Twilight has come to the lonely superpower. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the era of American primacy. The emergence of China and India in the East, Brazil in the South and a German-dominated EU within the West has precipitated a steady sapping of America’s strength relative to the rest of the world. Economic malaise and an overextended and overused military is hastening that power shift. The winner of November’s election must not avoid or obfuscate the redistribution of power in the world. It is, for the sole superpower, the single most salient issue in foreign relations.
The end of American primacy is not, however, a Jeremiad. Unipolarity has not been uniquely peaceful or prosperous for the United States. Indeed, it is not by chance that the “unipolar moment” has coincided with America’s fall from grace. A strategy with the intent of perpetuating dominance is mistaken.
The top priority for next year’s president should be to forge a multipolar world. An international system built upon spheres of influence will be far less parlous for America, not to mention the rest of the world. But such a policy would come as a profound shock to a public still enamoured with the idea that America has an exceptional role in world affairs. The right foreign policy is not the easy one; it will require real political temerity.
UNIPOLARITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
The collapse of the sclerotic Soviet empire in 1991 heralded the beginning of a unipolar world. Since then, American power has gone unrivalled in the international system. No state or coalition of states has been able to effectively challenge American primacy. While American influence has certainly not been total, it has enjoyed truly global reach that has been backed by the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military.
Most Americans and many sympathetic foreigners see that primacy as benign. For them, it is a “benevolent global hegemony”, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote. Yet, the US has been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade now. It only just left Iraq. And the George W. Bush administration should not be seen as an aberration; George H.W. Bush sent thousands of American troops into Somalia and the Gulf, Bill Clinton used military force against Serbia and Iraq, and Barack Obama has ordered air strikes in Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. It was during the years of unrivalled power that America was the victim of the terror attack on September 11, 2001. On an empirical level, unipolarity has certainly not been peaceful.
Rather, conflict has been the corollary of dominance. On a basic level, unipolar systems are more uncertain and therefore more prone to spiralling into tension and war. In the anarchic international system, all states are opportunistic and seek gains where possible. In a multipolar system, the various poles deter nations from acting in a rogue manner. But in a unipolar system—in which the hegemon cannot enforce order in every region and no state can police the hegemon’s actions—opportunism abounds. States act more aggressively because they think they can get away with it. America’s wars of the 1990s against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia were initiated because those nations believed that the US would not mind if they moved their borders a little. America’s war against Iraq in the 2000s was allowed to happen because the international system had no checks against the superpower. A descent into violence is quite a predictable consequence of any unipolar world.
But this has not been an ordinary unipolar world. America is a unique superpower; its open political system shares a porous border with its lively political discourse. The voters are mercurial masters, and if they support an idea—however fleetingly—it can enter the halls of power. During the 1990s in America, hegemony begot hubris. The absence of external constraints on the exercise of American power created a sense of invulnerability. In that heady time, ambitious neoconservative doctrines evolved, which recommended an active and unilateralist foreign policy, stressing the messianic element of American exceptionalism. It was assumed that it was America’s manifest destiny to enforce order and foment democracy in the forgotten regions of the globe. With the Bush administration, those ideas came to the White House, and the war of choice in Iraq followed. The arrogance of being the sole superpower led America to tragedy. Unipolarity has cost America dearly, in blood and treasure and prestige. What, then, is the alternative?
THE WISDOM OF MULTIPOLARITY
After close to a decade of traumatic and expensive interference on the Vietnamese peninsula, President Richard Nixon began to acknowledge the emergence of a multipolar world. Today, such observations are laced with apocalyptic language. But Nixon, backed by the effusively realist Henry Kissinger, saw strategic benefit in the emerging new world. He told Time in 1971, “I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other.”
Nixon was right then, and he is still right now. An international system of multiple spheres of influence, each dominated by a major power, is the best way to guard against aggression and disorder. Through mutual deterrence, major powers act as pacifying influences upon one another. And the interest major powers have in ensuring order in their sphere of influence encourages them to rein in aggressive small states that are in their orbit.
For some, the idea of a multipolar world is still tainted by the catastrophe that was early 20th century Europe. The fields of the Somme are marked by graves because, with the death of a prince in June 1914, the tensions that existed between the major powers erupted. However, the problems that plagued the European balance of power system will not wreak havoc upon a multipolar 21st century world. The sheer scale of major power interdependence is so great now that the incentives for cooperation outweigh those for conflict. China will not play war games in Asia if it thrusts millions of its citizens back into poverty. Multipolarity is the best guarantee of peace in our time.
Concomitantly, the United States does not require hegemony for prosperity. It is often thought that America’s global military presence has ensured the success of its corporations around the world. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist”, wrote Tom Friedman in 1999. To the contrary, China has shown in recent years that it is the carrot rather than the stick that ensures open, receptive economies. In Africa, Chinese development packages have preceded favourable investment contracts. And immediately after World War II, the US demonstrated that neither was necessary; soft power could underwrite cooperation.
In fact, it is America’s expensive, expansive global interests that are ballooning an already crippling national debt. Serious budget hawks recognise that it is essential to cut defence spending—likely by bringing home many of the 300,000 US troops stationed abroad, shifting military burdens on to allies, and not upgrading its weapons arsenal as often. Retrenchment can replenish a weary economy. And that should be the first priority of next year’s president.
THE URGENCY OF CHANGE
Elections are more often of mice than men. Timidity and populist pandering are all too commonplace. This year’s presidential election has been no exception to that rule. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has been willing to acknowledge that the US is in relative decline, that it no longer has the power to sustain a Pax Americana. The American public is still very much devoted to the idea of America’s manifest destiny, and in an election year they are courted rather than confronted.
Obama has knelt before the altar of Kennedy, embracing a muscular globalism that aims to protect American primacy through alliances and discreet military action, while Romney’s rhetorical lodestone has been Reagan’s crusading foreign policy, clothing hawkish stances in the Manichean language of good and evil. Both candidates have shied away from an honest appraisal of American foreign relations, preferring instead to beat the drums of war to ephemeral issues such as Iran’s bomb and China’s currency.
Of course, American decline will not wait for political convenience. Even if it did, next year’s occupant of the Oval Office should not delay in forging a multipolar world. Unipolarity has been a curse upon the sole superpower; primacy has not delivered its promises. Just as Roosevelt and Truman made the American world, so must the winner of November’s election unmake it.
This essay was the winner of the United States Studies Centre’s inaugural student essay writing competition.