Very interesting. Thanks.

My only very small quibble might be that Britain’s strongest period of relative power was probably 1815 to 1870. But your principal point is right. She was never able to act as a unipolar power. The other European Great Powers were important and diplomacy needed to be practised with them. The US in particular seems to have got into the habit purely of dictating since 1989 and has forgotten what diplomacy means.

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Mar 29, 2023·edited Mar 29, 2023

There was one historical exception to the idea of multipolarity--China and East Asia. People whose idea of China is newer than JK Fairbanks (that is, anyone who studied Chinese diplomatic history in the past 30-40 years) would point out that East Asia was far more "multipolar" place than people imagine, but, at minimum, every state lived in the recognition that China, in every dimension of power and influence, far outweighed themselves and played their part as nominal "vassals" of the Middle Kingdom accordingly, literally kowtowing to the Chinese emperor even if they sought their national interests on the side.

The first serious challenge to the idea of Chinese unipolarity came with the encounter with the Russians, which must have come as a big shock to the Chinese who liked to consider themselves the biggest empire out there, since, in 17th century, they were encountering the Russians more or less simultaneously on the opposite ends of their empire--in Central Asia and what are now Amursky and Maritime Provinces of Russia, at the northeastern edge of China. The Manchu emperors, who had themselves only recently become masters of China, apparently decided that Russia was unlike every other tribe they had run into, since the Kangxi Emperor, the man who consolidated the Manchu rule over China and concluded first set of treaties with Russia over his long reign, instructed his successors that future Chinese envoys to Russia should kowtow before the Russian Czar as they would to the Chinese emperor (this was also the promise made to get the Russian envoy to his court to kowtow before him, if I remember correctly.), which was duly done during the reign of his successor, the Yongzheng Emperor who sent embassies to Russia twice, first to Moscow in 1731 and again, to St. Petersburg, in 1732--the only Imperial Chinese envoys who kowtowed before a foreign ruler. If so, however, the Chinese mindset did not fundamentally change--the one time exception made for the Russians did not stick and successors of Kangxi felt comfortable enough as rulers of China that they would not deviate from established Chinese norms. Every other power was beneath China and they had to go through the process acknowledge Chinese superiority, even if only nominal and superficial. Of course, this was the time when China was getting fatally decrepit compared to the powers of the West, but what appears obvious in retrospect was not obvious to the Chinese whose idea of the outside world was centuries out of date.

So, it would take another century plus several decades, after repeated military humiliations at the hands of the West, that the Chinese realized that they were no longer the Middle Kingdom, or even an equal of the West. But reforming China (while maintaining Manchu rule over the Chinese, or even the imperial form of government) turned out to be impossibly difficult, and the Chinese would collapse into a chaotic mess that persisted for yet another century.

So, how much does the Western mindset today resemble that of China (with a lot of Imperial Spain mixed in)? Quite a lot, I think. Their idea of the world is out of date by decades (not quite centuries like China's, but the world moves a lot faster these days). Realpolitik was never really outdated even under American hegemony, but, much the way rulers of Korea and Vietnam kowtowed before the Chinese emperor (or, his usually ceremonial edict, I suppose), the forms of observing the rituals that made the American elite happy were always observed publicly. The immense "size," in economic, social, cultural, and military, if not necessarily in population, of United States means that no one is (or at least was) willing to challenge its primacy openly and its failures/defeats are conveniently memory holed. (For comparison, consider the series of wars between China and Burma/Myanmar, the latter being ruled by the new and very warlike Konbaung dynasty. The Burmese inflicted a series of humiliating defeats on the Chinese over a border dispute (Burma was basically annexing by force a bunch of border tribes who claimed that they were under protection of the Chinese Empire), but they concluded the war by acknowledging their vassal status, sending tribute to the emperor, etc--but they kept the territory--and the whole affair was recorded by Chinese court historians as yet another great victory by the Empire over lesser states.) In the past decade or two, United States has suffered quite a lot of foreign policy setbacks, but, like the Chinese Empire in Burma/Myanmar, no one was really willing to stick it to the Chinese and ignore the "forms." So, again, like the Chinese imperial army's failures in 18th century Burma, they are recorded as more episodes of glorious success by the Indispensable Nation.

