After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World

Dilip Hiro
Nation Books
ISBN: 978-1-56858-427-0
Chapter 11 Pages 271-281

THE fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 turned out to be a preamble to the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later. The Washington -led alliance felt elated, and rightly so. A New World Order had arrived, declared U.S. President George H. W. Bush, in which “the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in peace.”           

There was not much of peace though. Between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the unrivalled United States mounted 10 large scale military interventions – one every 15 months – a world record. [1] Of these, only two involved reversing aggression, as in the Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991, or self-defense, as with the Taliban-administered Afghanistan a decade later.

Most of the Pentagon’s campaigns – ranging from Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia and Haiti, to Bosnia and Serbia – occurred under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention”, sanctified by the United Nations Security Council. The Sole Superpower had acquired such a halo that it encountered little resistance in turning the UN Security Council into a virtual extension of its State Department.

And when, in the case of Iraq, the Bush administration failed in early 2003 to bend the Security Council to its will, it went ahead with its invasion nevertheless. Its swift victory added to its hubris while the majority of the Security Council’s permanent as well as non-permanent members watched, aghast, from the sidelines. 

But the wheel turned when the Pentagon found itself in a quagmire in Iraq. France’s president, Jacques Chirac, loudly trumpeted that he stood vindicated. The leader of the hitherto squeamish Russia, President Vladimir Putin, issued a document asserting that “The myth about the uni-polar world fell apart once and for all in Iraq.”

In Chirac’s and Putin’s behavior, historians recognized echoes of the non-French European leaders after the fall of Napoleon I in 1815. The monarchs of Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia formed the Concert of Europe to ensure that no single European country became as powerful as France had under Napoleon I.

Out of this concert was born the concept of the balance of power, which became the guiding principle of international relations. Along with this emerged the concept of competitive co-existence. That is, big powers learnt to co-exist peacefully while competing with one another commercially and politically. As an increasing number of intellectuals in America and elsewhere began to grasp this trajectory of history, the initial euphoria in the West – aptly captured in the title of Francis Fukuyama, End of History and the Last Man (1992) – began to evaporate. They started realizing that the uncontested supremacy of the United States in all important aspects of civilization – economics, politics, military and culture – was not destined to last for eon. 

For instance, as the 1990s gave way to the 21st century, it became apparent that there was no evidence to support the thesis that a majority of those living in non-democratic countries viewed liberal, Western democracy as the ultimate form of governance. When given an option to choose their ruling representatives, voters in the Middle East almost invariably chose Islamists who were committed to marrying representative government with the edicts of Islam.

History had not ended, argued the pugnacious school in America, best represented by Robert Kagan, a neo-conservative ideology. It offered the scenario of sharpening great power rivalry between democracies led by Washington, and autocracies, represented in the main by Russia and the People’s Republic of China. It was to be a return to the Cold War under different labels. 

Kagan’s binary thesis (black/white, with nothing in between) was a reprise of Bush’s “You’re with us, or you’re with terrorists”. It was equally simplistic. His argument that when push comes to shove, Saudi Arabia “may see virtue in drawing closer to fellow autocrats in Moscow and Beijing[2] defies history and facts on the ground. The 77-year old monarchical autocracy of Saudi Arabia has been closely tied to the U.S. since 1943 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was beating the drum of “Four Freedoms”, including the freedom to citizens to choose their rulers. The ultimate guarantor of the Saudi kingdom has been, and remains, the United States. It is the U.S. Fifth Fleet that is based in the adjoining Bahrain run by an autocratic hereditary ruler. There are no Russian or Chinese aircraft carriers floating in the Gulf region.

On the other side of the globe is Venezuela, which has been democratic, by Western standards, since 1959. That system has continued under the presidency of Hugo Chavez since 1999. Indeed, Venezuela has had more referendums, and general elections for president and parliament, under Chavez than during any previous decade. Where would Venezuela be placed in Kagan’s binary world ?

