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Why It’s Still a Unipolar Era

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The world’s response to Libya has made clear that currently fashionable arguments about the ‘rise of the Rest’ and the world’s new ‘nonpolarity’ are simply untrue.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to dispense with intellectual fads. The world’s response to Libya has made clear that currently fashionable arguments about the “rise of the Rest” and the world’s new “nonpolarity” are simply untrue. Charles Krauthammer was wrong about one thing in his description of the “unipolar moment” at the end of the Cold War: We are not living in a unipolar moment, we are witnessing a unipolar era. Why? Because the “rest”—China and India—are unable and unwilling to lead.

The current fashion in foreign policy argumentation is to explain that America is in decline, particularly relative to Asia. The new declinists usually line up an impressive array of statistics that tell a story of India and China’s high rates of economic growth, military spending, energy consumption, and so on. The new declinists have a point—the raw numbers are impressive. But power is about much more than raw numbers. It is the most elusive concept in politics. It usually cannot be measured accurately until it is used.

The United States is not as far ahead of India and China in material strength as it used to be, but the vision of world order it shares with its NATO allies provides it with a moral strength and legitimacy impossible to measure.

The recent example of the West’s decision to use force against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is a case in point. The United States was supposed to be entering a new era of constraints, perhaps even decline, bound by a severe financial debt crisis and an unwillingness to properly fund our military forces. Moreover, we have a president as ambivalent about exercising American power as we have seen in a generation. President Obama did all he could to dither and procrastinate while Qaddafi butchered his people.

After all the hand-wringing, President Obama understood two things: the world order Washington needs demands that Qaddafi be stopped, and only America could stop him. Obama’s rhetoric about the United States not being in the lead against Qaddafi is just that: rhetoric meant to further a bizarre public relations agenda (Does anyone in the Middle East really believe we are not leading the effort in Libya? What purpose does pretending to take a back seat serve except to satisfy the Western left-wing intelligentsia?). Until President Obama directed his staff to secure a UN Security Council resolution and commit the U.S. military to stopping Qaddafi, the “international community” was paralyzed by inaction. The United Kingdom and France admirably made a strong moral and strategic case for intervention, but could not act without U.S. leadership.

What about China and India, countries that the new declinists identify as the future guardians of world order? The best that could be said is they did not get in the way.

The new declinists have a point—the raw numbers are impressive. But power is about much more than raw numbers.

Of the two, India is the greater disappointment. Washington applauds the potential of the relationship based in part on India’s impressive democracy. India’s democratic character is supposed to bind it with the West to keep strong the liberal order that characterizes international politics. But with its decision to abstain from a resolution that would end Qaddafi’s treachery, Delhi demonstrated that shared values do not extend to preventing a dictator from butchering his people. Delhi’s multicultural democracy is impressive and there may be great potential for cooperation with Washington. But until Delhi sheds the vestiges of its self-indulgent and sentimental non-alignment policies, the chances that it will exercise power on the world stage in a positive and meaningful way remain low. For the foreseeable future, Washington and Delhi are fated to cooperate on a narrow set of issues much closer to India’s borders.

Then there is China. Who knows why China decided to abstain rather than threaten a veto. Perhaps Beijing did not want another confrontation with Washington.

But the idea that China will rise to world leadership presupposes that Beijing has some vision of world order beyond protecting its material interests. But so long as a committee of nine dictators rule China, this idea is a fantasy. In a country in which citizens are blocked from Internet searches of the words “Arab” and “democracy,” it is farfetched to expect any help in felling extremists.

President Obama’s rhetoric about the United States not being in the lead against Qaddafi is just that: rhetoric meant to further a bizarre public relations agenda.

Even closer to China’s borders, in Afghanistan—a country whose failure can have serious deleterious consequences for China—Beijing has not seen fit to shed a drop of its blood or spend a yuan of its treasure. Instead, while NATO and the United States fight and die for stability in South Asia, China has been building a military that can challenge the United States in the Pacific. The net effect is a less peaceful world. Instead of contributing to the stability from which it benefits, China has made it more costly for the United States to provide the public goods upon which Asia’s prosperity depends.

In turns out that while measures of power such as gross domestic product growth, numbers of scientists and engineers, and shares of decision-making in international bodies may tell us something about a country’s power, they do not tell us enough. These crude calculations of power miss the intangibles of leadership: political culture, values, and purpose. The West has a set of ideas about how the world should run. This vision includes the sometime necessity of deposing a brutal dictator. India and China do not see a purpose for international politics beyond advancing narrow self-interest. The fact that India is democratic means that it may one day decide to join the ideological West and exercise international power for grander purposes. China is run by dictators. Until that changes, the most Washington should expect is for Beijing not to make problems worse. Forget about China becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Our diplomacy should encourage China to become a less irresponsible power.

What the new declinists miss is that while the United States is not as far ahead of India and China in material strength as it used to be, the vision of world order it shares with its NATO allies provides it with a moral strength and legitimacy impossible to measure. The new declinists point to the ways in which the “Rest” can make life marginally more difficult for the West. But while the “Rest” may carp from the sidelines and gum up the works on international trade and financial agreements, when it comes to upholding international order, Delhi and Beijing will take a pass. We may be tiring of it, but the Unipolar Era is alive and well.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Blumenthal also wrote “Rethinking U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Taiwan,” “What Does the Unrest in the Middle East Tell Us about China?” and “Obama's Asia Policy: A Time for Reflection.” He outlines a “Sea Change in the Pacific” and discusses “Why China's Missiles Should Be Our Focus.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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