Surviving in a Multipolar World
At a recent presentation of our local chapter of the Foreign Affairs Council, David Firestein, President of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, spoke about the future relationship between the US and China and asserted that the world order is changing and that the US would be confronted by a multipolar world order. This multipolar order would replace the unipolar world order that the US and the victorious allies created from the ruins of World War Two.
The post-war unipolar world existed despite the challenges created by the existence of the Soviet Union and Communist China. While a fearsome military adversary, the Soviet Union was a non-entity in the globalizing world economy, representing less than one percent of world trade even when including trade with its client states behind the Iron Curtain. China’s percentage of world trade in 1979 was only 0.7%. Global trade was dominated by the United States, the dollar and the rules-based world order that the US created. And while the US produced a disproportionate amount of the world gross domestic product (GDP) and dominated world trade, the rules-based system allowed other countries to participate in the system and benefit from the unipolar world order.
Although the United States is still the world’s largest economic power and a major factor in world trade, the rules-based order it created has allowed other countries to thrive. The Communist world lay outside this rules-based order and their economies withered in comparison to the fast growing West and the countries that participated with the West in this order. The inability of the Soviet Union to compete economically with the US led eventually to its collapse in 1991.
Communist China under the leadership of Mao Zedong faced a similar fate arising from Mao’s disastrous policies. But after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping led a transformation of China away from the ruinous economic policies of Marxist/Leninist communism. Adopting a form of state capitalism has propelled China to become the second largest economy in the world and has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of communist imposed poverty.
However, Communist China was also following Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide our capacities and bide our time.” The US had hoped that opening up the economy and becoming wealthier would motivate China to also open up politically, to become more democratic and to join the Western nations in the rules-based global order. That did not happen. The Communist Party of China continued to maintain control, if less overtly than before. But this policy created problems as I pointed out in my commentary Xi’s Dilemma (published September 17, 2019). State capitalism (also called crony capitalism) is inherently corrupt as bureaucrats control the dispensation of government favors – favors that create great wealth for those with access. In addition, newly wealthy entrepreneurs and increasingly cosmopolitan young people began to exert their desire for freedom while the CPC remained behind the scenes. Chinese President Xi Jinping felt that he had to act and he did. The CPC has emerged from behind the veil to assume its former prominence as the ultimate power in the country. Wealthy entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma have disappeared only to reappear chastened and contrite (if they reappear at all).
And President Xi also believed it was time to put aside Deng Xiaoping’s advice (which was only intended to be used temporarily anyway). At the 19th National People’s Congress in 2017 term limits on Xi Jinping’s hold on the presidency were eliminated, Xi Jinping Thought was raised to the level of Mao Zedong Thought and the 19th party congress instituted the most extensive reforms since Deng Xiaoping citing “a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” as I noted in my commentary Beating Drums and Clanging Gongs (published May 18, 2018). The Chinese have decided that the policy of biding their time is over and they are now moving to establish their place as a world power.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has never really accepted the Soviet Union’s fall from its position as a world power and is trying to resurrect the tsarist and then Soviet Eurasian empire as I noted in my commentary The Difference Between Lying and Delusion (published June 29, 2023). Russia aspires to be the superpower it once was but is more likely to be a regional power and a client state of China.
Other countries also aspire to at least regional dominance, as Mr. Firestein noted in his talk. These include India, Iran and Brazil among others. Strangely, it is the West that seems ambivalent about being a superpower. The European Union may desire to be a commercial superpower but seems unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be a true superpower which includes both hard and soft power. The big question is: does the United States want to continue to be a superpower? There are factions in both the major parties that would be content for the US to relinquish that goal.
The world in the remainder of the 21st century appears to be heading toward a multipolar world echoing the great power struggles of the nineteenth century, a period that featured confrontation and wars between the great powers and a rush to colonize the less developed countries as sources of raw materials needed to confront the other great powers and as a market for their domestic industries. Recolonization is unlikely, especially since some of the rising powers were former colonies, but each great power will have a swarm of client states in their desired sphere of influence. Many wars and conflicts will arise in the struggle to hold on to these client states and prevent them from defecting to another great power. The war in Ukraine is a prime example of this type of conflict.
The great power multipolar world of the 21st century arose due to the failure of US leadership after the fall of the Soviet Union. As America basked in the glory of its position as the sole superpower, our politicians thought the Washington Consensus of democracy and free markets within a rules-based world order was so obviously beneficial to everyone on the planet that no effort to assure the success of this concept was necessary. But the institutions of the rules-based world order created at the end of World War Two, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and GATT/WTO have mutated into sclerotic bureaucracies suffering from mission creep and directed away from the Western ideals and principals upon which they were founded by inimical forces opposed to America and those Western ideals and principles. That is how China and Cuba came to be on the UN Human Rights Council and a Chinese police official became the president of Interpol (along with a Russian vice president).
The ignominious abandonment of Afghanistan is proof that America has lost its taste for war, but our leaders seem oblivious to the fact that the best way to avoid war is to be prepared for war. America is more concerned about transgender women powerlifters than invasions of neighboring countries. More concerned about climate change arising from your gas stove than the hundreds of new coal fired power plants in China and India. More concerned about teachers’ pensions than well-educated children. And the Biden administration clearly wants to spend more money for preschool entitlements than developing hypersonic missiles. The 2020 presidential election seems more important to Republicans than the 2024 election and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s “10 Commandments” does not even mention national defense. The US needs to get serious about how to survive in a multipolar world and quit wasting time on distractions.
To be a survivor in a multipolar world and for our people and our friends to thrive there are several things that we as a nation absolutely must do. Luckily, the Founders of our country have told us what we should do. We must form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. Do that and stop worrying about which pronoun to use.