I don't think an American Opium War is anywhere on the horizon...yet. The Ukrainian conflict may well end up like the Chinese war in Burma: even if it might turn out to be unmitigated success for the Russians, it is likely that everyone might pretend that nothing has changed (except the territory changing hands--but that's not important.) Everyone will extol the indispensability of the MIddle Kingdom, they will formally kowtow before the emperor, and all that. The British, in mid-19th century, not only had overwhelming military advantage over the Chinese, they were willing to spend the resources to take the war all the way to Beijing and symbolically humiliate the Chinese, ultimately, by capturing the Forbidden City itself and burning down the Summer Palace (and more important, they could actually do that--the Burmese, however badly they might have beaten the Chinese expeditionary armies, could never pull that off). That's not going to happen to United States for decades more. And let's not forget that, even after the Opium War, all the way through World War 2, China was still treated, at least diplomatically, as a serious power (even when everyone knew it was really a basketcase--nobody could be sure if it would not be able to suddenly reform itself in a few years, and it was spending enormous fortunes on arms: Imperial Chinese Army was better equipped than the French colonial army that it fought over Vietnam in 1880s and its Japanese adversary in 1890s, although widespread corruption, poor training, and outdated organization made their armies far less effective than it should have been given the quality of equipment and the money spent generally. But equally, for the same reason the Chinese Empire could not reform itself, the same structural impediments are standing in the way of the West reforming itself, including, ironically, the inertia of its recent status as the paramount power. Nobody would forcibly correct the Western path for it, unless the Westerners themselves realize it--and that may not be enough. (The Burmese could beat Chinese armies on the borderlands, but there was no way it could take the war to Chinese heartland, let alone Beijing, so why rock the boat, as long as the Chinese don't try to retake what matters to them--and, on that count, what does the Chinese government in faraway Beijing care about some border tribes in the mountains between Yunnan and Burma?) So everything stays the same at the imperial capital, with everyone oblivious to the state of their decline. It will be a long time when the Opium War arrives West.

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Re: The Ukrainian conflict may well end up like the Chinese war in Burma: even if it might turn out to be unmitigated success for the Russians, it is likely that everyone might pretend that nothing has changed (except the territory changing hands--but that's not important.) Everyone will extol the indispensability of the MIddle Kingdom, they will formally kowtow before the emperor, and all that. "

Vladimir Putin kowtowing before biden and/or Sergei Lavrov kpwtowing before blinken/nudelman... Surely, you jest.

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Mar 30, 2023·edited Mar 30, 2023

It doesn't need to be "kowtowing" at least the way Westerners seem to think it is. (For Easterners, it's different.) The Burmese smashed four Chinese armies, including two elite ones from North China. But they saw that continued war would be costly and they could not impose peace on China by taking Beijing. So they had to give Chinese a theoretical "victory," one only on record--remember that the Burmese kept the territories they conquered from the tribes that were nominally under Chinese protection and the Chinese didn't bother them again. What made the the Opium War different was that the British could and did march on Beijing and imposed a defeat that the Chinese couldn't spin out of.

Fast forward to 2023. Can Russia or any other power pull off what the British did to China in 1860 to United States? Not just taking Washington DC and burning it (that's happened before), but so convincingly destroy American power that multiple states begin seceding, which is essentially what happened to China in 1860s (ironically, at the same time as US Civil War) when the entire middle Yangzi rose up under banner of a very heterodox "Christian" rebellion, among other rebels, and the Chinese Empire would have been surely destroyed if the Western powers had not decided that a weakened empire was better than chaos. So maybe Russia takes Kiev, Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Paris, or Madrid? Is it any more to the Son of Heaven of the New Qing Dynasty than the Burmese taking borderlands between Burma and Yunnan? At least least Burma was next to China. So a theoretical and meaningless American "hegemony" will remain, much the way the Burmese humiliated China multiple times, took territory under emperor's protection, and yet had to be "forgiven" in return for the fig leaf of recognizing Chinese "hegemony.". Maybe it involved nominal "kowtowing," but to everyone that knew, who was actually humiliated there? If Russian leadership is not stupid, and they surely are not, they will let US off with a nominal "victory," while they take Germany (yes, Germany, not just Ukraine or Poland.)

