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Lawyering in a Multi-polar World

Lawyering is not limited to litigation. The diversity of professional opportunities for legal professionals exist in various forms and it will only increase in the information age. Now, in this article, let us understand the concept of a multi-polar world order (in International Relations (IR)), and what implications does a multipolar world, have on the legal profession as well as the field of law. We are already seeing some trends in the modern world, which will be discussed in this article.

What is a Multi-polar World Order?

In international relations, scholars consider a multi-polar world as the most raw and exhaustive form of the realpolitik as we know. In international politics, a realpolitik refers to the political realities which shape existing domestic, intergovernmental and global institutions, be it state actors or non-state actors. Decades ago, we could not anticipate that several actors involved in money laundering can use cryptocurrencies to further their hawala transactions. If it were not for the COVID pandemic, the world could not have sought the purpose of a digital cyberspace and the necessity of force majeure clauses in contracts. As the world is still healing from the after-effects of the pandemic, the trade impact of the US-China trade war in 2018, followed by this pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Eastern Europe has been scathing, without any doubt. Does it affect the way legal professions work? Indeed it does. However, it is necessary to have a deeper enquiry on how the multi-polar world affects the legal field.

As we understand the theories of power and influence, we must have heard terms like - a unipolar world, a bi-polar world and so on. Well, a multipolar world is quite interesting, because many notions of international relations, especially those dominated by the scholars of US Foreign Policy have been challenged by the emergence of this concept.

As per the diagram above, in the information age, we see the following trends clearly showing the emergence of a multipolar world:

Legal systems across the world adapt with the disruption of different industry sectors and their all-time impact on human lives, at both domestic and transnational levels.

The concept of alliances and ententes does not materialise in a proper fashion because the power dynamics of a multipolar world empowers the smaller allies of a larger power to take distinctive (if not hostile) paths of economic, political and diplomatic engagement. This leads countries to form their own sovereign decisions and concerns, based on their own understanding and acceptance of legal systems and principles;

Many settled questions of law in various legal systems are subject to cleavage because of the case-by-case, industry-by-industry impact of digital technologies (especially Web2 technologies). In the Global South countries, however, where many legal questions are not properly settled, newer questions of law emerge which further complicate or integrate the situation (depends on how the regulators, judges and legislators address the problem);

Countries either align with some major powers (for example the US or China), become non-aligned or become multi-aligned. Two key phenomenon come into being - justifying strategic autonomy and interplaying strategic hedging. The categorisation is furthered as follows:

  • If they have been aligned and stay aligned - the legal systems already influenced by the major geopolitical players in that alliance are in vogue with the major powers’ legal systems, norms and principles. Even in contentious areas such as commerce and trade (for example), some parity can be observed.

  • If they have been aligned and have a distinctive approach - their legal systems start becoming compatible to those of the major powers’ legal systems.

  • If they have been non-aligned - their legal systems stay largely neutral and unchanged by the emerging legal norms and methods across the globe (which is a rather unrealistic or unsustainable situation).

  • If they have become multi-aligned - their legal systems optimise the risks attached to the sovereign decisions and approaches they agree with. In the language of international law, their state practices do not bear a hostile character, yet hedge the risks associated with the distinctive legal and policy positions they strive to take.

  • The question of bearing hostility and abruptness on legal and public policy points of view for governments, is hard to address, despite the fact that most of such questions can be addressed within the language of international law. Yet, political power guides the realpolitik, especially how sovereignty is defined, which is why it could become a political question as to how legal systems conflicting with one another resolve the situation.

Multilateral institutions are subject to question and review, where the following trends are visible:

  • They adapt with time and bear institutional cum policy transformation; or

  • They do not adapt and render their components and subsidiaries toothless without any potential or scope of action; or

  • They are used by countries in groups to negotiate and establish backdoor negotiations to make incremental use of the existent systems by making small changes to (if not restore but) maintain the political purpose of the institution.

  • Since many (if not most) legal systems are subject to policy disruption, leading to a rise in grey areas of legal importance, hard laws and their notion in jurisprudence remains incomplete due to their being inflexible. The role of Soft Law becomes important as legal and policy prescriptions provided through help out and encourage legal innovation.

Now, in the next section, it is discussed how lawyering and legal practice has shaped itself in the wake of the multi-polar nature of the realpolitik, strictly, in the legal profession.

Unsettled Notions, Emerging Lawyers

For sure, when pandemics or any natural disaster come, it is presumed that huge disruptions happen. However, the change must stick with time and ensure its own worth. In the legal profession, the multi-polar nature of the realpolitik had already become mainstream since 2008. However, the significant changes in this realm takes years to settle. One of the biggest achievement of the multi-polar world, which is still US-dominated, has been the emergence of new legal opportunities. The transformation of technology law as a field for example, furthered into creating a set of requirements in the legal domain, especially in the developed countries. In India, however, the change has not been quite rapid at a macro level, except maybe in the Tier-1 cities to a limited extent.