Attempting to put America at the head of a newly minted column of diehard democracies stems from a failure to acknowledge a cold fact: The United States is on a downward slide. It is not just the habitual Cassandras and diehard detractors of the U.S. who are relishing the prospect of America’s inexorably declining power and influence. Such a judgment has been made by the official documents published by the U.S. government.

The global trends review, produced by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) every four years for the upcoming administration, is the case in point. Its report, published in December 2004, for the second Bush administration forecast “continued U.S. dominance” and declared that oil and gas supplies were “sufficient to meet global demands”. The subsequent NIC report, released nearly four years later, said, “Owing to the relative decline of its economic, and to a lesser extent , military power, the U.S. will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many options [as it has now].” The relative strength and potential leverage of the U.S. were in decline in an increasingly multi-polar world, it concluded. [3]

The NIC confirmed the view that had gained currency earlier among intellectuals in America and elsewhere in the West. Some reacted to this prospect with alarm and others with a calming reassurance.  

Alarmists visualized the United States being replaced by the People’s Republic of China as the dominant superpower. They saw red in Beijing stacking up U.S. Treasury bonds with the malevolent intent of twisting Uncle Sam’s arm in the none-too-distant future. They pointed out that in a reconfigured East Asia, with one-third of the global population, the PRC had become not just the economic fountain-head, surpassing Japan, but also the leader in all non-military fields, pushing America off its perch. They failed to note that by over-reacting to 9/11 attacks and mounting two major wars while reducing taxes at home, it was Bush who had bolstered – albeit inadvertently – the power and glory of the Middle Kingdom.

The other school of thought tried to calm popular nerves. It assailed the concept of the zero-sum game: the gain of non-American powers becoming the automatic loss of America, and vice versa. The U.S. was quite capable of accommodating the newly empowered countries – China being the prime example – into the exclusivist club of G8 (Group of Eight most industrialized nations), and acting as the chairperson who “gently” guides a group of freshly appointed independent directors, it argued.

What both schools of thought had in common was their emotional ties with America, and their undying wish to see it remain the Number One even in radically changed times, while they kept the American audience in the foreground.  

This approach left untapped an intellectual field that did not revolve around the United States and was not dialectical – America versus China, the West against Asia, or democracies versus autocracies. And that is the area this book has tried to cover by offering a clear-eyed assessment of the major powers, setting out their respective strengths and weaknesses, and future trends.

Furthermore, noting the contemporary world’s heavy dependence on hydrocarbons to sustain or raise living standards, this volume has also dealt with Venezuela and Iran. Endowed with vast quantities of oil and gas, these two countries provide political and economic models which are at variance with what the U.S. has to offer in South America and the hydrocarbon rich Gulf region.

The multi-polar world sketched in the preceding chapters consists of several major players – America, the European Union, China, Russia, and India. Since power is multi-dimensional, no single country will continue to be dominant in all fields. The modus operandi of the future is accommodation between leading powers at certain times and deterrence at others – a flexible combination of the main actors emerging to thwart the excessive ambitions of one of them. In other words, an international set-up where great powers will be able to the thwart the unbridled aims of an aspiring superpower. Back to the age-old balance of power at work.

Chinese leaders were probably the first to imagine a world along these lines. They were certainly the first to call on the scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) to quantify Comprehensive National Power (CNP). Now, thanks to the Academy’s pioneering work, a scientific formula exists to measure a country’s CNP – a realistic evaluation, shorn of ideology.

China’s Hard-Nosed Realism

In 2006 the United States scored 90.62 out of 100 on the CNP scale whereas the PRC got only of 59.10.

So the alarmist school in the U.S. can rest assured that Chinese leaders are by no means thinking of the PRC catching up with America much less overtaking it.

They subscribe to the dictum of Sun Zi, the ancient author of The Art of War: “To defeat the enemy without fighting is the epitome of skill.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of the recent CASS articles offer either analyses of the salient features of U.S. power and influence or outline tactics to block, side-step, curtail or limit them.

