Can America Adapt to the Multipolar Age?

Can America Adapt to the Multipolar Age?

Can an increasingly ossified national security system and dysfunctional domestic politics allow the United States to evolve its position and policies to cope with a changing international order?


IT IS now apparent that we are reaching the end of a thirty-year cycle in world events, where geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts are rewriting the source code of international affairs. Whereas the start of the cycle was marked by a series of dramatic events that heralded the triumph of the U.S.-led liberal-democratic system—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nearly bloodless U.S.-led coalition victory in the Gulf War, and the lowering of the red banner of the hammer and sickle over the Great Kremlin Palace for the last time on December 25, 1991—the terminus of this post-Cold War era and the birth pangs of a new and yet-unnamed epoch could not be more different. It has been marked by the slow-motion trainwreck of a global pandemic and the termination of the twenty-year effort, following the September 11 attacks, to prove that American power, unlike its Soviet and British imperial antecedents, could remake Afghanistan (and by extension, other societies) in a liberal-democratic image. We are now entering the 2020s, where the familiar landmarks and lodestones are eroding, with growing uncertainty as to what will replace them—and the extent to which a new era will be shaped by Washington.

U.S. leadership was indispensable in bringing the Cold War to a largely peaceful end and to creating conditions for the rapid emergence of a much more interconnected and prosperous world. And while the most ambitious goals of post-1989 American efforts were not fully met—a post-Soviet Russia has not been integrated into the Euro-Atlantic world and China did not accept becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in a U.S.-led order—the past thirty years, as those who were present at the start like Steven Sestanovich and John Cloud have noted, bought time for the enlargement of the democratic communities of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific basins. It is not that the general thrust of post-Cold War American grand strategy and foreign policy has failed—although plenty of mistakes have been made—but that its motive power is largely exhausted. Indeed, the primary indictment that can be levied against the U.S. foreign policy community is that it was clinging to the chimerical belief that the post-Cold War cycle could be prolonged indefinitely, rather than taking steps to prepare for the emergence of the next cycle.


GIVEN THE overwhelming superiority the United States possessed at the end of the Cold War, it was foolish to think, even if countries sought partnership with the United States, that major powers would also not seek to develop capabilities and tools to offset U.S. advantages. As former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy noted at the 2019 Drell Lecture, having observed the U.S. victory in the Gulf War, other major powers looked for ways to negate or overcome those advantages. Over the past three decades, whether it was through the development of new anti-access/area-denial techniques and systems, to pioneering asymmetric ways of competing with the United States that would cancel out areas of definitive U.S. superiority, to setting up alternate financial and economic arrangements that would offer the possibility of bypassing the U.S. hub, the rest of the world has looked for ways to limit and contain the American hyperpower. Even as they took part in and derived benefits from U.S.-led arrangements, other powers—even U.S. allies—have wanted to maintain different choices.

Of particular importance here is that the two principal powers most inclined to seek some revision in the post-Cold War order—Russia and China—do not want to compete on America’s terms, especially in those areas where the United States has an overwhelming advantage. They have thus sought to shift the basis of competition to regions and functional areas where they have a home-field advantage or are better equipped to compete. Russia, in particular, looks for ways to avoid a direct conventional conflict with the United States or to keep the basis of action just below the threshold of triggering U.S. alliance commitments while using other means to gain an advantage.

Additionally, technological shifts have enabled not only the erosion of geopolitical unipolarity—by allowing other states to hold the application of U.S. power in check by leveraging new technologies to develop asymmetric capabilities (usually grouped together under the rubric of “anti-access/area-denial” tools)—but also facilitated the rise of nonpolarity by offering the opportunity to delink core social engagements from not only state foundations but even physical localities. The development of blockchain technologies, for instance, allows for the rise of new forms of currency and payments systems (Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.) that are not just issued without the “full faith and credit” of any one state, but also are unconnected to any physical stockpiles or reserves. Likewise, private firms, such as SpaceX, are able to send satellites into orbit and are developing telecommunications networks that can bypass a country’s physical infrastructure.

