A Multipolar Moment

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

The neoconservative movement thrilled to what it called the “unipolar moment.” After the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union followed suit, the United States was the last superpower standing. America faced a choice. It could use the unprecedented opportunity to help build a new international system out of the rubble of the Cold War. Or it could try to maintain that unipolar moment as long as possible. The neocons preferred the king-of-the-hill approach.

The Clinton administration flirted with multilateralism. It came into office promising to support a range of international treaties and institutions. It offered to play well with others. But this more robust multilateral approach ran up against the three gorgons of the immediate post-Cold War period: Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Whatever the Clinton administration’s commitment to multilateralism had been, these gorgons turned it to stone. The administration fell back on what it called “à la carte multilateralism.” That is, the United States would pursue multilateralism when it could, but act unilaterally when it must.History is on the verge of repeating itself. After eight years of neoconservatives trying desperately to extend the unipolar moment, a new group is in the White House promising to change America’s relationship with the world. Yet, plenty of gorgons beckon: Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Will Obama’s multilateral resolve turn to stone or will his administration truly remap U.S. global relations?

“The new president is off to a good start,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Ehsan Ahrari in The Making of a New Global Strategy. “He already spoke to the Islamic world, stating that America will deal with it respectfully and on the basis of pragmatism; he invited Iran to unclench its fist and initiate an era of negotiations on the basis of mutual respect; and he appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys for the Middle East and South Asia, respectively. He sent Vice President Joe Biden to talk to the Europeans and to the Russians.” The vice president was indeed in Europe the other week, but he spoke out of both sides of his mouth on the issue of multilateralism. He promised our European allies a “new era of cooperation.” But he also warned that the United States would “work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must,” which sounded an awful lot like the Clinton administration’s eventual default position.

But times have changed, argues FPIF contributor Hannes Artens. “These aren’t the golden 1990s, when U.S. power was at its zenith. In this first decade of the 21st century, the capitalist West is facing defeat in Afghanistan and is on the verge of ‘the worst recession in a hundred years,’ as British minister Ed Balls put it in perhaps only slight exaggeration,” he writes in Multilateralism in Munich. “This combination will force the Obama administration to stop cherry-picking issues on which it wants to cooperate and forging ahead on those issues it believes it can still handle alone. Necessity will dictate a more pragmatic multilateralism, in which all sides humbly accept what is realistically possible.”

Are we thus witnessing the final end of the unipolar moment? China is coming up fast. The European Union’s expansion has been accompanied by relatively few growing pains. Several powerful countries in the South (particularly India, Brazil, and South Africa) are quietly acquiring more geopolitical heft. Global problems like climate change and financial collapse require global solutions, so we either evolve multilateral responses or we do a dinosaur dive into extinction.

Over here, meanwhile, the Pentagon is still maintaining the world’s largest military force — but we have failed to defeat al-Qaeda, we are quagmired in Afghanistan, and all of our nuclear weapons have done little to prevent North Korea from entering the nuclear club. The global recession is hammering the U.S. economy, and we might finally see the end of the dollar’s reign as global currency. With the bank bailout, the stimulus package, the bill for two wars plus the Pentagon’s already gargantuan budget, the red ink is mounting. Debt has been the gravedigger of many an empire. I can hear the adding machine totting up the numbers.

Or is that the sound of dirt hitting a coffin lid?

The Beckoning Gorgons

In this 200th anniversary year of Lincoln’s birth, President Barack Obama is fond of invoking the rhetoric of his fellow Illinoisan, including the famous line from Lincoln’s first inaugural speech about “the better angels of our nature.” In Afghanistan, however, the administration must first deal with a gorgon of its own making.

The Obama administration is moving forward with its promise to send as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, under the mistaken impression that a “surge” there will have the same temporary stabilizing effect as it did in Iraq. But in Iraq, we partnered with a powerful force on the ground, the Sunni Awakening, that really made the difference — and we haven’t found a comparable partner in Afghanistan. Moreover, as FPIF senior analyst Col. Daniel Smith points out, the surge’s toll will be terrible for U.S. soldiers. Rates of suicide and domestic violence among service members and cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome will continue to rise.

“The increased number of troops Obama plans to send to Afghanistan — together with the growing number of temporary and, more seriously, ‘permanent non-deployables’ from physical and psychological stress — could leave the Army once again resorting to enlist anyone who can walk and carry a weapon,” Smith writes in Warring on Warriors. “That will include many who suffer from PTSD but who, being part of the ‘warrior culture,’ are reluctant to seek help.”

In Israel, the gorgons have come to power democratically. The swing to the right in the recent Israeli elections suggests that peace in the Middle East will not come easy for the Obama administration. “Forging a coalition among Israel’s fractious parties is always complicated, and with the rise of the right-wing extremists and a tight power struggle between Likud and Kadima, the process could take months,” writes FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis in Israel: Rise of the Right. “And any government so created, whether ostensibly a broad “national unity” front or a government of the acknowledged right-wing alone, will almost certainly be too unstable to engage in any serious diplomatic process, regardless of the desires of its leadership. On the other hand, such a government will almost certainly agree on further aggression against Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. War will provide a much greater point of unity than peace. Whoever leads it, Israel’s new government will spell a massive headache for Obama.”

