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Ask the Expert: What Comes After Unipolarity?

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
April 15, 2008
Financial Times


The era of un­precedented American foreign policy dominion is done, argues Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in the the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. Oil consumption, the Iraq war and globalisation are just some of the factors driving the end of unipolarity. Power is no longer concentrated in a few hands, but distributed among diverse centres, from corporations to drug cartels and religious movements to media outlets.

What comes next? A multipolar world dominated by China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and the US? Or, as Haass argues, will this be the age of non-polarity? Without a primary actor, how will a non-polar world address global problems like sectarian clashes, rising food prices and border disputes? And what will be the new face of diplomacy in a new, more collective age?

Mr Haass answered your questions Friday, April 18.

US military power far outmatches all other states - the US Navy is approximately the same size as the next 17 largest combined and far more technologically advanced. With 20%+ of global GDP, the US economy remains the world’s largest and is likely to remain so for at least the next 20 years-maybe longer given the magnitude of problems facing China. Given the sheer magnitude of its Hard Power and the likely support of many Allies will the US really fade from being the unipolar power and be ranked alongside diverse centres, from corporations to drug cartels and religious movements to media outlets in a non-polar world?
Andy Trends, Oxford

Richard Haass: The United States will continue to grow in absolute power and remain the world’s strongest and wealthiest state for the forseeable future. But it will decline somewhat in power relative to others, especially in the economic realm. More important, the United States will encounter increasing difficulty in translating its power into influence given the emergence of other power centers, the hallmark of a nonpolar world. The challenge for US foreign policy will be to enlist others (not just states) in setting rules and establishing arrangements that will help order the modern world and tame the dark aspects of globalization.

What role do you think scholars and analysts can play in developing the theoretical frameworks necessary for conceptualising how diplomacy can effectively operate in this new, ‘non-polar’ world order, in particular focusing upon building diverse coalitions on diverse issues?
Rory J. Brown, Brighton

Richard Haass: We are at a transition point in which one geopolitical era (unipolarity) is giving way to another (nonpolarity). This is an ideal time for scholars and others to offer up ideas as to what rules should shape international relations and what arrangements need to be created to support or even enforce these rules. The United States and others did a good job at doing just this in the aftermath of World War II. We have not been nearly so creative in the two decades since the end of the Cold War.

Do you think the current international economic architecture, designed and underwritten in large part by the Americans, can survive a transition away from US hegemony? If so, how do you see other powers changing this structure to benefit them?
Michael West, Vilnius

Richard Haass: In the trade realm, what is needed is not so much reform of institutions as completion of the Doha round. The World Bank is already doing more under Robert Zoellick’s leadership to promote development in ways consistent with responsbile governance and environmental policies. The IMF needs to do more to call attention to situations within countries likely to lead to economic crises. Greater regulation within states and regulatory harmony among them is also desirable. I am also interested in exploring the possibility of creating a World Investment Organization that would help set rules that would facilitate the flow of investment.

Given that the global population is expected to rise to approximately 9bn by mid-century, how will the tension between resource scarcity (of water, hydrocarbons, food etc.) and interdependence (trade, financial markets etc.) be resolved? Will a non-polar world be capable of reforming global institutions, such as the UN, to tackle the likely crises?
Andy, Swindon

Richard Haass: History always involves tension between forces of integration and forces of friction or disorder. What gives any era its character is the balance between these forces. The nature of the nonpolar era will in large part depend on how successful governments and others are at adapting existing institutions or building new ones to deal with the defining issues of this era, some of which will stem from resource scarcity and many of which will stem from globalization.

What will be the future of the transatlantic West after the end of unipolarity. Will the West be one pole, or several? Is President Bush welcoming an autonomous EU defence a sign that the shift is already taking place?
Dr. Asle Toje, Visiting Fellow, EU-ISS, Paris

Richard Haass: The transatlantic relationship will, as the question suggests, become more the transatlantic relationships. “A la carte” ties between the United States and individual European countries, in which cooperation will vary from issue to issue depending on the outlooks of governments and their ability to bring resources to bear to deal with particular challenges, will become the norm.

I’m particularly interested to hear from you about the role of the United Nations in future. Shouldn’t we still remain unipolar, with Leadership coming from the U.N, rather being non-polar?
Arun, Japan

Richard Haass: The role of the United Nations and above all the Security Council will vary from issue to issue and will depend above all on the extent of agreement among the permanent members of the Security Council. When the five agree and are prepared to act, the UN will be relevant...and when they do not agree or are not prepared to back up their words with actions, the UN will be sidelined. The UN faces an additional problem in the coming era, namely, that its composition does not reflect the distribution of power in the nonpolar world. A failure to reform will thus further limit its future role.

Would it be more reasonable to imagine the flourishing of geographical spheres of influence or sectional spheres of influence and domination?
Mahmoud Haddad, Lebanon

Richard Haass: Strong states will always be in a position to exert a degree of influence beyond their borders. But their ability to do so will be limited by the emergence of new actors in their regions that will possess power and be in a position to push back. Again, the distribution of power in multiple forms will make it more difficult for all states to translate power into influence.

