The Construction of a Pluripolar World
The neocolonized peoples seek cooperation and mutually beneficial trade
We are increasingly aware today that a multipolar or pluripolar world is emerging, challenging the unilateral direction of the world-system by the United States. In my last commentary, I discussed the recent turn of Türkiye (Turkey) from an uneasy member of the North Atlantic alliance to a participant in the construction of a pluripolar world (“Türkiye looks toward a new world order: An alternative, more just, pluripolar world-system under construction,” December 6, 2022). I defined the emerging pluipolar world as “an alternative world-system with different structures and norms, in which states have a certain degree of economic autonomy in the context of worldwide economic connections; and in which each region (pole) has its own culture, without negating its embracing of universal principles that are the foundation of the world-system, such as the right of all nations to sovereignty, and the right of all peoples and nations to development.”
In today’s commentary, I discuss the historical development of the transition of the world-economy to pluipolarity from the 1950s to the present, the structural sources of the transition, and the possibilities for the future.
The Non-Aligned Movement
The international movement for a pluripolar world was born in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, when the giants of the anti-colonial struggle—such as Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser—met to put forth a strategy of Third World unity in opposition to European colonialism and Western imperialism. In 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement was established as an organization of governments in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Tito, Nkrumah, Ben Youssef (Algeria) and Osvaldo Dorticós (President of Cuba) joined Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser at the founding meeting. The founding summit declared for the democratization of the United Nations, and it supported the national liberation movements in Algeria and the Portuguese colonies (Mozambique, Angola, and Cabo Verde) in Africa.
The Non-Aligned Movement was established as an organization of governments, with rotating presidencies and with summits every three years. By 1974, its efforts culminated in the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the Movement’s proposal for a New International Economic Order, which affirmed the principles of the rights of nations to self-determination and to sovereignty over their natural resources. The document advocated: the creation of raw materials producers’ associations to give raw materials exporting states control over prices; a new international monetary policy that did not punish the weaker states; increased industrialization of the Third World; the transfer of technology from the advanced industrial states to the Third World; regulation and control of the activities of transnational corporations; the promotion of cooperation among the nations of the Third World; and aid for Third World development.
The Non-Aligned Movement was politically and economically premature, in that its visionary proposal was put forth before the necessary objective conditions had emerged. To be sure, the world-system confronted a fundamental contradiction: its economic growth was conditioned on the conquest and peripheralization of new territories, and it had run out of new lands and peoples to conquer. However, this contradiction had not yet closed in on the world powers and the global elites. There was still opportunity for short-term profits for corporations and their sponsoring nations who persisted on the imperialist road. The powerful could remain powerful without reform or structural change, and this political reality was driving the imperialist economic policies of the core nations from 1948 to 1979, defended before their peoples as a great worldwide defense of democracy before the threat of expansionist totalitarianism.
At the same time, the nations of the Third World did not yet possess the economic and financial resources necessary for the implementation on their own account of their proposal for a New International Economic Order. Thus, the declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement, true and right though they were, were nothing more than moral appeals that fell on the deaf ears of the powerful and the confused peoples that they manipulated. The Third World proposal in the period of 1948 to 1979 was necessary for the poor, but not for the powerful.
The Brandt Commission, headed by former mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt, a major figure in Western European social democracy, put forth a proposal for the development of the Third World. But the global elite was indifferent to the Third World and the long-term interests of humanity. It decided for the neoliberal project, an economic war against the poor of the earth, the exact antithesis of the Third World’s proposal for a New International Economic Order.
The neoliberal turn led to a loss of direction in the Non-Aligned Movement. In the 1980s, the leadership of the organization was hijacked by representatives of the “Asian tigers,” who advocated accommodation to the Western powers. But accommodationism to the myopic demands of the Western global elite violated the spirit of the neocolonized peoples. When the negative consequences of the neoliberal project became evident, the peoples’ movements were reborn, ultimately leading to a return of the Non-Aligned Movement to its founding principles.
Latin American and Caribbean anti-imperialist renewal
The turn of the Western powers to neoliberalism was a sign of the decadence of the global elite. The neoliberal turn was based on the elite’s mistaken belief or cynical claim that the crisis of the 1970s was caused by too much interference by the state in the economy. Such a belief/claim has some credibility if one does not have consciousness of the structural foundations of the world-system in conquest and colonialism, and the consequent fact that a fundamental engine of the world-system’s economic expansion had been taken away when the system had run out of peoples and lands to conquer.
The elite thus formulated and disseminated a solution that was based in a profound cultural and ideological blindness. It attacked the state and the states’ modest protections of the standard of living of the people, thus deepening the problem of economic stagnation, and accelerating the negative tendency of the declining purchasing power of the peripheral regions. The neoliberal solution did, however, maximize possibilities for short-term corporate profits, thus reinforcing elite myopia.
