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The Multipolar World Vs. The Superpower

Is U.S. unilateralism a reality — or just a belief that U.S. strategists are trying to sell to the rest of the world?

December 5, 2003

Is U.S. unilateralism a reality — or just a belief that U.S. strategists are trying to sell to the rest of the world?

A grand strategy, such as it is pursued by the Bush Administration, ultimately rests on the simple idea of a unipolar world — the notion that the United States is the only power that counts in the world today.

Coincidentally, that is also why neo-conservative advocates are so critical of France's avowed goal of creating a multi-polar world, attributing it to France's superpower "envy."

Yet for all practical purposes, a multipolar world already exists. On a global plane, the United States may appear to be the world's only superpower, spending more than the next 15 nations combined on military power.

But viewed at the level of its key strategic relationships with Europe, Russia, China and Japan, the United States in each case needs them to achieve its foreign policy goals as much — or more — than they need the United States.

In other words, at the bilateral level, the other established and emerging powers of the world enjoy either strategic parity with the United States — or a favorable balance of power and interest.

And the balance is likely to tilt further in favor of Europe, Russia, Japan and China in the future. This is in part because the U.S. market will become less important to them — and in part because the United States' growing dependence on foreign capital will increase its international debt burden.

This makes it more vulnerable to the policies and attitudes of its principal creditors.

Take the case of the U.S. relationship with the European Union. Unipolarists like to focus attention on Europe's military weaknesses — as well as the lack of a unified European foreign policy.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, Europe enjoys an attractive position vis-à-vis the United States. In the ultimate analysis, Washington needs the help and support of Europe more than Europe needs the United States.

Even more amazingly, if looked at objectively, Europe is no longer dependent on the United States for any real security or defense needs.

In fact, the European nations of NATO and the European Union now have primacy over their own security — and over the security of the immediate European Rim region, stretching from the Ukraine in the north to the Balkans in the south.

Certain Europeans might like the United States to do more to help create stability in Ukraine or maintain peace in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Yet Washington has essentially removed itself from these security-related concerns. Europe's main security worry vis-à-vis the United States today is of an entirely different nature.

It is not that Washington will abandon Europe, but that it will use its power in the Middle East in a way that will destabilize the region and create greater Western-Islamic tensions.

But even in this case, Europe may have more influence and leverage over the United States than has been commonly recognized.

Even though Washington is trying to build a flexible military structure that is less dependent on its allies, the United States still relies on European bases and infrastructure for non-NATO missions.

And it still needs a measure of European support and participation to gain domestic support for those missions.

Beyond this, Washington depends upon European Union members for peacekeeping and nation-building tasks. This is true not just in the Balkans — but in Afghanistan and most likely soon in Iraq.

The United States also benefits from European assistance for other U.S. security-related concerns, such as support for the Palestinian Authority.

This is not to mention the importance of Europe's active cooperation in stopping international terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation.

In many ways, Europe is better positioned to pursue a project to build democracy in the Middle East than is the United States.

Remember that the United States has had very little success in helping create stable democracies in any part of the world over the last two decades, including in its own neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the European Union has a solid track record when it comes to democracy-building, particularly as it relates to the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe, its earlier missteps in the Balkans notwithstanding.

For much of the last decade, the world has heard repeatedly about the superiority of the American model. But it has been the European Union that has had the most success in exporting democracy and fostering economic reform.

Moreover, as a continent made up of several of the larger creditor economies, Europe has the financial wherewithal to do more in North Africa and the Middle East as well as in Eastern Europe.

In contrast, the United States is dependent upon European as well as East Asian capital to fuel U.S. growth — and to pay for its international policies.

The nations of the European Union continue to export capital to the developing world as well as to the United States.

In addition, the European Union now has as much or more influence with other key members of the international community — such as Brazil, Russia and Turkey — than the United States does.

More significantly, it often pursues policies that better reflect their interests than American policies do. It thus would be able to enlist them in European projects in a way that the United States has not been able to do.

What is true in the case of the U.S. relationship with Europe is true to a lesser degree with respect to its relationships with Russia, China and Japan.

The United States needs a reasonably strong Russia — and not just to maintain the safety of its nuclear weapons.

It also needs to help balance an increasingly powerful China, check Taliban-like extremists and terrorists in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, help stop nuclear proliferation in Iran — and stabilize the world oil market.

In return, Washington has very little to offer Moscow, that Russia has recovered its economic independence from the International Monetary Fund and has begun to repatriate substantial sums of capital.

The only exception possibly is a U.S. blessing of Moscow's sometimes misguided effort to crush the Chechen separatists — as well as for Russia's bid for membership in the World Trade Organization.

In recent years, the balance of interest and power with China has shifted to one of mutual dependence.

China has neutralized U.S. power in a number of ways: by modernizing its nuclear forces and by adopting a good neighbor policy in East Asia.

It has also done so by stepping up its diplomacy toward the resolution of the North Korea crisis and by becoming one of the largest suppliers of consumer goods to the United States and one of its biggest creditors.

In 2002, the central bank of China has become the largest purchaser of U.S. Treasury bills.

Together with the Japanese central bank funded 45 % of the U.S. current account deficit in the second quarter of 2003.

China has also become an increasing destination for Japanese goods and capital, including for Japanese companies relocating production abroad.

And China has taken the lead in establishing a free trade zone with the countries of Southeast Asia. This has reduced Japan's dependence on the United States.

It has also strengthened the foundations of an emerging East Asian economic community that one day may represent yet another challenge to America's international economic position.

Neo-conservative supporters of the Bush Administration would prefer to ignore these developments — because they contradict the appealing notion of a unipolar world.

But viewed from the perspective of American strategic relations with Europe and Asia, the central feature of international relations today is not American unipolarity — but the once popular notion of interdependence.

Elsewhere, the troubled underdeveloped regions of the world, struggling with disorder, bad governance and arrested development, if not outright poverty, do not seem to be the beneficiary of American dominance.

In these regions, the central challenge is less any great power competition for influence than the collective weakness of the developed world to do anything about their problems.

Adapted from a longer essay — entitled “Revamping American Grand Strategy” — in the Fall 2003 issue of the World Policy Journal.

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