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The Threat of Back to Normal
Global power has always been distributed.
“Multipolarity” isn’t some new idea cooked up by a secret Chinese-Russian working group: it’s the natural order of things, and has been for thousands of years. There was a time when a number of confused and ignorant people doubted this, but that’s coming to an end now.
Go to any area of the world at any point in history, and you find complex patterns of power and influence, and political entities that have different relations of trade, diplomacy and conflict with each other The Bronze Age states of the Mediterranean appear to have had quite sophisticated diplomatic relations, just like the Empires of pre-colonial West Africa. Who your neighbours are, what they want, who is powerful and who can be manipulated, who to ally with and who to fight against, whose views have to be taken into account, are constants of politics ever since there have been identifiable political entities.
This was not only true, but recognised to be true, until very recently. For example, we know from files opened in the 1990s that in 1979 the Soviet Politburo was agonising over whether to intervene militarily in Afghanistan. And one of the things they had to take into account was likely western, and especially US, reaction. But the Politburo decided that relations were so bad anyway, and getting worse, that it was unlikely that the intervention would make much difference. Whether they were right is debatable, but the fact is that they felt obliged to take possible western reaction into account. Much the same was true with the US in Vietnam; at all stages, the political leadership had one eye on the Chinese reaction, and took care never to provoke that country unduly.
This was, in fact, the way the Cold War worked. Although the popular image today is of a world permanently teetering on the verge of nuclear armageddon (and it’s true that each side systematically misread the intentions of the other) the underlying reality was stable, with a recognition that it was important to avoid escalating situations that could become dangerous.
A good example is Angola. Post-colonial Africa was a field of competition for the major powers of the world, (including China, which backed Robert Mugabe’s ZANU in Rhodesia) but this never spilled over into direct conflict. The Soviet Union, keen to expand its influence, and with a Marxist government in Luanda to support after 1975 (the MPLA), preferred to work through its Cuban and East German surrogates. There were few Russians there, and none in combat roles. The West gently encouraged South Africa to intervene on the other side, and in some cases supplied discreet support, but was never openly involved.
Broadly speaking, this was the pattern of the Cold War. In a regional conflict or civil war, one side would supply weapons, training and “advisers” to their preferred faction or nation, and the other side would reciprocate. It was a contest for power and influence, a game with rules that were reasonably well understood and largely adhered to. The niceties were observed also: during the Intermediate Nuclear Forces negotiations of the 1990s, the US and the USSR went to great lengths to be seen to consult and inform their allies. At the same time, certain areas of the world were regarded as “allied with” the West, such as Japan or South Korea, others such as Cuba or the Yemen were “allied with” the Soviet bloc, and in general the other side avoided direct confrontations that might get out of control.
It would be too simple to say that things changed at the end of the Cold War. What changed were perceptions: at least as much as reality, and often more so. The resulting fiction of a unipolar world was partly a deliberate creation, partly the result of ignorance, partly a collective hallucination of people who didn’t know any better.
There has never been a time when the world has actually been unipolar, or dominated by a single power. The Roman or the Ottoman Empires at their height, were historically large and long-lasting, but they had borders to defend and across these borders were powerful and dangerous forces that had to be taken account of. The much shorter-lived British and French Empires dominated certain parts of the globe, but were continually fearful of various enemies, including each other. The British Empire for example, even at its height from about 1900 to 1950, was a fragile and ultimately unaffordable construct. In theory, the Royal Navy controlled the seas of the world: in practice, by the 1930s a naval base could still be built at Singapore, but there was no money to permanently station warships in the Pacific.
The same applied to considerations of ideology and religion. The Great Powers in 1914 were an extremely heterogeneous lot. The British, with their constitutional monarchy and their liberal traditions of non-involvement in Europe, the French with their Republicanism and their understandable fixation with Germany, the Russians, with an absolutist ruler and a specific brand of Christianity, the polyglot, multi-confessional Habsburg Empire that was managing to survive against the odds, the upstart Germans with their authoritarian monarchical state and Emperor, and the declining but not yet dead, Ottoman Empire, whose influence had spread Islam far and wide. Yet if everyone was, to a degree, afraid of everyone else, and there was a constant game of jockeying for influence, ideology did not really enter into the equation. The British and French were quite happy to attack a fellow Christian state,
Russia, Ukraine in Crimea, to take some pressure off the Ottoman Empire. Before 1914, Liberals in Britain and Republicans in France were uncomfortable with an alliance with absolutist Russia, but most accepted the need for a major ally against Germany.