The turn of the world-system to neoliberalism resulted in the increasing impoverishment of the peripheral majority, thus provoking and renewing anti-systemic rebellions and movements. The global general popular uprising struck first in the late 1990s in Latin America, where anti-neoliberal rebellions gave rise to renewed anti-imperialist movements and a retaking of the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement. Progressive anti-imperialist movements took control of states through electoral processes, overthrowing the acquiescent political establishments and forging a process of Latin American and Caribbean unity and integration, standing against the imperialist pretensions of the USA. The renewed movement proclaimed its intention to bypass existing exploitative structures of the core-peripheral relation of the world-system and to replace them, step-by-step, with complementary, mutually beneficial intra-regional commercial agreements. It presented itself as an alternative civilizational project that places people above markets, respects the sovereignty of nations, and seeks to provide for the health, education, nutrition, and housing needs of the people. Its formulation drew from a wide range of political and cultural currents, including bourgeois democratic revolutions; socialist and communist movements; Third World anti-colonial movements of national liberation; women’s movements; and ecology movements.
The process of change and reform in Latin America and the Caribbean took organizational form. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) was created by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro in 2004. Conceived as an alternative to the U.S. proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), ALBA proposed an alternative form of integration based on cooperation and solidarity, an integration that would make possible just and sustainable development. Chávez had been elected president of Venezuela in 1998, with an electoral campaign that denounced the political establishment for its collusion with the imperialist power.
Bolivia was incorporated in ALBA in 2006, reconstituting itself as ALBA-TCP, (Bolivarian Alliance of our America - Commercial Treaty of the Peoples). Evo Morales, leader of the Movement toward Socialism, had been elected president of Bolivia in 2005.
In 2008, the South American Union of Nations (UNASUR) was formed, led by Brazil and the Workers’ Party of Luis Inácio Lul da Silva. The Worker’s Party had taken power in the South American country in the elections of 2002.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was formed in 2010. It consists of all 33 governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. At its Second Summit in Havana in 2014, the member nations issued the Declaration of Havana, which affirmed a commitment to expand intra-regional commerce and to develop a form of integration based on complementariness, solidarity, and cooperation. And the Declaration reaffirmed the principle of the right of nations to control of their natural resources. And it declared that foreign investment should promote the development of the region and should not violate the sovereignty of the nations.
With attention to the declarations of these organizations, it can be seen that the Latin American and Caribbean nations were not seeking integration in order to facilitate ascent in the established world-system. Their conscious and formulated intent was to forge alternative structures of relations among their countries, alternatives to the prevailing pattern in the world-system, which is dominated by the United States and the European powers and possesses structures and norms that deepen global inequalities.
The political and ideological renewal sweeping Latin America had an impact on the Non-Aligned Movement, in which the anti-imperialist forces were able to forge a retaking of its founding principles. This process had begun in the Summits of 2000 and 2003 in South Africa and Malaysia, and it became fully evident in 2006, when Cuba assumed the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement for the second time. In the Declaration of Havana, the 118 member nations expressed lament for the excessive influence of the rich and powerful nations; and they rejected the neoliberal project for its promotion of global inequality and for increasing the marginalization of countries in development. The Declaration affirmed the principles of the UN Charter, including the equality and sovereignty of nations, non-intervention in the affairs of states, and “the free determination of the peoples in their struggle against foreign investment.” It proclaimed that “each country has the sovereign right to determine its own priorities and strategies for development.” And it proposed South-South cooperation as a complement to North-South cooperation. These principles were further reaffirmed by the 120 member nations on the Non-Aligned Movement at the 2016 Summit held in Venezuela.
Since its taking of political power in 1949, the Chinese socialist revolution has passed through three stages. First, the transitions to socialism in the era of Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1978. In this period, the revolution established the sovereignty of China and the structures of people’s democracy, and it took the first steps toward the socialist transformation and modernization of agriculture and industry. Second, the era of Reform and Opening, led by Deng Xiaoping from 1978 to 2012. During this period, the government gave priority to increasing the productivity of the economy through the expansion of domestic and foreign private enterprises and through greater participation in international commerce. Third, the era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, led by Xi Jinping, was launched at the 2012 National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The intention is the rectification of social problems and economic imbalances that resulted from the rapid economic expansion of 1978 to 2012.
The result has been spectacular economic growth. Per-capita income in China has doubled since 1980, and the nation’s rapid economic growth made possible a massive program in the construction of roads, railways, ports, airports, dams, housing, and systems of energy, telecommunications, water, and sewage. Subsequently, with the New Reform since 2012, China has eradicated absolute poverty and has effectively addressed problems such as inequality, corruption, and environmental degradation.