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One difference I see is that China was a comparatively benign hegemon that did not impoverish its periphery and was autarkic. The US is not. China's vassals did not jump ship after the Burmese wins because it wasn't costly for them to stay.

Being a US vassals is far more costly and possibly fatal. Whole continents have essentially jumped ship within the span of a year, eager to throw off the yoke of Americans despite being very aware of what angry Americans are capable of. They're not openly hostile yet, but they all want a good backup option. Besides, most of the world depend on China and Russia for some of their food/energy/mineral/goods. What does the US supply these days beyond dollars and threats to their elites? So I think it's quite likely that the change will happen much much faster

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The decline of US to a bad bully of a hegemon is a relatively recent development: until fairly recently, one might note, US provided its allies with easy access to a big market, stable financial institutions, and the kind of "culture" with huge and broad appeal across most of the world. People might say that, if you look closer under the hood, none of them was true--but then, Chinese "hegemony" in East Asia wasn't all there either (nor was it very beneficial all the time).. It is noteworthy that the Chinese too operated their "unipolarity" in a similar way as US in the "good old days": the "formalities" of the unipolarity provided such benefits, to China and its neighbors alike, in form of trade relationship, cultural exchanges, and institutions for mediating/restoring disputes back to "normality," etc. that, even the Burmese, after years' conflict with China in which they were substantively victorious, more or less restored the formalities of the "vassal" relationship--which was fictitious (that everyone knew) in substance, but still provided access to all these beneficial institutions that China dominated (the kind of unipolarity that I kept getting at).

So, couldn't US have kept the kind of "formal" unipolarity through all manner of international institutions, from UN down? One should think that they could have (I use past tense because we may be nearing and/or crossed the event horizon where all these institutions could be quickly turning to dust). Instead, the US leadership for the past 20-30 years did very little of the mostly mutually beneficial relationship maintained through these institutions while US exports influence on the side. Instead, overt US influence became the key export and the "benefits" became tools for blackmail and threats (and not even much of that because, in too many cases, they weren't valuable enough and not even delivered--if you pay for protection racket, the gang should leave those who pay up more or less alone.) So how did this happen?

So this just repeats what you have just said. But the real challenge is, if you do away with not only the hegemon, but the institutions that have been dominated by the hegemon because they have been irretrievably poisoned by the hegemon itself on the way out, how do you rebuild them? You are talking about all manner of institutions through which trade, financial, cultural, public health, and other forms of mutually beneficial exchanges across nations have been facilitated. (I suppose it is fitting that WHO wound up largely discrediting itself in the past few years.) The presence of a clear benevolent hegemon makes the process of building institutions easy: the hegemon proposes, with enough benefits for everyone that the institutions can be set up without much difficulty. Multilateral institutional building among near equals would be far more time consuming, if it is at all successful, and this is why I keep coming back to the road ahead being difficult--either keep the old institutions in some form, and with them, a certain degree of US primacy in world affairs (which, again, seems increasingly improbably in the medium to long term), or try to cobble together new ones, which is unlikely to be successful, and suffer through the chaos and other difficulties. I'm not too eager to see the latter scenario unfold.

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Apr 4, 2023·edited Apr 4, 2023

Thanks for expanding on your view! Both China and Russia appears to agree with your assessment, emphasizing returning international law to the UN (itself promulgated by US at an idealistic best) but also working on backup plans for bilateral and multilateral trade and security cooperative arrangements.

My guess is that in the short to medium term, consensus building will be pretty easy because of how blatantly bad the US bully is and because every country needs Russia and China, so soft coercion may be enough to get some over the top. Of course, longer term will be far trickier, especially when climate change and resource depletion kick in at higher and higher gears, and we go from problems that are easily solved if there is the will to likely abandoning major swaths of humanity.

But on a more optimistic note, westerners who lived through 2+ generations of complacent stagnation and increasingly poor governance may just be incapable off imagining a better world. Just look at how the USSR built itself up after 1920 and then again after 1945. Ditto China after 1949, 1961, and 1976. Effective (if hugely flawed and sometimes brutal) governance can do quite a lot in less than a generation. Some mitigation to save human civilization and something of the natural world is still possible, if the current regime is dislodged.

