THE PAST century has seen a multipolar world through the end of World War II, a bipolar world through the end of the Cold War and a dissipating unipolar world since. Economic multipolarity is already a reality. And, in military terms, America’s unipolar dominance over the air and sea-lanes will not last forever, given the rise of naval powers across Asia. Moreover, the advantages that accrue to terrorists and insurgents, for whom war is a way of life and who kill indiscriminately, have put tremendous strain on the U.S. security establishment. America’s prospects for global primacy appear bleak.
But in spite of the seemingly inevitable and rapid diminution of U.S. eminence, to write America’s great-power obituary is beyond premature. The United States remains a highly capable power. Iraq and Afghanistan, as horrendous as they have proved to be—in a broad historical sense—are still relatively minor events that America can easily overcome. The eventual demise of empires like those of Ming China and late-medieval Venice was brought about by far more pivotal blunders.
Think of the Indian Mutiny against the British in 1857 and 1858. Iraq in particular—ever so frequently touted as our turning point on the road to destruction—looks to some extent eerily similar. At the time, orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure (who wanted to leave traditional India as it was) lost some sway to evangelical and utilitarian reformers (who wanted to modernize and Christianize India—to make it more like England). But the attempt to bring the fruits of Western civilization to the Asian subcontinent was met with a violent revolt against imperial authority. Delhi, Lucknow and other Indian cities were besieged and captured before being retaken by colonial forces. Yet, the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire at all, which continued on and even expanded for another century. Instead, it signaled the transition from more of an ad hoc imperium fired by a proselytizing lust to impose its values on others to a calmer and more pragmatic empire built on international trade and technology.1 There is no reason to believe that the fate of America need follow a more doomed course.
Yes, the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the United States’ own, but, though destructive, they are not fatal. If we withdraw sooner rather than later, the cost to American power can be stemmed. Leaving a stable Afghanistan behind of course requires a helpful Pakistan, but with more pressure Washington might increase Islamabad’s cooperation in relatively short order.
In terms of acute threats, Iran is the only state that has exported terrorism and insurgency toward a strategic purpose, yet the country is economically fragile and politically unstable, with behind-the-scenes infighting that would make Washington partisans blanch. Even assuming Iran acquires a few nuclear devices—of uncertain quality with uncertain delivery systems—the long-term outlook for the clerical regime is itself unclear. The administration must only avoid a war with the Islamic Republic.
To be sure, America may be in decline in relative terms compared to some other powers, as well as to many countries of the former third world, but in absolute terms, particularly military ones, the United States can easily be the first among equals for decades hence.
China, India and Russia are the only major Eurasian states prepared to wield military power of consequence on their peripheries. And each, in turn, faces its own obstacles on the road to some degree of dominance.
The Chinese will have a great navy (assuming their economy does not implode) and that will enforce a certain level of bipolarity in the world system. But Beijing will lack the alliance network Washington has, even as China and Russia will always be—because of geography—inherently distrustful of one another. China has much influence, but no credible military allies beyond possibly North Korea, and its authoritarian regime lives in fear of internal disruption if its economic growth rate falters. Furthermore, Chinese naval planners look out from their coastline and see South Korea and a string of islands—Japan, Taiwan and Australia—that are American allies, as are, to a lesser degree, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. To balance a rising China, Washington must only preserve its naval and air assets at their current levels.
India, which has its own internal insurgency, is bedeviled by semifailed states on its borders that critically sap energy and attention from its security establishment, and especially from its land forces; in any case, India has become a de facto ally of the United States whose very rise, in and of itself, helps to balance China.
Russia will be occupied for years regaining influence in its post-Soviet near abroad, particularly in Ukraine, whose feisty independence constitutes a fundamental challenge to the very idea of the Russian state. China checks Russia in Central Asia, as do Turkey, Iran and the West in the Caucasus. This is to say nothing of Russia’s diminishing population and overwhelming reliance on energy exports. Given the problems of these other states, America remains fortunate indeed.