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The case for a quadripolar world

Dec 12,2020 - Last updated at Dec 12,2020

CAMBRIDGE — Having diminished America’s global role while refusing to accept China’s growing clout, Donald Trump’s presidency represents the last gasp of a unipolar epoch. But while many assume that the unipolar post-Cold War world is giving way to a bipolar international order dominated by the United States and China, that outcome is neither inevitable nor desirable. Instead, there is every reason to hope for, and work toward, a world in which Europe and the emerging economies play a more assertive role.

To be sure, as the world’s most economically successful autocracy, China has already achieved significant geopolitical influence in Asia and beyond. During the two most recent global crises, the 2008 financial collapse and today’s pandemic, the Communist Party of China quickly adjusted the country’s political economy in response to changing circumstances, thereby solidifying its grip on power. Because countries that do not want to toe the US line now routinely turn to China for inspiration and, often, material support, what could be more natural than China emerging as one of the two poles of global power?

In fact, a bipolar world would be deeply unstable. Its emergence would heighten the risk of violent conflict (according to the logic of the Thucydides Trap), and its consolidation would make solutions to global problems wholly dependent on the national interests of the two reigning powers. Three of the biggest challenges facing humanity would either be ignored or made worse.

The first challenge is the concentrated power of Big Tech. While technology is often presented as a key front in the US-China conflict, there is considerable congruence between the two countries. Both are committed to the pursuit of algorithmic dominance over humans, whereby digital platforms and artificial intelligence (AI) are used as tools by the government and corporations for surveilling and controlling the citizenry.

There are differences, of course. Whereas the US government has adopted Big Tech’s own vision and become subservient to the industry, Chinese tech giants remain at the mercy of the government and must abide by its agenda. For example, recent research shows how local governments’ demand for surveillance technologies shapes Chinese AI creators’ research and development. In any case, neither country is likely to strengthen privacy standards and other protections for ordinary people, much less redirect the trajectory of AI research so that its benefits are unambiguous and widely shared.

Likewise, advocacy for human rights and democracy would be a low priority in a bipolar world. With repression in China growing, the US may appear by comparison to remain an exemplar of these values. But America’s principled commitment to democracy and human rights is thin and generally not taken seriously abroad. After all, the US has overthrown democratically elected but insufficiently friendly governments in Latin America, Asia and Africa. And when it has supported democracy in places like Ukraine, it has generally had an ulterior motive, such as the desire to counter or weaken Russia.

The third big issue likely to receive short shrift in a Sino-American bipolar world is climate change. In recent years, China has appeared more supportive of international agreements aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions than the US has. But the two superpowers are not just the world’s two biggest emitters; they also are both beholden to energy-intensive economic models. China will remain dependent on manufacturing growth, while consumers and growth industries (like cloud computing) will sustain high demand for energy in the US. And one can expect that both sides’ short-term interest in economic supremacy will trump everyone else’s interest in a swift green transition.

All of these problems would be more likely to be addressed in a world with two additional poles, represented by the European Union and a consortium of emerging economies, perhaps within a new organisation, an “E10”, comprising Mexico, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, South Africa and others. Such a quadripolar world would be less conducive to a new cold war, and it would bring more diverse voices to global governance.

For its part, the EU has already emerged as a standard-bearer for privacy protection and regulation of Big Tech, and it is well positioned to push back against algorithmic automation. Even though it is US and Chinese companies that largely drive concerns about privacy, consumer manipulation, and labour-replacing AI, the European market is so large and important that it can tilt the playing field globally.

But a strategic pole that speaks for emerging economies may be even more consequential. If AI continues to displace humans in the workplace, emerging economies will be the biggest losers, because their comparative advantage is abundant human labor. With automation already cutting into the supply of jobs that had previously been offshored to these economies, it is critical that they have a voice in global debates that will determine how new technologies are designed and deployed.

Europe and the emerging world also can form a powerful constituency against fossil-fuel emissions. While the EU has become a world leader in de-carbonisation, emerging economies have an acute interest in climate action, because they will suffer disproportionately from global warming, despite having contributed the least to the problem).

To be sure, a quadripolar world would not be a panacea. With a wider array of voices and the possibility for more opportunistic coalitions, it would be much more difficult to manage than was the unipolar world of the recent past. With Brazil, Mexico, India and Turkey all now led by authoritarians intent on silencing their opponents, independent media, and civil-society groups, Europe inevitably would find itself at odds with this bloc when it comes to human rights and democracy.

Yet, even here, a quadripolar world would offer more hope than the bipolar alternative. Bringing these countries to the international table might make them more willing to countenance opposition at home. Moreover, emerging economies can cooperate as a united front only if they abandon their most authoritarian, nationalistic, and destructive behaviour. Ushering in a quadripolar world may thus yield unexpected dividends.


Daron Acemoglu, professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of “The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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