Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

There is no longer a stable, international system. What should be done?

The failure of international cooperation and simultaneous shocks have rendered crisis management difficult. The world needs fresh thinking and a readiness on the part of significant system participants to manage their strategic rivalry.

Nov 7, 2022

We can all agree that there is no longer a stable, international system founded on rules. We have passed the age of unipolarity and global liberalism, and we now have to deal with more shocks than most of us have ever encountered in our lifetimes. The G20, which is broken and deadlocked despite Indonesia's gallant efforts as the group's chairman this year, is the closest thing we now have to a pilot in the cockpit.
Geopolitics casts a shadow over the international institutions, rules, and customs that we continue to rely on. Despite their rhetoric, China, Russia, and the United States no longer have faith in international organizations and will not support them if it does not serve their interests. While the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and significant actors from the Global South continue to support multilateralism, only the participation of the world's foremost economic and military powers can ensure that global governance is truly perpetuated.
The fact that there are currently at least seven structural concerns happening at once just makes things worse. Predictions and traditional policy tools become useless under these circumstances.
The first major challenge is Russia's war in Ukraine, which has no end in sight despite recent advances and successes of Ukraine's armed forces. The tit-for-tat weaponization of economic ties has created a massive energy shock worldwide that will further exacerbate social and political crises in Europe and around the world this fall. G7 countries, Australia, and South Korea have taken steps to "freeze" Russia out of the global system of using the U.S. dollar and the interbank messaging network (SWIFT), but the powers of the Global South have not joined the sanctions regime, and so the G20 has remained divided on this issue.
Second, the state of American democracy continues to be dire. Legislative roadblocks, an activist-looking Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority, and the development of extremism all pose challenges to decision-making. There are several signs that a US civil war may even be a distinct possibility. Even if that dire fear does not come to fruition, political polarization shows no sign of abating.
According to a survey conducted in November 2021, 30 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of overall Americans agreed with the statement that "real American patriots may have to resort to violence to defend our land" because the situation has become so out of control. Between 2010 and 2020, there was a roughly 43 percent increase in firearm deaths in the US, and the coronavirus pandemic saw a spike in gun sales. The view that civil war is either imminent or essential is now accepted by a wide range of voices, including Republican and Democratic leaders, academics who research civil conflict, and radicals on both extremes of the spectrum. They cite a variety of seemingly convincing pieces of evidence, including numerous threats made against FBI agents, judges, elected officials, members of school boards, and election supervisors, training grounds where heavily armed radicals simulate attacks on their own government, and surveys indicating that a majority of Americans anticipate armed conflict.
Third, China is at a turning point. President Xi Jinping's reign is almost guaranteed to be solidified and important decision-makers will be in charge for the next five years or longer following the 20th Party Congress, which was held this October. The regime's intentions for stepping up its nationalist mobilization and tightening its grip on society, including its economically destructive "zero-COVID" policy, closed borders, and other restrictions, will not be clear until then.
Will China maintain its new isolation or make progress toward increased global connectedness and economic openness? The answer to this question will shape the answers to many other questions moving forward. Currently, the political paths taken by the US and China are stoking a conflict that will not end well for any country.
Fourth, the EU is entering an extremely dangerous phase of linked energy, economic, and social shocks following a period of strong solidarity in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The eastern member states are still exposed to Russian threats, the French government is riven by disagreement, and the Italians elected a right-wing populist government.
Fifth, global climate change-related disasters are getting worse far sooner than projected. Heat waves, droughts, forest fires, and enormous floods are factors that lead to disasters, deplete food supplies (which were already threatened by the conflict in Russia), and split societies throughout South Asia, the Pacific, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Sixth, there is still post-pandemic uncertainty about inflation, energy and food markets, and supply chains. There are continuing debates about tightening financial conditions and the possibility of a recession, but no one can predict with certainty what will happen to the world's financial markets this fall.
Seventh, if the G20 does not agree on mitigating measures like debt relief, these food, energy, climate, and economic shocks are likely to lead to social and democratic disintegration in many parts of the world. Political and socio economic turmoil has already engulfed Ethiopia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Pakistan.
What should be done?
We must acknowledge that failure to respond as a collective will jeopardize the future of human civilization itself and therefore we must approach these interrelated shocks with pragmatism rather than ideology. Global government carried out by exclusive regional or ideological clubs will no longer be sufficient as long as we continue to be closely connected through technology, climate, travel, and the larger global economy.
Political leaders and decision-makers need to know how to combine the inventiveness that top business and technological figures have shown in recent decades. Through alternative ways to global and collective governance, there are enormous untapped prospects to be investigated. Specifically, fresh approaches or interregional organizations like the Alliance for Multilateralism.
Large and systemically significant players have an obligation to set aside their military and security rivalries and assist those who are struggling as a result of great power conflicts. It is necessary to find new strategies today, in order to neutralize the threat with platforms like the Stockholm Conference on Confidence.
All nations, businesses, foundations, civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations must now come up with ideas, create networks, and form alliances in order to produce resilient systems. These stakeholders in the middle could be our final hope if the major actors don't play their role.
Stefan Mitkij is Senior Communications Editor. Email them at
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