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The Reemergence of Balance-of-Power Politics

Will ad-hoc coalitions between underdeveloped nations be enough to contain aggressive hegemons?

August 12, 2003

Will ad-hoc coalitions between underdeveloped nations be enough to contain aggressive hegemons?

The last few years and the coming ones have been — and will be — bad for world peace. They are, however, rich in lessons about international power relations. And the lessons are not all grim.

To be sure, the first lesson is discouraging: That unchallenged superpower status stimulates conflict, not peace. This did not seem so clear in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

At that time, there was widespread expectation in the West that the United States would use its sole superpower status to undergird a multilateral order that would institutionalize its hegemony — but assure an Augustan peace globally.

Even some people not enamored with the United States speculated that — with the superpower rivalry gone and all other potential rivals taking themselves out of the competition — Washington's quest for military superiority and strategic advantage would slow down.

Europe, Japan and China seemed ready to settle down to a condition of controlled competition in the economic sphere, while accepting long-term American dominance in the security area.

In fact, as the 1990s rolled on, it became clear that the end of the Cold War had ushered in a volatile period more dangerous than the Cold War. The superpower standoff had warded off big wars, contained smaller wars and gave relations among states a certain predictability.

The instability of the new era did not — as many Beltway intellectuals believe — stem primarily from the emergence of "irrational" non-state actors that were prepared to engage in "asymmetric warfare" against conventionally powerful state actors.

Rather, it came from the transformation of the balance of power in the global state system. The balance of power among states is the subject of John Mearsheimer’s magnum opus "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics."

Regarded as the definitive work on the subject, the book argues persuasively that, in all balance of power systems, great powers aim not so much to achieve a defensive balance against their rivals. Instead, they strive to achieve a significant degree of military and political advantage over them.

Mearsheimer is also correct that “bipolar” systems — such as the U.S.-Soviet face-off during the Cold War — are less likely to break down than “multipolar” systems like the pre-World War II situation, which was marked by relative equality of powerful states.

What Mearsheimer fails to tell us, however, is that the situation most conducive to conflict, tension — and instability — is one where there is one overwhelmingly dominant power surrounded by a number of midget powers — meaning today’s world.

He quotes, with approval, Immanuel Kant’s comment: “It is the desire of every state, or of its ruler, to arrive at a condition of perpetual peace by conquering the whole world, if that were possible.”

Yet, he does not seem to appreciate the fact that Kant’s insight is perhaps of greatest relevance in the post-Cold War world, where American military and political preponderance is unmatched.

This intellectual failure is jarring. Worse, it stems from a primordial belief that Washington, unlike other great powers, is not just motivated by naked realpolitik but by the desire for a benign global order as well.

These ideological blinders prevent Mearsheimer and many other U.S. intellectuals from appreciating that the United States has apparently switched roles. It has gone an “offshore balancer” against would-be hegemons — like Hitler and the former Soviet Union — to being itself a global power bent on achieving and maintaining world hegemony.

Many critics of U.S. power, for their part, attribute George W. Bush’s unilateralism to the self-centered, provincial worldview of the American Right. This explanation, however, confuses cause and effect.

Bush’s unilateralist ideology is a product of a unique structural conjuncture: The consolidation of the civilian-military “defense establishment,” which won the Cold War, as the dominant faction of the U.S. elite is first. This followed by the disappearance of an effective countervailing force against U.S. power in the global state system.

To mask its shift from containment to hegemony, however, the defense establishment needed a rationale. The past decade saw it invoking a succession of actors to fill the role vacated by the Soviet Union. New strategy threats were seen emanating from China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and al Qaeda.

Paying very little respect to the actual state and capacity of the targeted regimes, this process was embarrassingly opportunistic and failed to achieve credibility even among a critical mass of its prime target group, the American people.

This changed with the September 11 attacks that consolidated domestic support for the open-ended and preemptive unilateralist interventionism articulated in George W. Bush’s historic speech on Sept. 17, 2002.

As for the multilateralist paradigm, this was never a serious alternative entertained by any significant faction of the U.S. elite — except perhaps for marginalized old liberal circles and by such personalities as Jimmy Carter.

Bill Clinton, who distrusted fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, may have invoked multilateralist rhetoric, but he did not hesitate to act unilaterally.

He did, for example, when he ordered the bombing of Serbia despite European objections during the Kosovo crisis.

That is the bad news. The good news is that even when backed by overwhelming force, unchallenged hegemony is a transient state.

It was the case in the Napoleonic Europe, when lesser powers calculated that a posture of compliance — or subservience — may be necessary in the short-term. But they knew that it was disastrous as a long-term strategy, for it was simply an invitation to more aggression.

This was what the prolonged UN Security Council standoff over Iraq was all about.

It was less about Saddam’s compliance. It was more about containing a hegemon that felt it had a blank check to intervene, topple and depose anywhere in the world — with the dangerous rationale of preventing a threat, no matter how abstract, from “reaching the American people.”

If France and Germany were willing to go the distance in stubbornly blocking the United States from waging war on Iraq, it was to discourage future U.S. moves that might pose a more direct threat to their national security.

Cultural bonds or a sense of generosity for being liberated from Nazism 50 years ago are weak rationales when compared to the fear of encouraging aggressive ambitions that could translate into economic bullying in the short term — and military blackmail in the long term.

However the current Iraq crisis is resolved, it will mark the rebirth of balance of power politics — where the lesser powers are moved into active cooperation to contain U.S. aggression.

Joining France and Germany in what is emerging as this era’s version of the pre-World War I Triple Alliance, are China and Russia. The more weighty emerging market countries — like Brazil and perhaps even South Korea — may eventually hop on board.

Though individual members may change, this coalition is likely to be long-term.

And, unlike currently — where real dynamics are clouded by the debate of Saddam’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction — its basis will eventually be made clear: To defend the national and global security of every nation against the threat of U.S. unilateralism.

In the next few years and decades, we are likely to witness even more brazen efforts by the United States to reorder the world to better serve its interests. But in doing so, the United States will also consolidate an anti-U.S. coalition of the less powerful, while accelerating the spread of anti-U.S. movements in global civil societies.

This is not the unchallenged hegemony that Washington aspires for — but the classic dynamics of overreach and overextension. For if there is one unambiguous lesson history has taught the nations, it is that an empire is transient while resistance is permanent.