May 4, 2021

One World, Many Systems

A book excerpt and interview with Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen, authors of “Renovating Democracy”

Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels
Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels

As national sovereignty reasserts itself and one size of globalization does not fit all, one world with many systems will characterize the international order in the decades ahead. A new modus vivendi that accepts this reality must be found among different cultures and civilizations now tied together as never before in a web of mutual dependence—a web in which the weight of the global economy has shifted from the once-regnant developed world to the emerging economies.

For this evolution to unfold with a modicum of stability, the success or failure of diverse models of governance that arise out of plural civilizational and cultural contexts must rest on competition over results, not on the dogma of a dominant ideology, interference by others, or imposition by force—in short, a global system of “diverse equilibrium” in which the power of example, not the example of power, prevails. That is what globalization in which “one size does not fit all” will look like.

Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s “America First” posture may turn out to be the midwife of such a new equilibrium. By rejecting the Paris Climate Accord, pulling out of trade agreements, parting ways with the United States’ European allies, and shirking the country’s long-standing liberal internationalism, he is paving the way for an alternative order in which the United States as a nation-state is no longer the dominant player. By default, those who move in to fill the vacuum will determine the new balance of power. By withdrawing from a leadership role in shaping globalization, the United States doesn’t stop the process; it only opens the path for the rise of new players.

On climate change, for example, we have already seen in response the emergence of a “network of the willing”—ranging from China and the European Union to subnational entities like the state of California—to carry on global cooperation. Through California Governor Jerry Brown’s leadership before he left office earlier this year, 188 subnational entities in 39 countries on 6 continents are pushing ahead to implement the Paris Climate Accord despite its abandonment by official Washington. Former World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy even talks of a “plurilateral” world order of nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and subnational entities instead of a “multilateral” order based on nation-states.

While all nations and networks must have their respected place in any globally inclusive arrangement, in the end the key pillars of such an order, in which the management of convergent interests is bound by commonly agreed rules, must be the United States and China—the world’s two largest economies, which also represent highly distinct civilizational spheres. For globalization to work, it needs leadership. Yet, as the late Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out, neither the United States nor China can lead on its own. American power has diminished, and China is not yet ready or able to step up to the plate, and may never be prepared to take on the role.

If both fail to buy in as indispensable partners, such an order can’t take hold globally. The urgent concern is that these two giants are headed in opposite directions. As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has eloquently put it, “In the absence of a common narrative shared by the United States and China, the two nations are likely to drift more rapidly apart. Trust builds on itself just as distrust builds on itself as well, compounding into deep enmity over time.” Time is short, and distrust is building.

The alternative to a world order anchored in a partnership of its two most influential nations looks grim. Alongside the new networks of the willing, swaths of pandemonium fostered by the unwilling will likely then surround gated outposts that are linked to one another but divorced from their planetary hinterland in a kind of global apartheid system.

A new dark age could descend in some regions where tyrants abuse their subjects and where jihadists or criminal gangs roam freely to terrorize dispossessed populations. That so much of this sounds familiar—the brutal carnage of the Syrian civil war being the most tragic case in point—is a frightening indication of just how real the peril is. And, as we have further seen in the enduring refugee crisis and wave of mass migration, those who can flee will seek to breach the gates in search of a better life on the other side. In many ways, this is the price of leaderless globalization left to its own dynamics without effective cooperation or governing institutions.

At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Antonio Guterres, then the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and now the UN secretary general, warned that such a world was already in the making: “We live in a period in which we no longer have a unipolar or bipolar world. We don’t even have a multipolar world; it’s kind of a chaotic world where power relations have become unclear. When power relations are unclear, impunity and unpredictability tend to prosper. That, I believe, is the reality behind the high levels of displacement that are taking place in today’s world.”

But partnership between the United States and China is far easier said than done. Unlike the transatlantic order now receding, which was bound together at its core by common cultural and political foundations, the United States and China come from very different civilizational roots. The Middle Kingdom has historically defined itself by its centrality and uniqueness in the world going back millennia; the United States’ comparatively young identity is associated with universality and the mission of spreading its values. China’s geopolitical model has always been that of a dominant power surrounded by tributaries. By contrast, the United States, following the experience of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia gave birth to the nation-state, has managed its international relations by seeking a global balance of power among states. A “cross-civilizational” partnership between these two traditions is unprecedented.

With respect to China’s role in its own region, Henry Kissinger’s formula is the most realistic arrangement for the next twenty years. “It’s understandable that China wants to keep foreigners from approaching its borders and it therefore undertakes a defense effort to that end,” he says. “I particularly understand it in light of China’s history. It’s also understandable that the United States doesn’t want any region dominated by a superpower, so that creates a certain balance. The two elements in that balance, namely China and the United States, also have to lead in cooperation.” Kissinger has rightly come to understand that, in today’s linked world, we need a fresh approach: partnership must become an integral part of the balance of power in any new geopolitical arrangement. The danger of war looms most menacingly if the balance of power is reduced to only a military dimension. With no common intent on any front, all else will dwell in the dark shadow of distrust in which each will seek advantage over the other.

For a US-China partnership to work, as Chinese diplomat Fu Ying once told Kissinger, the United States must be able to accept China as “an equal brother.” But that goes both ways: China must also step up with a global perspective on its responsibility that it has never before held—not as an honorary member of the Western club, but as coarchitect of world order. This recognition is the cornerstone of a strategy of evolutionary stability that aims to avoid a power vacuum by maintaining order over the slow course of change.


As difficult as it may be for the United States to share leadership in the Asia-Pacific region that it has dominated for decades, it will also be a big concession for China to embrace the notion of a balance of power instead of a series of tributaries. In the end, where differences remain, the two nations must ensure their mutual interests by accommodating each other with these principles of security: restraint in the use of power, reciprocity in actions taken, transparency over intentions, and sufficient capabilities and resilience to assure the ability to strike back and restore equilibrium if attacked.

The new global order we envision on the basis of the United States and China as indispensable partners would accommodate the return of diversity from a long interlude of hegemony—for the first time in history “diversity connected in real time”—and would be structured geopolitically as “one world, many systems.” This new rules-based system would be a kind of “Westphalia plus” in which partnerships on global issues of concern to all form a constituent part of the balance of power between and among states—in other words, a system in which trust-building cooperative arrangements and institutions are not an alternative but themselves a factor in the overall configuration of power.

To stabilize world order on these terms, the United States and China must serve as guarantors of global public goods—open trade and investment, stable financial flows, climate protection, freedom of travel and navigation, sharing of health knowledge and scientific advances. The cornerstone of a “non-value-based” partnership founded on convergent interests will inevitably have to coexist with “value-based plurilateralism” among the like-minded. Its role would be to mobilize joint efforts of those whose values are aligned in the pursuit of common ends without resort to the use of force or organized subversion against others—with the exception of the most egregious humanitarian violations by a state or organized groups within a state. When values conflict, “taking a stand, not taking sides” would be the modus operandi.


Excerpted from “Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism” by Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen, published by the University of California Press. © 2019 by the Regents of the University of California.