A Multi-Polar World: The New Reality
One could be forgiven for not wishing to look to the larger world today. It is a rather depressing sight. Chaos and conflict seem to be the new normal everywhere. The Middle East is in turmoil. North Korea continues its ever more muscular game of brinksmanship. China and Russia continue to assert themselves more and more aggressively within their regional spheres of influence. Africa remains stuck in the malaise of disease, war and corruption that has retarded its development since decolonization. If one does look at the situation globally, these seemingly random and unconnected events of tragedy become symptoms of one terrible disease afflicting the entire world. What we are witnesses is the fallout of a fundamental shift, or more accurately a reversion, of geopolitical realities.
Like Rome, Pax Americana has ended. The world is no longer a dominated by one power with the ability to shape events to its will. For better or worse this brief period of time, little more than two decades really, when the United States stood unchallenged on the world stage is over. The reasons for this are many and complex, but broadly speaking internal mismanagement and incompetence, shifts in economic power, a series of military and diplomatic blunders , and a domestic loss of will have brought this to an end. America remains a great power, unquestioningly, but one of many instead of one alone.
Ever since America assumed its now relinquished place as premier power of the globe there has been speculation as to who would eventually rise to challenge it. First it was Europe, till the EU hit the speed bump of its stagnant growth and declining demographics, then it was China, till the bloom came off its economic rose, and now much talk has been made about Russia, which admittedly has been punching far above its weight but remains an unstable petrostate with a drug epidemic and a birth rate that is far too low. This fascination with finding the USA’s next singular rival is understandable, for that has been the story of the last century. A bipolar world is all everyone within living memory has ever known. The Allies versus the Entente, the Allies versus the Axis, and finally the United States against the Soviet Union. Two sides, one quite visibly “good” and the other easily identified as “evil”, that was the scenario that existed before the rise of America.
That is not the scenario we face today, however. To find a comparable situation one must go much further back to 19th century Europe or perhaps even further. The reality we live with today is a multipolar world of which America is just one of many strong nations capable of exerting power either geopolitically or regionally. The United States certainly is, and will remain, a great power. It likely will always be stronger than any other nation on the planet individually, much as France was in Europe under the reign of King Louis XIV, however, like the France of the Sun King, the United States will no longer be stronger than all other nations collaboratively (as Louis himself would learn to his misfortune during the War of Spanish Succession).
This is not so much a radical change as a reversion to an old normal. Pax Americana, or the dominance of the United States that ensued following the fall of the Berlin Wall, was very much a misnomer. Rome is often held up as a comparison, but one must remember that the heirs of Caesar only ruled over Europe and parts of Africa, and certainly never asserted their dominances over the kingdoms of the Middle East (admittedly as much due to the limitations of sheer distance that existed in a pre-industrial world as any other factor). Great Britain’s dominance of the sea allowed her the advantage of being the only nation truly able to assert herself globally, but in terms of actual military strength the British Empire actually lagged far behind many of her rivals and often had to work in conjunction with her allies to achieve strategic ends (the defeat of Napoleon can be credited just as much to the powers of Prussia, Austria and, above all, Russia as the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo). When the assorted remnants of the Holy Roman Empire united into Germany through the brilliance and sheer willpower of Otto von Bismarck (much to the eternal unhappiness of its new Kaiser), that new nation was a colossus, so much so that it successfully united the eternal enemies of Britain and France together to check its power. There were great powers, but always in the plural sense.
This was both was a hindrance and a help. On one hand, no one nation could unilaterally dictate the course of events to others so collaboration amongst kingdoms and empires was very much a necessity to achieve anything in the long run. On the other, with no one able to dictate there was ultimately nothing to stop any one nation from acting as it saw fit once it set its mind to a certain course, other than those of blood and iron as Bismarck masterfully utilized to his own ends. When the outcome of a conflict is no longer a foregone conclusion (as any conflict with America was in preceding decades) statesmen are much more willing to roll the dice.
For better or worse, we have returned to those times. We now live in a much more unstable, uncontrollable world, and the first ripples of this are already being seen. The challenges that come from this are many, and the solution is nothing less than a complete rethink by us in the West of strategy and an absolute revision of our international institutions, both to be explored in subsequent posts. Just as the challenge facing us today is at its core a mere return to the past status quo, so to can the solution also be found there. By looking to history we may find valuable lessons on how to navigate this new turbulent world we find ourselves in.