How will the world look when the guns fall silent and the smoke clears? On the anvil of crisis, the old fixed pattern of Cold War allies and enemies is finally being hammered into new and disturbing shapes. France and Germany have joined their former Communist adversaries, Russia and China, in opposing any independent U.S. military action in the Iraq crisis — and, more broadly, in opposing the dominance of the single American superpower. The institutions of Western unity that helped to win the Cold War, notably NATO and the European Union, have been thrown into crisis. And a new world order is struggling to be born.
But what kind of world order? Broadly speaking there are two different models on offer — “multipolarity” and “unipolarity.” These are forbiddingly politico-sociological terms. And one is tempted to define them flippantly in the current crisis as follows: Unipolarity is one state imposing its own response to a major international threat and multipolarity is many states agreeing that a response is not really necessary. In the longer run, however, these concepts represent deadly serious disputes over which great powers — and therefore which philosophies — should dominate international politics and world institutions. Here is an approximate scorecard.
Most of the world’s second-rank powers — France, Germany, Russia, and China — resent the fact that they currently count for so little in world affairs compared to the United States — a situation they indignantly call “unipolarity.” They seek to restrain America’s freedom of action with international legal rules and the oversight of bodies like the U.N. Security Council where they enjoy an equal say — or “multipolarity.” And these countries, France in particular, see the Iraq crisis as an opportunity to force the United States to go the multipolar route even against its will and interests.
Other countries, however, have reason to fear and resent these leading second-rank powers — and look to the United States to help defend their interests against them. For understandable historical reasons, Eastern Europe is nervous of both Germany and Russia. Nor would Italy and Spain wish to see a Franco-German alliance totally dominant in Europe. And the British believe that a U.S. presence is indispensable to European stability. Hence all of them have rallied to the United States against their multipolar neighbors.
Is there a new stable structure of world order and rivalry in the making? Not necessarily. For both alliances are highly unstable.
Take, first, the “multipolar” alliance. Russia is vulnerable to both Chinese expansion and radical Islamist threats in Central Asia. And since neither France nor Germany would be reliable allies in such conflicts, Russia cannot afford to alienate the United States permanently. Nor is Germany a wholly trustworthy partner for France. Though the unpopular Schroeder government clung onto power by embracing a semi-pacifist leftist sensibility that incorporated a bitter anti-Americanism, that is far from being firmly fixed as Germany’s new identity. It makes many Germans simply nervous and the conservative opposition party strongly endorses the U.S.-Germany link as a linchpin of Atlantic stability. Another election there could leave France isolated as the sole multipolar power.
But the situation is equally confused on the “unipolar” side. Spain and Italy traditionally favor strong federal integration in Europe, which includes a common European foreign and defense policy. If their current conservative governments were to be replaced by social democrats — something that is far from impossible — those countries would quickly swing back towards France and multipolarity. Similarly East European countries desperately wish to join the EU as a mark that they have attained political respectability. They might be blackmailed into adopting more “multipolar” policies to avoid a French veto on their entry. After all, President Jacques Chirac has threatened just such a veto.
And the wildest card of all is America’s favorite European, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. If Blair shares in an U.S. triumph over Iraq, he will almost certainly seek to exploit his victor’s prestige to sign Britain up for both the European single currency and a new European Constitution. He would do so with the praiseworthy intention of leading a pro-American bloc within the EU and cementing the Atlantic alliance. But that ambition is almost certainly an illusion. The EU’s legal rules, its bureaucratic imperatives, its internal power relationships, and its underlying drive to Euro-nationhood would all work to subordinate British aims to European structures. France and Germany would then constrain Britain’s freedom of action in Europe as effectively they would like to constrain America’s freedom of action on the world stage.
It is all too possible to devise an American nightmare in which Spain and Italy return to their traditional policy of supporting France and Germany in building a European superpower as a counterweight to the United States; the British and East Europeans initially resist but, outvoted and outmaneuvered, are dragooned along in the wake of Paris and Berlin; then the United States, out of sheer irritation with Franco-German obstructionism, leaves NATO which is promptly reconstructed as the defense arm of the EU; and finally the Russians, seeing that Europe is becoming a serious security partner, move from the unipolar camp into the multipolar one permanently. Of course, the world itself would then no longer be unipolar but divided between two rival superpowers — Europe and America — and therefore decisively multipolar, just like Europe in 1914. In other words, it would be more divided, less stable, and more dangerous.
President George W. Bush may be able to avert such a dangerous outcome on the morrow of his Iraq victory — if he acts decisively. In this context, however, action means not a dramatic military exercise of will, nor crude denunciations of the French and Germans, but a long-term policy of subtly changing the institutional structures of Western institutions such as NATO and the EU so as to entrench American leadership permanently in Europe. Among the many ways of carrying through this strategy are: ensuring that NATO remains the monopoly provider of security for Europe; transferring decisions from NATO’s political structures where France is represented to its defense structures where it is not; building a North Atlantic Free Trade Area with the whole of Europe, including the EU, with consultation procedures that restrain Brussels from advance imposition of its own common policies in trade, regulation, foreign policy and defense; quietly encouraging the British and others to shape a loose and flexible “Europe of Nations” united by free trade but without the ambition of becoming a single nation-state and a “counterweight” to America in world politics; and so on.
All this sounds extremely complicated. But it can be summed up very briefly in the following choice: Either the EU, an essentially economic arrangement, will develop its own defense organization, as the European advocates of multipolarity argue; or NATO, a defense organization, will grow an economic counterpart in the form of NAFTA, as the Atlantic advocates of unipolarity advocate. In the former case, the West will divide — and the world will be a forum for diplomatic maneuvering between several major blocs espousing different economic and political philosophies; in the latter, a more or less united West will dominate world institutions — which will accordingly reflect its liberal philosophy of free trade, free markets, democratic institutions, and human rights.
It would seem obvious that the latter destination should be the aim of U.S. foreign policy. But the U.S. State Department still views the concept of European integration as the American interest it largely was until the end of the Cold War. And it continues to promote this policy uncritically even though it has clearly become a way of conscripting pro-American countries into anti-American political structures. To change this policy — U.S. State Department orthodoxy since the early 50s — would require a mammoth exercise of political will by Bush at the very moment when he will probably feel like taking a long vacation.
But if he sits comfortably on his Iraqi victory, as his father perched complacently on the triumph of Desert Storm, then he will be setting the stage for the rise of a rival power — one much nicer than Saddam Hussein, of course, but also infinitely stronger and with far greater staying power.
— This piece was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.