The Multipolar Moment
In his article, “The Unipolar Moment”1, which was based on a series of lectures delivered in Washington, D.C. in September 1990, Charles Krauthammer wrote that a new world order was emerging in which the United States would be the only superpower. In the second paragraph of the article, Krauthammer introduced three main theses being discussed in the US political science community at the time: (1) the rise of multipolarity (interestingly enough, he suggests a “diminished Soviet Union/Russia” as one future pole, thus anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union), (2) weakened consensus on foreign policy within the US, and (3) a diminishing of the threat of war in the post-Soviet era. Krauthammer promptly dismissed these arguments as erroneous, and instead spoke of the coming triumph of a unipolar world under the undisputed dominance of the US and its Western allies. Krauthammer did, however, immediately make one reservation: “No doubt, multipolarity will come in time. In perhaps another generation or so there will be great powers coequal with the United States and the world will, in structure, resemble the pre-World War I era.”
It seems that this moment has come. But for now let us refrain from making hasty statements, and first analyze on what grounds Krauthammer based his conclusions, where he was right, and on what he was mistaken. Such an excursion into the history of geopolitical thought will refresh our memory as to the methods by which Washington operates.
Krauthammer presents the Persian Gulf crisis and Washington’s reaction as an example of unwavering US might: “In the gulf, without the United States leading and prodding, bribing and blackmailing, no one would have stirred. Nothing would have been done: no embargo, no ‘Desert Shield,’ no threat of force.” In other words, this was not a multilateral action as it might have seemed, but the exclusive concoction of the US. As Krauthammer writes further on: “It is largely for domestic reasons, therefore, that American political leaders make sure to dress unilateral action in multilateral clothing.” This is done, evidently, because American citizens need legitimacy for the sake of their faith in democracy.
Yet here Krauthammer immediately follows up with a question: How long can America maintain its unipolar preeminence? To this end, light must be shed on theories of decline and imperial overstrain. Here Krauthammer introduces some figures - the United States was then spending 5.4% of GDP on defense, whereas earlier it spent nearly twice as much, and was now planning a reduction to 4% by 1995. However, Krauthammer adds that “American collapse to second-rank status will be not for foreign but for domestic reasons.” Let us take note of this.
Considering the balance between US domestic and foreign policy, Krauthammer suggests that it is “a mistake to view America’s exertions abroad as nothing but a drain on its economy…America’s involvement abroad is in many ways an essential pillar of the American economy. The United States is, like Britain before it, a commercial, maritime, trading nation that needs an open, stable world environment in which to thrive.” Later on, he adds that America is interested in maintaining its unipolar status, but questions whether Americans support such.
Here we can see mention of a dichotomy between the interests of the political elite and ordinary American taxpayers. Krauthammer himself notes that American isolationism “seems the logical, God-given foreign policy for the United States” by virtue of geography and the history of America’s founding, which is said to be have been motivated by the desire to distance itself from the intrigues and conflicts of the Old World.
Krauthammer also mentions another option, which he calls a far more “sophisticated” and “serious” school of international relations which insists on national interests - realism. In this context, he argues: “International stability is never a given. It is never the norm. When achieved, it is the product of self-conscious action by the great powers, and most particularly of the greatest power, which now and for the foreseeable future is the United States. If America wants stability, it will have to create it. Communism…is quite dead. But there will constantly be new threats disturbing our peace.” First and foremost among these threats is posited to be the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Also notable are such concepts as “rogue states” and “failed states,” although Krauthammer speaks of only one type - “The Weapon State,” under which he mentions Iraq, North Korea, and Libya. In his opinion, in order to become a Weapon State, a country only needs to develop its own industry, and then additional interests will arise which might conflict with the interests of other countries. This point is not discussed directly, but it is clear based on the context. Krauthammer writes:
With the rise of the Weapon State, there is no alternative to confronting, deterring and, if necessary, disarming states that brandish and use weapons of mass destruction. And there is no one to do that but the United States, backed by as many allies as will join the endeavor. The alternative to such robust and difficult interventionism - the alternative to unipolarity - is not a stable, static multipolar world. It is not an eighteenth-century world in which mature powers like Europe, Russia, China, America, and Japan jockey for position in the game of nations. the alternative to unipolarity is chaos.
Thus, Krauthammer recognizes that multipolarity is not only possible, but has historical precedent and, moreover, can help establish static stability (although the role of Japan in the 18th century, and indeed that of America, is up for debate).
