Pursuing Global Order
in the Twenty-First Century

By Jon B. Alterman & Lily McElwee

Amid shifting global power balances, renewed international contestation, and growing transnational challenges, understanding how the world order is changing has never been more critical.

CSIS has drawn from original research and a series of high-level discussions with global thought leaders to explore the evolving contours of this order, its future dynamics, and the most effective pathways for U.S. engagement. 

Right after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States tried to get the world involved. Washington’s allies in Europe and Asia were quick to condemn Moscow’s aggressive actions and sanction the Russian regime, but much of the world held back. 

Six weeks after the invasion, for example, the UN General Assembly voted on whether to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council in response to Russia’s “gross and systematic violations of human rights.” Twenty-four countries opposed the measure, and fifty-eight countries abstained.

Those are striking numbers. But as striking as they are, even more notable is what they represent. The opposition tallied 2.1 billion people and $21.8 trillion in GDP. The abstainers included another 3.6 billion people and $15.1 trillion in GDP. 
Many of those refusing to punish Russia were members of the Global South—a diverse but increasingly populous and wealthy group of states that will be vital to addressing all of the world’s most challenging problems: disease, climate change, the trafficking of persons and goods, informal migration, and more.

The fragmented global response to the war in Ukraine shows that while the United States and its allies often see their policies as rooted in efforts to preserve the rules-based international order, many rising states see them differently.

These rising states see those policies as part of an effort by a small number of countries to preserve their own decades-old advantages at the expense of an increasingly large and consequential fraction of the world’s population.

“Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
Indian minister of external affairs S. Jaishankar

An Evolving Order

The minister’s observation highlights a series of shifts gradually unfolding over decades. The world has grown wealthier, more populous, and more complex. Despite these changes, most of today’s international structures were built on the world of the 1940s, and the structures and their leadership haven’t changed much.

Critics argue that countries such as France and the United Kingdom secured permanent membership on the UN Security Council in part because of the wealth they built through colonial holdings in Africa, South Asia, and beyond. Historical inequalities based in the nineteenth century got baked into the international system that was created in the twentieth century and now are holding billions of people back. Leaders of many of these rising states believe that too little attention is paid to the fact that not only do we now live in a post-colonial world, but many former colonies have become increasingly powerful nations in their own right.

The speed with which the world is transforming is remarkable.

As recently as 1990, just seven countries—the G7—represented 12 percent of the world’s population and 50 percent of the world economy. The collection of developed countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had 21 percent of the world’s population but represented more than 80 percent of the world’s income.

By 2030, the OECD countries will constitute 17 percent of the world’s population, but their share of the world economy will have plunged to just 40 percent.

In contrast, countries outside of the OECD—many of them former colonies—have rising incomes, populations, power, and global influence. These countries share a skepticism of the status quo.

Challenges for Reform

Increasing the number of members of the UN Security Council, and perhaps even increasing the number of permanent members, is one way to make international bodies more globally representative. Washington is open to exploring such options.

But even with U.S. support, reform will be hard—especially within a context of rising great power competition. Some countries will be more motivated to trim U.S. power to their own benefit than to redistribute it to all.

“We need to be able to break the gridlock that too often stymies progress and blocks consensus on the Council. We need more voices and more perspectives at the table.” 
U.S. president Joseph Biden

Two challenges here are Russia and China. They explicitly assert that they are members of the Global South. They wrap themselves in an anti-imperialist guise when they say they are trying to encourage political, social, and economic diversity and undermine a global trend toward like-mindedness.

But the like-mindedness they are trying to overturn is the respect for the rights of the individual that the United States and its allies have sought to strengthen for decades. Are they pushing to give states more independence, or are they trying to peel countries away from the United States?

In addition, both countries oppose formal alliances and have none of their own. Are their efforts to strengthen bilateral diplomacy and dilute multilateral institutions about advancing the common good, or are they about blunting the power and influence of the United States, which has a wide number of global partners? 

Another problem in making the world more responsive to the Global South is that there is no single viewpoint that predominates there. While many countries share deep dissatisfaction with the current system, their needs, national conditions, and ambitions vary widely.

Within regions, countries vary substantially by economic development levels, political regime types, and perceived threats and challenges. Even as much of the Global South foiled U.S.-led efforts to rally global opposition to Russia’s February 2022 invasion, for example, some rising powers—such as Argentina and Turkey—signed on.

Better appreciating these differences, and what these states share in their aspirations for the global order, will help Washington craft a more effective strategy for international engagement in the years ahead.

The Path Forward

Today’s more complex international landscape—and tomorrow’s—demands that the United States takes a more deliberate, layered, and targeted approach to engagement. This approach should have several elements:

1) Nuance

Disaggregating the Global South, appreciating the diversity of needs and ambitions of states within it, and avoiding assumptions about U.S. relevance to these goals

2) Reform

Reinvigorating existing multilateral institutions to meet current conditions

3) Flexibility

Supplementing ongoing efforts to reform existing, treaty-based institutions with less formal, more flexible, and often ad hoc arrangements

These kinds of new arrangements can differ in their organizing principles. Some arrangements can and will be based on ideology. Liberal democracies will want to band together sometimes.

However, other arrangements will be based on interests that override ideological differences. As a former Asian foreign minister observed, “The inclination is to have like-minded groupings of countries that exclude [other countries] . . . but I think that type of . . . comfortable, cozy, like-minded setup, while effective in decisionmaking . . . doesn’t allow for difficult conversations to be had.”

Some of these arrangements can be regional, and some can be transregional. Some can be composed of similar states, and some can be dissimilar states.

There is precedent for this approach.

Exemplary Arrangements

A conference room with world leaders

1. The I2U2

The I2U2 grouping established in 2021 links the United States with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and India—states of different sizes, regime types, and development levels—to advance a concrete agenda spanning from infrastructure development to food security to waste treatment.

2. The Quad

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”), reestablished in 2017, brings together four strategically aligned liberal democracies—the United States, Australia, India, and Japan—to address challenges to the “maritime rules-based order” in the East and South China Seas and advance a vision for a stable, free, and open Indo-Pacific. The group has included countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam in select convenings as part of a flexible “Quad Plus” arrangement.


The AUKUS partnership, launched in September 2021, is designed to enhance strategic coordination, technological integration, and interoperability between the United States and some of its closest allies, Australia and the United Kingdom.

4. MEF

The Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change (MEF) includes a diverse group of major economies representing 80 percent of global GDP, population, and greenhouse gas emissions to supplement climate negotiations within the United Nations. Biden has convened four leader meetings since coming to office. China is a member, as was Russia before 2022.

Participants in these new and varied arrangements need not always be states. Creatively incorporating new types of actors into a layered approach will help. Corporations and philanthropists bring enormous financial resources to bear in global problem solving. Provincial and city governments and nongovernmental organizations are on the front lines of global challenges, bringing technical know-how and familiarity with needs on the ground.

One challenge is that wealthier states often have more robust business sectors and civil society groups. Relying too much on nongovernmental efforts could precisely reinforce the Western bias to which many countries—and their citizens—object.



Today’s world is less unified, and the problems are more numerous. Many states want the international system to adapt, but the Global South is far from monolithic.

The most successful forms of U.S. engagement will appreciate how these states differ, as well as what they share. This will require a good deal of humility and creativity. The complex world of today—and tomorrow—requires no less.


Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

Lily McElwee, Deputy Director and Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies

Special Thanks

Please see the accompanying traditional report for a full list of acknowledgments.

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