Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Multipolar Myth

In his Guardian article today, liberal internationalist Timothy Garton Ash takes a walk down a path well trodden by realists like Kenneth Waltz and Stephen Walt: claiming that multipolarity in the internatiol system is upon us. Garton Ash tries to out-Waltz Waltz, however, by claiming that multipolarity is already here. His evidence? In order, it appears to be as follows: the US is using its military to evacuate Americans from Lebanon, small groups with access to powerful technology can crash a plane into a building or aim a rocket at Haifa, US popularity in the world has declined and the US is using diplomacy with regards to Iran and North Korea.
The US possesses the mightiest military the world has ever seen, and how is it being used? To evacuate its citizens from Lebanon...

[...]Developments in technologies with violent potential mean that very small groups of people can challenge powerful established states, whether by piloting an aeroplane into the World Trade Centre in New York, targeting a missile at Haifa, taking on the US military in Iraq, bombing the London underground, or squirting sarin gas into the Tokyo subway.

[...]Developments in information technology and globalised media mean that the most powerful military in the history of the world can lose a war, not on the battlefield of dust and blood, but on the battlefield of world opinion. If you look at the precipitate decline in US popularity since 2002, charted by the Pew Global Attitudes polls even in countries traditionally sympathetic to Washington, you could argue that this is what has been happening to the US.

[...]North Korea test-fires missiles capable of carrying the nuclear warheads that it's already making? Washington says: come back to the six-party talks! Iran resumes uranium enrichment? Washington says: we're going to take you to the UN! Hizbullah launches missiles at Israel? Washington says: the hour of diplomacy has come!
Of course, none of this has any bearing on the actual balance of power in the international system. The military evacuating Americans from Lebanon a sign of multipolarity? How exactly? That people can take down a building or fire a rocket at another city has little bearing on the overall balance of power. The closest it comes to being relevant is to hint at the danger of WMD in the nads of terrorists. Nevertheless, this is a problem that most of the world, at least those that recognize it as a threat, still depdends on the US to solve. Even still, it's still questionable whether a chemical attack on an American city would really alter the international balance of power. It would certainly kill lots of people, and it would certainly create a great deal of panic, but alter the balance of power? Not really - the reason being that most of the other contenders for positions of power in a multipolar world (Europe, Russia, India) recognize that they are targets too. They'd have to spend more time preventing attacks on their homeland, leaving them little time to capitalize on America's chemical attack-induced weakness.

And of course, the Tokyo sarin-gas attack was more than a decade ago now, and 9/11 was 5 years ago. Garton Ash is obviously trying to prove that this new multipolarity is the result of Bush's reckless actions, so I don't know how Bush's policies as governor of Texas in 1995 in any way influenced an apocalyptic cult in Japan to release sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. Finally, Garton Ash sees any hint of the use of diplomacy by the Bush administration as the result of its recognition that the world has moved from unipolarity to multipolarity on its watch. This is a rather silly notion.

First, and this admittedly may be something the administration took too long to figure out, a position of strength can often be shown through diplomacy as well as military action. Garton Ash points out that (because of our supposed weakness), we've called for North Korea to come back to six-party talks. What he doesn't mention is that North Korea didn't want six-party talks to resume, but we won out. What North Korea really wants is bilateral talks with just the United States. Why, you ask? Because it realizes that the US is the only country in the position (ie, with the power) to give North Korea what it wants. That the administration has refused to allow North Korea to have bilateral negotiations until it suspends its reprocessing/enrichment shows that the US still has the upper hand on that matter. Obviously this does not mean that the problem will be resolved anytime soon, but it does suggest that Garton Ash's claim that all diplomacy is indciative of multipolarity is a bit ridiculous. Even in diplomacy there are positions of strength to be had.

