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The End of Unipolarity


Some excellent thoughts on the structural forces behind the end of American unipolarity from Matt Yglesias:

Nobody has proposed a halfway plausible mechanism by which the United States can alter the fact that India and China have a larger population than ours, or the fact that India and China and Brazil have economies that are growing faster than ours. Nor does there seem to be a plausibly method by which we can prevent the slow-but-steady progress of European political and economic integration. These trends are, however, steadily eroding the basis of American global dominance. They don’t make the end of American global dominance inevitable — I find it very plausible that China will enter a period of political meltdown and chaos long before it achieves economic parity with the United States, and it’s at least somewhat plausible that the same could happen to India. But this kind of thing is largely out of our control. For now, the trends are what they are and the question is how to respond to them.

Krauthammer’s central conceit ever since the end of the Cold War has been that bold acts of will can prolong the “unipolar moment” indefinitely. And he’s just wrong. He’s always been wrong, he continues to be wrong, and this interpretation of world affairs will always be wrong. It’s a remarkably elementary mistake that seems to evince no understanding of how the United States came to be the dominant global player in the first place. As if he thinks we’re top dog and nobody cares about Australia or Finland is because we just have more of a bad-ass attitude. Those are, however, actually some pretty bad-ass countries. They’re just, you know, small so nobody cares. If China and India were richer, we’d look small to them!

The main practical consequence of Krauthammer-style policies for international relations is to speed the spread of nuclear weapons. Having us behave in an alarming manner increases the desire of regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons and decreases the extent to which other great powers are inclined to collaborate with us on preventing nuclear proliferation.

Back when I wrote about foreign policy a little more and wasn't just a CBO report with a cardiovascular system, I was pretty into the whole unipolarity argument, and for a pretty basic reason: It's the most important argument in foreign policy. Iraq and Afghanistan pale in comparison to how we handle relations with rising world powers.

You can think of the transition away from a world in which America is the sole superpower in one of two ways: American decline, which is the label my colleague Charles Krauthammer attaches to it. Or global betterment, which is how my colleague Fareed Zakaria thinks of it. I'm with Zakaria on this one, but in fact, I think Krauthammer should be, too.

Central to the nationalist's lament is that having a huge, rich, stable country like America has been very good for the world. It's led to technological progress and economic improvement and relative peace and all the rest of it. The reasons for that are no secret: America's riches allowed it to invest in innovation. Its wealth allowed it to trade. Its economic ties gave it a strong interest in global stability. All this was good for America, yes, but also good for other countries that benefited from our rise.

All this, however, also applies to a strong, rich, stable China, or India, or integrated European union. If China begins churning out doctors and one of them cures cancer, we'll be able to buy the drug. If India emerges as a massive new market with the disposable income to purchase increasingly high-end goods, that will mean profits for our companies. If Brazil has an incentive to keep a lid on Latin American instability because they don't want to see their region written off as a trading partner, that's good for American interests.

But all this requires America itself to view these entities as cooperative, rather than competitive, players on the world scene. If we're fearful of China and India and try to slow their rise, and they mature with the recognition that America is more adversary than enemy, the end result is that we simply have much more powerful competitors. In that case, the end of unipolarity is bad, but it's bad because we made it into a bad thing, not because it had to be one.

Photo credit: The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  October 13, 2009; 3:38 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign Policy  
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"If India emerges as a massive new market with the disposable income to purchase increasingly high-end goods, that will mean profits for our companies."
What products? Most of the products are made overseas-in China and India! There is hardly any manufacturing worth its name in the US. The only product we sell are arms and ammunition!

Posted by: ns3k | October 13, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, left leaners (you) and libertarians (me) have quite a bit of common ground and your post is right on the money.

"The only product we sell are arms and ammunition!"

Even though the burden of proof is one you...I will dispel this common lefty myth.

“As Stephen Manning of the Associated Press acknowledged in a rare "just the facts" story in mid-February, the U.S. "by far remains the world's leading manufacturer," producing goods valued at a record $1.6 trillion in 2007 — nearly double the $811 billion produced a decade earlier. Indeed, the AP writer noted, "For every $1 of value produced in China's factories [in 2007], America generated $2.50." Not bad for a country that doesn't produce anything anymore.

In fact, even in the midst of a global recession, the U.S. exported an estimated $1.377 trillion worth of goods last year, according to the authoritative CIA World Factbook. Nearly half of the exports were capital goods: aircraft, computers, electric power machinery, office machines, telecommunications equipment, and the like. Industrial supplies, such as organic chemicals, accounted for another nearly 27 percent. And consumer goods, including pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products accounted for 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively.”