The period from about 1989 to the present, often described as “unipolar,” was the product of several independent factors, which arose independently of each other, and which I’ll go through in turn. To begin with, few in 1989-91 would have expected the catastrophic decline in Russian economic and military power that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. It should have been the other way round: Russia, free of the burden of subsidising the other Republics, should have benefited economically from the fall of the USSR. The fact that it didn’t, was because of the overnight forced adoption of a western-style free-market economy at a time of political chaos.
Western diplomats and politicians, especially those with faith in market economics, were as stunned as everybody else by the events of this period. Yet for all the attempts to pretend that the economic collapse had come before the dissolution of the USSR rather than after it, and that the West had somehow “won” the Cold War, there was a widespread feeling of anti-climax and frustration. The apocalyptic final showdown that many had feared and some had eagerly anticipated had not happened. But the ideological testosterone which had accumulated over so many decades had to go somewhere. Partly, it went into the first Gulf War in 1990-91, but that was unsatisfactory too: a quick victory against a feeble opponent. Bosnia at first looked promising, but rapidly turned out to be far too complex as well as almost impossible to influence. What remained was a residual aggressiveness, an atavistic belief in some quarters that the Cold War was not “really” over, and above all a desire to inflict on the new Russia a defeat which history had denied them with the fall of Soviet Union.
This view was held with particular force in Washington, and I think it’s important to stress that US behaviour towards the new Russia was a fairly natural consequence of American political culture generally. That culture is competitive, aggressive, power-obsessed, and prizes victories, even empty ones, over agreements and consensus. All political questions in Washington are settled by defeats for some and victories for others, and the weak are trodden into the ground. Consensus, where absolutely required, is a long and exhausting process of trials of strength, with agencies not scrupling to privately or publicly dissociate themselves from that consensus. (I remember an American colleague telling me twenty years ago that on a certain subject, under President Clinton, it had been “The Pentagon against the National Security Council and the State Department” whereas under the new President Bush it was “the Pentagon and the National Security Council against the State Department.” I forbore to ask the obvious question.)
This culture contributed in two ways to the rise of the illusion of unipolarity. First, the decision-making process in Washington is so exhausting and time-consuming that there is little time, energy or inclination to worry about what others think and, from the US perspective, no reason to do so. With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union gone, the narcissist tendency to self-absorption became absolute. The dominant theory of international relations in Washington at the time (and many top officials came from Universities) was Realism or neo-Realism, a theoretically hardheaded, but in practice reductive and superficial, reading of international affairs, that sees international politics as a zero-sum competition between unitary nation-states, constantly seeking to expand or at least retain their power, and with issues decided by brute force and economic and political power. (Though that perhaps makes the concept as actually applied in government sound more sophisticated than it actually was)
In the circumstances, the US reaction to the implosion of Russia was inevitable. “They’re down, let’s kick them”, was the thinking, and if stories at the time were true, these were the very words used by some US officials. To the Europeans who protested that this might be unwise, there was the simple answer. So what? Who cares? What are they going to do about it? Throughout the nineties, whilst there was a lot of political meddling in Russia, and attempts to refashion the country and its economy, the idea of actually taking Russian reservations and opposition into account (over Kosovo, for example) did not really occur to the western strategic mind. It was not that there was a master-plan to destroy Russia: rather, what the Russians though and wanted was irrelevant, and could safely be ignored, because they didn’t have the force to back it up. And only force mattered.
