The World Order Seems to be in Turmoil – What’s Going on?

September 5, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Over the summer, there appears to have been a big upheaval in the international system, and I’m wondering what it all means.

In August, the five existing members of the BRICS club — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, expanded it with invitations to Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (BRICISSUE-AE?). According to the FT (gated), the size of the new 11-country grouping puts the G7 — which consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, US and EU — into the shade in terms of both population and GDP.

Of course, expansion can mean dilution and the BRICS is already a pretty fractious club, glued together more by what it is against (Northern-dominated global institutions) rather than what it is for. Given the rivalry between China and India, for example, Northern foreign policy wonks are pretty sceptical that the BRICS constitutes anything more than a series of annual meetings. Plus it is not clear if all of these invitations will be accepted. But it is nonetheless interesting to see these big inter-continental groupings develop without any Europeans or North Americans at the table.

Another fascinating piece, also by the FT’s James Kynge, puts this in the broader perspective of China’s increasing assertiveness in the global order. Here are some highlights and thoughts:

First, China seems to have a joined up approach to its international diplomacy, built around 3 interlocking initiatives: the ‘Global Development Initiative’, the ‘Global Security Initiative’ and the ‘Global Civilisation Initiative’.

According to Kynge this represents ‘China’s boldest move yet to enlist the support of the “global south” to amplify Beijing’s voice on the world stage and build up China’s profile in the UN, Chinese officials and commentators say.’

What strikes me here is that China sees the UN as central to its strategy, whereas for the Western powers that China is challenging, it is often an afterthought, to be bypassed when achieving agreement gets difficult.

According to one senior Chinese official ‘The UN — with its 15 specialised agencies that exercise global governance in several areas such as finance, telecoms, health and hunger alleviation — lies at the “very centre” of China’s worldview and its plans to boost its influence’.

I imagine that is both good and bad news for the UN – good because rather than sideline it, like the US and Europe have often done, China has opted to put it at the centre. Bad because China is, according to the article, framing the UN’s human rights principles as a US-led Western concept, and pushing what it calls ‘true multilateralism’ based on equal status for all countries (read governments, whether democratic or otherwise). It is also apparently fairly blatantly swapping aid for votes (not that the Western powers have been averse to such activities in the past).

In terms of trade and investment, China is also making an important long-term bet on the developing world, which is growing much faster both in terms of population and GDP than the West. This year, for the first time ever, China exported more to its Belt and Road partner countries in the developing world than it exported to the US, EU and Japan combined.

China’s flurry of diplomatic activity goes beyond the UN to a series of other fora that it has set up, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which, like the Brics, is hardly a like-minded group (India and Pakistan are both members), but again is a conversation entirely outside the Western sphere of influence.

More generally, we appear to be moving (in the title of another FT essay) to an à la carte world of shifting conversations and alliances that represents ‘an opportunity for much of the world: not just to be wooed but also to play one off against the other — and many are doing this with alacrity and increasing skill.’ – not so much a non-aligned movement as a multi-aligned movement, as middling powers shop around for the best deals.

Fascinating. For anyone involved in international advocacy, gone are the days of a fairly predictable round of G7, WTO and UN events. Keeping abreast of this, and working out which truly matter and which are just talking shops/shopping trips for diplos, and where, if anywhere, you and your organization and partners can get traction is going to take up an increasing amount of time and effort.

With that in mind, any suggestions for what we should be reading?

September 5, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Duncan,
    Sorry, but I don’t think any discussion of China, which omits to mention what many sober commentators are now labelling a continuing genocide against a million Uighurs, led from the very top, is acceptable.

    1. Thank you for highlighting and showing a concern for the Muslims genocide in China, I appreciate that. Would also appreciate if you can condemn genocide of same religious group by the Indians and Israelis as well.

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