For the first time since the end of the Cold War, America isn’t alone on top. What’s replacing the unipolar world of the 1990s? A gang of five superpowers: China, Russia, India, the Eurozone and the U.S.
“We seek your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of our way.”
Kevin Conrad, delegate from Papua New Guinea, at the Bali summit on climate change earlier this month, to a U.S. delegation that tried to thwart reforms agreed to by the other 185 nations present.
It became more apparent than ever this year that the U.S. is no longer the world’s lone superpower. Instead, there are five superpowers that will define the world for at least the next half-century: the U.S., China, India, Russia and a united Europe.
The news came home to Americans on Main St. from tainted Chinese products to the fact that practically every toy sold in America comes from Red China. Boston seniors on group tours of the great capitals of Europe were humbled to discover that their greenbacks had shrivelled in value to 60 per cent of the local currency. And New Yorkers were taken aback that the credit crisis arising from cascading defaults on U.S. subprime mortgages had so weakened the balance sheets of leading financial institutions in the Big Apple that the likes of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch had sought bailouts from state-owned investment funds in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
Canadians felt it, too, in a 15 per cent gain against the greenback.
That America was not in charge in Iraq was widely known for some time. That American global hegemony had severely dissipated was news. Nor was it of the passing variety, like the 1970s U.S. economic “stagflation” that inflated the German and Swiss currencies; or the Japanese boom a decade later in which Tokyo parking spots fetched $90,000.
This was different. Mandarins in Brussels now passed judgment on merger proposals between American companies, not hesitating to block them on antitrust grounds. Chinese oil interests in Sudan made Beijing intransigent about Western meddling in Darfur. Russia wouldn’t abide Washington’s sanctions on Iran. India insisted upon, and received, U.S. support of its nuclear arms program despite predictable outrage from Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the pursuit of Al Qaeda. It was either that or have New Dehli turn to the Russians. To an unprecedented degree, decisions affecting America were being made elsewhere. A mere 16 years after attaining its lone-superpower status, the crown had slipped, and America’s destiny is now shaped by a new world disorder of five superpowers.
All five members of this new quintet are nuclear powers. All but one, India, have veto power at the United Nations. Collectively, the four non-U.S. superpowers have 10 times the population of the U.S. The European economy has eclipsed that of the U.S., and those of China and India will do so by mid-century. The imperial legacy of many EU members and of Russia provide them a lingering influence from Indonesia to Zaire to Brazil that the U.S., whose experiences with colonizing have been reluctant and short-lived, cannot match.
The resentment of what the French labelled “the U.S. hyper-power” in the 1960s subsided in the 1990s. The Europeans were preoccupied with their unification project. China and India were experimenting with a free-market model to replace sclerotic command economies. And by the early years of this decade, Russian recovery from the upheaval of the Soviet breakup was manifesting itself in a new national pride and respect for a decisive Vladimir Putin.
The aim of the four new superpowers has been the same: to unleash, under the banner of patriotism, the potential economic prowess of a nation or region, and in doing so to claim a role on the world stage equal to that of the U.S. Here’s Tony Blair, who revered Britain’s “special relationship” with the U.S. more than most of his predecessors. “A single-power world is inherently unstable,” Blair said back in 2005. “That’s the rationale for Europe to unite.
“We are building a new superpower. The European Union is about the projection of collective power, wealth and influence. When we work together, the European Union can stand on par as a superpower and a partner with the U.S.”
The euro has been the world’s strongest currency since 2005. But not until this year did everyone from OPEC to the People’s Bank of China to rock stars flirt with abandoning the U.S dollar – the world’s undisputed reserve currency since the end of World War II – in favour of a euro that has soared to a current $1.48 (U.S.)
It was a year of new boondoggles coming to light in the U.S. occupation of Iraq; and of U.S. diplomatic setbacks in Pakistan, China, Turkey, Burma, the Middle East – almost everywhere the U.S. has tried to exert influence. But then, America’s deficient military and intelligence capabilities have removed the big stick behind diplomatic threats.
America now is the world’s largest borrower, and China the biggest creditor nation.
As everyone but the White House acknowledges, it’s difficult to have much impact in pressuring China on its under-valued currency, its military buildup and its human-rights record when that country is also your biggest banker.
World leaders have been putting distance between themselves and Washington ever since the U.S. occupation of Iraq, embarked upon with a theological righteousness that alienated the secular Europeans, and based on assumptions seemingly designed to salvage the reputations of Barbara Tuchman’s cast of feckless leaders in The March of Folly.
But this year, world leaders lost their reticence and subjected Washington to a parade of embarrassments. Kevin Rudd, the new Australian PM, isolated the U.S. on global warming by embracing a Kyoto Protocol that incoming U.S. president George W. Bush trashed in 2001. Gordon Brown, the new British PM, used the occasion of his first state visit to Washington to state that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the central front in the battle against Islamic extremists. Bush watched in stony silence as America’s staunchest ally in the Iraq invasion bluntly repudiated an assertion the U.S. president has been making for five years.
