Faultlines of a multipolar world

After Empire:

The Birth of a Multipolar World Order

With the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history, declaring that the American combination of democracy and free-market capitalism had triumphed over Stalinism and its other competitors. President George Bush Sr. announced that the United States was constructing a “New World Order.” While the U.S. was able to secure a unipolar system for almost two decades, it is now over.

In an excellent new book, After Empire, prolific author Dilip Hiro surveys the fault lines of the emerging multipolar world. He argues that this new international order “has multiple poles, cooperating and competing with one another, with no single pole being allowed to act as the hegemonic power. Quite simply, the age-old balance of power is back at work.” After looking in turn at each of the major players in this new order, he examines the new economic, political, and military conflicts he predicts will emerge in the coming decades.

After a brief discussion of the rise and collapse of the Cold War order, Hiro shows how the United States consolidated a unipolar system. First, it clipped Russia’s wings with economic shock therapy. Without any geopolitical rival, the U.S. used the alibi of humanitarian intervention to convince the UN Security Council to back U.S. wars to expand and secure its dominance from Iraq to Somalia and Haiti. Similarly, it used the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, along with the World Trade Organization, to put its stamp on the planet, its free-market version of capitalism, which was, of course, rigged to its advantage.

The Bush administration’s disastrous military and economic policies brought an end to this unipolar order, argues Hiro. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which he had intended to demonstrate American power and to secure control of the energy reserves and pipeline routes of Central Asia and the Middle East, instead exposed U.S. weakness. Hobbled by military disaster, the Great Recession threw the U.S. model of free-market economics into profound crisis. As a result, Hiro argues, Bush “did greater damage to the economy and standing of America than Al Qaida leaders could have imagined achieving in their wildest dreams.”

The rest of the book examines how challengers to American hegemony have asserted their own international and regional ambitions. In Russia, Putin rebuilt Russian economic and political power by effectively renationalizing the country’s oil and natural gas industry. He has used this petro-power to assert Russia’s influence not only through its former empire in Central Asia and Eastern Europe but also in Western Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas. As a result, Russia has become increasingly assertive against the U.S. regionally and internationally. The most dramatic expression of its power was its ability to invade Georgia without any significant response from either the United States or Europe. On top of that, Russia is cultivating alliances, an emergent geopolitical bloc—the thing the U.S. most fears—with China, Iran, and Venezuela.

Hiro then surveys the other petro-powers, Venezuela and Iran, that are rising chal?lengers to U.S. sway in their own regions. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has been able survive U.S.-sponsored coups and begin to consolidate a trade bloc with Brazil, MERCOSUR, to rival the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. He has pulled together a rival political bloc, ALBA, that includes several left reformist governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has also pursued relationships internationally with Iran, Russia, and China. Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s Iran ironically emerged as the real victor of Bush’s war in Iraq. It has become increasingly active in backing regional resistance to the United States in the Middle East through alliances with Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Because of Iran’s energy reserves, it has been able to cultivate relationships with Russia and especially China, which have both worked to restrain U.S. ambitions to isolate the Iranian regime.

Hiro then examines the most important challenger to the U.S.—China. China’s unprecedented economic rise has transformed the country into the new workshop of the world. To secure markets and resources for its booming economy, China has become increasingly assertive in geopolitics. It has used its enormous currency reserves to become the banker to the U.S., and in many parts of the world it rivals the U.S.-controlled IMF and World Bank in providing development loans. It has sought out geopolitical alliances to counter the United States, for example, forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia an explicit counter to U.S. expansionism in Central Asia. It has also invested in a massive modernization program of its military to back up its geopolitical assertiveness.

In contrast to China, neither India nor the European Union have been able use their economic weight to become as significant challengers to U.S. dominance. India has established itself as an international information technology center and exploited the English-speaking section of its population to position itself as a hub for call centers. But Hiro argues that bureaucratic inefficiency, ethnic and religious tensions, and the country’s multilingual character have hampered its industrial development. It has become a regional power in Asia, establishing strong relations with the United States, which increasingly sees the country as an ally against both Russia and China. The U.S. “war on terror,” however, and Pakistan’s central role in Afghanistan, has complicated any alliances, because Pakistan and India see each other as mortal enemies.

Similarly, the European Union (EU) has not been able to transform its massive economic weight, equivalent to that of the United States, into a coherent international agenda. While it has integrated itself economically, it has failed to do so politically and therefore suffers numerous divisions on any number of questions. The economic crisis has further exacerbated these internal schisms, risking, as the commentators have recently discussed, the very survival of the euro and the EU. Therefore, as Hiro argues, the EU always punches below its weight in geopolitics.

Hiro concludes by enumerating the developing conflicts between the United States and its rivals: The United States is in competition with China over energy supplies; it is at loggerheads with Russia over Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and it faces a host of challenges in different regions, from Venezuela to Iran. As he explains, any of these emergent conflicts could produce military conflagrations in the coming decades. He singles out the increasing conflict between the United States and China, comparing it at one point to that between the United States and Japan before the Second World War. He writes:

Already, mutual distrust between the two nations is rising. There is a growing feeling among many Chinese people and officials that America deliberately triggered a global meltdown to slow down China’s peaceful rise. A misunderstanding of such magnitude, if not dispelled by vigorous effort from both sides, would be a preamble to a trade and fiscal war between the two economic giants, the consequences of which would be earth-shattering, no matter what the general state of the global economy.

After Empire is an excellent analysis of the development and conflicts of the emergent multipolar world order. Particularly refreshing is how his analysis does not center on the United States. Hiro tends, however, to overstate the emerging rivalries. The United States, despite its obvious decline, still remains the main economic, political, and military power on the planet, and its sheer dominance tends to moderate any challenges.

His attention to the other players in the developing world leads Hiro to be overly-generous to U.S. rivals. He seems so concerned to counter U.S. propaganda that he becomes almost uncritical of these countries. In his analysis of China, for example, he is unbelievably generous to Mao’s rule, and adopts a similarly friendly attitude toward today’s regime. He exaggerates the level of democracy in the country, downplays the degree of state repression, and pays so much attention to the country’s growth that has pulled tens of millions out of poverty that he almost ignores the extreme inequality that has developed. After all, China has among the highest levels of class struggle—peasant rebellions and workers’ strikes—anywhere in the world today. Hiro is similarly uncritical of Iran. Opposition to U.S. imperialism should not lead its critics to become uncritical of other imperial—or subimperial—rivals. They are still capitalist states with their own ambitions for empire, and domestically they also all rely on the exploitation of their working classes.

Hiro’s analysis also tends to be overly political in his explanation of the decline of the United States, the nature of the conflicts, and the ability of these to be resolved. Thus, he tends to blame the Bush administration and its policy misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan as well those in the economy. Of course Bush bungled both economic and military policy, but the roots of both the imperial and economic crisis were bipartisan; the Democrats supported Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq. And both parties adopted neoliberal policies toward banking and indeed the whole economy that fueled a boom for a period and then inevitably turned into a crisis.

Most astonishingly, he seems to welcome the development of the world after American Empire. He sees the end of American Empire in relatively positive terms and even celebrates balance-of-power politics, what he calls “competitive cooperation,” as a way to contain conflicts. While no progressive has been a fan of America’s unipolar power, the re-emergence of imperial rivalries is nothing to welcome either. After all, the last period of balance-of-power politics did not produce peace but the horrific bloodshed of the First and Second World Wars. These reservations aside, Hiro’s book is a must-read for those wanting to get a primer on the new world of rival imperialisms.


Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

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