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Afghanistan Marks the Beginning of the End of US-led Unipolarity

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While the impact of the terrorist attacks and the following military mobilization of the U.S. leading to invasion of Afghanistan influenced the geopolitical debate in the post-9/11 period, the country’s early victories provided solid ground to the general belief that global order was best described by a stable U.S.-led unipolarity.

Unipolar hubris sustained

Back in 1999, William C. Wohlforth famously wrote in his article titled The Stability of a Unipolar World, “The system is unambiguously unipolar,” adding that “the current unipolarity is not only peaceful but durable.” Wohlforth also boldly stated that “for many decades, no state is likely to be in a position to take on the United States in any of the underlying elements of power,” bearing in mind the economic, military, technological, and geopolitical components.

In the same manner and year, Samuel P. Huntington characterized the world order in Foreign Affairs magazine as “unimultipolar.” The author argued that although the U.S. may at times have required some assistance from weaker countries to accomplish its goals, Huntington still believed that the “lonely superpower” was “the sole state with preeminence in every domain of power—economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, and cultural—with the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world.”

The described narration concerning the U.S. global supremacy was not significantly impacted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In general, the ability to deploy U.S. troops far away from its shores nourished, rather than diminished, the deep conviction of unipolarity. One year later from the tragic events, writing in a Foreign Affairs magazine’s article titled American Primacy in Perspective, Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth argued that “if today’s U.S. primacy does not constitute unipolarity, then nothing ever will. The only things left for dispute are how long it will last.”

What is even more interesting than the mentioned analyses of the status was the overwhelmingly optimistic view of the U.S. about its ability to keep the considerable distance between itself and other powers in the world. When potential contenders were considered, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo were mentioned as frequently as Beijing while, strangely, New Delhi was not even taken into account. With respect to the U.S. ability to sustain its strong growth, Brooks and Wohlforth wrote after the 9/11 attacks that “it would take… an extraordinarily deep and prolongued domestic recession juxtaposed with robust growth elsewhere—for the United States just to fall back to the economic position it occupied in 1991.” They further added that “the odds against such a relative decline are long, however, in part because the United States is the country in the best position to take advantage of globalization.”

On the other hand, few experts entertained any serious thought that China could become a regional or global power. Brooks and Wohlforth perfectly articulated the predominant thinking of that time by writing that “Fifty percent of China’s labor force is employed in agriculture, and relatively little of its economy is geared toward high technology.” They also reminded their readers that “in the 1990s, U.S. spending on technological development was more than twenty times China’s” and “most of China’s weapons are decades old.” Today, knowing that, according to the World Bank data, employment in agriculture in China was reported to stand at 24.73 percent in 2020, the country’s spending on research and development hit a record-high 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in the same year, which gives us 2.44 trillion yuan ($377.8 billion) as well as the fact that Beijing is spending more on defense than ever before; we can easily argue that the things have not stayed the same, to say the least.

When reality bites back

In the recent years, an increasing number of analysts started to believe that the U.S. supremacy may not last forever. While economic liberalization in emerging economies resulted in continuously higher growth rates than in the developing countries, the U.S. formerly inexhaustible might appeared to be waning due to its expensive and tremendously irresponsible military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was related to President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.” As a result, this has dealt a severe blow to the U.S. legitimacy and worked to the advantage of emerging powers. As Amitav Acharya writes in the book The End of American World Order, the decline discourse “took off after the early ‘mission accomplished’ optimism of George W. Bush quickly gave way to the Vietnam-like feel of an Iraq quagmire, and the rapid transformation of a Clinton surplus to a historic deficit.” Unipolarity’s demise, according to Acharya, “was hastened not by isolationism but by adventurism.”