Krauthammer’s next article on the same topic appeared twelve years later under the title “The Unipolar Moment Revisited.”2 He begins with the same thesis as earlier, asking whether the US will face decline. Krauthammer argues that the third episode of American unipolarity has arrived with the threat of war posed by rogue states acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is worth noting that this article happened to be released a year after the terrorist attack in New York and just before the invasion of Iraq (which was launched without UN sanction or the support of the US’ European partners). Krauthammer writes: “American dominance has not gone unnoticed. During the 1990s, it was mainly China and Russia that denounced unipolarity in their occasional joint communiqués. As the new century dawned it was on everyone’s lips. A French foreign minister dubbed the United States not a superpower but a hyperpower.” In other words, many countries did not take a liking to American dominance, and this was manifested against the backdrop of the bombing of Serbia and the occupation of Afghanistan, which were something like demonstrative wars at a distance that showed the whole world the new forms of US power.
If before the 9/11 terrorist attack many were pondering the possibility of an anti-hegemonic alliance, then afterwards many began offering the US their support, which “accentuated” the “historical anomaly of American unipolarity.” This happened by virtue of the “American anti-terrorism ultimatum”, which was essentially a mandate for the widespread use of military force by the US. Preventative operations violated traditional doctrines of just war, which led to a crisis of unipolarity. According to Krauthammer, this unipolarity found definitive formulation in the words of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld on Afghanistan and the “War on Terror”: “the mission determines the coalition.” The mission is determined by the US.
Important here is Krauthammer’s admission that so-called multilateralism was merely a means of “liberal internationalism” to keep the US from falling into embarrassing situations in which other countries in disagreement with Washington’s position could “isolate” the US and make decisions themselves. If we soberly analyze both the “multilateral” approach of Madeleine Albright during the Bill Clinton administration, as well as the same rhetoric employed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with her “reset”, then it is obvious that the “openness” and “interestedness” of the US has been but a cover for imposing its agenda. All of this was pursued, in Krauthammer’s words “in service to a larger vision: remaking the international system in the image of domestic civil society”, i.e., the American model.
From this standpoint, the nation-state is seen as an anarchic legacy of the past. Thus, Krauthammer explains, it is important for liberals to accelerate the erosion of sovereignty by means of new technologies and the unhindered movement of capital across borders. But America, as the great sovereign, must be “domesticated” by and for liberals who feel “discomfort” with US dominance. This in turn becomes a challenge to unipolarity, as the dominant pole inevitably comes to be diluted through international agreements, interdependences, and new norms.
At this point, Krauthammer briefly summarizes the contention between two schools of international relations - liberalism and realism - with regards to “paper or power”, i.e., agreements or threats and the use of force. In passing, Krauthammer reminds the reader of the question of multipolarity and actually contradicts himself. If in his previous article he spoke rather positively of multipolarity as once incarnated and possibly on the rise again, then this time his tone has changed dramatically. He writes: “Multipolarity is inherently fluid and unpredictable. Europe practiced multipolarity for centuries and found it so unstable and bloody, culminating in 1914 in the catastrophic collapse of delicately balanced alliance systems, that Europe sought its permanent abolition in political and economic union. Having abjured multipolarity for the region, it is odd in the extreme to then prefer multipolarity for the world.”
Prototypes of multipolarity actually existed in more places than just Europe by the 20th century. Before the arrival of European colonizers in Asia, Africa, and both Americas, similar systems existed which used special mechanisms of checks and balances that differed from European norms. Moreover, European countries developed within the paradigm of rationalism and the Enlightenment, which leaves Krauthammer’s argument unconvincing. Krauthammer can be understood, however, if we recognize the author’s Western-centric mindset and American political scientists’ propensity to justify double standards. Moreover, the nature of this shift can be explained as in the interests of many countries to develop multipolarity during this period (including not only China and Russia, but also the “left pivot” in Latin America, and the founding of the African Union in July 2002).
Further on, Krauthammer unveils his message: “[the] principal aim is to maintain the stability and relative tranquility of the current international system by enforcing, maintaining and extending the current peace. The form of realism that I am arguing for—call it the new unilateralism — is clear in its determination to self-consciously and confidently deploy American power in pursuit of those global ends.” Thus, in contrast to isolationist realism, this approach proposes that the US pursue none other than global objectives in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the world ocean.
But let us recall what actually happened in 2002-2003. NATO officially invited Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia to join its alliance; the state of Yugoslavia ceased to exist with its partition into Serbia and Montenegro; American troops occupied Afghanistan and Iraq; Israel carried out punitive operations against Palestinians; numerous terrorist attacks took place on Russian and Turkish soil; and a series of color revolutions began in the post-Soviet space following the effective testing of this new type of coup d’etat in Yugoslavia. For Krauthammer, this must all be “stability and relative tranquility.” Ironically, this actually might be such for the US, since all of these events took place with direct or disguised encouragement from Washington and outside of the borders of the United States (except for the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, which to this day remains the subject of serious debates). The maintenance of this unipolarity also means the preservation of the post-colonial legacy with its artificial division of the globe into first, second, and third worlds, entailing the merciless exploitation of the natural resources of countries incapable of effectively defending their sovereignty from transnational corporations, predatory policies of the IMF and World Bank and, of course, the US’ right to military intervention in other countries under false pretexts. As is well known, the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” was tested in Haiti in 1994 and in Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s and in 1999 to detach Kosovo and Metohija.
