Now that the experiment in American unilateralism has failed with the collapse of the adventurist campaign in Iraq, the world returns to the two foundational models for global power relations: multilateralism and multi-polarism.
Whoever occupies the Oval Office after the November 2004 election will have to try to recoup the power that the United States lost during its rendezvous with neo-conservative fantasy. That can only be done -- if at all -- through an attempt to reconstitute a multilateral consensus on globalization in which the United States is primus inter pares, guaranteeing the security of world capitalism militarily, but not using its military power to impose its policies on its allies and independent limited collaborators (China and Russia) without genuine negotiation and compromise. Under multilateralism, the United States usually gets its geopolitical way, but forbears from acting in opposition to significant resistance from other major power centers. The Iraq adventure has demonstrated that unilateralism alienates allies and collaborators, resulting in the loss of American credibility and clout. Multilateralism remains the path that leads to the maximization of American power in the world.
The question is whether the Iraq adventure marks a watershed in world politics, in which the currents that once ran toward multilateralism in the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union have now shifted in the direction of multi-polarism. Well before the second Gulf War, China, Russia and France had voiced preferences for multi-polarism, in which American leadership is replaced by negotiation among regional power centers, among them North America. The Iraq war may have tipped the balance so that it favors the multi-polarists. If the United States cannot be trusted to take the interests of allies and collaborators into account in its strategic policy, these governments will seek to retrench, moving to gain as much control as possible over their regions, so that they can exert a veto on American interventions into them. Although each regional power center has its own independent interests, they all have a shared interest in fending off American dictation and, therefore, constitute an incipient defensive alliance.
Multi-polarism is a containment policy against the United States -- the one-time hyper-power that has revealed its vulnerability and the limits of its military control.
The most likely configurations of world politics in the coming decade are weak to moderate multi-polarism and weak multilateralism. There is some small chance that the United States will regain acquiescence in its status as the "world's only superpower" and, with it, a comparative advantage for the realization of its policies and the satisfaction of the interests actuating them. The more highly probable scenario is a slow drift toward multi-polarism.
Multi-polarism is only a dream unless it is backed by military power. The primary indicator of a tendency toward multi-polarism is the military policies of the regional powers. The two most important -- China and Russia -- have publicly stated that they are committed to building state-of-the-art militaries. India is similarly committed to militarization, as is Pakistan, so far as its limited resources permit. Europe presents a more complex picture. Faced with opposition to its attempt to assert leadership in Europe, the Franco-German combine remains bound into N.A.T.O. and is left with its economic and diplomatic cards. By taking advantage of the internal conflict within the European Union ("Old Europe and New Europe"), the United States has helped to block the emergence of a full-fledged regional power center. It is not able to do the same elsewhere. China and Russia will lead the move toward multi-polarism and other powers around the world will follow them whenever it is in their interest to do so.
The major point for the emergence of multi-polarism is East Asia. What drives the New Regionalism is a partial power vacuum caused by recognition of the limits of American projection of military power and the loss of American political credibility as a trustworthy ally and collaborator, and moral credibility as a champion of democracy, human rights and even global capitalism. The regional power positioned most favorably to take advantage of the vacuum is China.
The coming confrontation with China was the focus of the American National Security Strategy of 2002 and the justification for its doctrine of maintaining American military supremacy through coming generations. China's strategic aim is eventually to make the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits its own Caribbean, excluding the United States from military influence and the economic advantage that it brings. China can be expected to seize as much control over its region as it can, consistent with maintaining foreign investment and normal trade relations. If there is a drift toward multi-polarism, it will be manifested, in China's case, by a harder line towards Taiwan and Hong Kong. If China can drive Taiwan into its orbit through military threat coupled with de jure autonomy masking de facto dependency, it will have moved a long way towards satisfying its strategic aims. Other states in the region will take notice. China can also be expected to drag its feet on the North Korea nuclear weapons issue. It will not wantto give the United States an easy victory and will try to undermine American credibility on North Korea by extorting concessions from the United States.
