Bruno Maçães and Shivshankar Menon on what's new in geopolitics

Think:Act Magazine “Geopolitics 2.0”
Bruno Maçães and Shivshankar Menon on what's new in geopolitics

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
July 25, 2022

How to map geopolitical challenges and best prepare for the repercussions


by Steffan Heuer
Photos by Gary Doak and Qilai Shen

Read more about the topic "Geopolitics"

For statecraft, the 21st century presents an altogether murkier picture than centuries past. Eminent political thinkers Bruno Maçães and Shivshankar Menon weigh in on where to focus in the post-Covid world.

It used to be much easier to get a handle on international relations. The doyen of modern diplomatic history, German academic Leopold von Ranke famously held the view that the way a state deals with its peers near and far deeply affects or even determines its internal affairs by exerting pressures that trigger systemic changes. Hence the need to get ongoing, accurately sourced and timely information about what other heads of state are up to.

Geopolitics nowadays is no longer the parlor game of crowned or elected leaders alone: It is driven by grassroots movements and populism, nudged by global organizations created after World War II and tied to the uncertainty of a global economic system where speculative bubbles or supply chain problems in one part of the world wreak havoc halfway around the planet. Even more important, the perspectives keep shifting. The traditional Eurocentric view of a handful of powers in a zero-sum game has been supplanted with one that put the US at the center as the new hegemon and lone superpower. With the political and economic rise of China, however, experts and academics now speak of a world with two or more important players, a so-called bi- or multipolar landscape.

Bruno Maçães and Shivshankar Menon are two illustrious voices in this ongoing debate on how to best map – and walk – the shifting tectonic plates of statecraft when floods, zoonotic viruses and social media can swiftly unravel old notions of diplomacy. Political scientist and author Maçães knows the state of play firsthand since he served as Portugal's Secretary of State for European Affairs during the EU's deeply divisive debt crisis and keeps crisscrossing the world to gather voices and ideas for his guidebooks for the new terrain, among them The Dawn of Eurasia and most recently Geopolitics for the End Time.

Menon is one of the most renowned diplomats and thinkers in India who participated in high-stakes exercises at the new multipolar frontier. He was national security adviser under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and foreign secretary from 2006 until 2009. Prior to that, Menon was the Indian high commissioner to Pakistan and Sri Lanka and ambassador to China and Israel. His most recent book is India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present.

A portrait of the political scientist Bruno Maçães. © laif/eyevine/Gary Doak
Bruno Maçães, political scientist and author of The Dawn of Eurasia and most recently Geopolitics for the End Time.

In your book Geopolitics for the End Time, you describe the world since Covid-19 and outline life on a "new planet" where states are forced to play a new "world game." Is that a new flavor of geopolitics?

We have to expand our conceptual understanding of world politics by essentially introducing a new actor: nature or the external environment. What strikes me when I read books about international relations is the absence of any reference to the external environment. It may even be something that I got wrong in the past when I looked at how the system of states is becoming multipolar. What the pandemic has made very clear is the appearance of this new actor, which seems endowed with almost supernatural powers and has had an extraordinary impact on political decisions that were unthinkable before. There's been a revolution in our lives, but it was not an ideological revolution conducted by the left or the right, but a revolution conducted by this new actor nature or its representative, the Covid-19 virus.

"Nature has brought a revolution."
Portrait of Bruno Maçães

Bruno Maçães

Political scientist

Why do you call this new framework a game rather than rivalry that could, in the worst case, even lead to outright war?

If the external environment is a new actor, it issues a challenge to human beings and also to states [on] how to deal with it or to bring it somehow under temporary control. This is a task that different states will perform in different ways. The metaphor of the game captures this very well, because in war, the conflict is between states or human actors directly engaged in a conflict. In a game or even in sports, the actors engage in an indirect form of competition. The game is about who performs certain tasks better. This is exactly what happened during the pandemic. We became very interested in who is managing the pandemic better, for instance, through constant tables and charts in newspapers comparing states. I think the same will happen with climate change. Indirect competition, which can be brutal, will be the story for the rest of our lives and even longer. It is fundamentally different from war or direct conflict.

Couldn't you say nature has merely reentered the stage since humans have always battled the elements? And how do politicians need to change their mindset now?

True, we have battled nature throughout history, but the last three centuries we fell under the illusion that the project had been finished. We thought we were in control and nature had even transformed into a kind of passive, inert subject. I think there are a few lessons in it for politicians. First, you have to realize that this new actor is going to become the fundamental actor, so you have to reorganize your politics around this insight. You have to understand what climate change will do to our societies and even to state competition. Second, you have to understand that the solution is essentially technological. Technology is the only way to face this increasingly dangerous, external environment. There will be more challenging and worse pandemics, plus climate change in itself, which is not a specific phenomenon.