In the last ten years, great advances have been made with respect to expanding the percentage of the GDP in the world economy; expanding the manufacturing sector and foreign currency reserves, such that both are now the largest in the world; and expanding research and development in science and technology. In addition, China has developed a global network of trading partners that comprise more than 140 countries in all regions of the world, including the Belt and Road Initiative.
As measured by GDP, China has the largest economy in the world, a status it attained around 2015. As measured by market exchange rates, a better measure than GDP, the USA is still ahead of China, but the gap is far smaller. In 1980, the U.S. market exchange rate was sixteen times larger than that of China, but at present, the U.S. rate is 30% larger. By any measure, China will have the largest economy of the world by 2030, inasmuch as China’s GDP continues to grow at a faster rate than that of the USA.
But reference to GDP ignores population size, and for some questions, GDP per capita is a more appropriate measure, inasmuch as it is a statistical measure of living standards. By this measure as well, although the gap is far greater, China is closing the gap and will catch up to the United States in the foreseeable future. During the period 1960 to 1980, China’s GDP per capita was 5 or 6% that of the USA; but during the past decade, China’s per capita GDP has been 20 to 25% that of the USA. If current trends continue, China will catch up to the USA in GDP per capita by 2060.
World power rankings indicate that China and the USA are at similar or reducing levels with respect to foreign assets, control of currency, and GDP. But U.S. power is far greater with respect to military spending and control of international banking. These are the two areas in which the USA still has power: its ability to use or threaten to use military force; and its ability to cut off financial assets when other countries get out of line.
China is not a modern imperialist power, and its present relations with the nations of the Third World are not economically exploitative. Its relations with the Third World are not based on historical colonial conquest, and it investments in the Third World are not tied to raw materials exportation, as is the case in the European colonial and neocolonial model. Chinese investments often contribute to industrialization, contrary to the European pattern.
China does not profit from loans to weaker economies. Most of the debts that countries have with China are not loans in the typical capitalist sense; they are equity debts, involving Chinese investment in the infrastructure of the global South countries. China is looking at the benefits of these investments for China in the long term.
Positive mutually beneficial relations between China and Africa were initiated in the epoch of Mao. Today, with the Belt and Road Initiative, trade between China and Africa is increasing. China’s policy of non-interference in the international affairs of African states stands in sharp contrast to European neocolonialism.
There are similar dynamics with respect to China´s relation with Latin America and the Caribbean. Latin American nations see China as their best ally in freeing themselves from the framework of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which impose conditions that violate the sovereignty of nations. They view relations with China as beneficial. China does not impose conditions on its loans, and its large economy offers markets for Latin American exports.
China has become the most important ally of progressive governments in the region. Lula, Correa, Fidel, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have all expressed appreciation to China for developing mutually respectful bilateral relations with Latin America.
China envisions a road different from that taken by the Western colonial and imperialist powers, a road defined by multipolarity, civilization dialogue, and win-win relations. China is cooperating with other nations in the development of an alternative world-system based on mutually beneficial trade.
In 2014, Xi Jinping met with the heads of state of the nations of CELAC, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, to establish the China-CELAC Forum, and he subsequently visited Venezuela and Cuba. In an interchange with Latin American journalists, the Chinese President described China as a large nation, but not a global power, and in a phase of development similar to Latin America and the Caribbean nations. He maintained that China is seeking to develop through trade based on cooperation and win-win relations of mutual benefit. He defended South-South cooperation as the engine that can drive the autonomous and sustainable development of the underdeveloped nations, and he observed that the expanding economic and social relation between China and CELAC is an example of this necessary South-South cooperation. He affirmed the commitment of China to an alternative international economic and political order, more just and reasonable.
In his address at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2021, Xi Jinping declared that the peoples of the world, more than ever before, desire peace, development, equality, and social justice, and they are determined more than ever to attain these hopes through win-win cooperation. With this declaration, Xi gives emphasis to the cooperation of the governments of all regions of the world in China’s foreign policy of developing mutually beneficial trade, as the foundation for a sustainable world order, an alternative to a neocolonial world-system that has been constructed on a colonial foundation and sustained through imperialism.
The Chinese President in his General Assembly address advocated for principles that have been the building blocks of the foreign policy of the Asian giant. He declared:
“we must strengthen solidarity and promote mutual respect and win-win cooperation in conducting international relations. A world of peace and development should embrace civilizations of various forms, and must accommodate diverse paths to modernization. . . . We need to pursue dialogue and inclusiveness over confrontation and exclusion. We need to build a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, equality, justice and win-win cooperation.”
Xi maintained that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, which define the rules and norms of the international order, are the only possible foundation for a secure and stable world order. Therefore, the global governance system based in the United Nations must be strengthened. At the same time, he observed, the United Nations must commit to increasing the representation and the voice of developing countries in international relations.
