Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Towards A Nonpolar Future

Yesterday, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria declared with a touch of twilight finality on NPR, "the Age of American Unipolarity is over." Zakaria compared America to an exhausted post-Boer War Britain, the most analagous historical global superpower, noting, "the end of exceptionalism (is) because the gap between us and the world is no longer that large." The gap to which Zakaria refers involves military commitments, a sagging economy and education. The mood evoked echoes Davos in January. This recession and the change election presently alighting the Eastern seaboard only highlights the heavy feeling in the atmosphere of American decline.

Actions, to be sure, have consequences, particularly on the global stage. The hyper-idealistic neoconservatives who counseled The President towards unilateral war against Iraq –- “you are either with us or against us” -- have brought about the inevitable international push-back in the form of nonpolarity.

Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues in the May/June 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs that “the principal characteristic of twenty-first-century international relations is turning out to be nonpolarity: a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power.”

The hallmark of the modern era involved the Nation-state as the primary political unit. Nationalism, however, in its extreme form led to the Great War and the end of Western European global dominance. The latter half of the twentieth century, post-World War II, evolved into a bipolar situation with smaller powers aligning themselves -- in the United Nations, NATO and the Soviet Bloc -- on either the Soviet or the American side of the global equation. De Tocqueville’s bold prediction of a Russo-American global destiny became the dominant reality until the fall of the Soviet Union. There was, as the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in On The Law of Nations, a certain geopolitical symmetry to that bipolarity, despite the tensions in the heart of twilight Europe, and the now archaic bomb shelters presently tenantless in the American heartland.

In a unipolar cosmos, by contrast, the anxiety is more acute as there is no Great Power alternative. A nation really is, in a sense, for or against the unilateral Great Power once such a statement is uttered in the international arena. And each unilateral adventure or gesture of aggression lengthens the shadow of American influence.

The pendulum swings. From Foreign Affairs (via The Atlantic’s Daily Dish):

“A nonpolar world not only involves more actors but also lacks the more predictable fixed structures and relationships that tend to define worlds of unipolarity, bipolarity, or multipolarity. Alliances, in particular, will lose much of their importance, if only because alliances require predictable threats, outlooks, and obligations, all of which are likely to be in short supply in a nonpolar world. Relationships will instead become more selective and situational. It will become harder to classify other countries as either allies or adversaries; they will cooperate on some issues and resist on others. There will be a premium on consultation and coalition building and on a diplomacy that encourages cooperation when possible and shields such cooperation from the fallout of inevitable disagreements.”

And so Diplomacy, not fiat, will be how things get done, according to Haass. What tends to be forgotten in all the turgid rhetoric against the United Nations and the very idea of international law – Justice Antonin Scalia’s perorations comes to mind -- is that UN charter was written by British and American international lawyers steeped in American constitutional law. The Pope’s well-timed visit to address the General Assembly perhaps underscores this new international order.

Generations of religious leaders and theological scholars have supported an institutional embodiment of the law of nations. It is not inconceivable that a nonpolar world might be a precursor to a planet in which the growing importance of international cooperative agreements and a greater reliance on international law might be the outcome. And that would be a good thing.

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