material power
Westminster Bridge with St Thomas' hospital's south wing, a historic 19th century building, in the background. (Credit: PicturesFactory/ (via:

The world is now facing a set of new realities that have emerged for the first time in history. If material power is categorised into global and non-global by the scope of its projection (and by the consequences of its use) and consent into universal and non-universal by the scope of its application, then a matrix with four fields can be formed.

Universal ideas

As shown in figure 1, these are non-global material power and non-universal consent, non-global material power and universal consent, global material power and universal consent, and global material power and non-universal consent.

Throughout modern history, the world existed in the realities of either field 1 or 2, or sometimes these fields overlapped. The world of today is globalised, but universal ideas are in decline.

At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, the world was becoming increasingly global and decreasingly universal (with national identities prevailing over universal religious values). It seemed reality was about to be reshaped from field 2 (the realities of the 19th century) to those in field 4. However, this did not occur. Instead, after two world wars and division of the world into the two competing universal systems of communism and capitalism, the world moved to field 3, a global world of material power and with prevailing universal ideas.

How do you manage a global world without strong universal ideas? 1

With the collapse of the communist system at the end of the 20th century, the momentum emerged from a material perspective for a global and universal world. This time universalism was represented by liberal ideas that had been nursed for a few decades by European philosophy. However, the momentum for this global universal world has been lost and liberal universal consent is in crisis.

In the previous two decades, liberal globalism was under severe attack in developing countries, but in this decade, it is challenged at its core inside the Western hemisphere. The world remains materially global, although further progress towards globalisation was curbed after the 2008-2009 economic crisis, but the universal, globally applicable consent is weak. This creates the conditions for the entry of the realities of field 4.

The best way to manage a global, non-universal world is to develop and apply common rules, such as international law, so as to avoid catastrophic collisions between actors materially capable of the global use of power (global in its scope of projection and consequences), but not self-constrained by a prevailing universal, in this sense common, consent. However, international law today is a universal value suffering from the decline of universal ideas no less than other types of universal consent.

A global non-universal world is terra incognita for power politics. Hegemony, which rests on a material component (power) and a non-material one (consent), has taken different forms in the realities of fields 1 and 2, and of field 3 in the last few decades. As they enter the new realities, actors are realising that the previous models of dominance do not work well in field 4. In the last decade, with the realities of the world rapidly taking on the shape as depicted in field 4, we have seen the United States lose its hegemony even as emerging powers have been unable to establish their hegemonies, although they have increased the material component of their power substantially. The question remains open as to whether hegemony is at all possible in field 4.

The immediate reaction of powerful actors has been either to reintroduce universal ideas (and by this shift back to field 3) or to de-globalise the world (moving to the realities of field 1 or 2). In both cases, these are spontaneous, rather than thoughtful attempts to return to historically familiar forms of hegemony and power politics. The inclination for dominance, in essence for having more rights than others, is tightly interconnected with the possession of material power. Thus, great powers are likely to keep trying to change world realities by moving back to fields 1, 2, or 3, in order to make their hegemony possible.

So far, it remains an open question as to what the great powers of today will finally do: Will they reshape the realities of the world (by re-introducing universal ideas or de-globalising the world economically and then politically) or learn to manage a global non-universal world with all its diversity?




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