Meanwhile, Israel stands accused of war crimes for its conduct in Gaza. FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan zeroes in on Israel’s use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) in its assaults on Palestinians. The new weapon inflicts horrific injuries. And they come from the United States. “Congress approved the $77 million sale of 1,000 GBU-39s to Israel in September 2008, and the weapons were delivered in December. Israel was the first foreign recipient of the DIMES,” he writes in Gaza: Death’s Laboratory.

For another look at military technology, also check out FPIF contributor Frankie Sturm’s review of the new book Wired for War, which probes the ethics of the robotic revolution.

Better Angels Prevail?

With Iran and Iraq, however, the Obama administration might still escape relatively unscathed.

On the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, FPIF contributor William Beeman observes that Washington has changed its rhetoric toward Tehran. A new era of cooperation is on the horizon, including a joint campaign against al-Qaeda. Iran also favors regional stability. “Contrary to the Bush-era accusations, Tehran’s leaders aren’t pleased with the militarism of individuals like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and have worked to quiet his opposition groups in Iraq in the name of a more comprehensive stability for the Shi’a community, which will eventually rule Iraq,” Beeman writes in A New Era in U.S.-Iranian Relations? “Tehran’s leaders also want stability in Afghanistan. Iran hosts millions of Afghan refugees. It would like most of them to go home, and that can’t happen until Afghanistan is quiet once again.”

The recent elections in Iraq, meanwhile, offer hope that this benighted country will soon emerge from U.S. occupation with some semblance of stability. In these elections, FPIF contributors Adil Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker write in a Baltimore Sun op-ed titled They Voted for One Iraq, Iraqis voted “for the Iraq they know — one based on a strong central government, not sectarian divisions. It is an Iraq where secular interests are primary and religious interests secondary. Looking to the future, Iraqis pushed aside the divisions that would create a permanent war zone. Iraqis voted in this election in a way similar to Americans in our most recent election: looking to leaders who will bring their nation together in the best interests of all of its citizens.”

Obama’s First Foreign Trip

Okay, he’s not going very far, but Canada is a foreign country. On February 19, Obama will fly to Ottawa. High on the agenda will be the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the president, as candidate, called for renegotiating. As FPIF contributor Rick Arnold writes, both the Canadian citizenry and Mexican President Felipe Calderón now support renegotiation as well.”

The supra-national ‘rights’ bestowed upon large corporations under NAFTA are undermining the decisions of our democratically elected governments,” Arnold writes in Obama’s Canada Trip Might Spell Change for NAFTA. “Obama swept in to the White House on a transformational wave that has people saying ‘yes we can’ to building something better. It’s a message many Canadians hope the new U.S. president will bring to Ottawa, and one that can inspire our politicians to take a good hard look at a poorly designed trade deal, and turn it into a fair trade agreement to benefit us all.”

U.S. relations with Latin America foundered during the Bush years, writes FPIF contributor Cynthia McClintock. The popularity of the United States dropped from 20-40% across the region from 2000 to 2005. The Obama administration is well-positioned to reverse this trend. “With a new tone of respect and new, smart policies on Cuba, drug control, and immigration, the Obama administration should find much greater Latin American interest in cooperation on other important but very complex issues, such as economic integration and poverty reduction and also energy and climate change,” she writes in Obama: Improve Relations with Latin America.

Chomsky and Bello on Economic Crisis

Noam Chomsky is back this week with his thoughts on the global economic crisis. In an interview with FPIF contributor Sameer Dossani, Chomsky lays out the dictates and double standards of the major economic institutions. “It’s rather striking to notice that the consensus on how to deal with the crisis in the rich countries is almost the opposite of the consensus on how the poor countries should deal with similar economic crises,” Chomsky notes in Understanding the Crisis. “So when so-called developing countries have a financial crisis, the IMF rules are: raise interest rates, cut down economic growth, tighten the belt, pay off your debts (to us), privatize, and so on. That’s the opposite of what’s prescribed here. What’s prescribed here is lower interest rates, pour government money into stimulating the economy, nationalize (but don’t use the word), and so on. So yes, there’s one set of rules for the weak and a different set of rules for the powerful.”

FPIF columnist Walden Bello, meanwhile, predicts that the decline in consumer purchases and the resulting loss of export revenues for Asian countries will usher in a season of protest. “In China, about 20 million workers have lost their jobs in the last few months, many of them heading back to the countryside, where they will find little work,” Bello writes in Asia: The Coming Fury. “The authorities are rightly worried that what they label ‘mass group incidents,’ which have been increasing in the last decade, might spin out of control. With the safety valve of foreign demand for Indonesian and Filipino workers shut off, hundreds of thousands of workers are returning home to few jobs and dying farms. Suffering is likely to be accompanied by rising protest, as it already has in Vietnam, where strikes are spreading like wildfire. Korea, with its tradition of militant labor and peasant protest, is a ticking time bomb. Indeed, East Asia may be entering a period of radical protest and social revolution that went out of style when export-oriented industrialization became the fashion three decades ago.”

FPIF, February 17, 2009

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