Since we've moved from a unipolar world with the US as hegemon, what do you expect the future system of geopolitics to look like? As chaotic as nature itself?

I'm certainly on the side of those who think it will become more chaotic. But in some areas and for some periods, it will be possible to manage reasonably well. We are regressing from a rules-based order to a much more natural environment where rules are not really fundamental. During the pandemic, every rule could be abrogated or eliminated if there was a present and urgent need, even rules we thought were sacred, for instance, freedom of movement. This building of rules, institutions and procedures built by the Western world and the United States has been greatly eroded, if not collapsed.

What does this major shift away from a rules-based system and facing an unpredictable external actor mean for the economic system and multinational companies?

I don't think we're witnessing the end of globalization or the end of the capitalist system, as many people argued last year. It's more of a reorientation. Capitalism used to be about managing and conquering nature, then it transformed into a system of automatic rules, and now it will be reoriented, again, toward external environments and technological development. Therefore, competition will be harsher, self-reliance [will be] a must – all the roads that we take for granted could disappear. Companies therefore will have to be more focused on supply chain management and resilience, but they won't become more national because in the end you control forces around you better if you're global and present in different geographies.

A portrait of the former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon. © laif/Bloomberg/Qilai Shen
Shivshankar Menon, former Indian national security adviser and author of India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present.

If one reads the headlines, it appears that the focus has shifted from a unipolar world dominated by the US to an emerging bipolar world shaped by the US and China. How do you see India's future geopolitical role?

My sense is that we are actually in a more complex situation than suggested by terms like unipolar, multipolar or bipolar: We are between orders. I argue in my new book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present that the nature of China's rise has made the world economy multipolar. But there is only one power that can project military power on a global scale and that is the US. So the world is unipolar militarily, while fragmenting into more complex local or regional balances. In northeast Asia, for instance, there are several powerful militaries in a crowded space characterized by difficult political relations, maritime and other disputes and a frozen conflict in Korea. So I am wary of a simple characterization of the global order today. In fact, there isn't very much order at work in today's world. This is also a world where the major challenges are transnational: climate change, maritime and cybersecurity, extremism, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. These are beyond the capacity of any one or two powers. I see India playing a pivotal role in a world adrift between orders. As a strategically autonomous actor with significant weight in the international system, India is in a position to work with others to contribute to managing or solving many of the significant transnational challenges of the day. This is a world of variable geometry, where issue-based coalitions of the willing and able may be the best way forward, and India can play a role in making them possible and successful.

"Issue-based coalitions are the best way forward."
Portrait of Shivshankar Menon

Shivshankar Menon

Former diplomat and author

What kind of role has globalization played in India's rise as an economic and political force?

India's high-growth years, when we succeeded in pulling over 270 million people out of poverty, came when India opened her economy and integrated with the world economy. That growth gave India the material basis to play a greater role in shaping the external environment to assist India's transformation into a modern, prosperous and secure country for all its citizens.

What do you expect for globalization's future impact on the subcontinent in a post-Covid world? How crucial a role will digital capabilities play?

We are still in a globalized world, and how the subcontinent deals with issues of economic integration with the global economy and manages the digital and maritime spaces will be critical to our future. Bangladesh's economic and social indicators are now among the best in the subcontinent and she is graduating from "least developed" status because she was successful in integrating with the world economy and in providing her people with the education and public health that are essential building blocks. These are today's real challenges, though old-style politicians and neo-authoritarians find it more convenient to concentrate on divisive political and security issues. Digital capabilities, for instance, could serve to promote economic growth, employment and livelihoods in many of the countries of the subcontinent as they have in India, or be used for surveillance and other control functions. The choice is ours to make.

Can you share your idea of the future relationship between China and India as the two dominant powers in Asia?

India and China, as two rising powers sharing a periphery, with different political systems, do have their differences, including the world's greatest boundary dispute. They have had a mixed record in managing their relationship in modern times. Relations have swung from one extreme to the other, from conflict to cooperation. Today India-China relations are in crisis after China unilaterally changed the status quo in Ladakh in 2020. Troops confront one another all along the border. The relationship now displays elements of both conflict and cooperation, with confrontation predominating recently in the political relationship. At the same time China regained her position as India's biggest trading partner in 2020. Both governments are signaling that they wish to move forward from this uncertain and unsatisfactory situation. I am confident that they will ultimately succeed in managing the relationship, since there is enough experience and knowledge of statecraft on both sides, but they seem to be taking their time, and a circuitous route, to get there.

About the author
Portrait of Steffan Heuer
Steffan Heuer
Steffan Heuer has been covering the intersection of technology, commerce and culture in Silicon Valley for more than two decades. His work has appeared in The Economist, the MIT Technology Review and the German business monthly brandeins. He currently divides his time and reporting between Berlin and California.
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Munich Office, Central Europe