The new multipolar era in world politics
Stephen Walt has some advice - or at least hopeful wishes! - on how American policymakers and foreign policy wonks should approach the end of what international-relations “realists” like Walt call the Unipolar Moment.That is basically the 1989-2022 period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. The US was by far the predominant power in the world with no “peer competitors,” as IR wonks and Pentagon strategists call it.
The Quincy Institute held these two panels last November on what the current “multipolar” situation implies.
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Former President Jimmy Carter wrote back in 2005, which was basically the midpoint of the Unipolar Moment:
Now, more than at any time in history, the United States of America has become the preeminent military power on earth. While there has been a sharp downward trend in worldwide expenditures for weapons during the past twenty years, the United States has continued to increase its military budget every year. lt now exceeds $400 billion annually, equal to the total in all other nations combined. The next largest military budget is Russia's, which is one-sixth as large. The only arms race is one that we are having with ourselves. One reason for this enormous expenditure is that twenty thousand sailors and marines are deployed in ships afloat and almost three hundred thousand additional troops are stationed in more than I20 countries, with military bases in 63 of them. Since I left office [January 1981], American presidents have intervened about fifty times in foreign countries. In addition to supplying our own military forces, America's arms manufacturers and those of our NATO allies provide 80 percent of weapon sales on the international market. [my emphasis]
Is what we have today the best outcome we could have hoped for from those three decades? A nasty war in eastern Europe with Russia participating directly and NATO in a formally indirect but major way. Nuclear proliferation increasing. China and Russia in a new alliance against NATO. Ukraine being devastated with no end yet in sight. Military budget soaring even more, also with no end in sight. Another Democratic President reminded the country and world that the arms race then being engaged in by the US and the USSR had real opportunity costs:
[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons.
Walt’s main point in this essay is to encourage US policymakers to recognize the risks and opportunities of a world order that has shifted from “unipolar” to “multi-polar.” But he expects adjusting perspectives will be a challenge for many:
They prefer the expansive opportunities and gratifying status that come from being the indispensable power, and they have been loath to abandon a position of unchallenged primacy. Back in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration prepared a defense guidance document calling for active efforts to prevent the emergence of peer competitors anywhere in the world. The various National Security Strategy documents issued by Republicans and Democrats in subsequent years have all extolled the need to maintain U.S. primacy, even when they acknowledge the return of great power competition. Prominent academics have weighed in too—some arguing that U.S. primacy is “essential to the future of freedom,” and good for the United States and the world alike. I’ve contributed to this view myself, writing in 2005 that “the central aim of U.S. grand strategy should be to preserve its position of primacy for as long as possible.” (My advice on how to achieve that goal was ignored, however.) [my emphasis]
The advice to which he refers was in his book, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), in which he rejected what he called the prevailing “strategy of primacy” in favor of his alternative of “offshore balancing”.
In any case, the Unipolar Moment is over. And it’s important to understand what happened during that period and which choices by which international actors led to which results. And now there is a drastically new situation for the world to manage.
On the other hand, the new situation has some unfortunately very familiar features. As David Rothkopf recently wrote, “Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines cited China’s ruling Communist Party as the ‘most consequential’ national security threat the U.S. faces.“
He suggests that what we could call a more sober, realist view would be better than the current US approach to China. And he asks a very important question about the current policy:
Does that necessarily mean going to war with China to defend Taiwan?
I can understand why we continue to say it might, because preserving democracy in Taiwan is in our interests. But we never talk about going to war to preserve democracy when it is at risk in places like Hungary, Turkey, India, or Mexico. What makes Taiwan a special case? We need to ask ourselves whether that has to do with our predisposition to contain Chinese power more than it has to do with a careful assessment of U.S. national interests. (Especially as we are now finally taking steps to reduce our unhealthy dependence on Taiwanese semiconductors.)
The problem with the current apparent decision to treat China as an enemy and an existential threat is that it can lead to distorted views on certain issues—such as Taiwan. (We should help Taiwan the way we help Ukraine, with military and financial aid, training and intelligence but not more than that.) Such issues can become red lines or trigger points for escalation in an unhealthy way. [my emphasis]
It wasn’t so long ago that the Obama-Biden Administration secured a solid nuclear arms-control agreement with Iran, which the Trump Administration cheerfully flushed down the toilet. The Biden Administration seems to have missed a real chance to resume the agreement. But hasn’t yet. And Biden’s Ambassador to Israel is allo but openly encourage Israel to go to war with Iran.
There are some serious reasons for concern about the direction this “multipolar” world is going.
Walt, Stephen (2023): America Is Too Scared of the Multipolar World. Foreign Policy 03/07/2023. <https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/07/america-is-too-scared-of-the-multipolar-world/> (Accessed: 2023-08-03).
Is America Ready for a Multipolar World? Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 11/14/2022. (Accessed: 2023-10-03).
Carter, Jimmy (2005): Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, 198-199. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney: Simon & Schuster.
Kennedy, John F. (1963): Commencement Address at American University, Washington, D.C. 06/10/1963. John F. Kennedy Library. <https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/american-university-19630610> (Accessed: 2023-09-03).
See review: Editors (2007): Parameters (U.S. Army War College) 3:2007, 113-115. <https://press.armywarcollege.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2374&context=parameters> (Accessed: 2023-09-03). The review uses the phrase “the Long War,” which now has a quaint sound but which was one of the labels that the Very Serious People of 2007 used for the “Global War on Terrorism.”
Rothkopf, David (2023);:What the U.S. National Security Community Is Getting Wrong About China. The Daily Beast 03/09/2023. <https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-washington-is-getting-wrong-about-dealing-with-china> (Accessed: 2023-10-03).
Hussain, Murtaza (2023): Hawkish Israel Is Pulling U.S. Into War With Iran 03/01/2023. <https://theintercept.com/2023/03/01/us-israel-iran-war/> (Accessed: 2023-10-03).