The age of fuzzy bifurcation: Lessons from the pandemic and the Ukraine War

Academics, decision-makers and policy makers have suggested that COVID and the war in Ukraine represent an ‘inflection point’. The consequence will be ‘the end of globalisation’, ‘a bipolar Cold War 2.0’ and a return to Containment. In reality, the emerging world order is much messier. The logics of geoeconomics and geopolitics, largely aligned during the Cold War, are now in tension, ruptured by decades of globalisation, America's decline, and China's ascent. Consequently, US security allies now often wrestle with the fact that their economic ties link them to US rivals, notably China, or adversaries, like Russia. The pandemic and war have wrought geopolitical and economic adjustments, but any resemblance to Cold War blocs is superficial. What is consolidating is an era best described as fuzzy bifurcation. Unlike the Cold War, alliances will be tenuous across policy domains. With this greater latitude, even small and medium-sized states may band-wagon on security but will balancehedge and even pursue strategic autonomy in others. Terms like ‘allies’, ‘competitors’, ‘rivals’, and even ‘adversaries’ become contingent on the policy issue. It is a world that American and Chinese policy makers will find challenging, indeed frustrating, because of the inconstancy of allied behaviour.