But what about the rest of the world? Here, there are a number of factors to bear in mind. One, mundanely, is the beginning of globalisation. The advent of international satellite television had a huge impact: if the international audience of CNN was very limited, it was concentrated among the educated and professional classes. International editions of western newspapers started to proliferate: in the kinds of hotels frequented by journalists, media pundits, intellectuals and Thomas Friedman, you would find the same print media you were used to back home, as well as English-language newspapers like the Japan Times masquerading as local products. It was possible to believe that the whole world was coming to resemble the West, or even the United States, provided you stayed in English-speaking hotels, ate at restaurants with English menus and confined your meetings to those who spoke English. “They’re just like us, really” I was told by any number of confident, if ignorant, western businessmen or NGO workers, who might as well have stayed at home for all the experience of a foreign country they actually had. Moreover, since such publications and TV channels only gave the US or western perspective on any issue, it was possible to believe that in the great crises of the day the US was playing a far more important role than it actually was.
Next, most cultures in the world are more sophisticated and complex than ours, and place great store by politeness and good manners. There are few cultures that celebrate overt conflict as enthusiastically as the American, for example. Indeed, in many cultures foreigners are treated essentially like children: indulged, and given things to play with. For many such countries, the fundamental question has always been, What can we use the Americans for? Provided that objective is attained, signing an agreement or voting in a certain way at the UN is a small price to pay. Overt conflict is simply not the custom. And all intelligent states know that, in practice, there are plenty of ways to get round unacceptable requests from foreigners, without them actually noticing that you are doing so.
Then, there is power-worship. Quite a lot of politicians and pundits around the world took the US estimation if itself at face value, and decided to become part of the bully’s gang. Even in France, there was a rash of books and opinion pieces about twenty years ago arguing that the US was now a “hyper-power”, the only one in the world, and that France should therefore abandon any pretence to independence, and kneel before the hyper-power, hoping to be granted scraps from the table. This attitude did affect French official thinking as well, with the rise of a powerful neoconservative tendency in Paris. It probably contributed to the bizarre decision of President Sarkozy to take France back into the NATO integrated military structure in 2010. But the worship of power (or apparent power) is always seductive, and large numbers of academics and intellectuals were enticed to study in the US or work for US organisations, just as many politicians were desperate to get themselves photographed standing next to some passing American visitor. This kind of power-worship is, of course, self-reinforcing and simply makes the virtual reality field in Washington even more powerful.
There was also the contemporaneous spread of market economic ideas, from their modest beginnings in the early 1980s. Before then, the world economy had been largely stable, as a result of fixed exchange rates and commodity prices. This had allowed general prosperity and the orderly development of former colonies. The privatisation mania of the 1980s spread as fast as it did because national leaders around the world realised that there were rich pickings to be made by looting the resources of their countries. But the effect of floating raw material prices and currencies, and abolishing import duties and restrictions on foreign ownership, was to massively increase the power and reach of western economic institutions, and to weaken the power and capacity of national governments. Although other nations later moved to exploit the same freedoms (notably China) it was possible to believe for a while that Anglo-Saxon capitalism and liberal economic ideas had triumphed around the world.
So for these reasons among others, it became progressively assumed around the turn of the millennium that we were moving into a genuinely unipolar world, where only the West, and especially the US, mattered. International institutions dominated by the West, and promoting neoliberal ideas, were more powerful than most governments. Western powers intervened militarily whenever they felt like it: after all, who was going to stop them? The Russians might protest over Iraq or Libya, but who cared? What were they going to do about it? The West had the boot, and they were going to stamp on as many human faces as they wanted for as long as they liked. What were they going to do about it?
There were, of course responses, including some that were kinetic, like the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. And there were, of course, failures: Iraq became a nightmare, Afghanistan a political graveyard. But it didn’t really matter, not least because for the first time in world history the most powerful single grouping in the world had an unchallengeable and inextinguishable faith in its own rightness and in the tenets of the Liberalism it professed. And it lived in a hall of mirrors where its own glory was reflected back on itself by the media and by its acolytes elsewhere in the world. Failure was always somebody else’s fault. And indeed, much of the rest of the world seemed to take on an almost virtual existence, a bit like a video game. You could insult, or sanction, or even attack, any other nation, and it somehow wasn’t real. Those places weren’t inhabited by real people with real concerns. And even if they were, who cared? What were they going to do about it?
