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

But the new/old Russia, though far from able to fill the strategic
shoes of the vanished Soviet Union, possesses one asset from its past
that may prove relevant and valuable in the present unipolar
structure. Nineteenth-century Russia was a founding member of, and an
enthusiastic participant in, the old European concert of powers
(1815-1914). I believe that an understanding of that system in Moscow
(for which Russians need only consult their own diplomatic history)
will be useful again in due course, perhaps only to Russia, but
perhaps also to the West and the longer survival of unipolarity.

Japan would hardly warrant mentioning in this context were it not for
all those books and articles of a decade ago about "Japan as Number
One." Those prophecies seem now to have been based on nothing more
substantial than the assumptions that comparative rates of economic
growth were the only factor that needed to be taken into
consideration when assessing the future balance of power, and that
Japan would grow at 9 percent (and China at 10 percent) forever. In
reality, Japan has only had two of the requisites for "peer
competitor" status: technological and economic competence, and
political cohesion. Its territorial and resource endowments are
sparse, its population aging faster than most, and its capacity for
crisis decision-making unimpressive. Its armed forces have near
state-of-the-art weaponry, but national willingness to deploy them,
even in peacekeeping operations, remains low. Japan sits, non-nuclear
and without strategic depth, at the junction of the spheres of
interest of three nuclear powers--the United States, China and
Russia--and, in the form of a reunited Korea, a possible fourth. That
is a vulnerable situation, and more vulnerable now and prospectively
than it was during the Cold War.

Chinese forces, when they are eventually full-grown, will be deployed
in the general vicinity of Japan--the China Seas, the Chinese
coast--in a way that was never true of Soviet forces during the Cold
War. If push had ever come to shove in that struggle, it would have
been the Western allies who would have borne the first shock. All
that changed when China rather than Russia inherited the Soviet
mantle as the likeliest challenger to U.S. ascendancy. So it is not
at all surprising that Japan has clung more firmly to the U.S.
bandwagon since the end of the Cold War than it did during earlier
decades. The bilateral 1997 defense agreement commits Japan to more
active participation with the United States in East Asia than was
earlier the case. That is a mark of an increased sense of
vulnerability among the Japanese elite, and of reduced leverage
within the alliance.

The Most Likely Challenge

The European situation is quite different. Though the endemic Balkan
troubles are a source of anguish, and will probably go on being so,
no plausible major military threat seems to be impending on the
European horizon. Even if Russian military power revives at an
improbable rate, the strategic advantages that the Soviet Union
enjoyed in Eastern Europe for almost forty-five years cannot be
reasserted without hegemonic war. According to all informed reports,
Russia's nuclear capacity (once credited with being on a par with
that of the United States) is much impaired. The conventional forces
that once made Europe tremble are visibly in great disrepair. Despite
all this the Europeans (except sometimes the French) still cling,
almost as much as the Japanese, to the American bandwagon. They show
few signs of ever seeking to elevate themselves to the status of a
military "peer competitor" of the United States.

Nevertheless, in terms of most of the qualifications outlined
earlier, Europe is still the only feasible potential rival for the
United States in the next three or four decades. Its economy is about
the same size (and will grow larger with new members), its technology
almost as advanced, its diplomatic traditions longer. It includes two
nuclear powers with adequate stockpiles and sophisticated delivery
systems. It deploys large conventional forces with near
state-of-the-art equipment and with considerable experience in
working together. (Kosovo, however, vividly demonstrated the
difference between near and actual, in terms of power projection
capacity. Not only were more than 70 percent of the sorties American,
but just about all of them were dependent on U.S. surveillance and
location systems.)

Europe's only real deficit, when viewed as a potential rival to the
United States, is its low capacity for decision-making, particularly
in times of crisis. The evolution of events in Bosnia illustrated
that painfully well. Even at their most beleaguered, as during the
Clinton impeachment hearings, Washington's decision-making mechanisms
are infinitely more effective than those in Brussels. That might seem
like a temporary condition, easily and soon to be remedied. But it is
not: it is intrinsic not only to the present stage of the great
enterprise on which the Europeans are embarked, but to the most
probable outcome of that enterprise, the making of "Europe."

