Lately in the news:
Beijing provokes clashes with the navies of both Indonesia and Japan as part of a bid to claim the South China Sea. Tokyo is in a serious diplomatic row with Russia over the South Kuril islands, a leftover dispute from 1945. There are credible fears that Tehran and Damascus will use the anticipated indictment of Hezbollah figures by a United Nations tribunal to overthrow the elected Lebanese government. Managua is attempting to annex a sliver of Costa Rica, a nation much too virtuous to have an army of its own. And speaking of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is setting himself up as another Hugo Chávez by running, unconstitutionally, for another term. Both men are friends and allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
About all of this, the Obama administration has basically done nothing. As Sarah Palin might say: How’s that multi-poley stuff workin’ out for ya?
Throughout the Bush years, “multipolarity” was held up as the intelligent and necessary alternative to the supposedly go-it-alone approach to the world of the incumbent administration. French President Jacques Chirac was for it: “I have no doubt,” he said in 2003, “that the multipolar vision of the world that I have defended for some time is certainly supported by a large majority of countries throughout the world.” So were such doyens of the US foreign policy establishment as Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.
In this view, multipolarity wasn’t merely a description of the world as it is, or of the world soon to come. It was also a prescription, a belief that a globe containing multiple centres of influence and power was preferable to one in which American dominance led, inevitably, to American excess. The war in Iraq was supposed to be Exhibit A.
Barack Obama was also a subscriber to this view. In the fall of 2008, a high-ranking foreign diplomat paid a visit to the offices of The Wall Street Journal and told a story of a meeting he and his colleagues had had with the Illinois senator. Obama, the diplomat recounted, had gone out of his way to arrange the chairs in a circle, not just as a courtesy but also as an effort to suggest that there was no pecking order to the meeting, that they all sat as equals. Wasn’t that nice? Didn’t it set a better tone?
Maybe it did. And maybe, given the thrust of some of President Obama’s ideas on trade, currency and monetary policy, it’s just as well. But whether an American president ought to get his way on a matter of policy is one thing. That a president can’t get his way is another. That’s a recipe for the global disorder we are beginning to see encroaching from Central America to the Middle and Far East.
Last week, Obama was so resoundingly rebuffed by other leaders at the G-20 summit in Seoul that even The New York Times noticed: Obama, the paper wrote, faced “stiff challenges... from the leaders of China, Britain, Germany and Brazil”. His administration has now been chastised or belittled by everyone from the supreme leader of Iran to the finance minister of Germany to the president of France to the dictator of Syria. What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the US President is someone who’s willing to take no for an answer?
The answer is that the US becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, such as trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche towards, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.
If the US were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the US in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side.
But it would mean other things, too. The small and distant abuses of power would grow bolder and more frequent. The US’ exhortations for restraint or decency would seem cheaper. Multipolarity is a theory that, inevitably, leads to old-fashioned spheres of influence. It has little regard for small states: Taiwan, Mongolia, Israel, Georgia, Latvia, Costa Rica. The romance of the balance of power might have made sense when one empire was, more or less, as despotic as the next. It is less morally compelling when the choice is between democracy and Putinism, as it is today for Ukraine.
We are now at risk of entering a period—perhaps a decade, perhaps a half-century—of global disorder, brought about by a combination of weaker US might and even weaker US will. The last time we saw something like it was exactly a century ago. Winston Churchill wrote a book about it: The World Crisis, 1911-1918. Available in paperback. Worth reading today.
Bret Stephens is a columnist with The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
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