Posted by: kingstu01 | October 13, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Krauthammer's American Exceptionalism is nothing but 'imperialism'.

The really cool critic of his speech is by Joe Klein in Swampland / Time.

But Krauthammer is passe. The guy does not deserve to be taken any serious.

However, that does not mean the issues discussed are any less important. I constantly grapple with American Exceptionalism, especially being on the other side (in India).

Population of USA being less or growth rate for a period is less; in themselves do not remove a case for American Unipolar Power. So many powers in History had less population than many other competing states. If you talk to Indians, many even would regard large population as the drag.

Same with growth rate too. Till 1989 Japan was on top of the world (Nikkie 36K) with 4.5 Trillion GDP comparable to USA 6 Trillion and very soon it was expected to catch up / over take USA. What happened – today USA GDP is double whereas Japan is more less there only with China over taking it.

So population and growth rates cannot be an argument against why USA cannot be Unipolar power. The arguments are different. In tomorrow’s world, the model is ‘network / interconnectedness’. You want to be the core Internet Domain Name Server which routes all the traffic. That is the notion – USA as the pivotal node in all sorts of regional, multilayer, hierarchical economic and political arrangements.

In 2009 of 13 Nobel Prize winners 11 were Americans. But the crucial aspect is 5 of them were with dual citizenship. So that is where tomorrow’ s world is – fully interconnected, networked and in such a world you want to be the ‘core router’.

What that ‘dumb a** Krauthammer’ can understand all these things! Obama has got it right. It is the question of execution now.

In which Democracy have we seen people engaging for years to get 5 versions of a single reform bill progressed in a classical democratic fashion? Is this ability to handle gargantuan legislation for nothing? No, those are the sources of power in this country. Further, as Sully says, this is the country which can say ‘we made a mistake’ and can move on confidently.

So I would not brush aside exceptionalism easily.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 13, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

And I think this is what's feeding the whole right-wing mega hissy now (Obama apology tour etc). If you are "in the business" you can't help but notice the world is changing. If you have a zero-sum mentality it must be downright frightening to you. Which is why all the swooning and hanky-clasping over "the dollar." Which kind of ties in with an earlier post that got lost in the flurry of posting today about the whole "masculine" word thing.

Posted by: luko | October 13, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

and thus we are reminded, even though it wasn't the world's smartest idea, why the nobel peace prize committee awarded it to obama: the neocon tendency is still alive and well and dangerous, and the return to at least some forms of rationality, too important.

i mean, if krauthammer were just a bellowing idiot, that would be one thing, but he's actually one of the bright ones out of a whole tendency of bellowing idiocy.

Posted by: howard16 | October 13, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

In the history of the world, has any dominant nation (whether economically or militarily) simply looked at the statistics, and come to a rational decision to quietly walk into the night of mediocrity, rather than cling to preeminence? I'm going to take a wild guess and say "no".

Does the fact that you, and others like you, seem comfortable with such an option indicate either: (1) great wisdom and sophistication; or (2) self-destructive lunacy.

As a card-carrying believer in historical "American Exceptionalism", and someone willing to sacrifice a lot personally, and nationally, to maintain American Exceptionalism, I've voting option (2).

I don't think I'm alone.

Our economic competitors and geopolitical enemies would vote (2) as well. All while applauding your genius, of course, as you willingly do their work for them.

And as for the American electorate... please preach on. Sing this song from the mountain tops, and let it be heard by one and all. And please explain your political persuasion while you do it. The vast majority of American people, poor and rich, take great pride in their country, and revel in their nationalism, however silly and antiquated you might feel such notions are.

You are actually saying what President Obama would like to say, but which he is far too smart to utter. Do it for him.

Posted by: WEW72 | October 13, 2009 10:56 PM | Report abuse

You have to admire the audacity of a guy like Krauthammer -- he'll tell you that a rising tide raises all boats one day, then that rising boats means American decline the next.

Posted by: Brian5 | October 14, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Krauthammer's beef isn't with countries like China and India becoming rich; it's what they do with their newfound wealth. China oppresses its own people, assists/has assisted one of our biggest enemies (Iran), and props up a sociopathic dictator who happens to possess nukes because of them (North Korea). They, along with the Russians, are already engaging in a huge cyber warfare effort specifically aimed against US assets. This is on top of their predatory and unfair economic practices.

You idiot liberals think that if we simply stop being mean and trying to dominate the world that our enemies will cease and desist. Do you honestly think it will stop Kim Jong Il from being a loon? Will it stop Ahmadenijad from starting a war and possibly nuking Isreal? Will China all of a sudden become a catalyst for peace and liberty? Or will they continue to support brutal, oppressive, sometimes insane dictators?

Posted by: octopi213 | October 14, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

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