The original "Europe of the Six" might possibly have turned into a
convincing federation, a "United States of Europe." But the
prospective "Europe of the Twenty-plus" will surely be a
confederation, probably an economically powerful and prosperous one,
with the euro, despite its teething troubles, becoming the major
rival to the dollar. But confederations do not exactly have an
impressive record of joint decision-making in crisis. So in terms of
developing either the capacity or motivation to challenge U.S.
ascendancy, the new Europe seems likely to prove a non-starter. There
will of course be endemic frictions between the future economic
giants on either side of the Atlantic, and plenty of cultural
resentment at both the elite and grassroots levels. But when have
there not been? Ever since the rise of U.S. power at the end of the
nineteenth century, the "Johnny-come-lately" on the other side of the
Atlantic has been getting under the skin of the Europeans. But the
resentments were much greater in the early decades of this century
than after the beginning of the Cold War. European governments since
then have known well where their strategic bread is buttered. They
are not about to blow the advantages of transatlantic alliance
because of a trade row over bananas.

Kosovo showed that very well. Even the French went along with
Washington's strategies with hardly a murmur. There was of course a
wide spectrum of political and diplomatic opinion within the
alliance, with Britain at the "hawk" end, and Greece (an old ally of
Serbia) at the "dove" end. The arguments about whether to send in
ground forces in combat mode or merely in peace-enforcement mode may
have been real, but more probably were just an assiduous piece of
crisis-signaling to increase the psychological pressure on Belgrade.
The truth of that may not be known for some time, but despite the
last-ditch resistance of some army die-hards, "distance warfare" does
seem to have shown its capacities, and certainly confirmed the
indispensable role of U.S. advanced weaponry, even for Europe.

I would argue, then, that both the Europeans and the Japanese are
likely for the foreseeable future to remain on the American
bandwagon, valuing the benefits of the alliance with Washington above
any advantages they might secure by playing their own respective
diplomatic hands. And so long as that remains the case, a true
multipolar central balance, such as many analysts were envisaging
before the completeness of the Russian collapse became apparent, is
not on the cards.

The likeliest successor to the current unipolar structure, therefore,
is a new bipolar balance, with a recovered Russia and a militarily
and economically developed China reviving the old Moscow-Beijing
alliance of 1950 (despite its many difficulties) and probably
recruiting quite a few allies, mostly from the Islamic world. In
traditional terms, the "status quo" alliance (the United States,
Europe and Japan) will still command much greater economic and
military power than such a "revisionist" alliance. But the overall
situation will be uncomfortably like the early Cold War balance of
1949-62, the most dangerous phase in the tension-ridden four decades
of that conflict.

The Pretense of Concert

Most Westerners (though by no means everyone else) would agree that
such a phase should if possible be averted. And it can be, if
Washington formulates its diplomatic strategies well enough.
Fortunately, there is already visible a policy to that end, one that
is equally acceptable to the mainstream foreign policy elites in both
political parties, though perhaps not to their respective far-left
and far-right fringes.

It is the strategy that seems already to have been adopted by the
Clinton administration: the unipolar world should be run as if it
were a concert of powers. In a sense, the post-World War II
"institutionalization" of diplomacy--through the UN, NATO, the G-7,
the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, the OSCE and so on--has more or
less imposed that strategy on policymakers. Resolutions must get
through the Security Council and consensus must be sought in the
other organizations to "legitimate" the policies that are deemed to
be in the U.S. national interest. Of course, the policies could be
followed without seeking their legitimation by "the international
community", but the advantages of securing it are worth the
diplomatic labor it takes. A resolution or consensus eases
consciences both in America and abroad, and helps protect U.S. allies
from their respective critics at home (though not in Washington, of

Essay Types: Essay