The rise and fall of America’s unipolar moment
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we found ourselves in a new era – the era of a unipolar world, dominated by the US and the West. America dominated militarily, and felt itself entitled to intervene unilaterally in the affairs of other nations, whenever it deemed that necessary. The US saw itself as global hegemon, an exceptional nation, entitled to special prerogatives, not to be constrained by international law.
America’s hegemonic role became possible when a power vacuum was created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. That vacuum no longer exists. Russia is now stronger militarily and economically than the Soviet Union ever was. China has emerged as a major Great Power, first in industrial productivity, a contender for first in economic activity, and with formidable military capability. The conditions that enabled US hegemony no longer exist, and yet America refuses to recognize that fact, and has been engaging in increasingly desperate measures aimed at preserving its hegemony. It surrounded Russia and China with US military bases; it expanded NATO to the borders of Russia; it engaged in provocative naval operations in the South China Sea, challenging China’s intentions to manage affairs in that region.
There is nothing surprising about a nation seeking to hold on to power. But in the case of the US, there are underlying reasons that bring a special urgency to America’s desperate measures. Those reasons have to do with America’s history of expansionism, and the nature of its world view.
Contrasting world views
The US has been an expansionist power ever since its very birth as a nation. For every generation of Americans there has been a war to fight, as the US continually expanded its power and influence over other parts of the world, beginning with its westward expansion. Underlying this behavior is a certain world view, a perspective that provides a justification for expansionism, and a perspective that is reflected repeatedly in statements by US officials.
America sees the world as a Hobbesian arena, an arena where powerful nations compete to maximize their power and influence over territories and resources. In such a competitive arena, it is important for the US to show strength, to keep up the expansionist pressure, for otherwise other powers might sense weakness, and engage in expansionist moves of their own. If the US didn’t pursue containment measures, then surely Russia would be overrunning parts of Europe, and China would be doing the same in Asia – or so believes an America that projects its own psychological framework onto those it sees as rivals.
In fact Russia and China are interested in getting on with business, not in competing in America’s competitive arena. Prior to the Western-imposed sanctions, Russia was doing quite well providing energy to the EU and importing goods that their own economy wasn’t producing. Russia had no designs, nor does it now, on European territory. And prior to the US-sponsored coup in Kiev, Russia and Ukraine had very friendly relations, Russia being Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. Russia had no territorial designs on Ukraine. Similarly, China’s actions are not about territorial expansion, but are about developing the Belt and Road initiative, expanding the BRICS network, and other such development initiatives.
Rather than a Hobbesian arena of Great Power competition, Russia and China see a world of nations, great and small, that can profitably engage in trade and commerce to everyone’s mutual benefit. While America believes it is engaged in territorial competition, Russia and China see the conflict as one between the two world views. Are we to have a world of Great Power conflict, or are we to have a stable and peaceful world? Will unipolar hegemony persist, or will a more stable multipolar order replace it?
The multipolar revolution has begun
As Russia and China have continued to grow in power, they have become increasingly unwilling to tolerate America’s hegemonic behavior. They have been increasingly emboldened to take a stand, to identify red lines, whose crossing will result in substantive action countering America’s expansionist activities. One of those red lines was crossed when the US turned Ukraine against Russia, and when Ukraine amassed troops to overrun the Donbas republics, whose independence was recognized by Russia
On February 24th Russia invaded what Ukraine considered to be its territory, exercising a unilateral prerogative which the US wanted to keep for itself alone. Thus the first shot was fired in the multipolar revolution. February 24, 2022, will go down in history as marking the beginning of the end of the unipolar era. It is not so much the launch of the invasion that is the historical marker, but rather the fact that the West failed to find a way to put a stop to Russia’s Special Military Operation. The revolutionary upstart took a step forward, and the hegemon backed down.
China too has its red lines, and at the time of this writing the US seems determined to challenge those lines as regards Taiwan. The situation is extremely volatile because the only way the US could project significant military power to that arena is through the use of nuclear-armed missiles, perhaps launched from submarines in the area. US carrier task forces – or any other surface naval assets – can be eliminated quite quickly by high-precision hypersonic missiles that China possesses.
