The Sun is not Setting

A friend sent this article entitled “What Follows American Dominion?” by Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Hence this may be taken as the voice of the “Establishment”.

I may as well share my dashed-off punditry. I responded pretty much as follows:

In a way, the whole thing is off-point since there never really was American “unipolarity”. That word implies a degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency no power has ever enjoyed. As I recall, the illusory concept of American “unipolarity” was first propounded in 1991 by Charles Krauthammer. He was wrong then in believing there existed a vast, unused capacity of the USA to leverage its military dominance to achieve the ideological ends he wants. Krauthammer was unwittingly the spiritual sibling of the contemptible Madeleine Albright, who famously asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” Perhaps a visit to Arlington National Cemetary, or the National Armed Forces Rehabilitation Center would help her understand the real gravity of her blasé question.

However, putting aside the bogus and irresponsible notion of “unipolarity”, I suppose it is fair to say, in a taxonomic rather than invidious way, that America is the global hegemon. It is the primary provider of security, it is the primary determiner of the rules of the international game, etc.

So let’s be charitable to Mr. Haass and say that he is really talking about the displacement of the USA as the global hegemon. He does mix up his terms and also refers to the end of U.S. “primacy” – a word he uses incorrectly as if were synonymous with “unipolarity”.

The last global hegemon, Britain, was superseded by a much bigger entity, the good old USA. That transition process was ugly. It involved two world wars and a global depression.

I see no entity that can fill the role of global hegemon in the place of the USA.

The EU cannot do it. China cannot yet do it.

Many players have a stake in the US-led world order, and whatever irritation American primacy may cause, they will prefer the devil they know and will not like to see the uncertainly and risk of a new one replacing it.

International security is best guaranteed by one dominant power, not by a congeries of competing powers. Too many people fail to understand this. The balance of power does not work. It never did. The offshore balancer, Britain vis-a-vis Europe, the USA vis-a-vis the Eurasian world-island, predominates and keeps the peace. Such eras are marked by trade and prosperity. Challenges to the hegemon bring on eras of war.

Nuclear weapons have rendered great power conflict virtually impossible. So that avenue to dislodge us is closed. More importantly, it seems that leaders of major foreign powers realize that a direct military confrontation is foreclosed as a viable means of dislodging the hegemon. Indirect means will be employed, which will probably have the virtue of not killing lots of people in the process.

If we were to move to a truly multipolar world ala 1900-1914, we would see the breakdown of the globalized world economy and a return to 1930s conditions. Mr. Haass is right that such a world is more complicated. However, he seems to downplay that it is also potentially dangerous. War between the lesser powers could happen. More likely, beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies are regrettably likely. He may be right that the USA will consult its allies and trading partners more in the future. But we never really stopped doing that, and it is not clear we will do so more after Mr. Bush leaves town. The Democrat candidates’ enthusiasm to “tear up NAFTA” shows that gratuitously offending neighbors and trading partners is a nonpartisan vice. Moreover, Mr. Bush gets too little credit for his handling of relations with India and China, and too much criticism over the largely illusory rift with Europe.

The USA is relatively weak right now primarily due to the temporary consequences of poor performance by Mr. Bush and his advisors in planning and executing the war and occupation in Iraq. This is not due to any remarkable waxing in the relative strength of other players. China and India are still more potential than actual world powers, though both are growing regional powers and may one day supplant us. We shall see.

The USA will detach itself from the Iraqi tar baby soon enough. Then it will likely play a quieter and less brusque game in the future. This will be all to the good.

I see no dislodgement of the American hegemon by anyone anytime soon.

UPDATE: When I say we will detach ourselves from Iraq, I mean we will reduce our commitment, our troops will stop getting shot and blown up most of the time, the Iraqis will be the ones shooting our people, not our people, and we will forget about Iraq as a symbol of democracy, and we will let it become a pliant autocracy that cooperates with us, and which is capable of imposing order domestically, which is the best we can do in the region.

UPDATE II: Thoughtful and accurate comments in response to this post from Right Wing News.

UPDATE III: The Sun is not Setting: The Sequel