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News & Analysis

End of the sole superpower’s unipolar world

Zafar Bangash

America’s role as the sole superpower is not only over but it is becoming the pauper power with thousands of factory closings, jobs shipped overseas, its debt reaching the sky and its military having been thoroughly defeated. America’s dream has become a nightmare for most people.

The global political scene is not only changing, it has changed quite dramatically in the last decade. The pompous notion of a unipolar world in which the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” maintained perpetual full-spectrum dominance a la Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is no longer tenable. Outside the dwindling circle of Washington’s armchair warriors, most American officials have realized that they can no longer afford any more wars of choice. Thomas Friedman, a tireless drumbeater for American exceptionalism, had conceded this point nearly two years ago in his article about the US being reduced to “The Frugal Superpower” (New York Times, September 4, 2010). Friedman’s reluctance to admit that the US is no longer a superpower at all reflects the lingering residue of imperial hubris.

“American pacifists need not worry any more about ‘wars of choice,’” wrote Friedman in the Times. Continuing about wars of choice, Friedman wrote: “We’re not doing that again. We can’t afford to invade Grenada today,” referring to the US invasion of the tiny Caribbean island in October 1983 when thousands of marines landed to “save” all 110,000 Grenadians sunbathing on the beaches from “a communist takeover,” in the infamous words of then US President Ronald Reagan. The US will not be soon invading any other country either. This is not to suggest it has given up on mischief.

In his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), historian Paul Kennedy talks about imperial overreach and presents a strong correlation between economic strength based on productivity, and military power. It may appear obvious in the context of big powers but economic well-being does not automatically translate into military power. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar stand out as ready examples. Despite their enormous wealth, these countries are incapable of defending themselves from even relatively minor neighbours. Kennedy quotes former US President Richard Nixon who in July 1971 identified five centers of power: Western Europe (today’s European Union), Japan, China, the Soviet Union and the US. Nixon said: “These are the five that will determine the economic future and because economic power will be the key to other kinds of power, the future of the world in other ways in the last third of this century (italics in the original).”

Economic strength is of course an important factor in turning a country into a military power and then projecting it. Paupers hardly threaten the world unless it is to get some food but their concerns do not go much further. It is the rich, motivated by greed that want to become richer at the expense of others. Among great powers, rivalry has always been predicated on who can muster more guns, more warships and more planes to intimidate competitors.

Britain’s role as a great power ended in the mid 20th century; its place was taken up by two new powers: the Soviet Union and the US. Their rivalry was dubbed the “Cold War” because they did not engage in shooting wars against each other; that was reserved for their puppets euphemistically called allies. By the late 1980s, the Soviets had been bankrupted by two related developments: an expensive arms race with the US and their ill-conceived invasion of Afghanistan. Ten years after invading Afghanistan, the Soviets were forced to retreat in disgrace but there was no Soviet Union left to return to.

Since then, the world has undergone numerous changes. Not learning from the Soviet experience, the Americans assumed their superior weapons supplied to the Afghans had enabled them to defeat the Red Army. Imperial hubris rather than thoughtful reflection consumed American thinking. They repeated the same mistake their erstwhile rival, the USSR, had made. As the late Charles De Gaulle once remarked, Americans are capable of doing the most stupid things imaginable, and even those that are completely unimaginable. For a decade (1991–2001), the US appeared unmatched. It could arguably be called the American decade. Then it blundered into Afghanistan and soon thereafter into Iraq in fulfillment of the neocons’ death wish for multiple wars waged simultaneously, and for “full-spectrum dominance.” More than a decade later, the US is still stuck in the Hindu Kush mountains, its arrogance proving the biggest obstacle to admitting its blunder and cutting its losses by leaving.