Developments here could escalate drastically. Such is the nature of revolutions. Nonetheless China has said loudly and clearly that it will take decisive steps if its red lines are crossed, particularly as regards Taiwan. This other revolutionary upstart is also ready to take a step forward, and the hegemon’s substantive steps are yet to be seen, as of this writing. However events unfold, the multipolar revolutionary struggle has well and truly been joined.
The multipolar vision of a stable and peaceful world order
For some time now, at least since 2007, when Putin delivered his famous speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Russia and China have been talking publicly about the dysfunctionality of the unipolar order, and the need for robust security guarantees. Specific treaty proposals have been put forward for consideration, and the West has always rejected or ignored them. In a recent speech at a business forum, Putin talked about the vision the two powers share for a multipolar world order. Putin claimed that “truly revolutionary, enormous changes would lead to the creation of a new, harmonious, fairer and more community-focused and safe world order”.
Putin emphasized the the achievement of “truly sovereign states” is a core principle of the multipolar order. And a nation can only be truly sovereign if it can achieve “technological, cultural, intellectual, and educational viability”. This emphasis on national viability, which implies a certain degree of national self-sufficiency, is in direct opposition to the globalization movement, which tends to undermine national viability by making nations dependent on global supply chains over which they have little control. Global supply chains will of course still exist in the multipolar world, but their terms and reliability will be determined with mutual benefit in mind rather than exploitation.
In the multipolar vision, a “truly sovereign” state will ideally have a civil society that is also aligned with that principle. Such a civil society would be“responsible, active and nationally minded, nationally oriented”. It is important to keep in mind that the nationalism Putin is talking about here is not of the aggressive variety, but rather the kind of nationalism that energetically pursues its interests in the context of a “harmonious, fairer and more community-focused and safe world order”.
The multipolar revolution is about a cultural transformation in the way nations relate and interact with one another. And it is about a transformation in the way the nations of the world see their situation, no longer as living in a competitive Hobbesian arena, but rather living in a vibrant community of friendly nations.
The establishment of the multipolar order is already underway
The BRICS movement, which an increasing number of nations are seeking to join, is in fact the initial implementation of the multipolar order. The fundamental principles are the same – nations working together for mutual benefit, respecting one another’s sovereignty and national interests. The culture of the new order has come to life and will spread as BRICS expands its membership. A new era of harmonious international relations is being born, or at least that is the intention and it seems to be happening.
The BRICS movement is about more than a transformation in international relations. It is also about developing an infrastructure to replace such Western-dominated agencies as the IMF, the World Bank, SWIFT, and others. Some elements of the new infrastructure, such as the New Development Bank, are already up and running, while others, such as a new reserve currency, are currently under construction. As with international relations, the BRICS movement is bringing a cultural transformation in the realm of international agencies – from a culture of exploitation and manipulation, to a culture of serving the interests of the community of nations.
BRICS is in fact a revolutionary movement, an active and conscious participant in the multipolar revolution, the struggle to overcome and replace unipolar hegemony. While Russia and China, acting as Great Powers, face off directly against the hegemon, BRICS is building the new in the shadow of the old, with the leadership of Russia and China, acting as global architects. BRICS members are fully aware of the dysfunctionality of the unipolar order, and their desire to replace that order motivates their coming together just as much as the promise of the benefits to be derived. Indeed, recent hegemonic excesses, such as the devastating sanctions, have prompted BRICS to announce an acceleration of its expansion process.
The multipolar revolution: a critique
It is important to note, first of all, that Russia, China, and the BRICS members are not engaged in an anti-Western alliance. Rather they are engaged in a project to replace the unipolar order. When the new order is established, and the West tires of engineering its own collapse, the US and the West will presumably join in with everyone else, in the family of nations. The West has a lot to offer the world, and a lot to be gained from the world, if it can be done as respected equals.
