actor with its own voice. It must be capable of breaking the old schemes of alliances that put our interests and values at risk and act in favour of true strategic autonomy, one that defines and defends the interests of our people.

Promoting multilateralism and compliance with international law; defending human rights; achieving peace, demilitarisation and denuclearisation; those are the strategic interests to be pursued by Europe and the world. This compliance is the value that the EU can contribute to as a geopolitical actor: the committed defence of a just and democratic international order.

Finally, we need to continue articulating progressive movements in a transnational way. The movements that integrate the international far-right are now being reinforced, and it is necessary to create bottom-up forms of resistance and a response to the model of society they propose. Historically, international relations have settled on the Westphalian power model, but ensuring the configuration, representation and organisation of the people’s interests is crucial. In this sense, Social movements like those built around feminism, anti-racism and ecology have enough transformative potential to already be considered actors that ought to be respected and listened. The principles of intersectionality, horizontality and equality that drive them and the diverse proposals and experiences that articulate them are but vital.