Of course people around the world disliked and feared this new order. But what were they going to do about it? If you were a university researcher in Africa or the Middle East, for example, then you either emigrated to the US or Europe in search of a job, or you joined a western-financed research institute or NGO. You generally wrote in English or French, and, whatever your intentions, you would up writing what your employers and your funders wanted you to write. (As I used to tell students in Africa, “we no longer need to colonise your countries as long as we can colonise your brains.”) So in practice, non-western intellectuals either resigned themselves to writing for a purely domestic audience in countries like Japan and China, or they took western money, or they became trapped in bitter and pessimistic internal disputes about why nobody took any notice of them. After all what were they going to do about it?
If you were not particularly perceptive, or if you had professional reasons for going along with this line of thinking, then it was easy to believe that there was, indeed, only one powerful set of ideas in the world: Liberal Democracy, or whatever else you wanted to call it. You could also easily persuade yourself that there was only one real force in the world: the West, led by the United States, and that it was a force for good. There were those who disagreed, of course, and tried to resist: but what were they going to do about it? Yet to the more perceptive, it was always obvious that the collective fantasy of a unipolar world dominated by a hyper-power was a dangerous illusion which concealed a much more complicated reality.
To start with, what is the purpose of power, anyway? In 1984, famously, George Orwell depicted a Party without an ideology whose slogan was “the purpose of power is power.” But there were reasons for that, to do with the political message of the book: in practice, power is generally wielded for a purpose, and in the case of the West recently, power has been linked to a very strongly-held set of ideologies and beliefs about how the world should be run and who should run it. So the real question is, how effectively has the West been able to use its power to determine the way the world is run, since power in the end can only be evaluated by what it produces.
The answer is, not very, at least if we concentrate less on rhetoric and theatre and more on underlying mechanisms. At the most basic level, every war, every military intervention and every nation-building enterprise the West has engaged in over the last thirty years to make the world more like itself has failed. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that the world today is a great deal less to the taste of the collective West than it was thirty years ago. (Destroying secular regimes in the Arab world to see them replaced by strongly anti-western Islamic fundamentalists was probably not was intended, for example.) Now some of the failures were certainly due to clumsiness, ignorance, incompetence and corruption. “We want women to go to University and we’ll kill anyone who disagrees with us” may not, on reflection, have been a very wise policy to adopt.
But much of what was intended and attempted was probably impossible anyway, and was never going to happen. Throughout history, from educated Latin-speaking elites in the late Roman Empire, to Muslim-convert elites in the Ottoman Empire, to English or French speaking elites in colonial Africa, a superficial foreign layer was developed in different societies, which often did not last, and which seldom penetrated down to ordinary people. Little or nothing, for example, linked the sophisticated urban Muslim population of Sarajevo before the war, with the rural population of Yemen in the same era, other than broad adherence to a variant of the same set of practices. So today westernised neo-colonial elites are in positions of power in many parts of the world, may be invited to Davos and featured on the cover of The Economist, but seldom have much of a domestic power-base in their own country, and may, in fact, disappear quite quickly. The wholesale, top-to-bottom transformation of a country by a foreign power and culture is difficult to do even given hundreds of years. In Algeria, for example, nether the Arabs nor the Ottomans ever really succeeded in controlling the whole of the country, and even today the original inhabitants (the so-called “Berber” tribes including the Kabyle) have managed to retain their identity and language and in some cases still practice Christianity.
Of course a superficial taxi-ride through a major non-western city could give another impression: MacDonald’s, Hollywood Superhero films, Rap music and advertisements for Levi jeans could persuade you that “they are just like us.” But once you subtract the universal allure of the novelty of foreign cultures (think by contrast of the strong, if superficial, influence of Japanese culture in the West, from manga to sushi) there’s not a lot of substance. Indeed, it’s arguable that the influence is disproportionately coming the other way. The world’s largest cinema markets are China and India, and both have significant diasporas. Already, Hollywood films have to respect their sensitivities if they are to be profitable. At a more mundane level, your TV in an expensive hotel in Asia will now feature international channels, many in English, from different societies around the world, and often giving a very different picture (literally) from that on CNN. Satellite TV now enables sermons by Salafi fundamentalist preachers from the Gulf to be beamed directly into the living-rooms of millions of Muslim families in Europe. (Ironically, mass immigration is changing western societies more than deliberate western influence has changed the societies the migrants come from.) And outside the West, where censorship of coverage of the Ukraine conflict is much less strict, impressionable teenagers can watch endless camera footage of Russian missiles destroying western-made military equipment, to the accompaniment of thunderous rock music.