The latest insight into the thinking of CASS scholars and Chinese leader was given by an editorial in the official China Daily. Commenting on the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in January 2009, it said, “U.S. leaders have never been shy about talking about their country’s ambition. For them, it is divinely granted destiny no matter what other nations think.” It then predicted that “Obama’s defense of U.S. interests will inevitably clash with those of other nations.”[4]  

The general strategy for circumventing America or molding it to constrain its foreign policy, however, was laid out a decade earlier by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiang-Sui in their book Unrestricted Warfare. Combine non-military and trans-military means; apply them in an obfuscated fashion wherever you can; and use multinational, supra-national and non-state institutions to defeat a militarily superior adversary, they recommended.

Using an amalgam of these methods, Beijing has succeeded in blunting Washington’s measures against Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan and Uzbekistan while furthering its economic and diplomatic interests. [5]

The PRC’s drive to strengthen its commercial ties with America has not stopped it from consistently opposing Washington’s attempts to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations under the garb of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It persisted in opposing the U.S. at the UN Security Council even when it was the only permanent member of the Council to do so – as in the case of Iraq’s Kurds in 1991.  

It was much later, in 1998, that the Russian foreign ministry, led by Yevgeny Primakov, mustered enough courage to spike the Bill Clinton administration’s plan to foist its unilateral interpretation of an earlier resolution on Iraq to gain UN authorization for military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime after the repeated failures of the CIA-engineered coup attempts. When, Russia, backed by China, threatened to veto Washington’s draft resolution, Clinton retreated.

Due to the collaboration of China and Russia – still economically dependent on America and U.S.-influenced International Monetary Fund – the international community received its first glimpse of the workings of a multi-polar world. It was an early example of the pattern likely to become established in the coming decades, with several major powers – America, the European Union , China, Russia, India and Brazil – active on the world stage.

In August 2008, as the Russian Federation hit Georgia hard after Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, all President Bush did was to condemn the Kremlin’s military onslaught verbally.

The Russian-Georgian spat signaled the end of the U.S. acting as the sole superpower militarily. By happenstance, America’s military hegemony lasted as many years – 1991 to 2008 – as did the supremacy of the Allies after World War I, from the 1919 Versailles Treaty to the remilitarization of the demilitarized Rhineland by resurgent Germany in 1936 in violation of the above treaty.

Russia-China Relations: Less than Marriage 

THE other issue where the PRC and the Kremlin have moved in step is Iran. They noted, disapprovingly, that the U.S., backed by the Britain, had tried to misuse earlier UN resolutions on Iraq passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (“Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression”). So, when it came to the draft resolutions presented to the UN Security Council on Iran’s nuclear program under Chapter VII, they insisted on inserting Article 41 (which specifies “measures not involving the use of armed force”) after Chapter VII. They succeeded. 

As Iran’s neighbor sharing the Caspian Sea, Russia has critical interest in its stability and security, no matter who rules in Tehran. Moreover, it empathizes with Iran on the latter’s feeling of insecurity since Washington has yet to disown publicly covert plans to overthrow the Iranian regime. It sees Russia’s security threatened by the Pentagon’s project of building anti-missile defense facilities in eastern Europe. 

By constructing and equipping Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Moscow has shown its confidence in the regime’s peaceful intentions. Energy-hungry China has its eyes set on the vast deposits of oil and gas in the soil and territorial waters of Iran. The Chinese companies have filled the vacuum in other areas of Iran’s industry left by their departing German counterparts under American pressure.

While China and Russia are committed to non-proliferation of nuclear arms, they cannot ignore Washington’s willful refusal to foreswear the option of toppling the Islamic regime as a first step to recognizing Iran’s critical role as a regional power.

Post-World War II history shows that for countries – small, middling, or great – acquiring nuclear weapons is about the most basic requirement: the survival of the regime or nation. Joining the nuclear club has proved an effective strategy for survival. The possession of the city-busting weaponry and means to deliver it has the potential of causing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and acts as a uniquely powerful deterrent. While the madness of this strategy is recognized universally, the salient point that goes virtually unmentioned is that acquiring nuclear arms has proved an effective step for a regime to take when its survival is at stake.

