Visions of World Order: Multipolarity and the Global ‘Constitutional’ Framework

26 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2018

Date Written: September 8, 2018


The present shape of the international legal order has been substantially impacted by the overwhelming political power possessed by the United States in the UN era, with the process accelerating since it assumed the status of ‘unipolar’ hegemon at the end of the Cold War. The decline in US power and the rise of rival powers, most notably the ‘BRIC’ States (Brazil, Russia, India and China), threatens however to alter this dynamic considerably, a process that will have profound effects for international law. This paper examines how the coming transition to ‘multipolarity’ will affect the operation and evolution of the international legal system, with a particular focus upon how the present architecture of institutional multilateralism will interact with and guide these developments. It argues that the normative priorities of the BRIC States – a shift away from universalist projects in favour of particularism, a re-entrenchment of Westphalian sovereignty and a commitment to collective decision-making through the UN – will prove difficult to realise in the present institutional structure, due to the operational logic of multilateralism and the challenges posed by a globalised world. Furthermore, multipolarity threatens to replace the notion of the ‘international community’, founded upon a shared normative vision, with a more fragmented and regionalised world, a process that has the potential to leave the world facing a series of significant collective action problems, the most problematic of which would be the preservation of public order. A multipolar world is thus possibly a more unstable and chaotic world than has been faced by humanity since the end of World War II.

Keywords: Multipolarity, sovereignty, international legal theory, international relations, China, world order

Suggested Citation

Butler, Sean, Visions of World Order: Multipolarity and the Global ‘Constitutional’ Framework (September 8, 2018). European Society of International Law (ESIL) 2018 Research Forum (Jerusalem), Available at SSRN: or

Sean Butler (Contact Author)

UCC School of Law ( email )

5 Bloomfield Terrace Western Road

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