By Kavi Chongkittavorn
AS NEVER before seen, the United States, Russia and China - representing three different world views and practices - are competing head-on to shape the norms and values of the modern international system that has been operating since the end of World War II.
Never mind the old practices that have kept the world at peace or at bay - sometimes on a political precipice - as currently we are living in the real world where actions, tough actions in particular, speak loudest and are likely to determine the outcome and overall situation on the ground. The United Nations, for the past six decades, has done well to save the world, but it is still unable to stop superpowers from engaging in wars.
The US, which has been the superpower with a global reach militarily, remained unchallenged for decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Now, that is no longer the case as the US is not in a predominant position. Washington's policies and words are not sacrosanct, yielding instant international acknowledgement, later to serve as a template for the rest of the world. Washington's contrived leadership and economic troubles at home have greatly diminished its strength and effectiveness abroad.
Throughout the Cold War, the former Soviet Union challenged the US predominance at all levels: ideologically, economically, technically and socially. The US was able to sustain capitalism and democracy while continuing to rule over existing global systems.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several new countries surfaced - suddenly friends become foes next to its huge frontiers. This feature has become more dramatic in the world today as nations, big or small, are looking for strategic partners that fit their present condition, even though temporary.
Russia's diplomatic strength today rests on President Vladimir Putin's current leadership and energy-driven economy. Beyond that, Russia wields counterbalancing forces against the US. Mr Putin's preponderant use of strong measures is quite appealing for some foreign leaders sharing similar traits. Ironically, President Barack Obama is a more genteel leader than his predecessors.
Strange as it may seem, the current global system allows nations to forge multiple and fragmented relationships. Some call this realpolitik, while others prefer to use the term multilateralism. It is no longer the either-or dichotomy - a pro-US or pro-Russia ally - that we were used to during the Cold War. Such polarisation - or rather, putting all one's eggs in one basket - does not help, as less powerful or smaller nations want more leeway and security guarantees amid a fast-changing strategic environment. Their approaches are more issue-oriented and highly time-sensitive - at times, even sporadic.
As the US and Russia are wooing new supporters and strengthening old links, China is being left unchallenged. Beijing has patiently constructed the Sino-centred regional order with a hope that one day it would turn into an international norm. It has pursued a more practical course befitting the strategic thinking of developing countries near and far. As the world's second-largest economic power, China is bolder these days when asserting itself in global arenas. President Xi Jinping has already consolidated his power at home to transform China into a strong country with a powerful military, coupled with a prosperous economy. Under him, China is no longer passive.
As a new contender in superpower brinkmanship, China's views and positions on global issues and the international system are still found wanting. While Beijing's support of UN-related activities and endorsement have increased, other policies and perceptions are still outside its international radar. Above all, China has yet to lead international endeavours with global appeal that go beyond self-interest.
However, the prolonged US-Russia rivalry, as demonstrated over the Ukraine crisis, will allow China to readjust and craft a role and influence in a current fragile international system. Beijing needs a new level of engagement and commitment with the regional and international community.
For the time being, China's growing economic and political clout has yet to be tested in a way that will enhance stability and well-being at both regional and global levels. The disputes in the South China Sea could serve as a barometer of how China handles other equally sensitive security issues. If a solution is found that rests on international practice, China's prestige would be further enhanced.
In the near term, the US will remain the world's predominant power but it has to share its influence with others, depending on issues and timing. To many countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Russia is still a reliable partner. Moscow's unwavering support of the Assad regime in Syria, the Iranian government over the nuclear crisis and even the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has won it kudos.
In a similar vein, China's proactive and less passive policies have also found new friends and strengthened old links. With its widespread network of new entrepreneurs - big and small - as well as its diaspora, China's positions will have to moderate over time. Indeed, China's growing clout is not shaped by the traditional power configurations enjoyed by the US or Russia.
In the new paradigm, the power game is also about "mutual respect" between the powers that be and the rest of the world. If the smaller and weaker states feel they have the respect of their brethren, they will be more willing to cooperate. Today, they have many choices as the big three have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Flexible but firm policies will win friends. This enables all countries to calibrate their positions before making a decision.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation.