Multipolar dispute: between old mistakes and new uncertainties


Marta Cazorla | Irene López

Jun, 2022
After the 2020 pandemic, which exponentially increased the level of uncertainty that we westerners were accustomed to living with, 2022 surprised us with yet another unexpected phenomenon, an occurrence that security-focussed think tanks believed to be a thing of the past: international war. War “like we used to have”, with tanks and armies, bombed out cities and—to the delight of those harbouring nostalgia for the 20th century—the looming threat of nuclear war. A war waged by heterogenous blocs which, in the absence of any rigorous analysis to dispel simplistic Manichaeistic conclusions, could easily be rebranded according to the symbolic curtains and ideological ghosts of yesteryear.

The nuclear aspect of this conflict, which conjures images of the Cold War’s “red telephone” (though without the East-West power balance that emerged between these two polar opposites, something Krauthammer would yearn for nowadays [1][1] Krauthammer, Charles, The Unipolar Moment Revisited. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1, America and the World, 1991.), constitutes yet another existential threat to add to the collection of apocalyptic events that, since the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis, seem to be part and parcel of the contemporary landscape: pandemic, war, shortages, soaring prices, natural disasters, and so on. One after another, these situations continue to barge in on our reality, wreaking havoc on even the most stable of welfare societies and preventing basic daily needs from being met – in other words, preventing us from knowing what tomorrow will look like. [2][2] Galimberti, Umberto, Los mitos de nuestro tiempo (Myths of Our Time). Debate, 2013, pp. 347.

Photo_ Manel Torralba_ CC BY 2.0
In the same way that “9/11 did not only mean that the Twin Towers fell, but that any two towers could fall at any moment in any part of the Western world,” as explained by Prof. Galimberti, [3][3] Ibid. the possibility of Russia pushing a nuclear detonation button has awakened previously unknown fears among the current younger generations and is forcing communities like those in Europe to get used to the idea that the exceptional is the new normal. Moreover, this exceptionality is associated with the suspension of constitutional rights, [4][4] Alba Rico, Santiago. Guerra, propaganda y democracia (War, Propaganda, Democracy), Público, 2/3/2022. Available here (in Spanish): legitimising the use of “desperate measures” and paving the way for an economic and geopolitical “shock doctrine”.

Despite everything, as Eduardo Barcesat points out in his article featured in this issue, “COVID-19 has shown that we lack the knowledge needed to face extraordinary circumstances.” [5][5] Barcesat, Eduardo, The Future of Human Rights and Overcoming Anthropocentrism. Metapolis V3, N1. 2022. In other words, one of the tasks we have ahead of us, and that we attempt to explore in this volume, is how to re-orient ourselves now that the certainty upon which our civilisation was based seems to have collapsed.

In this sense, Barcesat’s The future of human rights and overcoming anthropocentrism warns against “the narcissistic urge [of] nations” and the rapidly accelerating environmental and climate crisis that we are facing but which, in contrast to other threats (such as the war itself, “mass migration”, organised crime and epidemics), “does not terrorise anyone because that would not serve the system”. [6][6] Galimberti, Umberto, Los mitos de nuestro tiempo (Myths of Our Time). Debate, 2013, pp. 373. Instead he proposes an already well-established guiding light: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reclaiming the radicality of real commitment on the part of nation states, implemented and enforced with consequences. “The greatest challenge,” he explains, “is not drafting a new declaration, but rather making a reality out of the rights that social theorists have been proclaiming for over 50 years but which, despite widespread recognition, have failed to solve the extreme inequality that pervades society on a community level.” [7][7] Barcesat, Eduardo, The Future of Human Rights and Overcoming Anthropocentrism. Metapolis V3, N1. 2022. In other words, we need to progress towards realising human rights. Human rights need to advance from being mere moral blather or a kind of ideology of Enlightenment and start functioning as a series of social and material imperatives that are demandable, tangible, effective and that can be applied de facto.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the conflicts currently dominating the geopolitical arena present a major stumbling block for the work of protecting and advancing human rights. If the so-called “world order” is defined as “the state of an international system currently protected by a general war”, [8][8] David, Charles-Philippe, La guerra y la paz: enfoques contemporáneos sobre seguridad y estrategia (War and Peace: Contemporary Approaches to Security and Strategy). Icaria, 2008, pp. 94. it seems clear that that strategic world order is changing and that certain checks and balances which, until now, were able to stave off armed conflict have now failed or expired, unleashing a surge in violence on a global scale. This is precisely why in this issue we attempt to analyse the geopolitical reconfiguration that is currently taking place due to the Russo-Ukrainian War, along with all of its ramifications.

In their article Beyond the ‘Interregnum’: Is a Non-Hegemonic World Possible?, Ramzy Baroud and Romana Rubeo recall how Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” after the Cold War in light of the victory of Western liberal democracies over the Soviet socialist bloc. “With most global resistance pacified, subdued or contained, for Fukuyama, the battle for global dominance had been won,” [9][9] Baroud, Ramzy y Rubeo, Romana, Beyond the ‘Interregnum’: Is a Non-Hegemonic World Possible? Metapolis V3, N1. 2022. they explain. Pax Americana involved the imposition of the capitalist system as a global economic model, as well as Yankee hegemony on cultural, ideological and moral levels. While Gorbachev’s Soviet Union began what today we would call a process of self-destruction with a change in its international relations management strategy, there was no corresponding process of “yankeestroika”. [10][10] López Vigil, María, 20 nombres para la utopía (20 Names for Utopia). Éxodo, No. 326, 1992. On the contrary, the United States only doubled down on its arrogant and meddling approach to foreign policy, maintaining military bases throughout the world and leading invasions into Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as sparking many other such incidents following the Gulf War. This ushered in an era of unipolarity, leaving no room for the possibility of limiting or balancing out the unparalleled power held by the North American “superpower”.