What Randall Schweller and Xiaoyu Pu observed in their article published in 2011, titled After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline, is that “unipolarity, which seemed strangely durable only a few years ago, appears today as a “passing moment.” The authors added that the U.S. “is no longer a hyper power towering over potential contenders,” as “the rest of the world is catching up.” This has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream press as, among other takes on the said topic, Financial Times’ articles like “America Must Manage its Decline,” written in 2011 by Gideon Rachman, or “Summits that Cap the West’s Decline,” penned by Philip Stephens in 2012, have significantly impacted the public debate in years to come. Most importantly, as far as the former example is concerned, Rachman correctly recognized that “new powers are on the rise,” noticing that “they each have their own foreign-policy preferences, which collectively constrain America’s ability to shape the world.” The author also predicted that “that is just a taste of things to come,” having in mind New Delhi’s and Brasilia’s support for Beijing during climate-change talks, and made a critical remark that “if America were able openly to acknowledge that its global power is in decline, it would be much easier to have a rational debate about what to do about it.”

Even though many people still believe that the U.S. “must not abandon” the Middle East, like it was famously voiced by The Economist in 2015, or argue that the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan was “tragic, dangerous, and unnecessary,” like former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair recently claimed, it is fair to say that the country’s military interventions in places like the Middle East contribute to the instability in the region far more than to the cause of the desired peace. Ironically, bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, and several African countries, are a harsh reminder that millions of people around the globe do not associate the U.S.-led unipolarity with stability and perceive the country as one of the greatest threats to international peace.

An increasingly important factor in shaping the future of military adventurism is the U.S. public, which strongly supports the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and demands ending the endless wars. The fact is that as long as the U.S. power remains preponderant, we will see the continuation of the same disastrous outcomes as we have seen in Afghanistan. As Nuno P. Monteiro argues in his book Theory of Unipolar Politics, unipolarity “is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, in which conflict is hardly avoidable,” and there is no evidence that technological advancement will allow to avoid similar horrors and costs to those associated with the war in Afghanistan, which are both felt by the U.S. and the Afghan people.

The moment of reckoning

As of today, the majority of mainstream thought leadership give very little benefit of the doubt that non-unipolar order can be as peaceful, or even more peaceful than the well-known unipolar order of the past, with intellectuals like Niall Ferguson, quite strangely, arguing that the alleged “America’s decline mirrors Britain’s a century ago,” when commenting on the country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, Ferguson’s thinking resembles the British imperial logic, which, once faced with the fact that the continuation with the project is impossible, believed that “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible,” as Lord Salisbury famously stated.

Contrary to the mentioned belief, there is no evidence that non-unipolarity may be less peaceful than unipolarity, which has been rich in military struggles in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Inchon, the Mekong River delta, Iran, or Luanda. Apart from eradicating the likelihood of great power struggle, the anatomy of a unipolar arrangement does not have a directly advantageous effect on the general likelihood of peace. Unipolarity itself creates conditions where recurrent conflicts between the hegemon and unyielding minor powers and conflict between small powers, which are harder to be managed by great-power allies, occur. Besides, unipolarity is free from restraint, which often leads to adventurism and hubris, as we have witnessed when the U.S. inavaded Iraq. Therefore, unipolarity is predisposed to be burdened with asymmetric and peripheral conflicts, like in the formerly mentioned example, as well as smaller wars, like in the case of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. To conclude, it is uncertain if unipolarity influences the reiteration and severity of intra-state war.

It is equally worth mentioning that the frequently argued indispensability of hegemon to maintain international order is also challenged. As Simon Reich and Richard Lebow claim in their book Good-bye Hegemony! Power and Influence in the Global System, there is no prerequisite for hegemony to be in place in order to achieve international stability. The authors even go on to suggest that the concept of hegemony is itself “inappropriate” in a non-unipolar world scenario.

As Amitav Acharya predicts, non-unipolarity will not be chaotic and insecure. Quite the opposite, the author believes, the said arrangement could result in greater international collaboration, providing regional powers with more space for local and regional creativity. At the same time, writing in The End of American World Order, Acharya believes that “no major Western analyst…accepts that the U.S. decline might be good for international order either in general or in specific areas such as development, governance, and international justice.”

Looking from the U.S. persective, putting too much emphasis on preserving unipolarity risks being labelled as self-interested power by the international community, which is not so much interested with maintaining global satability as much as achieving self-serving goals. Furthermore, Frans-Paul van der Putten writes in European Union Institute for Security Studies report published in 2013, “it is not in Europe’s interests to support the perpetuation of U.S. global leadership at all costs, if this involves the danger of long-term global instability [and] the paralysis of global governance.”

