Which new world order: unipolar? bipolar? multipolar? non-polar?

Towards the end of the George W. Bush Administration, a series of essays by Richard Haass, former Head of Policy Planning of the State Department of the Bush Administration, now Head of the Council on Foreign Relations, marked a breathtaking change in the  analysis of America’s national interest in one or the other  conceivable structures of world order. Beginning with America’s self-assessment as the anchor of a unipolar world (Richard Haass, “The Case for Integration,” National Interest online, January 9, 2005), he then  shifted the focus to a multi-polar model to be used actively by Washington in a “Palmerstonian moment” (Richard Haass, “The Palmerstonian Moment,” National Interest online, February 1, 2008), and finally arrived at the preference for a non-polar world that would ultimately be in America’s own best interest (Richard Haass,  “What follows American Dominion?” Financial Times, April 16, 2008).

I. Thinking and Rethinking on Unipolarity, Bipolarity, Multipolarity,

Today, world opinion is essentially unanimous about the end of unipolar or bipolar ideology of the Neo-conservative spectrum. Multi-polarity appears to many as the obvious alternative to both.  But before mistaking the multi-polar alternative for a scientific certainty, it is worthwhile to retrace the thinking and rethinking of an acknowledged pragmatic voice of the Bush Administration about the sequence of changing world-views between 2005 and 2008.

Not much needs to be said about the passage from unipolar to multi-polar analysis. Unipolarity was empirically refuted by the failure of the US-led “coalition of the willing” in the Iraq war. The interesting aspect is the post-Iraq war, search for realist alternative by the Head of Policy Planning of the State Department of the Bush Administration. Almost inevitably, one might say, the search resulted in finding the classical balance of power prescription of the 18th and 19th centuries applied to the perceived situation of the 21st century. Of course, it seemed attractive for an US Statesman to be the “balancer” of such as system like Metternich, Palmerston or Bismark in their times.  The history of those older balance of power plays shows however, that multi-polarity is a structure that can easily turn against the “balancer” if other players feel threatened by his influence and coalesce against him.

This risk became immediately apparent in 2008 when neo-conservatives called for a “league of democracies” that would have challenged Chinese and Russian “autocracies” to enter a new bipolar competition of systems. Russian and Chinese political scientists quickly scrambled to counter the universalist dissemination of Western values by asserting Confucian values  (Xiang Lanxin, “What Prospects for Normative Foreign Policy in the New Multipolar World?” Paper presented at the 29th session of the CEPS/IISS/DCAF/GCSP European Security Forum, Brussels, May 26, 2008) values of the Russian Orthodox Church (Andrey Makarychev, “Rebranding Russia, Norms, Politics and Power,” CEPS Working Document No. 283, February 2008). Such a league would also have to get by without India, the world’s largest democracy. Despite bilateral territorial conflicts, an influential segment of the Indian political establishment feels greater cultural proximity to China than to the West, or at least to its neo-conservative form based on a violent, utopian idealism (Radha Kumar, “What Prospects for Normative Foreign Policy?” Paper presented at the 29 th session of the CEPS/IISS/DCAF/GCSP European Security Forum, Brussels, May 26,2008).

Both realists and idealists in the traditional sense had difficulties suppressing their dismay at how the Neo-conservative rhetoric of a bipolar conflict between democracy and autocracy misled Georgia into military action in South Ossetia in August 2008, inviting massive Russian intervention and certain Georgian defeat. Since the US was unable to come to the rescue of Georgia, the final effect of the bellicose rhetoric was to evidence the powerlessness of its authors. Richard Haass’s words remained unheard. Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly” came to mind.

The fundamental problem of multi-polarity is that it only gains attraction as the negation of unipolarity, as resistance to an existing empire or hegemonic state. This was the case with the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the universal claim of the Holy Roman Empire and established the international system of sovereign nation-states that henceforward bore its name. It was once again the case with De Gaulle’s sensational recognition of China in 1964, which he intended not only as a negation of the bipolar system but also of Anglo-Saxon hegemony West of the Iron Curtain.

The Westphalian system is the only historical example of a multi-polar world order  successfully established and maintained over a prolonged period of time. But this says nothing about its suitability as a positive strategy for preserving the peace between states. While the European states in the system endeavored to shape domestic peace, domestic economic developments and social coexistence in a more or less beneficial way, they regarded the international system as area in which they were free to  choose between diplomacy and war. They used this freedom with gusto, and mostly with the aim to expand their own power, state territory and access to economic resources at the expense of other states in the system or colonies not possessing statehood. The predominant state practice was in keeping with Hobbesian political theory,   in which Hobbes’ Leviathan ensures order within the states but in which the law of the jungle governs relations between states.  

