Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The US and the decline of the uni-polar world

About twenty years ago, Paul Kennedy published one of those very timely/trendy but also very quickly dated books, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that looked at how dominant nation-states rise and fall on the world stage. The book was a strange combination of rare insight and horrible myopia, and the reviews were just about as bad. For example, the one cited at the link above took Kennedy to task for his misperceptions about the United States:

Kennedy's problems come from the fact that completely misunderstood American exceptionalism in general and the events of the Reagan years in particular. In the first place, he failed to consider the fact that America has historically been unwilling to intervene in the affairs of other nations unless there is an actual or perceived threat to American life and has been unwilling to maintain even an adequate, never mind an enormous, military in peacetime. Second, he, like many other Liberals, considered America to be at peace during the Cold War and, therefore, the relatively large defense expenditures of the 1980's did appear to fit the pattern of the other Empires. However, all that is required is a simple shift in perspective, an understanding that the Cold War was in fact a war and then the budgetary emphasis on armaments actually appears pretty conservative. For instance, even after fifty years of Cold War the National Debt today is only about 5/7ths of GDP. By comparison, after WWII it stood at 125+%. Thanks to the threat of nuclear war and our willingness to fight through proxy states, we managed to conduct the Cold War on the cheap. And since the Cold War ended we have been disarming ourselves just as fast as humanly, and politically, possible, marking a return to normal American military inadequacy.


This review, concerning Kennedy's misperceptions about American interventionism and our propensity to perform unilateral disarmament, was scribed in, uh, May 2000. Within eighteen months of that date, Kennedy looked a hell of a lot more prescient than the reviewer.

For all its faults, Kennedy's book was one of the first model-driven political/historical assessments of world affairs that got me started thinking about a systems approach. Kennedy taught me two critical things:

1) The timeframes of the cycles in world history are far longer than the 4-year American electoral cycle, and usually even longer than any individual's life. Twenty years means little or nothing when analyzing this sort of cycle; a rolling half-century index is probably the best mechanism to use if you're looking for lasting trends.

2) That multi-polar configurations of competing power are more stable in the long run (although sometimes bloodier) than bi-polar configurations, and [by extension] a uni-polar world is so unstable that it will never last.

Unpacking that last one: the European balance of power system allowed the great powers of that continent to dominate world affairs for the better part of four centuries. This system created the first significantly unified world economy and political power structure out of what had been regional economies and power structures. It was not particularly just in the senses that we tend to think of the world, but it was effective at maintaining hegemony across the centuries. Part of the reason for that was that consistently shifting power dynamics in Europe forced technical and military innovation to continue at a rapid pace; another part revolved around the rapacious willingness of European powers to see themselves as the economic center of the universe, and to use their military power (in concert if necessary) to maintain that centrality.

Eventually, however, all systems decline, and a combination of idiotic leaders, economic stagnation, and the development of outlying powers (specifically the US and Russia) de-stabilized the system. World War One mortally wounded it; World War Two killed it.

Enter the bi-polar world of the US vs USSR--an inherently unstable relationship because it was a zero-sum game. What the US won, the USSR lost, and vice versa. With no separate independent powers capable of challenging either, there were really only two possible outcomes: World War Three or the economic/political collapse of one of the combatants.

The Soviet Union collapsed; Russia survived [although it went through a period of life support there in the 1990s].

The United States emerged as the single "superpower," a position so spectacularly unstable that it could not have survived more than a decade or so after the fall of the Soviet Union, because Americans were neither willing nor able to pay the price necessary to impose a Pax Americana on the rest of the world. Instead, however, our leaders--both Democratic and Republican--have continued to live in a fantasy world in which we are somehow able to maintain our very expensive position as the world's dominant military and economic power without either paying for it or using it effectively.

Thus, there are now significant challengers attempting to return the larger world to multi-polar status: the European Union; China/Japan/Pacific Rim; Venezuela/Brazil; Iran; Russia.

The rules have changed. The US has provided the rest of the world a tutorial from 1994-present in the limits of conventional military force and the impotence of strategic nuclear weapons. We are not only over-extended and broke, we have not accomplished any of our clearly defined geo-political objectives during the past two decades.

We have missed the shift in global power from conventional warfare to economic war, partly because our defense industry has a disproportionate say in the conduct of American foreign policy [Ike, we should have listened to you at the end, there].

China is investing heavily in Africa, renewing an economic and political relationship that dates back several centuries--the latest form of neo-colonialism.

France is forging accords with China, India, and Brazil.

Iran is not only investing in Latin America, but moving the political arm of Hizbullah into the arena of the indigenous peoples there.

Russia is re-establishing itself as the militarily powerful authoritarian regime that holds the center between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

In 1945, thanks to the destruction of most of the rest of the world's industrial infrastructure, the US was the dominant economic power on the planet--very likely our industrial output accounted for between 1/3 and 1/2 of the world's industrial output. Today we remain precariously the first among equals, depending on your measure, but the European Union, China, and Japan are knocking at the door. India, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia--and even Iran are emerging as a collective second tier of important industrialized states.

Viewed in the long term (over the next fifty to one hundred years), the US cannot hold on to its illusions of world hegemony as the sole superpower and survive.

Our evangelical need to convert the rest of the world to western-style democracy is foundering on the reality that other peoples are not willing to give up their cultures.

Our energy consumption problems are largely driven by an inefficient Cold War-based economy imposed on our system by the State as a national security priority.

Our former allies and client states have new agendas (except for those, like Israel, with no other options than us) and are not going to come at our beck and call.

What we need from the next presidential administration is some deep thought on what the major mission of the United States in the world should be for the next fifty years.

We no longer have the traditional luxury of a period of isolationism, because--while we weren't looking--we stopped being economically self-sufficient. It's not just energy; look closer, particularly at consumer goods and food.

The world is inevitably swinging back to a multi-polar status: what will our role in that new alignment be?

1 comment:

Duffy said...

"Thus, there are now significant challengers attempting to return the larger world to multi-polar status: the European Union; China/Japan/Pacific Rim; Venezuela/Brazil; Iran; Russia."

What about India?

"Russia is re-establishing itself as the militarily powerful authoritarian regime that holds the center between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East."

They're shaping up to be a spoiler but their force projection is not what it once was. (No buzzing the coast on the way to Venezuela doesn't mean much)

The world is indeed multipolar and we'd be smart to start ceding some of the polarity to our friends (Taiwan, EU, India, Australia, Brazil) to counterbalance the rest of them.

Remember also that only the United States Navy keeps the sea lanes open.