The latest NATO summit in Bucharest revealed a divided alliance on core issues like NATO’s mission and raison d’etre in the post 9/11 world. Some of the euroatlantic elites perceive NATO as a vehicle of first choice in dealing with the out of area world and as a primary tool for projecting euroatlantic power wherever and whenever common threats arise. Others have a more limited European-centered vision and define NATO in the old paradigm, an Alliance with a classical geopolitical mission - to finish the unfinished business of Europe. How would the Atlantic security order (and especially NATO as a primary tool of this order) react and evolve in this new age of global politics, an age of fundamental nonpolarity?
Octavian Manea, Bucharest,Romania

Richard Haass: NATO is a good example of an institution that has adapted in an effort to meet the demands of a changed geopolitical context. It is less a collective defense organization focused on Europe and much more a collective security organization based in Europe but focused on the world outside Europe. In NATO parlance, it has evolved from an Article V binding commitment organization to an Article IV discretionary action grouping. NATO members will rarely if ever act in unison; instead, members will decide whether to act in particular circumstances. A critical question will not only be their willingness to act but their ability to do so. All of this is entirely consistent with selective or situational cooperation with countries that are not formal members.

In the same May/June issue of Foreign Affairs that had your article on non-polarity, there was a letter to the editor where three people at the University of California Berkeley postulated that China is pursuing a different strategy (than gradual integration into the liberal Western order): forging a route around the West by constructing an alternative international system in the developing world. If these individuals are right about China’s international strategy, what are its implications for your argument about non-polarity and what should the United States be doing to counter this Chinese strategy?
Richard E. Radez, Westport, CT

Richard Haass: I do not believe that China has embarked on a foreign policy that leaves it outside the evolving international order or as a threat to this order. Moreover, China’s ability to translate its growing power into influence and control will be limited by the same forces that will limit what the United States and others can do in a nonpolar world. That all said, the United States should remain strong and keep its relationships with friends and allies robust so that no country is tempted to act in a “revolutionary” way that threatens international order. Also, the US and others should try to integrate China into the evolving international order (and give it some say in its evolution) so that China sees no reason to act in a way we would not want to see.

How will the Israeli-Arab conflict be affected by a shift from a unipolar world? What could be the main differences (in that particular issue) between a multipolar and prior bipolar scene (roughly US vs. USSR)?
Enrique Fleischmann, Barcelona

Richard Haass: In a nonpolar world, the ability of the United States to shape the greater Middle East will be reduced. Other entities, including local states (Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria), militias, terrorist groups, political parties and movements, sovereign wealth funds, etc., will all have influence of their own and reduce what it is the United States or any outside power can accomplish. That said, the United States will retain considerable influence in the region, although less than it has enjoyed in recent decades.

For China, you argue that its focus on economic growth will lead it to avoid conflict and seek economic integration. Does the converse hold? Does frustrating Iran’s economic integration lead to conflict? If so, what do you make of American objectives? And what do you say when Chinese companies help to develop Iran’s oil and gas reserves?
David Angluin, Liverpool

Richard Haass: The United States and others should offer Iran (and to some extent already are) a future of full integration into the global economy contingent on Iran’s accepting a mutually agreed limit on its nuclear capabilities and ceasing support for terrorism. Iran must decide what matters most. The more stark the United States and others (including Europe and Russia and China) can make the choice before Iran the better the chance of getting Iran to act responsibly. Whatever chance we do have of getting Iran to improve its behavior will require Russia and China not engaging unconditionally with Tehran. Hence the importance of the US and Europe working closely with both Russia and China in forging a united front vis-a-vis Iran.

Does a non polar world increase or reduce the chances of another world war? Will nuclear deterrence continue to prevent a large scale conflict?
Sivananda Rajaram, UK

Richard Haass: I believe the chance of a world war, i.e., one involving the major powers of the day, is remote and likely to stay that way. This reflects more than anything else the absence of disputes or goals that could lead to such a conflict. Nuclear deterrence might be a contributing factor in the sense that no conceivable dispute among the major powers would justify any use of nuclear weapons, but again, I believe the fundamental reason great power relations are relatively good is that all hold a stake in sustaining an international order that supports trade and financial flows and avoids large-scale conflict. The danger in a nonpolar world is not global conflict as we feared during the Cold War but smaller but still highly costly conflicts involving terrorist groups, militias, rogue states, etc.

Population demographers estimate that within the next 15-20 years given current trends, 97% of the cumulative global population growth (~1 billion) will occur within middle income, but mostly poor countries, with projected population declines in both North America and much of Europe. What is the implication for a ‘nonpolar’ world? Does it necessarily mean increased political, economic, cultural instability a laHuntington’s ‘clash’?
Wm. Scott Pappert, USA

Richard Haass: Population growth in the middle income or poor world will place great strains on the capacities of governments to provide for their citizens. It will also place great strains on resources: food, water, energy, land, etc. The question is how well governments and others meet the rise in demands sure to arise. A dark future would be one of state failure, increased poverty, resource shortages, large-scale population displacement, and increased conflict. It is obviously in the interests of all to avoid such a future. This argues for improving government performance in Africa, in continued modernization and development in China and India, in reducing energy use, etc. Market reforms and democratization (above all, strengthening legal systems) are essential. It also calls for expanding the benefits of trade, i.e., concluding the Doha trade round might be the best single development tool within reach.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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