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.
Round Up the Usual Euphemisms
I am of course conscious that many Americans will regard the sort of
future I am forecasting for their country with alarm and revulsion,
from a mix of prudential and moral concerns admirably conveyed in a
recent Foreign Affairs discussion of "whether American hegemony is
Unfortunately, the old concert of powers got a bad press in America
during the nineteenth century, and seems never to have recovered from
it in popular opinion. So one could not expect any official person to
use that term: the usual euphemism, "the international community",
will no doubt continue to be used even in a case like the NATO
operations in the Kosovo crisis, for which even the flimsy cloak of
"universality" provided by a Security Council resolution could not be
secured. Mere differences in semantic usage and historical upbringing
are at the root of many of the arguments in this field, and
undoubtedly in some cases the language obscures reality.
The word "unipolarity" is itself a case in point: it carries an unwanted baggage of triumphalism and solitude. Samuel Huntington suggests the coinage "uni-multipolar." That is, in substance, not much at odds with my image of a unipolar world that is and must be operated as if it were a concert of powers. Both underline the importance of Washington's ability to secure and maintain bandwagoning by the current major powers and those of the future. But the crucial point for understanding the potentialities and challenges of the current phase of international history remains the recognition that the central balance of power (that set the agenda of world politics for so many centuries) is at present in abeyance, and that the duration of this highly exceptional phase will be either lengthened or shortened by Washington's choices. The parallel implies another with 1946: the strategy of containment was more or less maintained for the next forty-three years and (despite some very painful errors along the way) produced in time a remarkable transformation in the society of states, to wit the present phase of unipolarity. A "concert" strategy, like the "containment" strategy, will need great tactical flexibility and lots of careful diplomatic judgment. But to those of us who can remember how dangerous the world looked in 1946, and how many obstacles the strategy then adopted had to face, the problems of the foreseeable future do not seem insurmountable.
That is never how it looks at the time, of course, and one is bound to feel a wry sympathy for Warren Christopher's remark, in a television interview just before he left office, "Everyone's crisis tends to become our crisis." But that degree of universalism is not inevitable. The cultivation of allies among regional as well as major powers can enable Washington to spread (and sometimes shed) the burden.
A Comfortable Habit
Reverting briefly to my earlier argument that the present degree of unipolarity has no equivalent more recent than the palmy days of the Roman world, that comparison actually understates the current level of U.S. advantage. For the Roman world coexisted with the great civilizations of China and India, which were hardly touched by it, and the rival empire of Parthia (roughly the contemporary area centered on Iran and Iraq), which was never subdued. The U.S. sphere of cultural influence has no predecessor in its global reach.
There is, however, one other notable point of comparison: the way in which the two paramount powers reached their respective degrees of ascendancy. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his essay on the balance of power, points out the connection between the extension of Roman control and the absence of any countervailing balance of power strategy:
The rise of American ascendancy (looking back to its beginnings just a century ago) seems to owe a good deal to the same phenomenon: no serious balance of power was ever attempted against it. The traditional fulcrum of such a strategy in the European society of states has of course been Britain, and British governments ever since the Venezuela crisis of 1895 have in effect refused to allow themselves to be at enmity with the United States. Concern for the security of Canada made that stance originally judicious, and it became a habit: the "special relationship."
The bandwagoning of the Europeans and the Japanese with Washington has had a lot in common with that patch of history. A strategy judiciously adopted at a time of threat has become a comfortable habit. And one whose preservation is vital to the world's future.
Coral Bell is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.