The latest example is North Korea. Bush’s belligerent policy toward it drove its leader, Kim Jong Il, to accelerate the nuclear arms program and test a bomb in October 2006. He thus improved his bargaining power. In the end he succeeded in getting North Korea removed from the list of states that support international terrorism, and it ceased to be a member of the “Axis of Evil.”

It was four decades earlier that Israel fabricated its first atom bomb. Even though, in the mid-1950s, Israel was militarily superior to the combined strength of its Arab neighbors, its leaders pondered the prospect when that would cease to be the case. And they could not be 100% certain that the Western powers would come to their rescue in case of war. Therefore they decided to produce their own atom bomb – to ensure the nation’s survival.

As yet there is no hard evidence that Iran has actually started a nuclear weapons program. (That at a certain point, Iran’s engineers and scientists most probably worked on schematic designs for an atom bomb and/or a missile head does not amount to actual work being undertaken.) But if its leaders were to give up the legitimate right to enrich uranium per se that would forfeit the option of producing a nuclear bomb in the future – if the changed circumstances demanded it – as part of their defensive strategy. That option would be unacceptable to them, or the leaders of any other nation which feels threatened by the United States – as North Korea did, until recently – or its closest regional ally, Israel.   

It is up to the Obama administration to devise a policy which accepts, discreetly, Iran’s right to consider a nuclear weapons option while its negotiators try to convince it that its security would be best served by not following that path. The Obama White House’s offer of a non-aggression pact with Tehran would go a long way in that direction.  

What is lacking in Washington’s approach to both Iran and Russia is empathy with the other party, to ask and understand what is driving it to behave the way it does, and address its fears and concerns. That is the real test of unmatched diplomacy. 

Cooperation and Competition

THE strengthening Chinese-Russian alliance – in military (as in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), commerce and diplomacy – is not without its strains. Holding fast to its tenet of respecting the territorial integrity of the UN member-states, the PRC refused to support the Kremlin’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Actually, cooperation and competition is the template of several relationships among the major powers.

While strengthening its ties with America, commercial and military, Delhi has conducted joint military exercises with China, which is its number one trading partner. India is purchasing advanced fighters jets from Russia as well as a refitted, modern aircraft carrier, the first to be owned by a non-Western nation.

The sharpest example of engagement and containment is the relationship between Beijing and Washington.

While busily buying U.S. Treasury bonds, the PRC was finessing its strategy of developing area-denial weapons and anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities to be used against the Pentagon. On its part, the Pentagon’s reconnaissance planes and ships aggressively gathered military intelligence, the latest example being the U.S. Navy’s surveillance ship Impeccable tracking Chinese submarines near China’s offshore island of Hainan, the base of the PRC’s ballistic missile submarine fleet.[6]  

Taking a long-term view, PRC leaders have concluded that the United States will turn its attention eastward to try to recover the ground it lost during the two-term Bush presidency, and that will bring it in conflict with China.

But for the 9/11 attacks, the first Bush administration would have confronted the PRC. That was what Paul Wolfowitz, the number two at the Defense Department, was preparing to do. As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, he came under the influence of Professor Albert Wohlstetter, a military strategist. The guru of the Cold War hawks, Wohlstetter believed that détente with the Soviet Union verged on treason. He argued that if you forecast conflict with China two decades from now, you fight it now and remove that danger to U.S. supremacy. The terrorist attacks in September 2001 diverted Wolfowitz from his China agenda, and gave him a second chance to sell his pre-emptive strike doctrine that Bush Senior had rejected nine years earlier.[7]  

For now, the American policy-makers have abandoned their stale theory that globalization and China’s breakneck economic growth would lead to meaningful political reform culminating in Chinese citizens electing their own rulers in free and fair elections. There is no prospect of Chinese voters being given the right to choose their governing councils above the village level.

Elsewhere, a gradual move towards a representative government in the Middle East is likely, with a free choice favoring Islamists. 