Another trend which has become quite apparent is the role of information economy. Due to the disruptions brought by the pandemic, many law professionals who were accustomed with the “traditional” forms of work, are now harnessing the potential of the digital world. Content creation may be considered an obvious answer to this point, but it does not end there. In-house legal work, knowledge management, product development (especially through agile management, for e.g., scrum master) and others. Due to the increasing and quite newfound importance of soft law, i.e., self-regulatory initiatives that a company undergoes, it is apparent that in certain ways, the notion that law is top-down has been affably challenged. The new set of legal opportunities have a consultative and exhorting characteristic, which may saturate the importance of courts and tribunals. It does not however mean that every form of alternative dispute resolution gains maximal importance.

Every tool of ADR has its own sector-specific, stakeholder-specific importance, which if utilised at best, would help governments and other stakeholders across the world to bear the tremors that the multi-polar world order bring upon municipal legal systems, across the world. In short, there is no doubt that legal systems across the world are trying to adapt with the geopolitical conditions which shape the socio-economic, logistic and even administrative factors that affect polities globally. However, there is a limit to adapt with the systems, and without understanding how international relations in conceptual aspect has transformed so much, the adaptation of the surroundings would render the systems and legal instruments weak and dysfunctional, in many ways and cases. In the next section, this problem is discussed.

The IR Perspective on Legal Systems: Limits of Adaptation

Legal systems represent the actuality of political thinking germinated in proper legal concepts and principles agreed upon in countries across the world, democratic or not. Now, from a scholarly perspective, the multi-polar world order as it exists also represents the state of the “modern world” as we know. This world order resembles the world like a pandora box, which means that uncertainties rise with time. For example, a flawed assumption which many people have about the turbulent times in Europe due to the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict is that the modern world, which created norms, institutions and principled regulation (at least on paper) is subject to some irreparable damage. They however forget to realise that Europe’s history repeats in many ways, every century. The way the European Union (not continental Europe) has handled the situation in Eastern Europe has been emblematic of how political leaders in Europe make decisions. For example, it could be a moral argument that a set of countries can be anyhow ejected out of SWIFT to isolate them from the “global” financial system. However, countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa would not find this approach comfortable.

Nevertheless, political visions generally have to be constructive and self-explanatory. They shape legal decisions. However, inconsistency in bearing consequences does affect the constructed “rules-based” international order, within the multi-polar world, which should ask questions whether countries are interested in preserving the current world order or not. From a legal angle, a breakdown of trust and norms is inevitable in many domains. A simple example is the Paris Accords of 2015. In line with the 2015 Accords, only India abided by the GHG emission limits so far, so well as a party to the Accords. Yet, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility has been left astray in practice by countries in the Global North. The fragility of the rules-based international order, despite bearing a first-principles approach towards shaping international legal thinking is shaped by asking whether consequences are foreseeable.

Laws work when power is distributed and imbibed within them so that they become kinetic. Geography however becomes the playing field, which is where jurisdictions come in. Maybe legal systems across the world should become anti-fragile, where they solidify their policy object and become stable to govern. At a macro level, these subtleties generally do not seem much visible because any change driven by legal systems either can be incremental due to the exigencies or could be too swift. The practical meaning of trust in a legal process, as well as the principles has also changed due to the multipolar order. Yes, the stable way in which trust was easy to transact in legal systems has been affected, and maybe it could not return the old way it used to be. However, the importance of finding multiple legal pathways has for sure increased the chances of addressing peculiar and hard legal disputes (maybe not in every sector/domain of law, but at least in some of the crucial ones) in the most suitable way.

Mapping the Possibilities of Legal Innovation

Interestingly, there are immense possibilities of legal innovation, which could happen due to the nature of the multi-polar world order. As discussed in the first section of the article, countries adapt with systems in their own suitable ways.

This diagram above explains some common and uncommon indicators that may show signs of legal innovation. For example, the conceptual understanding of a legal dispute does not necessarily change. However, in the most unusual ways, sometimes, legal disputes or problems transform the operability of legal tools and instruments. Another example could be where governments do not necessarily preclude the stakeholders from becoming a part of the process but facilitate only those stakeholders, who have some purposive value. India is an impressive example where SEBI has recently joined the account aggregator framework.

To conclude, it can be stated that this multipolar world order in the 21st century, unlike other times, is more evolved and despite uncertainties - understandable. The world has become mature and interconnectedness has made engaging with the realpolitik more subtle, secure and sensible.