Charles Krauthammer, a well known neo-conservative who is very hawkish on US policy, and very bearish on the Obama Presidency, wrote an article back in 1990 for Foreign Affairs after the fall of Communism called “The Unipolar Moment.” Krauthammer was taking an early stab at trying to figure out how the US should operate in a post-Communist world. He correctly noted that the end of Communism did not mean the end of threats of war, and that the American public is not necessarily internationalist. He argued also that while some saw the emerging system as multi-polar, it was in reality unipolar. America was the sole remaining superpower.
For Krauthammer, unipolarity was an opportunity. The United States could undertake a mission to make sure that the 21st century was conducive to western, liberal American values, so long as we were willing to use our power in the Mideast and assert ourselves in Asia. The idea was that few states get the opportunity that the US had in the 1990s — to be at the pinnacle of power, and have the capacity to set the stage for the next era of global politics. Those who have had empires had been short sighted and focused on national power; the US could undertake an effort to reshape the system in a way that to be sure would benefit the US, but could also bring freedom and markets to the world and yield a better future for humanity.
Krauthammer correctly noted unipolarity was a fleeting condition. Other states might arise, or the US might squander it’s opportunity. While Krauthammer feared that the US would not undertake the bold policies needed to help reshape the globe, traditional realist scholarship sees another problem with unipolarity — the great power is almost always tempted to over reach, over estimating its power. Other states see that as a threat, and work to undercut the remaining great power.
While it’s easy now to cut down Krauthammer’s argument given the problems of the last decade, he did have one some things right. The end of Communism did not mean an end to war, or a reduction in threats. In Africa wars have continued to rage, with the Rwandan genocide just four years after Krauthammer’s article appeared. 9-11 and the threat of Islamic extremism has shown a vulnerability of the West to foreign ideas and actors that few anticipated. Nationalism caused a decade of warfare in the Balkans, and in 2008 Russia’s invasion of Georgia had US Vice President Dick Cheney contemplating military action against Russia. China’s rise and economic clout also has undermined American power in a way few foresaw twenty years ago.
Krauthammer’s vision was not completely misguided either. It was a moment where liberal capitalism reigned supreme. The ideological clash between communism and liberalism had ended with a clear victor. Western economies prospered, while the depth of spiritual and material stagnation in the Eastern bloc surprised even ardent anti-Communists. Communism was worse than most had thought in terms of the damage done to the countries and their people. Yet the world was not liberal or market oriented. The world remained mired in corruption, poverty, petty dictatorships, and imbalances of power. All of these over time can yield extremism (no surprise that Islamic extremism arises in places where corrupt elites hold power in societies with little freedom) and violence. The idea that the US had to act to try to secure the future for liberalism and democracy was correct; Krauthammer understood how bad things could get.
What Krauthammer got wrong was how to do it. He and many like him have a penchant to think in terms of military power first. This is tempting in numerous ways. First, diplomacy and policy efforts to solve complex problems are complicated and uncertain. Using military power in a campaign where you can define a result (overthrow a regime, install one friendly to the West) seems to promise a clear path to success. One can imagine the might of the US military being able to overthrow and reshape polities in the Mideast and elsewhere in a way where the costs would be relatively low and the payback high. This is what enticed the neo-conservatives to make Iraq their mission — the US now had the will to use power, and could demonstrate that it could achieve great good — a free and democratic Iraq, with the prospect of altering the entire dynamic of Mideast politics, undercutting Islamic extremism — and convince the world that US power and American willingness to use it was something to be welcomed (even if some leaders would have to do so in private rather than in public).
The failures in Iraq have completely shattered what Krauthammer knew would be a moment, not an era. The US is unipolar no more. Yes, the US has the capacity to win any war it starts, and spends half the world’s military budget, but in the global power scheme, the limits of this power have become obvious, and other countries no longer fear the US, or feel a need to stay on its good side. Some of this is due to domestic politics — the “Iraq syndrome” makes Americans as fearful of more war as the “Vietnam syndrome” did in the 70s. Much is rooted in the reality of world politics — military power wins wars, but does not shape political and economic results. You can overthrow Saddam, but you can’t assure a stable capitalist democracy. You can win a war, but insurgencies and guerrilla movements take time and resources to overcome. And, of course, the economic collapse of 2008 reverberates through the world system. The US is seen now not as the economic giant it appeared to be as recently as three or four years ago, but a vulnerable economy riddled by debt and recession. In 2010 economic power is far more important in most cases than military power.
Yet, there is another path. President Bush infamously said “if you’re not with us you’re against us,” as Donald Rumsfeld brushed aside “old Europe” when France and Germany conspired with Russia to try to undercut US efforts to go to war with Iraq. Even allies saw the US as dangerous and needing to be tamed, even humiliated. Americans traveling in Europe learned to insult President Bush, even if they didn’t mean it, in order to be treated better. By 2005 President Bush turned that policy around, and started to mend fences. The election of President Obama showed the world that the US was rejecting the former approach, and would engage. That is leading us in the right direction.
Because even if there is no unipolar nation, there is a dominant civilization. That civilization is the West. As Benjamin Barber chronicled in “Jihad vs. McWorld,” the West dominates in film, music, news reporting, culture, and has defined the nature of politics (sovereign states, parliaments, etc.) and economics (markets, free trade, etc.). With all due respect to those who shy away from positing the West as a dominant and powerful civilizational force, the reality is that the West is a cultural entity. To be sure, it achieved this role through violence and oppression; the history of West is marred by injustice, violence and persecution. Yet through it all some attributes shine through — human rights, a belief in democracy, and a high value placed on freedom, even if that term is defined differently by the “left” and “right.” Those values can transcend cultures.
Here is the challenge: for the EU, the US, and other advanced democracies to recognize the need to cooperate, and work with other countries to help them forge similar values, albeit in line with their cultures and at their own pace. China might never be what we’d call a pure democracy for a variety of reasons. Islamic democracy and enlightenment may not follow the secular path it took in the West. And, just as the West had to fight through many demons (and still does) to get where we are, no other country or part of the world will achieve a better future overnight. That’s why military solutions can’t do it, cultural change is required. And different cultures develop in different ways; what works for the US isn’t likely to work for, say, Iran.
So the lack of unipolarity may be a good thing, it may force us to recognize the complexity and difficulty of the path forward, get us to work cooperatively, and not try to force others to do things our way. We may have to tolerate the rise of a new Left in Latin America that has deep resentment for past US policy, accept Russia’s role as a regional power, and recognize that the Mideast defies easy political solutions. It’s messy, takes longer, and has no clear path to the best outcome. But it’s far more realistic than the neo-conservative dream of America taking control and shaping the future. The unipolar moment tempted, and we bit. The moment is passed, and we need to recognize we are not the world’s leading power, but a powerful state that can do more good working with others than demanding others do things our way.