My worry now isn't that Putin and Xi would overreact but that being sensible, careful men, they will be too timid and do too little, and this failure to build a sufficiently solid foundation for their successors will eventually doom the whole revitalization venture.

But this is all assuming that we're not radioactive ash by 2025.

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Mar 30, 2023·edited Mar 30, 2023

"Fast forward to 2023. Can Russia or any other power pull off what the British did to China in 1860 to United States? Not just taking Washington DC and burning it (that's happened before), but so convincingly destroy American power that multiple states begin seceding,"

* * *

If push comes to shove, the Russians of course can do a hell lot more damage than the British Empire did to China.

Some Russian analysts like Andrei Martyanov assert that Russia has escalation dominance over the American Empire, despite US delusions that it is the greatest military in human history. This includes not only conventional escalation but also up to the nuclear threshold.

Russian military systems like the Sarmat, Kinzhal, Zircon, and especially the Poseidon nuclear-powered drone have the Americans soiling their panties in fear, despite their attempts to put on a brave face.

With the Poseidon, the Russians wouldn't have to "take" Washington DC, as this city can be wiped out in a massive tsunami.

What's the American Empire going to do then?

If the Americans want to respond by going nuclear, Mr. Sarmat will deposit his calling card throughout the North American continent, which will be turned in an living inferno in a Russian version of Shock and Awe.

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Mar 30, 2023·edited Mar 30, 2023

I'll say that Russia has escalation dominance in Ukraine, Poland, and perhaps even Germany and France (and de facto surrender of France and Germany--perhaps not too far in the future--is what will finish off the current conflict). But heck, Burma was the one that had escalation dominance in 18th century Sino-Burmese borderlands, not China--but the awareness that its escalation dominance was very local was what forced it to maintain pretense of Chinese unipolarity. Unless Chinese power was broken for everyone in and outside China to not only see but accept as the basis of their public behavior (everyone saw it for at least decades before 1860), the perfunctory presumption of Chinese unipolarity could not be disregarded (although, admittedly, what did that really mean, one wonders--if that didn't keep the Burmese from forcibly annexing border territories supposedly under Chinese protection and humiliatingly defeating four Chinese armies sent to punish it.) Does Russia have escalation dominance in Texas, New York, Maryland, and Virginia? That's what the British had over China in 1860--they actually had escalation dominance in Canton, the middle Yangzi, and Beijing itself. That's what finished off whatever pretense of Chinese unipolarity that still existed in 19th century Asia. That moment for US is still some time off, if it ever does arrive.

The "reality" of US unipolarity won't survive the present crises--but that hasn't existed for some time already. The "form" of US unipolarity won't be broken for a while, until and unless US power is completely broken for all to see. The sheer inertia will keep it in place and with good leadership, US can still derive a lot of benefit from just the form. Relatively weak powers don't lose much by keeping up the pretense, knowing that there is no "reality" to US unipolarity any more (like Burma vis a vis China in 18th century). But the incongruity between the reality and fiction of American power becomes a danger to all, should the US be led by incompetents who are not aware of it and will necessitate forcibly breaking it--which will be a great tragedy for all, even if it is doable. Like I was saying, that would require that the power breaking it has such power that it enjoys escalation dominance in the heart of US itself--which, I repeat, is what the British had vis a vis China in 1860. I don't think anyone can pull this off for a while, which will condemn many parts of the world to a long and drawn out conflict and a great deal of misery to even more people to sustain that conflict.

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Mar 31, 2023·edited Mar 31, 2023

"Does Russia have escalation dominance in Texas, New York, Maryland, and Virginia?That's what the British had over China in 1860--they actually had escalation dominance in Canton, the middle Yangzi, and Beijing itself." //

You are stuck in the 19th Century and rely upon dubious historical analogies to understand the 21st Century.

Russia does not need to mass armies and invade America to have escalation dominance over the continental USA.

Instead, Russia can give the USA a taste of its own medicine and bomb it back to the Stone Age--using conventional weapons.

Russia has developed stand-off weapons, including hypersonic weapons, that can devastate the precious American Heimat from both sea and air-based military platforms.

The Russians can hit American political, military, and economic centers repeatedly--ultimately rendering the USA a failed state.

What will happen to the disUnited States of America, if its political regime, military assets, and economic infrastructure have been annihilated?