As much as Garton Ash, Jacques Chirac, Putin, Hu Jintao, Yevgeny Primakov or anyone else would like to see a multipolar world, simply saying it is so does not make it true. The United States continues to hold significant power in the economic, political and military realms. (To read more about this, the go-to person is William Wohlforth). There have been no serious attempts at balancing American power. The much ballyhooed "soft balancing," whereby other states that cannot meet America's "hard" military power attempt to frustrate American foreign policy on "soft power" issues, has been little more than a fantasy though up by realists unable to explain the lack of any serious attempt at balancing

The case against soft balancing is best laid out by Gerard Alexander and Keir Lieber). While the soft balancing advocates claim economic statecraft can exclude the US by focusing more on regional economic alliances, Alexander and Lieber show that the "US has been one of the primary drivers of trade regionalization, not the excluded party." Where soft balancing advocates claim complaints brought against the US in international economic and financial bodies indicate attempts to counter US economic power, Alexander and Lieber show that these complaints are brought by countries seeking to gain access to US markets, not adversely affect the US economy. Finally, the US still maintains significant influence over the international financial institutions on which most countries are economically dependent. Witness Russia's long period of lobbying the US for entry into the WTO.

Soft balancing advocates have also pointed to Turkey's refusal to grant the US-led coalition basing rights there prior to the invasion of Iraq as evidence of their claims. The very short conventional war, however, showed how little this affected US warfighting needs. Of course, we have plenty of troubles in Iraq now, but none of them can be attributed to a need for access to bases to station our troops. It can be safely said that Turkey's decision had very little adverse effect on the US. While it was an irritant in the short-term, it had no noticeable long-term effect. Moreover, when the US does pull its troops out of a country overseas, as much as soft-balancers may like to flash those opinion polls, the same countries end up protesting the decision. As Alexander and Lieber point out, they recognize the economic and strategic benefits of having US bases on their territory. country denies the US basing rights in its territory, five others step up and offer their territory.

Finally, by trying to "tie down" the US through international institutions, other countries essentially shoot themselves in the foot. It is extremely unlikely the UN will be able to stop the US from taking an action it deems to be vital to its national security, and by doing little more than irritating the US, the purported soft-balancers increase the chances that the US will be more likely to find little value in the UN on any issue, even on less vital interests on which it may have otherwise been willing to work with the UN. Soft balancing, therefore, is mostly non-existent, and where it does exist, it is mostly counter-productive.

The most common claim of the return of multipolarity essentially straddles the line of soft-balancing and hard-balancing -- if it even existed, that is. This is the much vaunted Moscow-Beijing alliance. The two countries tried to use this as proof of a returning multipolar world in the 1990s, giving birth to the Primakov doctrine that multipolarity would be best for the world, but it collapsed in a heap as Primakov was forced to make a quick exit from office by the end of the decade.

Ironically, the most used evidence of the power of this alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, began (as the Shanghai Five) largely to fight Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the Central Asian region. In general, it was relatively unsuccessful. After 9/11, however, its members realized that any fight against fundamentalism in the region would have to include the US - for the obvious reasons. Therefore, the one institution that has been offered up with the greatest frequency as evidence of the Russian-Chinese threat to American supremacy, had to eventually bring in the United States to help it achieve its own objectives. To claim such an organization is the answer to American unipolarity, no matter how much it can achieve through petro-politics, simply shows a lack of seriousness about the entire matter.

Interestingly, Gurmeet Kanwal of New Delhi's Centre for Air Power Studies had an op-ed in the India Tribune yesterday with more insight on the same subject.
Though Russia is the foremost supplier of military hardware to China, there has been no major military and strategic cooperation between the two countries. The relationship is basically a patron-client, buyer-seller relationship with limited transfer of technology to manufacture under license. It will be recalled that the Chinese had debunked former Russian Prime Minister Primakov’s proposal of a China-Russia-India triangle.
This is not to say the United States can save the world on its own. There are a lot of serious national and international security threats on the agenda today. A lot of these do not simply affect the United States, but a number of other countries as well. It is true that this administration could have been more diplomatic, especially in its first term. At the same time, however, it would be extremely helpful if these other countries, that have a great deal of influence to wield in various hotspots around the world, stop talking about how powerful they are and actually take some action.


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