American Ascendancy-And the Pretense of Concert

American Ascendancy-And the Pretense of Concert

Mini Teaser: Like the one before it, the twenty-first century will be American—predictions of a multipolar world nonwithstanding.

by Author(s): Coral Bell

Like a sudden flash of diplomatic lightning, Kosovo has illuminated
much that was previously obscure in the landscape of international
politics. Not because of the victory over Milosevic--it would indeed
be a cold day if NATO could not vanquish a minor power--but because a
norm has been forcefully asserted, a Western norm with explosive
potentialities for many other sovereign states. And because NATO has
made its debut as the military arm of a concert of powers.

During the 1990s, the United States has mostly tiptoed through the
current unipolar structure of the society of states with a sort of
ponderous tact, like a benign Ferdinand-type bull making its way
delicately around a china shop of unknown value. That prudence has
been well justified: the situation is still quite new and of
uncertain import to all the world's policymakers. History is not much
help, for no equal degree of unipolarity has existed since the high
point of the Roman world, almost two millennia ago. The central
balance of power had set the main agenda of world politics for more
than five centuries: its "intermission", even for a time whose length
remains a matter of speculation, is a truly transformatory event, and
foreign affairs bureaucracies tend to be nervous of such upheavals.

The level or depth of that transformation must depend on the duration
of the unipolar "moment", as it was originally labeled by Charles
Krauthammer. If it had actually been just a "moment" (even one coming
up toward ten years, as it now is), any changes in world order might
have proved marginal or ephemeral. But I propose to argue that it
will last at least another four decades or so, and possibly a great
deal longer, though that will depend on Washington's choice of
strategies. Such a duration would be enough to set in concrete
changes that have already begun to modify some of the oldest and most
basic norms and conventions that previously governed the society of

The Lingering "Moment"

Before assessing those changes, what are the arguments for expecting
so long a duration of this phase of diplomatic history? They turn
primarily on the economic, military and diplomatic "distance" that
the five or so assumed potential challengers to America's current
ascendancy--its prospective "peer competitors"--must travel before
they could have plausible grounds for making such a challenge. That
in turn means considering briefly the qualifications necessary for
membership in an eventual multipolar or bipolar balance, when and if
one replaces the present unipolar structure.

These qualifications are not very different from those possessed by
the members of past central balances, allowing the differences in
scale between the European society of states of the nineteenth
century and the global society of the twenty-first. The latter will
be a society of giants. Extensive territory, population and
resources; high economic and technological skills; adequate political
and social cohesion; advanced military muscle (especially power
projection capacity) and the willingness to use it; organizational
and administrative capacity for rapid decision-making in crisis; and
(most crucially) capacity to induce the behavior known as
"bandwagoning"--that is, joining what is calculated to be the winning
side--by other powers will all be necessary. And potential motivation
must be considered alongside potential capacity.

Almost every commentator has for some years been regarding China as
the likeliest of the usual suspects for future "peer competitor"
status. The interests of Washington and Beijing seem to be on a
possible collision course in East Asia and the China Seas, to a
degree not really paralleled by America's relationships with major
powers in its other spheres of interest. The survival of Taiwan, the
fate of the two Koreas, the U.S. alliance with Japan, the visibility
of U.S. troops in the area, the even greater visibility of U.S. naval
forces (as in the 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait), the prospects of
a Theatre Missile Defense system possibly covering Taiwan and Japan,
and the resented American pressures on human rights (concerning not
only China itself but, still more, Tibet) are all likely to continue
creating frictions and irritations.

On the "future capabilities" side, China seems prospectively more
formidable than other potential competitors. Its population,
territory and resources provide the foundation of that impression.
The spectacular rate of Chinese economic growth in the last few
decades has inevitably reinforced this. China's level of technical
and economic competence has also been impressive. And a party
autocracy like that in Beijing (assuming it survives) has an inherent
advantage in making rapid, ruthless decisions during crisis, as in

Conceding all that, China's shadow is often greater than even its
very real substance warrants. For some decades to come, its apparent
strengths will be offset by less apparent weaknesses. The rapidity of
its economic growth has often led analysts to pass over the immense
structural difficulties and imbalances of the Chinese economy: for
instance, the problem of restructuring loss-making state industries,
the great inequalities between the prosperous coastal zones and the
still bitterly poor interior, the weakness of the banking sector, the
inadequate development of commercial law, the rushed urbanization,
and the truly awesome fact of more than one hundred million
unemployed in the labor force. As well, the ability to sell into the
American market will remain vital to the foreign exchange reserves
that enable China to buy essential commodities, weapons and
technologies. Normal trading status, previously called most favored
nation status, will therefore remain a vulnerable asset. Most oil
supplies for China still come from the Middle East, and could at
present readily be interdicted. The political control the Beijing
regime wields over its territory and peripheral areas is potentially

On the military side, though China has bought and/or copied some
advanced Russian platforms (aircraft and submarines) and perhaps
garnered a few American secrets, its defense establishment still has
a very long way to go before it will be able to look sideways at the
7th fleet, except perhaps very close to the Chinese coast. There are
clear signs that China's strategists are well aware of the limits of
their power projection capacity, even as against Taiwan. They have
made no effort in recent decades to retake the islands Qemoy and
Matsu, held by Taiwan since 1949. Official awareness of China's
current strategic weakness may even be seen in the interest that
young Chinese strategists are allowed to take in the "revolution in
military affairs" (RMA), the forward edge of advanced American
strategic thinking. If the Chinese defense establishment is conscious
of having no chance of catching up with the present generation of
American weapons systems, or even the next generation, it is clearly
logical for it to concentrate on a more distant strategic future,
which means the weaponry envisaged in the RMA. Since a weapons
generation these days lasts at least fifteen years, that would put
"peer competitor" status on hold until about forty-five years hence.

But there are a couple of other considerations that are perhaps even
more powerful. The first is what I would call the "Soviet warning."
The Soviet Union strove to compete militarily with the United States
for the whole forty-three years of the Cold War, channeling as much
as 20 percent of its GNP per annum into that effort. The result was
not only failure and almost irreparable economic damage, but the loss
of Communist Party control of the government. The party autocracy in
Beijing seems unlikely to risk that fate for itself. Defense
modernization may be getting rather more funds than it did earlier,
but it is still not at the top of the regime's priority list, and is
unlikely to get there any time soon.

The final consideration is China's restricted ability to induce
bandwagoning by other powers, a factor that becomes very relevant
when we consider the next two potential challengers to U.S. supremacy.
Russia must obviously still be regarded in that light, even though its
conventional forces (on the evidence in Chechnya and elsewhere) seem
to be in a terminal state of decline and its nuclear strike force is
dangerously ill-kept. How long will it be before it recovers from its
present disasters? Again, the answer seems to be at least three or
four decades.

The most puzzling question in recent history is why a loss of
ideological faith and confidence among the Soviet political elite
(not even the actual replacement of the elite, because most of the
current Russian oligarchy are old communist apparatchiks, from the
president down) seems to have produced ruin in almost every aspect of
Russian life, right down to the sewerage system. It is as if the
"achievements" of the Soviet period had suddenly proved to be nothing
more than a seventy year-long Potemkin village, whose collapsed
facade has left the Russia of Dostoyevsky's time visible again. For
it to pose a challenge, a modern economy has to be created out of the
current "robber capitalism", along with infrastructure, a workable
administration and a modernized defense establishment with
state-of-the-art weaponry. Not only is it difficult to see those
tasks being accomplished rapidly, it is difficult to believe they
will be accomplished at all.

Essay Types: Essay