As Russia has slipped into autocracy, and shipped uranium to Iran this fall over U.S. objections, Bush has been reduced to tacitly endorsing Russian actions the U.S. is powerless to control. After his first encounter with the Russian president, Bush famously said he had looked into Putin’s heart and found a man he could work with. In an angry Munich speech earlier this year, Bush’s soulmate excoriated the U.S. for “an almost uncontained hyper-use of force . . . that is plunging the world into an abyss of conflicts.”
America’s foreign policy impotence hit a nadir in Pakistan, where Washington’s full-court-press diplomacy failed to prevent the leader of an unreliable but nonetheless vital ally in the struggle against Al Qaeda from imposing martial law and imprisoning his country’s supreme court justices. In one go, with its continued support of Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf, America has turned its back on supposed goals of promoting democracy, punishing nuclear proliferators, and taking a hard line against nations harbouring large populations of Al Qaeda operatives.
“No [U.S.] president will ever have handed over a worse international situation than George W. Bush,” says Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration and adviser to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Which is to suggest that America can reclaim its lone superpower status by simply installing a new president in 2009 who will extricate the U.S. from Iraq and sign Kyoto 2.0, to be negotiated over the next two years.
America lost its chance at enduring supremacy in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then-U.S. president George H.W. Bush spoke at the time of creating a “New World Order” of universal peace and mutual prosperity.
Had it only chosen then to redeploy its massive defence and foreign aid budgets to humanitarian causes, rather than propping up its military allies, America could have secured its new found global supremacy by simply setting a good example.
Instead, the lone-superpower era began with a unilateral, botched invasion of Somalia and ended with the Project For The New American Century, a late-1990s doctrine of preserving U.S. hegemony by overthrowing unfriendly regimes – a moronic vision that nonetheless manifested itself in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Iran as the regime-changers’ next target.
In the Middle East, which has some of the youngest populations in the world, the past two generations have come of age with the belief that America is antagonistic to Muslims, a proposition reinforced by America`s invasion of two Muslin nations in the space of three years. And a new generation of Europeans – the “E generation,” as author T.R. Reid labels it in his bestselling United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy (2005) – has grown up with the isolationism of the 1990s U.S. Republican Congress and the calamitous unilateralism of George W. Bush.
Plainly, the U.S. has failed to lead on climate change; genocide; nuclear proliferation; human rights; and the other most pressing global concerns for so long it has effectively ceded its claim to the “benign hegemony” that still shapes America’s regard of its impact on the world.
And Americans know it, at least in Bill Clinton’s view. In the 1990s, then-president Clinton declared that “America is the indispensable nation.” In a Charlie Rose interview earlier this month, a Clinton who has grown more internationalist in retirement from the White House, said, “The American people now know something they’ve never known before. In their bones they know that there’s almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves – terror, war and peace, nuclear proliferation, climate change, you name it. They know we have to do this in a co-operative way.”
Gwynne Dyer, heralding the end of America’s lone-superpower status, has warned that “Seeing the United States reduced to only one great power among others cannot be a prospect that appeals to American strategic thinkers of a traditional bent – so what is their grand strategy for averting it?
“They must have one,” the London-based global military analyst wrote. “Paramount powers facing relegation always have one, although it rarely stays the same for long and it never, ever works. There is no way of stopping China and India from catching up with the current Lone Superpower without nuking their entire economies.”
Without exception, the emerging superpowers have achieved that status by tending to the home front, where much work remains to be done. China is the world’s second-largest CO2 emitter, trailing only the U.S. India has the world’s largest population of poor people. Europe has national licence plates, birth certificates and a lottery played from Krakow to Liverpool, but lacks a foreign policy and has a nascent army of just 60,000 troops. Russia’s regard for investors, whose property it expropriates on a whim, will have to change for the country’s entrepreneurial forces to be fully unleashed.
The same focus on domestic shortcomings would serve America well. The factors undermining its prosperity and global influence are almost all self-inflicted. There is more at stake here than even the current crop of presidential candidates seem to realize. They all talk of restoring America’s respect in the world, with no apparent sense that a big part of the problem is that the world is increasingly less inclined to regard America as “the shining city on the hill” that Ronald Reagan invoked.
With strikingly little notice, David Walker, head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, spoke in August about disturbing parallels between today’s America and the decline of the Roman Empire. Among the similarities Walker cited were “declining values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.”
Even in a world without budding rivals, the American superpower would still be jeopardized by its “unsustainable” disregard for tackling rundown schools and inner-city neighbourhoods, a yawning gap between rich and poor, and a route to citizenship for the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Even superpowers are fragile once the rot of complacency sets in. “It’s time to learn from history,” Walker said, “and take steps to ensure that the American republic is the first to stand the test of time.”
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007
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