Global power has always been distributed.
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.
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.
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.
...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.
What a pleasure it is to read your essays! Thank you.
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
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.
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…
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.
And a different from of hegemony or tyranny or lack of distributed, differentiated authority.
Your essays have been enormously helpful in gaining a perspective on world events, thanks