The problem with America is that it's an island empire, albeit a continental-sized island empire surrounded by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

For the past 200+ years. the Americans have been waging aggressive wars around the planet because they believe that they are protected by 2 oceans and thus will suffer no serious retaliation on their own soil.

Coupled with the fact that America has historically had unipolar dominance over the entire Western Hemisphere (aka the Monroe Doctrine) with weak vassal nations in Latin America and a fellow Anglo colonizer state in Canada as its junior partner, the Americans have been embolden to strike other nations with impunity without fear that they may reap what they have sown.

Those days are ending.

Remember what Vladimir Putin warned last year?

If America and the Collective West escalate in Ukraine, Russia will hit "decision-making centers"--which is to say American political and military command.

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Mar 31, 2023·edited Mar 31, 2023

You, sir, seem to be stuck in 20th century nihilism, eager for the day when the big flash wipes out humanity. No one is going to bomb anyone to stone age: if that happens, there will be no one left to make stone tools. Nobody has escalation dominance over anything then, except cockroaches.

I'd like to think that Russians are not as stupid as you seem to think. They are interested in a world where people still live. Trying for domination beyond your need or power is exactly what gets alleged unipolar powers into trouble when they can't reconcile the form and substance of unipolarity--like the current US leadership. Russia needs security and peaceful neighbors. They don't need to show anyone off for the benefit of chauvinistic fanboys like US leaders seem to think last few decades.

It may take a while and a good deal of effort, but I expect that Russians will get what they are looking for: peaceful relations with the Europeans under their own terms. But they don't need to chauvinistically stick their naked ass in front of their presumed adversaries--they are not Joe Biden. I expect that Russians will give US every opportunity to accept a gracious "victory" as long as they get what they fought for. That, after all, is in line with everything that they have done so far, not just in this conflict, but, quite literally, ever since Putin came to power. If the US leadership were wise, they will also accept such an offer, recognize that the reality doesn't match up with its pretense, but there is much value to maintain the pretense (and have other powers willing to help keep up the pretense--as long as everyone knows what the reality is.) So it would be still sort of "unipolar," but not really. Of course, the big caveat is that US leadership currently is not wise at all, and are throwing tantrums about bombing everyone back to stone age. That raises problems, not just for US's presumed adversaries and supposed allies, but for US itself--because, as I keep noting, Russia, not US, has escalation dominance over Western Eurasia. No expenditure of resources will be enough to set that back. A country will break itself wasting resources abroad like that. But (subtly) losing control over Western Euraasia is not quite enough to break US power for all to see--unless things take much more drastic turn than we expect--but then again, if that happens, t is far more likely that that will leave escalation dominance only to cockroaches anyways.

One should hope that US leadership is not as foolish as they appear to be (or as you believe the Russian leaders to be.) When Russians show them the dignified way out, they should accept. At least I hope they do.

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There is the little issue of natural resources, that for instance Europe is lacking. Paying "market prices" will become in time an impoverishing exercise... and things will start to boil. Just see the strikes and protests in France and now in Germany...

And the US is reliant on many things as well.

It is not only a matter of military prowess (which the west cannot sustain on medium and long term).

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Mar 30, 2023·edited Mar 30, 2023

I don't think Europe is in control of its fate. To continue with the analogy, United States is the Chinese Empire in late stage of decline, but not yet in its final stage (i.e. 18th century, rather than 19th century). If Russia is the 18th century Burma, all of Europe is probably the border tribes nominally under Chinese protection. If we take this analogy further, Russia, as Burma, has defeated the "local" Chinese armies sent by the governor of Yunnan and their local tribal allies, but not yet the army from Beijing led by one of emperor's sons-in-law. I don't think there's any ending that does not involve France and Germany coming under Russian protection in some form. But the challenge will be spinning it as an American "victory"--but if the Chinese court historians could spin four destroyed Chinese armies and Burma wresting border tribes from Chinese control as a "great victory" (and Burna wisely not trying to "correct" the Chinese on that "interpretation" of events....)

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I can speak from experience as to how jarring it is when the normally ubiquitous Western media decides to make an abrupt strategic withdrawal.