Towards Brave New Post-Unipolar Order

There is no doubt that we are no longer living in the unipolar world, and, therefore, the non-unipolar reality requires us to question the post-Cold War’s liberal cosmopolitan orthodoxy and rethink our views to deal with global challenges, ranging from climate change, failed states, poverty reduction, and nuclear proliferation.

With power and responsibilities being spread more evenly, the world has a unique chance to strengthen cooperation and engage much more voices than ever in human history. Furthermore, a constructive embracement of the non-unipolar world will allow us to fully appreciate the fact that the post-unipolar world will be much more prosperous thanks to the improvement of the economic condition in countries in the developing world.

To mark this significant transition, the U.S. would be well-advised to engage other major powers, especially China and Russia, and leverage their cooperation to rebuild Afghanistan, which markes the end of unipolarity and has a realistic potential to mark the beginning of the post-unipolar future.

From our partner RIAC

London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator, who is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague.

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Americas

Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

The newly unveiled Biden doctrine, which renounces the United States’ post-9/11 policies of remaking other societies and building nations abroad, is a foreign policy landmark. Coming on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it exudes credibility. Indeed, President Biden’s moves essentially formalize and finalize processes that have been under way for over a decade. It was Barack Obama who first pledged to end America’s twin wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—started under George W. Bush. It was Donald Trump who reached an agreement with the Taliban on a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Both Obama and Trump also sought, albeit in strikingly different ways, to redirect Washington’s attention to shoring up the home base.

It is important for the rest of the world to treat the change in U.S. foreign policy correctly. Leaving Afghanistan was the correct strategic decision, if grossly overdue and bungled in the final phases of its implementation. Afghanistan certainly does not mean the end of the United States as a global superpower; it simply continues to be in relative and slow decline. Nor does it spell the demise of American alliances and partnerships. Events in Afghanistan are unlikely to produce a political earthquake within the United States that would topple President Biden. No soul searching of the kind that Americans experienced during the Vietnam War is likely to emerge. Rather, Washington is busy recalibrating its global involvement. It is focusing even more on strengthening the home base. Overseas, the United States is moving from a global crusade in the name of democracy to an active defense of liberal values at home and Western positions abroad.

Afghanistan has been the most vivid in a long series of arguments that persuaded Biden’s White House that a global triumph of liberal democracy is not achievable in the foreseeable future. Thus, remaking problematic countries—“draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism, in the language of the Bush administration—is futile. U.S. military force is a potent weapon, but no longer the means of first resort. The war on terror as an effort to keep the United States safe has been won: in the last twenty years, no major terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil. Meantime, the geopolitical, geoeconomic, ideological, and strategic focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted. China is the main—some say, existential—challenger, and Russia the principal disrupter. Iran, North Korea, and an assortment of radical or extremist groups complete the list of adversaries. Climate change and the pandemic have risen to the top of U.S. security concerns. Hence, the most important foreign policy task is to strengthen the collective West under strong U.S. leadership.

The global economic recession that originated in the United States in 2007 dealt a blow to the U.S.-created economic and financial model; the severe domestic political crisis of 2016–2021 undermined confidence in the U.S. political system and its underlying values; and the COVID-19 disaster that hit the United States particularly hard have all exposed serious political, economic, and cultural issues and fissures within American society and polity. Neglecting the home base while engaging in costly nation-building exercises abroad came at a price. Now the Biden administration has set out to correct that with huge infrastructure development projects and support for the American middle class.

America’s domestic crises, some of the similar problems in European countries, and the growing gap between the United States and its allies during the Trump presidency have produced widespread fears that China and Russia could exploit those issues to finally end U.S. dominance and even undermine the United States and other Western societies from within. This perception is behind the strategy reversal from spreading democracy as far and wide as Russia and China to defending the U.S.-led global system and the political regimes around the West, including in the United States, from Beijing and Moscow.