Most Likely Scenario of the Future

CONTRARY to the predictions of many American pundits that globalization and free markets will transform nation states into market-states, there will be a strong revival of the inviolability of national sovereignty. This was well illustrated by the way the Burmese military rulers spurned offers of foreign aid in the aftermath of the cyclone in 2008, and got away with it.

The fiscal tempest caused by the reckless policies of Washington, originating in Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, along with the crash in the value of wide ranging assets in North America and the European Union, has made the Chinese model of the state-guided economic development attractive to developing nations, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

Over the next few decades, with dwindling reserves of oil and gas, the importance of hydrocarbons will rise dramatically. Three-fifths of oil and two-fifths of natural gas reserves are in the Gulf region. So it will be vitally important for the world at large to note how well, or badly, the present authoritarian and semi-authoritarian rulers of the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf countries, currently deriving their legitimacy from a mix of tribalism and Islam, succeed in blending representative democracy with Islam. 

The transfer of power from the hereditary ruler to the popularly elected representatives will almost certainly lead the democratic governments in these Gulf states to distance themselves from the United States. One of the main reasons why these royal autocrats have aligned themselves with Washington is their belief that, in the final analysis, only the Pentagon can provide them with a security umbrella.

But their popularly elected governments will realize that they can protect their countries from foreign aggression by expanding the 28-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council to include Iran and Iraq, now that these two neighbors have left their past rivalry behind. That would make the Pentagon’s presence in the Gulf redundant and remove a major source of tension in this vital region.

One of the major benefits arising from a multi-polar world will be the fillip it will give to the regional organizations. The 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), now focused on economic cooperation, will be emboldened to expand its remit to defense. This is already happening elsewhere.

In 2008, the summit of the 12-nation Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), meeting in Brasilia, decided to create a military coordinating component to be called Conselho Sul-Americano de Defesa (CSD) with an increasingly NATO-like structure although without an operating field capability.

In the economic field, the expanding GDPs of mega nations like India are providing opportunities to highly educated and skilled persons at home as never before. This has reduced the brain drain to a trickle. In the early 1980s, 75% of the graduates of the high-caliber Indian Institutes of Technology migrated to North America. Now the figure is down to 5%.     

Attracting the best minds from the Third World has been very beneficial to the United States. The case of India indicates that U.S. will lose this valuable asset in the coming decades.

Overall, with rising literacy in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the number of literate non-Western people is growing fast. So too is the size of the opinion formers in these continents.

Given the ubiquity of television, the bulk of the world’s population is getting informed about the events in their countries and abroad by television news. In their own languages and increasingly from their own perspective rather than American or British.

All these developments will cumulatively reduce the power and influence of the United States, which enjoyed the status of the Sole Superpower for almost two decades, and help level the playing field for China, the European Union, Russia,. India and Brazil.

[1] After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Pentagon staged alone or led major military operations in Panama (December 1989), the Iraqi-occupied Kuwait (January 1991), Iraqi Kurdistan (June 1991), Somalia (1992 and 1993), Bosnia (1994), Haiti (1994), Iraq (Operation “Desert Fox”, 1998), Serbia (1999), and Afghanistan (2001).

[2] Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Random House, New York/Atlantic Books, London, 2008, p. 75.

[3] Julian Borger, “US intelligence: ‘We can no longer call shots alone’.”, Guardian, November 21, 2008.

[4] John Lee, “The danger of an attractive Obama”, International Herald Tribune, February 3, 2009.

[5] The latest instance was the PRC blocking America’s move at the UN Security Council to condemn Sudan’s expulsion of aid workers form Darfur. Simon Tisdall, “Naval skirmish shows U.S. and China are sailing into choppy waters”, Guardian, March 11, 2009.

[6] Mark McDonald, “Beijing says U.S. incited tense standoff by navies”, New York Times, March 11, 2009. It was over the Hainan Island that in April 2001 an American reconnaissance plane had a forced landing after its mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter plane.

[7] Dilip Hiro, Secrets and Lies, Nation Books, New York, 2004, pp. 5-6, p. 10.

Copyright © 2009 Dilip Hiro