To return to Nixon’s pronouncement, Western Europe has made major strides economically while skillfully passing its military costs to the US. In recent years, Europe’s economic well-being has also received major blows like the rest of the capitalist West. Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, appropriately abbreviated to PIGS, are facing economic meltdown and some European states, primarily Germany that ranks first among equals, has had to foot the bill for their bailout, despite the fact that it was German and British banks that did more to devalue the Euro than any mismanagement by the PIGS. The Euro, the European Union’s single currency, is also facing difficulty although it is the US dollar that is being shunned internationally. It is seen as toxic since America is no longer a productive power.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, its military alliance with client states, also disintegrated. Thus there are no more Russian or East European tanks poised to roll into Western Europe thereby making NATO, the western world’s equivalent military alliance, ostensibly irrelevant. Led by the US, NATO member-states are trying to invent a new role for it hence the desperate attempt to make it relevant by sending NATO troops into Afghanistan and Iraq and threatening neighboring countries as well. China meanwhile has outpaced Japan and has become an underwriter of the US economy.

The cumulative effect of several factors is what led to the 2008 Recession in the US. Some economists, including American, insist the US suffered a depression. For decades American corporations outsourced work to countries where wages were low — Mexico, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and even China. In the American retail giant Wal Mart, one can hardly find a US manufactured product. The outsourcing tsunami destroyed America’s manufacturing base. Plant closures followed with millions losing jobs. The US may have weathered these dislocations but for the two disastrous wars into which the neocons pushed the country. The total direct cost of these wars has topped $2 trillion and with related costs — payments to permanently crippled soldiers and death benefits — these easily surpass the $4 trillion mark, according to two leading US economists: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmas. Today, the US external debt stands at more than $16 trillion. Add to that the internal debt of $38 trillion and Washington is well on its way to becoming a bankrupt state.

America’s annual earnings can only cover the cost of medicare, defence and interest on its burgeoning debt that adds nearly $450 billion annually. With unemployment at 9% (in some critical age groups, such as among the African American population between the age of 15–24, it is as high as 30%), the housing bubble collapse, the list of homeless increasing daily and 46 million people living below the poverty line, America is fast joining the rank of third-world countries. In fact, some parts of the US already look like the Third World. One need not go to South Africa to find fast moving highways and exclusive gated communities surrounded by rundown African townships; they exist right in the heart of America in almost all major cities. Detroit may be the most extreme case but third-world conditions are just as widespread only a few miles outside the White House and Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

In the past, America bombed its way out of recessions. This was true of the Second World War, the Vietnam War and in more recent times, the Iraq War of 1991. Yet war is no longer a profitable business for the US. On November 8, 2002, Richard Perle, a leading neocon and chairman of the US Defence Policy Group, had presented a rosy picture of the soon to be launched war against Iraq (March 2003). Perle predicted that the war would not cost more than $60 billion and in any case, most of the costs would be offset by Iraq’s oil revenues that Perle admitted the US would grab. Ten years and millions of Iraqi deaths later, the US has failed to achieve any of its objectives as it teeters on bankruptcy.

So what went wrong? Professor Stephen Walt, a thoughtful American academic and someone not part of the neocon cabal, had this to say: “A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious — if not utterly misguided — objectives that Washington could have picked” (The virtues of competence, September 22, 2010).

But even Walt is loathed to admit total defeat. He insists the US still has a role to play in global affairs and in shaping the political landscape. “The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren’t using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals — as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans — when we use our power judiciously and fairly.” Such power, however, will never be used in Palestine, because the Zionists will brook no interference from the US or anyone else. In any case, a US-imposed peace in Palestine would actually be detrimental to the interests of the Palestinians. Peace will be achieved only when there is justice for the Palestinians. For that to happen, a much harder struggle will have to be waged. Given America’s weakened position, the struggle has better chances of success from now on, as the Zionist State begins to implode from inner contradictions.

The US-led unipolar world is dead. While multiple competing centers of power have emerged, whether any will replace the US has yet to be seen. An important factor in this emerging world order will be the role played by such key Muslim players as Islamic Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and movements like Hizbullah and Hamas. Until recently, Turkey was considered to be a positive factor as well but its policies especially vis-à-vis Syria and Palestine leave much to be desired. Instead of playing its natural role, Ankara has decided to play second fiddle to the vanishing superpower and its nasty ally, Zionist Israel.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 12

Rabi' al-Awwal 20, 14342013-02-01

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