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