The five BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) comprise 40% of the world’s population, 25% of the global GDP, and 20% of world trade. The primary objective of BRICS has been to promote a shift from the Western-led global governance system to a more inclusive paradigm of multipolarity that could function as an alternative to the U.S.-directed unipolar model.
Following its 2017 Summit in China, BRICS published the Xiamen Declaration, which has been described by Adriel Kasonta as “a 68-point manifesto for a multipolar world order aimed at replacing Pax Americana.” It declares that importance of strategic partnership within regions and blocs, as well as the centrality of the United Nations and the need for reform of the UN Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions.
The Xiamen Declaration affirms that since the founding of BRICS in 2006, the member nations have:
“fostered the BRICS spirit featuring mutual respect and understanding, equality, solidarity, openness, inclusiveness and mutually beneficial cooperation. . . . We have shown respect for the development paths of our respective choices, and rendered understanding and support to each other's interests. We have upheld equality and solidarity. We have furthered our cooperation with emerging markets and developing countries (EMDCs). We have worked together for mutually beneficial outcomes and common development.”
The Declaration commits to the promotion of a more just and equal world.
“We will enhance communication and coordination in improving global economic governance to foster a more just and equitable international economic order. We will work towards enhancement of the voice and representation of BRICS countries and EMDCs in global economic governance and promote an open, inclusive and balanced economic globalization, thus contributing towards development of EMDCs and providing strong impetus to redressing North-South development imbalances and promoting global growth.
“We will emphasize fairness and justice to safeguard international and regional peace and stability. We will stand firm in upholding a fair and equitable international order based on the central role of the United Nations, the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and respect for international law, promoting democracy and the rule of law in international relations, and making joint efforts to address common traditional and non-traditional security challenges, so as to build a brighter shared future for the global community.”
In the 2022 Beijing Declaration, the BRICS members reiterated their “commitment to multilateralism through upholding international law, including the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations as its indispensable cornerstone.” They affirmed the principle of “making instruments of global governance more inclusive, representative and participatory to facilitate greater and more meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa,” with respect for “sovereign independence, equality, and mutual legitimate interests.”
A number of countries are interested in incorporating themselves into BRICS, including Argentina, Iran, Türkiye, and Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, reference is being made to “BRICS+”.
The Spirit of Bandung and the Non-Aligned Movement formulated from the 1950s to the 1970s a vision of a New International Economic Order that was politically premature, in that the modern world-system had not yet reached the limits of its contradictions, and the neocolonized peoples did not have sufficient economic and financial resources to implement their vision. But today we find different global conditions. The capitalist world-economy has reached and overextended its ecological and political limits, and the Western powers are in decadence, unable to resolve their own social problems; at the same time, the neocolonized nations now count among them nations with the necessary economic resources and political will to begin to implement their just goals. Among them are found China, Russia, India, South Africa, and Brazil, and also Vietnam, Algeria, Iran, Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, among others.
China and the Third World have declared for the last seven decades a moral imperative for humanity. Their declaration is rooted in their insight into the contradictions and the ultimate unsustainability of the capitalist world-economy and the neocolonial world-system, an insight that emerges from their vantage point as neocolonized nations with peripheralized economies. For the last two decades, China and the Third World have been making progress in putting their understanding into practice. This theory and practice is consistent with their interests, and they therefore will likely continue on this road.
The global powers do not have the capacity to stop them. When U.S. hegemony was at its zenith, the USA implemented its short-term interests in preserving unequal core-peripheral exchange through the strength of its productivity, commerce, and finances, and its worldwide prestige. But it no longer possesses these advantages. It can only impose through military force, economic sanctions, and ideological misinformation. The events of recent decades show that force, coercion, and manipulation are not sufficient to stop the Third World plus China from pursuing their dreams.
If the Western powers persist in the pursuit of imperialist interests, the consequence will be continued violence, conflict, and chaos, possibly giving rise to an age of barbarity and/or human extinction. This situation imposes a duty on intellectuals and leaders of the United States: to overcome their myopic, egoistic, individualist, and cynical forms of thinking and action, and to put forth a historically and scientifically accurate and politically intelligent alternative road, characterized by cooperation among nations in developing a world of peace and prosperity on a foundation of mutually beneficial commerce.
The best hope for humanity is that the imperialist powers will discern their long-term objective interests and will join the Third World plus China in the construction of a peaceful and prosperous world based on cooperation and mutually beneficial trade. This would require the emergence of intelligent and moral leadership in the imperialist nations.
A free subscription option is available, with capacity to read, send, and share all posts. A paid subscription ($5 per month or $40 per year) enables you to make comments and to support the costs of the column; paid subscribers also receive a free PDF copy of my book on Cuba and the world-system.