Like it or not, the multipolar era is coming sooner than we thought


One of the most important concepts in international relations is polarity, which is just a term that political scientists use to describe power in the international system.USflag

Typically, we think of the global order in three separate modes:

  • Unipolar, where one overweening global power dominates (such as the United States, more or less, after the Cold War).
  • Bipolar, where two rivals view for global power (such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War).
  • Multipolar, where several regional powers balance one another (such as Prussia/Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the decades between Napoleon and World War I).

In the view of many scholars, the world has been stuck in American-dominated unipolarity for years, slowly gliding (hopefully peacefully) to a multipolar world, sometime far off in the distance. At some point, most scholars believed, the rise of China, and possibly other powers, such as Russia, India or a united Europe, would allow for a multipolar world gradually to unfold.

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States means, above all, that we’re hurtling even more rapidly to that emerging multipolar world, and you can see it in the global response to his shock election a week ago.

The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, felt the need to issue a peremptory warning to Trump. EU leaders are openly meeting to discuss security arrangements (excluding Americans) in the Trump era. Trump’s election emboldens conservatives in Seoul and Tokyo, who have long wanted to build up their defensive (and offensive) capabilities. Above all, Russian president Vladimir Putin sees a clear opportunity to take a leading role in setting the global agenda. Beijing can look forward to an American administration that has signaled it will have little to say about democracy or human rights, and China has already semi-colonized much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Ethiopia to Zambia.

Trump’s sudden election (together with the possibility of his national security personnel) feels like a vertiginous rupture.

But Trump alone hasn’t ushered in a multipolar global regime. He’s only likely to accelerate a process that’s been underway since the Chinese economic rise in the 1970s and 1980s.

Historians, when they look back, may even find a lot of continuity with Barack Obama’s administration, which had very gingerly began transitioning from pax Americana to a more balance-of-powers arrangement in global affairs. You could see it in the way he tried to reorient the United States away from dependence on Middle East oil and pulling American forces out of unending quagmires in Middle Eastern politics. You could see it in the way he tried to develop closer ties with countries in east Asia beyond longstanding allies like Japan and South Korea. Sometimes, that worked (Burma/Myanmar and Vietnam), and sometimes that quite clearly failed (the Philippines). You could see it in his approach to Latin America, where rapprochement with Cuba became an essential prerequisite for US relations in the western hemisphere. But you can also those roots in the 2000s, when George W. Bush’s administration demonstrated the limits of American power in its failure to rebuild and pacify either Iraq or Afghanistan. Even at a time when the United States was militarily and economically more secure than today, it still couldn’t bend the international order to its exact dictates.

So think of the Trump era as more of an accelerant than a catalyst.

But also think about it this way.

In 1999, if China had tried to annex Taiwan by force, no one doubts that the American security guarantee would have meant that the US military would have engaged Chinese forces to liberate Taiwan. No one believes that would happen today, even in the Obama era.

By 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched a full-scale civil war in eastern Ukraine. Aside from a series of severe economic sanctions from the United States and Europe, Russia largely got away with it.

So we were already very much down the path to that multipolar future. An administration led by Hillary Clinton wouldn’t necessarily have been more ‘hawkish’ than the Obama administration. But it would have operated on the assumption, far more than Obama, on the assumption that we still live in a unipolar world where American global leadership still sets the pace for the rest of the globe. At best, an administration that prolongs the transition to a multipolar world; at worst, a last stand for the ‘post-1989’ world order.

Instead, think forward to 2017 as the Trump administration prepares to take power. You can imagine a world where Putin tries to annex part of Estonia (or Latvia or Lithuania). Trump has signaled consistently throughout his campaign, for many reasons, that we should be skeptical the United States would respond with military force to defend the Baltics. That’s despite Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which binds the United States and the rest of the NATO member-states to the mutual defense of the Baltics. Now, it’s hard to imagine a more fundamental pillar of the American-dominated security order than NATO. But if Trump can call into question Article 5’s security guarantee, foreign capitals can doubt just about every American security guarantee.

It’s not just that Trump seems willing to abandon the Baltics. That might be good policy — you might agree that it’s not worth American treasure and lives to defend Narva and risk starting World War III. But Trump’s rise (and his lack of experience or even, frankly, interest in understanding US foreign policy) means that global actors like Russia and China will be far more emboldened to violate the norms that have guided international affairs for a generation.

It’s not that the dollar will immediately stop serving as the world’s reserve currency. Or that the Soviet Union will be reconstituted. Or that China will immediately take Taiwan. But it does mean that illiberalism, whether it’s in Poland or Hungary or France or the Philippines, may well continue to rise unchecked by American leadership.

We need to be prepared that the world we thought was coming in the 2030s or the 2040s might be the world we live in by the year 2020.

For me, that’s among the most fundamental changes in the Trump era that, like it or not, we’re now about to enter.

That means, more than ever, it’s important for economic and social liberals to find common cause on a global level because we may not always be able to look to the same brand of postwar American leadership. It’s also important for Americans in particular, who care about this transition to understand what’s happening outside our borders, especially in a world where American leadership counts for less.

It’s why I believe that, after a couple of months off, Suffragio now has a renewed and more urgent purpose.

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