Photo_ Farhad Sadykov_ CC BY 2.0
However, as Baroud and Rubeo demonstrate, “Fukuyama was obviously wrong” [11][11] Baroud, Ramzy y Rubeo, Romana, Beyond the ‘Interregnum’: Is a Non-Hegemonic World Possible? Metapolis V3, N1. 2022., and the current squaring off of the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organisation against Russia demonstrates that we are no doubt witnessing a new chapter in history, a Gramscian moment in which a new strategic world order seems to be taking shape. Kagan’s ironic observation that the “geopolitical fantasy” of the German lion laying beside the French lamb was only possible because of NATO [12][12] Kagan, Robert, “Power and Weakness”. Policy Review, No. 113. 2002. could just as easily be seen from a different perspective – that the ensuing spread of NATO throughout Europe was sooner or later going to wake the sleeping giant of Russia.

One of the main challenges examined in this issue is analysing on a geopolitical reconfiguration that has yet to fully form, not to mention doing so in an ever-changing and unstable setting with open conflict that smacks of “war by proxy”: Washington and Moscow challenge each other, but in the end Ukraine falls victim. As a seasoned war journalist commented, “Weeks, months or even years are needed for the intoxication of war to wear off and for facts, level-headed analysis and painful results to slowly emerge.” [13][13] Rodríguez, Olga, “Europa, ante la OTAN” (Europe in the face of NATO). El Diario, 31/5/2022. Available here (in Spanish): With this in mind, and remembering that we are navigating a volatile and unpredictable scenario, we must begin to cultivate a culture of analysis based on intellectual, academic and journalistic integrity.

Thus, we are pleased to have access to calm and thoughtful voices such as that of Rafael Fernández, whose article International Relations and the Energy Crisis: What has changed since the war broke out in Ukraine? presents an analysis of international energy relations which are unmatched since the Yom Kippur War. In light of this analysis, it is worth pondering whether the violent escalation of war, this time in Ukraine, is more an expression of superficial lip service instead of real change in trade and power relations between the dominant forces involved. After all, it does not appear that the war is going to result in a complete overhaul of energy pricing systems, but rather, as Fernández states, “the war will most likely strengthen rather than weaken the power of the key players” in the energy market. At any rate, it is the renewed concern regarding the issue of energy security that will be able to serve as a catalyst to implement a desperately needed strategy of real energy transition, leading to radical change in the global energy supply.

In a reality that is growing more and more dystopian by the day, in which the price of firewood is on the rise and the German government is handing out public assistance to its citizens to spend the winter in warmer climes in order to cope with the energy crisis, it is no wonder that the fantasies of migrating to Mars, presented in Mary Jane Rubenstein’s contribution to this present issue, A Tale of Two Utopias: Musk and Bezos in Outer Space, have managed to attract an increasing number of supporters. If apocalyptic prophets are right about anything, it is that our planet seems to be teetering ever more precariously on the edge of total destruction. We are either going to reduce the planet to ashes in a nuclear war or we will, through our own laziness, let it die a slow and painful death, bleeding out as we ignore the wounds inflicted by the environmental crisis.

Photo_ Daria Nepriakhina_ CC BY 2.0

The former (nuclear apocalypse) is precisely the topic David Vine addresses in his article (The only way to) Stop Wars and Save the World, in which he explains the role of the Military Industrial Complex, whose economic and political power has not ceased to grow since the end of the Cold War. Undermining this power, Vine asserts, is an indispensable prerequisite for freeing up the vast quantity of human and financial resources that the MIC has accumulated and which are needed to deal with the desperate social and environmental challenges that could very well lead to our extinction as a species.

Vine also reminds us that, though the MIC is a phenomenon inextricably linked with the emergence of the United States as the leading world power after the World War II, it has now turned into a global problem, whereby the role of the UN as a military and economic alliance formed around the sale of arms can no longer be ignored.

Fortunately, in the face of such future-phobic diatribes and the onward march of a system of war capitalism with such little respect for human life, feminism can help to ground us in reality and think about what comes next, what happens once the media focus and attention wanders elsewhere. We must think about the moment when the war loses its steam because, as war correspondents know all too well, that is when things can get even worse than during the open conflict itself.

Irene Zugasti does just that in her article War Effort and Kitchen-Sink Geopolitics, in which she calls for an internationalist, feminist and militant approach to diplomacy in contrast to the romantic and uncritical glorification of war. Recounting a war requires a perspective—and context—based analysis, especially when faced with the complexity of hybrid conflicts that involve digital strategies, misinformation, cultural and symbolic soft power and the increasingly significant participation of private capital and interests.

Nevertheless, this should not lead anyone to justify the lack of responsibility that a war entails for States and international law in terms of humanitarian disasters and political crises. On the contrary, faced with such disaster, Zugasti advocates for “kitchen-sink geopolitics”, drawing from the feminist tradition of linking the personal with the political and cultivating different types of relationships with land, with “the other”, with power and with conflict.

Envisioning this post-conflict horizon, which we can only hope is not too far off, it is worth reflecting on the words of poet Aimé Césaire, written at the darkest hours of World War II: “In this century, no hope is too audacious.”

Thus, this issue of metapolis has been created to inspire hope and conjure up willpower without letting any single voice or idea fall by the wayside; we are going to need all of them. Human rights, feminism, utopia—these are just some of the tools proposed by the authors of this issue that we can use to face the future. May they help us all to envision a brighter future, or at least to work together to build one that is a bit more bearable.