That said, what are the implications of the Biden doctrine? The United States remains a superpower with enormous resources which is now trying to use those resources to make itself stronger. America has reinvented itself before and may well be able to do so again. In foreign policy, Washington has stepped back from styling itself as the world’s benign hegemon to assume the combat posture of the leader of the West under attack.

Within the collective West, U.S. dominance is not in danger. None of the Western countries are capable of going it alone or forming a bloc with others to present an alternative to U.S. leadership. Western and associated elites remain fully beholden to the United States. What they desire is firm U.S. leadership; what they fear is the United States withdrawing into itself. As for Washington’s partners in the regions that are not deemed vital to U.S. interests, they should know that American support is conditional on those interests and various circumstances. Nothing new there, really: just ask some leaders in the Middle East. For now, however, Washington vows to support and assist exposed partners like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Embracing isolationism is not on the cards in the United States. For all the focus on domestic issues, global dominance or at least primacy has firmly become an integral part of U.S. national identity. Nor will liberal and democratic ideology be retired as a major driver of U.S. foreign policy. The United States will not become a “normal” country that only follows the rules of realpolitik. Rather, Washington will use values as a glue to further consolidate its allies and as a weapon to attack its adversaries. It helps the White House that China and Russia are viewed as malign both across the U.S. political spectrum and among U.S. allies and partners, most of whom have fears or grudges against either Moscow or Beijing.

In sum, the Biden doctrine does away with engagements that are no longer considered promising or even sustainable by Washington; funnels more resources to address pressing domestic issues; seeks to consolidate the collective West around the United States; and sharpens the focus on China and Russia as America’s main adversaries. Of all these, the most important element is domestic. It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

From our partner RIAC

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AUKUS aims to perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon supremacy

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden worked with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison together to unveil a trilateral alliance among Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS), which are the major three among the Anglo-Saxon nations (also including Canada and New Zealand). Literally, each sovereign state has full right to pursue individual or collective security and common interests. Yet, the deal has prompted intense criticism across the world including the furious words and firm acts from the Atlantic allies in Europe, such as France that is supposed to lose out on an $40-billion submarine deal with Australia to its Anglo-Saxon siblings—the U.K. and the U.S.

               Some observers opine that AUKUS is another clear attempt by the U.S. and its allies aggressively to provoke China in the Asia-Pacific, where Washington had forged an alliance along with Japan, India and Australia in the name of the Quad. AUKUS is the latest showcase that three Anglo-Saxon powers have pretended to perpetuate their supremacy in all the key areas such as geopolitics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. In short, the triple deal is a move designed to discourage or thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony. But diplomatically its impacts go beyond that. As French media argued that the United States, though an ally of France, just backstabs it by negotiating AUKUS in secret without revealing the plan. Given this, the deal among AUKUS actually reflects the mentality of the Anglo-Saxon nations’ superiority over others even if they are not outrageously practicing an imperialist policy in the traditional way.

               Historically, there are only two qualified global powers which the Europeans still sometimes refer to as “Anglo-Saxon” powers: Great Britain and the United States. As Walter Mead once put it that the British Empire was, and the United States is, concerned not just with the balance of power in one particular corner of the world, but with the evolution of what it is today called “world order”. Now with the rise of China which has aimed to become a global power with its different culture and political views from the current ruling powers, the Anglo-Saxon powers have made all efforts to align with the values-shared allies or partners to create the strong bulwarks against any rising power, like China and Russia as well. Physically, either the British Empire or the United States did or does establish a worldwide system of trade and finance which have enabled the two Anglo-Saxon powers to get rich and advanced in high-technologies. As a result, those riches and high-tech means eventually made them execute the power to project their military force that ensure the stability of their-dominated international systems. Indeed the Anglo-Saxon powers have had the legacies to think of their global goals which must be bolstered by money and foreign trade that in turn produces more wealth. Institutionally, the Anglo-Saxon nations in the world—the U.S., the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have formed the notorious “Five eyes alliance” to collect all sorts of information and data serving their common core interests and security concerns.

