The Multipolar World Is Reborn Not with a Bang, but with a Whimper
Changes in the global balance of power don’t develop in a linear fashion and tend to run contrary to earlier predictions. Sometimes, there is no Suez Moment.
On Friday afternoon, February 21, 1947, the British Ambassador to Washington, Lord Inverchapel, showed up at the State Department and informed then Under-Secretary of State Dean Acheson that his government could no longer continue providing financial and military aid to Greece and Italy. “The British are abdicating from the Middle East,” Secretary of State George Marshall informed President Harry Truman.
Indeed, with defense accounting for 40 percent of the British budget in 1947 and the Americans pressing London to repay the huge loans it owned them, Britain had to readjust to the new geopolitical realities by later ending its prized mandate in Palestine in 1948, less than a year after giving up the “crown jewel” of India.
Anyone following international developments in 1947 perceived the British and the Americans to be two close allies. Yet while diplomats and pundits continued to refer to Great Britain as a “great power,” it would take years before the United States would be known as a “superpower.”
The dismantling of the British Empire, like any major transformation of the international balance of power, wasn’t a linear process involving a manageable and steady decline in its military and economic power. Things tend to be more orderly and clear when it comes to changes in national politics, where decisions seem to be a product of intelligent design. In U.S. politics, for example, a population decline in a state (measured via census) can result in a state losing seats in the House of Representatives, while another state that gains more residents could win more seats in the House. Such domestic political changes are orderly and neat.
The process of international change has a haphazard muddling-through quality, more akin to an evolutionary process. Hence Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had led his nation into an impressive military victory in World War II, confident that the defeat of Nazi Germany would help save the British Empire, failed to recognize that the enormous military and economic costs of the war had actually created the conditions for the liquidation of the empire.
The British people and elites weren’t aware that “Rule, Britannia!” was already history when Lord Inverchapel showed up at the State Department in February 1947—and not even then, after the proverbial fat lady had sung, did the British Empire “end.”
Indeed, while the sun was setting on the British Empire, members of its political elite continued to live under the illusion that their nation remained a paramount global power. If you traveled in a time machine to London in 1949 and attended a debate in the British Parliament or browsed through the pages of the London Times, you would come across numerous references to the British Empire as a great power. And if you encountered diplomats in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service and bankers in the city of London in 1953, you wouldn’t be surprised if they continued to behave as though the world was still their domain to rule.
The transition from Rule Britannia to Pax Americana was lengthy. It was only after the humiliating abandonment of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956—the so-called Suez Moment, when the Brits were seeking to recover their hegemonic status in Egypt and the Middle East—that proved to be the turning point in Britain’s retreat from empire. It ensured that London would never again attempt global military action without first securing the acquiescence of Washington.
To borrow the concept of “delayed recognition”—the gap between the time when changes in the economic system occur and the ability of consumers and businesses to feel their impact—a similar recognition gap exists between the time changes in the global balance of power take place and the point where we figure out that yesterday’s great power has a more modest status today.
Much of the discussion about the end of America’s post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and the transition to an expected multipolar system tends to miss the point that that process is ongoing, with no clear start and anticipated end. There is an unspoken expectation of a defining event, a moment when the US would supposedly become just one of many global powers, E Pluribus Unum; when it would face its Suez Moment. Maybe it won’t.
After all, many members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, very much like London’s elites in 1953, believe that their nation has remained a paramount superpower that can continue to dictate foreign policy outcomes. Meanwhile, anti-interventionist critics on the political left and right insist that American global power is in the process of decline, and that Washington needs to adjust to the new global realities before it’s too late.
From that perspective, America’s success in mobilizing its Western allies while re-energizing NATO as part of a successful effort to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and its efforts to build a security partnership to contain China in the Pacific—the fact that the United States had the will and the power to do that—may have come as a surprise to many observers, including possibly to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
After all, the Russian leader, like China’s rulers, assumed that the U.S. military fiascos in the Greater Middle East, the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, and the growing political polarization at home, had transformed the United States into a has-been great power. Russia would now regain its status as a global superpower, while China would replace the United States as the dominant global power.
At the same time, neoconservative and liberal internationalist thinkers—whose plans to remake Iraq into a liberal democracy and establish dominant U.S. power in the Middle East, and who ended up with a costly geostrategic disaster—are now trying to convince us and themselves that they were right all along, that the catastrophes Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from the failure to effectively use America's great power.
Interestingly enough, there was a time following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and later on during the 1973 oil embargo, and during the 1980s with the rising geoeconomic power of Japan and Germany, when observers predicted that U.S. hegemony was over, and that it might have to prepare for the coming war with Japan.
But then came the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, followed by the birth of Silicon Valley and growing Americana economic prosperity. Add to this the military victory in the first Gulf War, along with successful military interventions else, and a sense of American supremacy settled in. It seemed to many that the American unipolar moment, not to mention the End of History, had arrived.
One could make the argument that misusing of American military power in the Greater Middle East, reflecting the sense of hubris and American exceptionalism, and the fantasies concocted by the neoconservatives, brought about the ensuing decline in American global power—and that a more responsible American statecraft would have allowed Washington to maintain its position as first among equals, primus inter pares, in the international system.
But, in fact, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did set some constraints on the ability to use American military power. Indeed, an Iraq Syndrome—which reflected the public’s backlash against the costly military fought in the name of promoting democracy—made it unlikely that any Democratic or Republican administrations would set out to do regime change in Tehran anytime soon. Thanks to the war in Iraq, Iran has emerged as a major regional power with plans to acquire nuclear military power.
And with America losing its once-dominant position in the Middle East, it had no choice but to accept the Russian return to the region, including the turning of Syria into a Russian military protectorate. Likewise, Washington was forced to search for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear military challenge posed by Iran.
In that context, Washington should welcome the possibility of growing Chinese involvement in the Middle East, as demonstrated in its recent success in mediating an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, why not allow China—and, for that matter, encourage the Europeans—to play a more activist role in bringing stability to the region?
While no one can predict at this stage the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the consensus in Washington remains in opposition to the deployment of U.S. military troops there; and, in fact, to going to war with Russia. Any eventual agreement to end the military conflict will have to take those constraints into account.
At the same time, the growing U.S. military role in the Pacific will require the Europeans to play a more active role in protecting their security interests in their continent as well as in its periphery, in the Middle East and North Africa.
All these developments could be seen as part of a gradual evolution of a multipolar system and of a U.S. adjustment to reality, without having to face a Suez Moment. Then again, maybe such a moment will have to be faced if the rising tensions with China lead to a Sino-American military confrontation over Taiwan. Or perhaps the relationship between the two global superpowers will evolve into a duopoly, with Washington and Beijing establishing spheres of influence around the world.