Next, I am disturbed by certain gaps in the new order’s infrastructure. BRICS is firmly on record as expressing allegiance to the WHO and the IPCC, both of which are operations of the unipolar order, and both of which are unaccountable, and have dubious credibility, as political considerations often outweigh input from the scientists, when the findings are published. Why should these counter-revolutionary elements be retained in the post-revolutionary world?
Why doesn’t BRICS develop a functional health agency, one that has real experts on board, that is accountable, and that facilitates collaboration among the research going on in the various nations? Why not a functional agency to deal with scientific issues, one that is accountable, with real scientists on board, and one that is open to hearing from different scientific perspectives? Are not such agencies just as important to the welfare of the people an the nations as are a friendly bank and a stable reserve currency?
I am also disturbed by certain lapses in the pursuit of “truly sovereign” nations. Putin said a nation can only be truly sovereign if it can achieve “technological, cultural, intellectual, and educational viability”. I would expect this to imply that such a nation would develop strong technical competence in matters that are important to the welfare of the population, or to the welfare an development of the nation. Such a nation should be able to think for itself, as regards what kind of energy sources are most suitable for its use, how infectious diseases should be dealt with, and what land use practices best serve national interests.
So again I am disappointed by BRICS support for counter-revolutionary unipolar agencies, which will undermine the exercise of national sovereignty, and the ability of a nation to think for itself, on the issues like those outlined above. In particular, the BRICS endorsement of UN Agenda 2030 brings with it a horde of intrusions into national sovereignty and national well being.
Next, let’s consider the relationship between the multipolar order and global governance. The multipolar movement bases its legitimacy on its allegiance to the UN Charter, to international law, and to the doctrine that only the Security Council is authorized to launch an intrusions into the territory of a sovereign nation. The movement has some reforms in mind, but basically they see global governance as centered in the primary UN framework. This much of the existing world order will continue as the core of global governance.
However, as regards the various UN agencies, from the IMF to the WHO, questions and issues exist, some of which I’ve outlined above. In some cases the movement is bringing replacement agencies online, more in harmony with the the movement. In other cases counter-revolutionary unipolar agencies appear to remain unchallenged. These holdovers from the old regime are likely to cause disharmony, and widespread opposition, as nations begin to grow into becoming “truly sovereign”. A more thorough expulsion of legacy unipolar agencies would seem to be advisable, in the interest of stable and harmonious global governance
Finally let us try to anticipate some of the fundamental changes we are likely to see, in world affairs, as the new order gets into full operation. One of the big changes will be about disarmament and the retrenchment of military deployments. Clearly a quite different configuration of military forces will be appropriate in a peaceful world. And yet we can anticipate a difficult process, particularly when it comes to Great Powers abandoning major elements from their arsenals.
The hegemonic unipolar system has been at its brutal worst in its various colonial and imperialist activities. Still today, many in Africa and South America are living in hardship and poverty, caused by imperialist interference in their affairs, the appropriation of natural resources, and by preventing nations from developing their full economic and cultural potential as sovereign nations. The West has generally related to the Global South as exploiter to exploited, not as peer to peer.
We can expect better in the multipolar era. When a nation joins BRICS, for example, it gains a voice in BRICS affairs, it’s national interests are respected, and it is supported and encouraged as it develops into a “truly sovereign” nation. I can think of no better way to do something effective and lasting to reduce and eliminate poverty. The elimination of poverty would indeed be a major change in world affairs.
It seems to me that the multipolar movement has a mostly sound agenda, and is already making significant progress toward implementing that agenda. The agenda seems to promise geopolitical stability, harmonious relations among nations, and an improvement in living standards globally. The one flaw in the movement’s agenda, as I see it, is the retention of unipolar-oriented agencies (such as the WHO & IPCC), which pose a systemic threat to the “full sovereignty” of nations. Meanwhile we still have the death throes of hegemony to live through, so there is considerable short-term uncertainty about how things will develop.