This is not just rhetoric but an objective reflection of the mentality as Australian Foreign Minister Payne candidly revealed at the press conference where she said that the contemporary state of their alliance “is well suited to cooperate on countering economic coercion.” The remarks imply that AUKUS is a military response to the rising economic competition from China because politics and economics are intertwined with each other in power politics, in which military means acts in order to advance self-interested economic ends. In both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms, the rise of China, no matter how peaceful it is, has been perceived as the “systematic” challenges to the West’s domination of international relations and global economy, in which the Anglo-Saxon superiority must remain. Another case is the U.S. efforts to have continuously harassed the Nord Stream 2 project between Russia and Germany.

Yet, in the global community of today, any superpower aspiring for pursuing “inner clique” like AUKUS will be doomed to fail. First, we all are living in the world “where the affairs of each country are decided by its own people, and international affairs are run by all nations through consultation,” as President Xi put it. Due to this, many countries in Asia warn that AUKUS risks provoking a nuclear arms race in the Asian-Pacific region. The nuclear factor means that the U.S. efforts to economically contain China through AUKUS on nationalist pretexts are much more dangerous than the run-up to World War I. Yet, neither the United States nor China likes to be perceived as “disturbing the peace” that Asian countries are eager to preserve. In reality, Asian countries have also made it clear not to take either side between the power politics.

Second, AUKUS’s deal jeopardizes the norms of international trade and treaties. The reactions of third parties is one key issue, such as the French government is furious about the deal since it torpedoes a prior Australian agreement to purchase one dozen of conventional subs from France. Be aware that France is a strong advocate for a more robust European Union in the world politics. Now the EU is rallying behind Paris as in Brussels EU ambassadors agreed to postpone preparations for an inaugural trade and technology council on September 29 with the U.S. in Pittsburgh. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared in a strong manner that “since one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we need to know what happened and why.” Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for European affairs, went even further as he put it, “It is once again a wake-up call for all of us in the European Union to ask ourselves how we can strengthen our sovereignty, how we can present a united front even on issues relevant to foreign and security policy.” It is the time for the EU to talk with one voice and for the need to work together to rebuild mutual trust among the allies.

Third, the deal by AUKUS involves the nuclear dimension. It is true that the three leaders have reiterated that the deal would be limited to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology (such as reactors to power the new subs) but not nuclear weapons technology. Accordingly, Australia remains a non-nuclear country not armed with such weapons. But from a proliferation standpoint, that is a step in the direction of more extensive nuclear infrastructure. It indicates the United States and the U.K. are willing to transfer highly sensitive technologies to close allies. But the issue of deterrence in Asia-and especially extended deterrence-is extremely complicated since it will become ore so as China’s nuclear arsenal expands. If the security environment deteriorates in the years ahead, U.S. might consider allowing its core allies to gain nuclear capabilities and Australia is able to gain access to this technology as its fleet expands. Yet, it also means that Australia is not a non-nuclear country any more.

In brief, the deal itself and the triple alliance among AUKUS will take some years to become a real threat to China or the ruling authorities of the country. But the deal announced on Sept. 15 will complicate Chinese efforts to maintain a peaceful rise and act a responsible power. Furthermore, the deal and the rationales behind it is sure to impede China’s good-will to the members of AUKUS and the Quad, not mention of their irresponsible effects on peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively, the US sold its soul to the Saudis again after the US intelligence services confirmed months ago that the Saudi Prince is responsible for the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration is already much more inhumane and much worse than Trump. Biden doesn’t care about the thousands of American citizens that he left behind at the mercy of the Taliban, the Biden administration kills innocent civilians in drone strikes, they are in bed with the worst of the worsts human right violators calling them friendly nations. 

Biden dropped and humiliated France managing to do what no US President has ever accomplished —  make France pull out its Ambassador to the US, and all this only to go bother China actively seeking the next big war. Trump’s blunders were never this big. And this is just the beginning. There is nothing good in store for America and the world with Biden. All the hope is quickly evaporating, as the world sees the actions behind the fake smile and what’s behind the seemingly right and restrained rhetoric on the surface. It’s the actions that matter. Trump talked tough talk for which he got a lot of criticism and rarely resorted to military action. Biden is the opposite: he says all the right things but the actions behind are inhumane and destructive. It makes you wonder if Trump wasn’t actually better for the world.

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