A Multi-Polar World: The Challenges
As discussed in Part 1, the decline of America as the singular dominant power on the globe has created a scenario on the world stage not seen for over a century. We now face a multipolar world with several players all capable of exerting power on a geopolitical scale. Nations like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, India and others may not be equal in strength to America, but no longer is the disparity so great that the United States can unilaterally impose its will by sheer brute force. Even more importantly our new emerging powers know this, and likely will not be hesitant to exploit this new paradigm to their own advantage.
The implications of this are many. First and foremost is the reality that the relatively peaceful half century we have known is likely coming to an end. Since World War Two the globe has miraculously experienced an unprecedented degree of peace. There certainly have been wars, but while conflicts like Vietnam and Korea and Iraq have certainly been violent they have also been highly contained and localized, and the most brutal have tended to be internal civil wars such as Bosnia or Sudan. A truly global conflict with multiple fronts and numerous participants has not been seen the red flag of the USSR was hoisted over the Reichstag in 1945.
This has not been by coincidence. In the aftermath of World War Two we were a bipolar world divided between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the nations of the globe pretty much falling into one of the two camps. With the threat of nuclear weapons being ever present, each power effectively kept its own camp in line knowing to do otherwise would be disastrous. It was this threat of annihilation and the ability of both the USA and the USSR to effectively dominate their own sides that kept the Cold War cold.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union upon their own illusions, we then became a unipolar world, one that thankfully was dominated by the United States who (except in the delusions of the post-modern progressive mind) has been one of the most benign powers ever to grace this planet. The threat of American retaliation restrained the impulses of even the most expansionary tyrants. It was understood that aggression simply would not be tolerated, as Saddam Hussein learnt to his own misfortune in the First Gulf War.
That status quo has ended with the unipolar world that created it. In the Ukraine, Russia has openly annexed an entire region of another sovereign nation using its own military force with only the flimsiest of pretences to the contrary. There will be other such occurrences, and the next time the culprits may not even bother with the pretence. We may very well see Chinese jets flying over Taiwan, or Iranian Revolution Guardsmen raising the banner of the ayatollahs over Bagdad, or perhaps North Korean tanks driving down the streets of Seoul. The thing with lines is that once they are crossed without consequence it’s pretty hard to stop everyone from crossing them.
An especially great challenge facing the Western world in this highly unstable scenario is that the global institutions and alliances it relies on for security were never intended to confront a scenario such as this. One of the contributing factors to the various missteps and blunders that have hastened Pax Americana’s decline is that its primary alliance, NATO, was never designed to be a tool in a unipolar world. NATO was designed in a bipolar scenario where its members were united by the desire to protect themselves from Soviet aggression and contain the spread of Communism. That purpose died with the USSR, and NATO members have been notably less enthused with supporting America as it played world policeman in the ensuing decades, at times against their own internal interests. It is even less suited for a multipolar one. Differences will only be magnified in a multipolar world with all the potential points of conflict it brings. Is it particularly likely that Poland or Denmark will be especially motivated to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty if it is violated by China?
Indeed in the scenario we face today is “the West” even a term we can use anymore. Most of the nations that fall under that label only stood together out of common necessity, first to defend themselves against the might of a unified Germany and then to ward off the threat of Soviet dominance. Historically most of America’s old allies were great powers in their own right and at odds with one another as often as they were aligned. As the memory of the World Wars passes with the last of the survivors of the Greatest Generation, and their children begin stepping aside from their dominance of public life due to age, we are witnessing the first stirring of a resurgence of old school nationalism across much of Europe, with a collection of parties we loosely call “far right” beginning to step into the political spotlight and contend for power for the first time in decades. In Hungary it is arguable that they are already in power, and Poland may very well be the next to join this list after their elections this fall. Will a France ruled by President Marine Le Pen be an ally America can count on? Unlikely. She will hardly need American protection from the threat of Russian tanks rolling across France’s borders and very likely might feel that the interests of France do not line up one hundred percent with those of America on a whole range of issues.
As for the United Nations, do I even need to say anything on that subject? Whatever power the UN had came from American bayonets. Take away American dominance and the United Nations become little more than a social club with no teeth. It is doubtful that the leadership of Moscow or Beijing will lose much sleep over the opinions of the General Assembly, and are even less likely to let their actions be constrained by its resolutions.
So this is the challenge we now face, an unstable world with multiple players contending for power and pursuing their own interests and no singular power with the might to keep them in line, compounded by a woefully inadequate system of alliances and institutions. This new scenario will require both a new mentality and a new set of multinational institutions to confront the challenges it poses. I shall explore my thoughts on those in my next post.
Second in a three part series, begun with Part 1 and concluding with Part 2