I was in a predominantly-Muslim area of of Eritrea when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. In fact I was the only westerner sitting in the middle a very large and very busy cafe, watching the images being broadcast over one of the Arab news networks. There had been no mention of the story on CNN before I left my hotel.

I asked a man sitting alongside me what I was looking at. As he explained the situation to me, my immediate thought was 'I might be in trouble here.'

I shook my head and said "Bush."

Nobody gave any indication that they might want to hold me accountable for the actions of the US soldiers. CNN's blanket silence on the story persisted for the remainder of the day.

Your comment about certain cultures treating foreigners like children is very true. Everywhere I have visited outside of what could broadly be described as the Western world, I have been treated with kid gloves. I would be a scattering of gnawed bones in the desert many times over, if that were not the case.

There is a night in Sana'a that is burned on my memory. In a country where the women are fully-veiled, a French girl named Elaine had dressed herself very inappropriately and was behaving like she was out on a hen night in Newcastle. Matters escalated to a point where I took her to one side and told her, you have either got to calm down or go back to the hotel. All kinds of dreadful things could have potentially happened to that girl. People were very tolerant of her. To their credit, none of the men bothered her.

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...and the weak are trodden into the ground.

And this is the problem.

Americans clearly lack the culture of defeat. Of honorable defeat with limited consequences.

This gets translated even on the casual lives of next door Jacks. Never admit wrongdoing. There would be no relief but only a snowballing new attacks, so above all, never admit anything however absurd it would look - owning would be much worse anyway.

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What a pleasure it is to read your essays! Thank you.

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Distributed power instead of multipolarity. Thank you! This is a felicitous improvement on current usage. From now on I use it.

As for illustration: ASEAN contemplate settling in local currencies instead of dollars. Indonesian prez urges countrymen to local credit cards, abandon Visa, Mastercard. Combined, those are huge populations who stand astride strategic waterways. al Saud participates with SCO and BRICS. I say to Nuland, Blinken, Sullivan, Power, and Burns: "Your dog don't hunt."

As for experimentals: Aim Points For Russian National Sovereignty And Territorial Integrity


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Another great piece here Aurelien. You say it is made to understand, not for debate but after reading pieces like this one has no option but to debate with her/himself and the ideas exposed here. I remember that book "The End of History And The Last Man" by Fukuyama as peak "unipolarity thinking" according to which everything was destined to be a West stylised Liberal Democracy. Now we are realising, some in their perceptive way and other as slaps at their faces, that the New Order might follow unforeseen pathways I am asking myself how this will alter the course of political events in the European Union apart from becoming much less relevant. For a start I believe that the geographical expansion of the model might come to a halt. But... what about the internal dynamics? Interesting times coming I guess.

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Very interesting essay. My life has been uniquely under the “unipolar” model so it is interesting to see the possible beginnings of a shift towards a more ‘distributed’ power model. I wonder what the driving force is behind the US desire to maintain its unipolar Hegemony. Is it the idea of American exceptionalism that via the State gives the moral justification to paternalistically guide the ‘less developed’ world. Is it the highly-competitive social and business environment that is reflected in the US State’s foreign policy? Is it the shadowy figures of the “US oligopoly” about which Black Mountain Analysis hints, who are only interested in securing resources and markets in which to sell products/services. Or simply Power for Power’s sake…? I often think of Orwell’s 1984, specifically the part mentioning how the Proles’ don’t realise the potential power they have if only they could coordinate and rise up. From the EU to the Brics and the African continent, it’s a pity that nation states and domestic political ambition remains such a barrier to closer union, more distributed power and economic prosperity – it’s almost as if there’s an element in the world that is actively sowing the seeds of disunity for political and economic gain…

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Good points as always. Back to normalcy after the aberration of a hegemony that wasn't. Fine.

As long as states in the West get out from under the tyranny/hegemony of Funny Money.

And as long as the new paradigms don't feature things like what has been pushed of late viz the World Health Organization, an unelected body which nevertheless is successfully lobbying many nations to agree to subsume their sovereignty to their decrees. So if the WHO says everyone has to take a Pfizer shot in their arms or they can't go to work, nations party to this sort of thing will comply.

Not good!

And a different from of hegemony or tyranny or lack of distributed, differentiated authority.

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Your essays have been enormously helpful in gaining a perspective on world events, thanks

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