According to Krauthammer, the US should be “advancing democracy and preserving the peace by acting as balancer of last resort”, and “countries will cooperate with us, first, out of their own self-interest and, second, out of the need and desire to cultivate good relations with the world’s superpower.” In other words, other countries are presented with no real choice.
Although Washington uses both unilateral and multilateral approaches in similar fashion to advance its interests, there is one principal difference between the two which Krauthammer discerns in the form of a question: “What do you do if, at the end of the day, the Security Council refuses to back you?” As we very well know, even after the UN Security Council blocked its resolution on Iraq, the US acted as it saw fit. Even before this entered into force (let us recall that Krauthammer’s second article was released several months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003), Krauthammer believed that the unipolar moment had already become the unipolar era.
Thus, the article concludes with the following:
The new unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America’s unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future. The future of the unipolar era hinges on whether America is governed by those who wish to retain, augment and use unipolarity to advance not just American but global ends, or whether America is governed by those who wish to give it up—either by allowing unipolarity to decay as they retreat to Fortress America, or by passing on the burden by gradually transferring power to multilateral institutions as heirs to American hegemony.
Krauthammer therefore reiterates that unipolarity will be challenged not from without, but from within.
Now let us turn to summation. Krauthammer is partially correct that the unipolar regime depended on the US political elite. The lack of clear consensus therein and the ever-increasing gap between the aspirations of the American people and the corporate interests of the establishment which incessantly leans towards globalism, all yielded the phenomenon of populism and helped Donald Trump win elections with partially isolationist slogans.
Krauthammer was incorrect in his panicking over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In the nearly 20 years since, the real balance in this sphere has remained virtually unchanged. Only the DPRK has increased its military-technological capabilities to a level causing panic reactions among US military and political circles. Without a doubt, another important landmark to be distinguished on this note is the decision by Russia’s leadership to deploy troops to Syria to help in the fight against terrorism.
The unipolar era did not arrive. The unipolar moment lasted unfortunately long - for nearly two decades. But it was not an era. Krauthammer was right in his first article when he argued that multipolarity would arrive after one generation. Indeed, if we follow the criteria set for challenges facing the US, then according to such documents as the US National Security Strategy3 and National Defense Strategy4, the US now faces competitors in the face of certain powers familiar to us in the multipolar declarations of Russia and China. Iran and the DPRK have also openly challenged unipolarity and been assigned by Washington to the club of “rogue states.” Over the past few years, additional studies have increasingly suggested that America is losing its status as the global center of power in the face of emerging multipolarity.5
Therefore, we can say that Krauthammer was mistaken in saying that unipolarity would be threatened from within the United States. Threats have always come from the outside and, in different conditions, whether embryonic or frozen, have anticipated appropriate opportunities to change national strategies. As a matter of course, a number of countries have seized the first opportunity to escape Washington’s control. These cases can be called different things - whether “opportunism”, “transitioning to an active anti-colonial stage”, “searching for new solutions”, or “reactions to the US’ actions” - depending on the ideological framework and school of international relations employed.
What is important to understand is that unipolarity is disappearing forever.
Even if globalists from the Democratic Party come to replace Trump, they will strategize how to erode sovereignty as such, including American sovereignty, and they will have to deal, first and foremost, with their taxpayers, who clearly showed their preferences by electing Trump. Moreover, given the heightened capabilities of other countries, the globalists will have to concede serious concessions and are unlikely to be able to achieve the same results that they did during the rise of the unipolar moment under Clinton or in the Obama administration’s later attempts to instate multilateralism. In one way or another, by this time faith in the US will have already been completely undermined - especially as newly declassified documents once again demonstrate to the whole world the dirty methods of the State Department and form a powerful argument in favor of severing relations with Washington - and, as former allies come to prefer new alliances, the balance of forces will change significantly in all regions across the board.
We now find ourselves in the multipolar moment. Our task is to transform this multipolar moment into a multipolar era.
2 Charles Krauthammer. The Unipolar Moment Revisited// The National Interest—Winter 2002/03. рр. 5-17
3 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017
4 Summary of the National Defense Strategy. Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge.
5 See C. Richard Neu, Zhimin Mao, Ian P. Cook. Fiscal Performance and U.S. International Influence, RAND Corporation, 2013; Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, a publication of the National Intelligence Council, december 2012
http://worldview.unc.edu/files/2013/10/Global-Trends-2030-Executive-Summary.pdf; Global Trends to 2035 Geo-politics and international power. European Parliament, September 2017
Translated from Russian by Jafe Arnold.
Published in the Journal of Eurasian Affairs, Vol. 5, n. 1, 2018.