Other states in East Asia will not be favorable to expansion of Chinese power over the region. They will depend on the United States to defend them, but will be less certain than in the past of the effectiveness of that protection. If North Korea is not de-nuclearized and China comes to exert some sort of hegemony over Taiwan, Japan would be tempted to nuclearize, as would South Korea. Simultaneously, they would explore more aggressively strategic bargains with China, further diminishing American influence. The United States will face a decisive question: Does it have the military and economic resources, and the political will to resist a well-calculated Chinese power grab?
The second major site for the emergence of the New Regionalism is Russia. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has returned to its traditional strategic doctrine of containing encirclement and, if possible, expanding its cordon sanitaire (in this case, restoring it). Putin has made it explicit that Russia has to take care of its own economy and society, pursue an independent foreign policy, and aggressively militarize. The strategic aim of those principles is to regain control over Russia's periphery: to draw Ukraine and Belarus firmly into its orbit and to re-exert influence over the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Specifically, Russia's goals are to edge American bases out of Central Asia and to gain some control over Caspian Sea oil.
Russia is hampered by economic weakness, dependence on oil revenues, the war in Chechnya and an inefficient military. Its effectiveness as a center of multi-polarism will hinge on its ability to generate a sufficient economic surplus to deliver on the promise of a state-of-the-art military. As the re-militarization program proceeds, Russia will attempt to exploit dissidence in the former Soviet republics to its south when that is to its advantage, and to cultivate closer relations with them when that is advantageous. The United States will seek to hold on to its gains in the region, but the question again is whether it will have the resources and will to do so. The former Soviet republics are not eager to fall under Russian hegemony and rely for their independence on Euro-American protection. The Iraq adventure has not changed that. Russia has chosen to pursue a multi-polar strategy, but it is a work in its early stages.
India and Pakistan
The South Asian sub-continent is the third site of the New Regionalism. Both India and Pakistan are committed to militarization. Their conflict over Kashmir remains unresolved and the Iraq adventure has put a strain on American mediation of it. India's prime strategic aim is to secure itself from any military threat so that it can pursue an autonomous domestic and foreign policy as it develops economically and enters the globalized economy as a full player. Pakistan, with a much weaker economy and an unstable regime, is hedged in by its imposed alliance with the United States, and the internal conflict that the alliance has caused.
With the United States tied down in Iraq, India will be tempted to exert pressure on Pakistan over Kashmir. If it pursues such a course, Pakistan will become even more unstable and its relations with the United States will be strained. There is a low probability of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and a much higher probability of low-level confrontations. The United States will have less influence over the course of those confrontations than it did before the Iraq adventure, and will be compromised by the clash between its economic interests in India and its strategic interests in Pakistan.
It will be difficult for the Franco-German combine to become the nucleus of a European regionalism. Here the United States has confident allies in the coalition of states that resists Franco-German hegemony in the European Union. In addition, shared economic interests in transnational capitalism make any Franco-German long-term break with multilateralism unlikely.
Lacking independent military power, the Franco-German combine is blocked from strategic autonomy. If the United States resumes a multilateralist policy toward Europe, it should be able to regain its former position as primus inter pares in the North Atlantic. Tendencies toward multi-polarism will be long-term, depending on the degree of economic and political integration within the European Union, which would eventually lead to greater military independence.
Cross-cutting the New Regionalism is the worldwide Islamist movement, which was the pretext for the Iraq adventure (the notion of Saddam Hussein giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists). That the United States has lost credibility in the Islamic world is a platitude. Islamic militancy has not diminished since the Iraq adventure and all reports point to its increase. Rather than advancing the "war on terrorism," the Iraq adventure has pushed it back.
The United States will be forced in the coming decade to continue to focus attention and dedicate economic, military and diplomatic resources to contain Islamism. There is no end in sight of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and there is little chance that Iraq will be a unified and stable market democracy. The Middle East will preoccupy the United States with little possibility of favorable results, while major powers in other regions will take every opportunity to pursue their own strategic aims of greater autonomy and control.
The decline in American credibility and the worldwide recognition of its military limitations does not spell a decisive shift to multi-polarism, but a drift in that direction. Signs of that drift would be a more aggressive Chinese approach toward Taiwan, a more aggressive Indian approach to Pakistan, and a genuine commitment to rapid re-militarization in Russia. American power has been potentially impaired in those three regions; they are the potential crisis points outside the Middle East where the United States is most likely to face effective challenges to its power and interests.
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
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