Nor is it evident that the economic situation in the world has necessarily developed to the West’s advantage. One of the traditional reasons to seek military and political domination was for the associated advantages in trade and access to raw materials. But the West’s advantage here has actually declined since 1989. After all, the British had the world’s largest Navy a hundred years ago, to preserve freedom of navigation for fleets of ships that were constructed, owned and operated by European nations, and which in turn provided assured supplies of raw materials. Almost nothing of that arrangement now remains, after decades of (literal) offshoring. Likewise, as early as the 1980s, the Japanese had begun to destroy the western electronics and automobile industries by the fiendish expedient of providing reliable and well-made products at prices people were prepared to pay. More recently, the migration of virtually all forms of manufacturing, even of pharmaceuticals, to Asia was brought brutally home by the Covid crisis. When the US government identifies one of the problems of waging war against China to be that much of its military equipment depends on Chinese-made components, then it’s obvious something is wrong.
Finally, even the reality, as opposed to the appearance, of military and political dominance, let alone unipolarity, can be questioned. The West has already shown itself incapable of winning low-intensity wars against determined opponents, even with allies, from the Sahel to Afghanistan. But the development of accurate and relatively cheap long-range anti-aircraft and anti-shipping missiles is changing calculations of force projection around the world, and therefore the attitudes of governments around the world to accepting or resisting western pressure. After all, how many aircraft carriers is the US ready to risk to support one side or another in a civil war in Asia?
So it’s not surprising to discover that in various parts of the world, other players have always helped to shape political economic and military events: we just didn’t hear about it. One of the outcomes of the recent cautious rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran may be an end to the pointless and destructive competition between them in Lebanon, which has caused enormous harm for more than a decade, and is currently obstructing the election of a new President. You scarcely hear about this rivalry in the western media, which is obsessed with the role of the West, especially the US and France. Yet if you think about it, it’s clear that by definition the US cannot play the kind of facilitating role the Chinese have recently played, since they refuse to recognise or talk to the Iranians about such issues. They therefore deal themselves out of the game, as they do in any attempt to peacefully settle the Palestinian issue. Likewise, the African Union seems for once to have done a productive job on its own in bringing about a cease-fire in Ethiopia.
Part of the difficulty is the widespread assumption in the West that any future world system will look like their perception of the current one, with just the labels changed. Thus, the pointless articles about whether China is going to “challenge” US hegemony, if China itself wants to become the “new hegemon” and if Russia will be Britain to China’s US. All of this is completely beside the point. Hegemony and unipolarity were always delusions, as I have indicated, and will not be less so in the future.
Rather than seeing the Russia-China entente as a “threat”, for example, it’s better to see it as a return to politics as normal, where states discover that they have shared interests and act on them. Similarly, little unites the BRICS nations themselves, let alone with Iran and Saudi Arabia, other than a belief in a more equitable distribution of international power, with a greater role for themselves. But this is enough, just as it was enough for France, Britain and Turkey at the time of the Crimean War in cutting
Russia Ukraine down to size. There isn’t going to be a Russo-Chinese “alliance,” and the two countries will still have differences on many issues. But the basis of international politics, as I have suggested elsewhere, is best understood as a Venn diagram, where states cooperate on issues where they see a common interest. This has been obscured for a while by delusions of hegemony and unipolarity, but is now increasingly coming back into focus. And the corollary is that no state or states can influence everything that goes on in the world.
The West is going to have to get used to the fact that important things will happen in the world over which is has little influence, sometimes none. This has already started to become obvious, although there are political difficulties in accepting it. But as the world slips back more and more into its habitual pattern of distributed power (I don’t think “multipolarity” is a useful term), this will be increasingly harder to ignore. Already, we can see the shape of future Europe: a poorer and weaker Western Europe facing an angry and more powerful Russia. And so this week the Russians announce that they will be stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. And NATO has protested. OK, but who cares? What are they going to do about it?