Respected realists such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Haass have praised the European pentarchy (Great Britain, Russia, France, Prussia and Austria) as an exemplary world order, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were no fewer than 52 wars among the five members, not to mention wars with other states or in territories outside Europe not recognized as states. It appears doubtful that the willingness to switch alliances at any time, which Lord Palmerston saw as in Great Britain’s national interest, really contributed to preserving peace and the balance of power (see Graph 1)

In order to avoid wars at least part of the time, every system based on a balance of power requires statesmen of extraordinary analytic faculty, such as Palmerston, Bismarck and Kissinger. As soon as these statesmen “leave the ship” – in the figure of Bismarck in  Punch’s 1890 cartoon -, the system threatens to collapse. This is why the rest of the world could not find much comfort in Richard Haass’ plea for a “Palmerstonian moment” on the part of the US, not even as an alternative for the uni-polarity associated with the political adventure  of the Iraq war.

This is especially true of the EU, which has no foreign policymaking authority of its own, despite the name given its “Common Foreign and Security Policy”. Even after the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon, it can make no decisions concerning war or peace without the approval of its member states. Germany will always remain the biggest hurdle, since any German consent for military missions needs prior democratic legitimization by the Bundestag.  Hence the EU  cannot keep up with China, India, Russia and other power centers organized as nation-states. As a consequence, Richard Haass believed that NATO was losing its value for the US and that changing alliances like in Palmerton’s day were preferable. The EU is not even included on most lists of a multi-polar global pentarchy in the twenty-first century, least of all Kissinger’s. The most dramatic implication of Richard Haass’  Palmerstonian Moment” was that the pentarchy had moved from Europe to the Pacific region, and that the majority of the five power centers  was henceforth constituted by three Asian states—China, India and Japan (Graph 2).

II. Beyond polarity

This does not mean, however, that a multipolar world order along the lines of a globalized Westphalian system had won the day. For the very nations considered by proponents of realism as the three new Asian power centers are also the driving force behind a renaissance of multilateralism and are pursuing a forward-looking strategy of functional integration in  Asia. The more unilaterally the Bush Administration has acted, the more China has championed multilateralism  (see Henrik Schmiegelow, “Asia’s International Order,” Internationale Politik (IP) Global Edition, Fall 2007, p. 17-22). The North Korean nuclear crisis marked the first time China voted in favor of sanctions in the UN Security Council—targeting a neighbor that has long been considered its charge. In the six-way negotiations on denuclearizing the North Korean end of  the “axis of evil”, Washington began relying on China to work out a solution. It is therefore no surprise that Richard Haass highlighted the North Korean settlement when he moved on to argue in favor of a non-polar world  in the last article of the series cited above. 

Like other Asian states, especially members of ASEAN,  Japan and China have closely observed Europe’s experience in functional integration. They have drawn their own conclusions from evidence of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the European model.  And they started a process with a sequence suitable to Asia (see our post “Is Asia’s Integration less Functional than Europe’s?”). As in Europe, the functional integration of Asia produces such large advantages for one-time warring parties that there is no reasonable cost-benefit relationship to justify wars. It is the best example of today’s opportunity for  a world order surmounting the risks of the Westphalian system.

Moreover, it is an example that cannot be criticized as an outgrowth of Euro-centrism or an aggressive expansion of western values. Fortunately, cost-benefit analysis can be performed using trans-cultural math. The integration of the Chinese national economy into the world economy, especially the supply chains between Chinese, American and Japanese companies, suggests that the Chinese see no contradiction of such a process to Confucian norms. Russia, which thus far has profited mainly from rich natural resource deposits and is much less integrated into the world economy than China, is already feeling challenged to learn lessons from this example. After 2006, Russia’s renewed power led to Putin’s deliberately sharp-edged foreign policy, but a “Medvedev moment” was supposed to convey a somewhat softer image of this reemerging power. The new president was quoted as saying that, in the end, Russia will not earn the world’s respect “through strength but through responsible action” (Nikolai Petro, “Seizing the Medvedev Moment,” International Herald Tribune, March 14, 2008). Unfortunately, the “moment” seemed abruptly suspended in the “bipolar” derailment of Georgia’s South Ossetian adventure. But eventually, cultural relativism will not stand in opposition to a functional understanding of national  interests in Russia either, however nationalist the tradition of the Russian-Orthodox Church be.  Much depends on the West’s recovery of its own capacity of functional calculation of interests in relation to Russia.

As we shall discuss in our next post, the global economic meltdown of 2008/2009, the worst since the Great Depression contributed to a new awareness of the world having no other choice than working as a problem solving community.


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