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
October 13, 2009; 3:38 PM ET
Categories: Foreign Policy
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