One particular area of vulnerability that has developed since the end of the Cold War exists within an entire domain that did not exist at the start of this cycle. Another thirty-year anniversary that passed by with almost no fanfare or celebration—December 20, 1990—is often identified as the date that the first webpage on the internet was created. The ease in which this realm became the preferred method for conducting business, commerce, and finance as well as the principal source and distributor of information not only fueled the growth of entirely new economic sectors but also created new sources of vulnerability. With the exception of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, most of the most consequential strikes taken against the United States over the past several decades have been cyber blows—hacking of data, ransomware attacks paralyzing key points of infrastructure, and especially the manipulation of the information space in an effort to influence domestic politics. When combined with other post-1989 developments—particularly the acceleration of economic globalization and the “shrinking” of distance by more rapid and affordable ways of transport, which has permitted the development of long-distance, just-in-time supply chains—not only states but non-state actors now have more cost-effective ways to be able to draw blood or impose costs on the United States. In this new era of competition, germs, Facebook, and banks matter more than guns, F-35 fighters, and tanks as a way to gain influence.

Moreover, the lowering of barriers—cyber, information, even geographic—exposes Americans to what Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, describes as the “invisible enemies” (starting with pandemics). This only heightens the direct and growing sense of insecurity among “ordinary” citizens, along with the belief that the government is less capable of protecting them. That sense of unease intersects with a growing reluctance, as the Munich Security Conference identified in 2020, on the part of Americans to foot the bill for a series of global public goods. After the collapse of the USSR, Americans were promised a “peace dividend,” whereby democratic enlargement would increase the number of billpayers and responsible stakeholders. In return for accepting the upfront costs of building this new post-Cold War architecture—starting with trade deals like the North American Free Trade Association—Americans were promised longer-term benefits.

This was not entirely wrong. The supremacy of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency allows the United States to finance its deficit spending—including recent stimulus packages—and allows people to borrow funds—including for homes and vehicles—at advantageous interest rates. But the cumulative benefits of U.S. global leadership (as well as the costs) have been unevenly distributed to different domestic constituencies. Abroad, burden-sharing is more of an aspiration than reality among U.S. allies. Finally, with other major powers like Russia or China pursuing more limited global aims (which do not envision the conquest of the United States or fundamental changes to its social and political systems), the existential threat of the Cold War that motivated support for U.S. global engagement does not exist.

Attempts to rouse the U.S. public in support of foreign ventures have thus been met with negligible results. The effort to rally support for a crusade against Islamic extremism in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, petered out. The China challenge is most strongly felt in the economic and technological realms—with concerns about the erosion of the U.S. position and its impact on competitiveness—but is sufficiently interwoven with U.S. economic activity that disentanglement, let alone decoupling, is a hard proposition for various actors to contemplate. Even prior to the election of Donald Trump and the articulation of “America First,” the Obama administration was already grappling with how to reconcile an expansive vision of the U.S. role in the world with the political requirement that any U.S. action remain bound by a low-cost, no-casualty paradigm.

THE INTERSECTION of these three cycles—geopolitical, technological, and political—means that it is now harder for the United States to either induce other centers of power in the international system to align their actions with Washington’s preferences or to take steps to dismantle or degrade the sources of their ability to resist America’s directives. Not only can other major powers more effectively resist U.S. directives in 2021 than in 1991, but the U.S. political system is less willing to write blank checks for maintaining pre-eminence—especially if that is disconnected from “doorstep” concerns. As David Barno and Nora Bensahel warned, “We in the national security community must ready ourselves for this new era, where economic recovery and preparing for domestic threats like pandemics will be far greater concerns for most Americans than threats from foreign adversaries.” This suggests that the domestic political appetite for attempting to stress-test other major powers in the hopes of provoking their collapse would be limited.