BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Unipolarity: In the Blink of an Eye
As the works of international relations scholar, Robert Gilpin suggest, a unipolar order can actually be the most stable (and, from an American perspective, it is the most desired). In such a system, one power is preeminent above all others. The might of that one state–coupled with its believable threat of action against any who would dare challenge it–compels most states to buck-pass and cooperate. The few that do challenge it can either be decimated militarily or it can be isolated by the others diplomatically and politically until internal dynamics force a regime change. In either event, the threat to the unipolar power–the hegemon–would would not last very long, and the system that it created around itself would perpetuate with the removal of that threat. However, once the hegemon’s threat of force was no longer believable; once it had demonstrated an incapacity to effectively ameliorate the threats to its unipolarity, the system will experience entropy and begin to break down.
This is precisely what the United States has experienced. There are several years that one could point out as being the beginning of the end for America’s “unipolar moment.” One might be 1993, the year that 19 American servicemen were killed and two Black Hawk helicopters were downed in the bloody streets of Mogadishu, Somalia by Islamist militants swearing fealty to Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid. At that moment, history began in earnest for the United States (though we in America did not recognize it as such). 1993 was also the year of the first World Trade Center bombing by al Qaeda.
In 1994, the world discovered the extent of North Korea’s nuclear program. Rather than assert American military dominance over the chaos state in Pyongyang, the Clinton Administration chose to make a deal with the Kim regime. In exchange for oodles of foreign aid and Western support, the North Koreans would discontinue the production of their nuclear weapons program. The North took the “deal.” Only, as time would prove, the deal was one-sided: Pyongyang took the money, time, and reduction of military pressure from the West in order to covertly expand their weapons program (thereby undermining the entire notion of an American global hegemony).
1995 is also important. That was the year when America’s intervention in the Balkan crises got serious. While stability was returned, the conflict showed how weak the NATO alliance was; its very existence offended the Russians; and the fragility of the European project was illustrated by the constant public lamentations for American military aid in the Balkans (predicated on the notion that, just a few short years after the Cold War, European unity could be decimated by the ethno-religious wars in the Balkans).
Another important year would be 1996, when the Taiwan Strait Crisis began. At that time, Taiwan–the threatened democracy just off the coast of China–wanted to elect the most pro-independence government in its history. The Chinese, having long viewed Taiwan (formerly Formosa) as nothing more than a rogue, breakaway province, wanted to intimidate their Taiwanese brothers from electing a regime that Beijing believed would put further distance between itself and Taipei, and continue nursing the democratic dreams of independence in the Taiwanese people. Thus, the Chinese began lobbing missiles over Taiwan. Ultimately, the United States interdicted by sailing two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait, signaling an intent to defend Taiwanese independence from Chinese aggression. It was this incident (more than anything in the 1990s) that set China on its hostile military course against the United States.
The year 1999 is another nail-in-the-coffin for America’s unipolar moment. That was the year the United States performed yet another intervention in the Balkans, this time in Kosovo. This incident prompted a major break with the Russians, and helped to catapult the conservative, national-imperialist, Vladimir Putin (and his siloviki) into power in Moscow (the belief that the West was intent on surrounding a weakened Russia that it had laid low in the Cold War and weakened still further with the failed economic “reforms” of the 1990s).
2000 was the time which China ascended into the World Trade Organization, despite the fact that it had done very little to meet the requirements that all other nations must adhere to for entry into the WTO. Because of their acceptance into the WTO, China became truly first-rate economic power–and that economic might would inevitably translate into real military heft today. It was the Clinton Administration who shepherded the Chinese application for membership into the WTO. In other words, the United States helped to create its own worst enemy.
In 2001, two seminal events occurred. One was the E-3 spy plane incident. The other was, obviously, 9/11. In April of 2001, a United States Navy reconnaissance plane was conducting a routine surveillance mission in international waters off the coast of China’s Hainan Island, where a major People’s Liberation Army Navy base exists. This is the sort of routine reconnaissance mission that every nation conducts. It was very predictable. The Chinese air force sent two MiG fighters from Hainan to intercept the American plane. During the course of the interdiction, one of the Chinese pilots got very aggressive with his maneuvers and got far too close in proximity to the wings of the larger, slower-moving American E-3. When the American plane refused to bugger off its course (as it was operating in international waters), the Chinese pilot did a maneuver which eventuated in his MiG clipping its wing on the E-3 plane; the MiG crashed and the Chinese pilot died, and the American E-3 was forced to make an emergency landing…on Hainan Island. After a 12 day diplomatic standoff with China, the United States–which was in the right–backed down, the George W. Bush Administration issued a quasi-apology to the Chinese, and the Chinese further humiliated the Americans by dismembering the E-3 and sending it back to the United States in pieces–aboard a Russian craft.
September 11, 2001 rolled around and it was the event that forever changed America. The United States devoted an inordinate amount of time, personnel, and resources into waging its War on Terror–and got very little in return. When the 2003 Iraq War began, the United States had engendered such antipathy toward its new foreign policy that the Russians, French, and Germans effectively coordinated diplomatic efforts to curb the ability of the United States (and Great Britain) from operating with relative impunity in Iraq. By 2005, it was clear that the American engagement in Iraq was a failure. A last-minute Hail Mary play by the Bush Administration in the form of the surge prevented total failure, but the fact that Iraq could only have continued on with copious levels of commitment shows how poorly conceived the war was. The inevitable result: the rise of Iran further exhibits how badly the Iraq War was for American foreign policy.
Lastly, 2008 is another year that shall live in infamy. It is, after all, the year that the Great Recession occurred and the underpinnings of the American-led neoliberal order finally came crashing down. Of course, the “bailouts” helped to prevent a hard crash-landing, but that created a further set of problems, which only further undermined the American unipolar order. Needless to say, America needs to get used to the idea that its unipolar order is over and our leaders need to start taking stock of how best to compete in such a Hobbesian, post-unipolar world order.