does the world need several superpowers?

January 3, 2012

One would think that when the Cold War ended and the United States began enjoying its new dominance as the world’s sole superpower, it would be able to keep global peace and control rogue states by continuing to fund the defense infrastructure of its allies and providing much of the West’s firepower. After all, it’s military is immense and at the time, its coffers were flush with the cash needed to support it indefinitely. In this light, the conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama wrote an entire book heralding the end of the Cold War as the end of history as we know it. But that’s not at all what happened. In fact, the United States is just as involved in war after war as it was before, maybe even more so if we also tally up all of today’s shadow conflicts. Why? Well, a thought-provoking opinion by political scientist Nuno Monteiro posits that the sole superpower status is really the problem and instead of subduing wars, it actually incites them by backing states into a corner

… As Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz lamented after Iraq’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, “We don’t have a patron anymore. If we still had the Soviets as our patron, none of this would have happened.” [ … ] Now that the Soviet Union is gone, America’s enemies feel vulnerable even if they comply with Washington’s demands. They know that the United States has the wherewithal to take them down if it so decides, so they are unlikely to accept any U.S. demands (to abandon a nuclear program, for example) that would leave them in a position of even greater weakness. This is what explains U.S. involvement in so many “hot” wars since the Cold War ended.

Well, this sort of makes sense. If you’re a rogue state, especially one ran by an autocrat very unhappy with the events of the Arab Spring and feeling overwhelmed by the powers heading the Security Council, you’ll want to build a deterrent. Borrowing from MAD, you start working on a nuclear weapon, knowing that so far, there has never been a direct attack on a nuclear armed state by another military because these nukes raise the stakes immensely. But if you’re found out and backed into a corner by the enormous and extremely advanced armies and air forces of powerful states, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. May as well play a game of chicken and see how it turns out. Would they really mobilize to unseat you? Of course this doesn’t really give a good explanation for the Taliban’s defiance to give up its support of al Qaeda, but here, we’re dealing with very irrational actors who believe that their faith brought down the Soviet Union and will certainly destroy the other superpower, perhaps not even fully aware to which extent this superpower funded their handlers in Pakistani intelligence back in the days of the Afghan War. As we know, it’s very hard to reason with religious fanatics.

But here’s what bugs me about this explanation, which I think has merit even though it needs that irrationality clause which Monteiro dismisses. The implication here is that we need opposing superpowers to operate a small clutch of proxies and keep each other in line by intimidation. It’s a very old school, Cold War way to look at things, and considering that the Cold War was marked by serious clandestine human rights abuses on both sides, in secret and behind closed doors, as well as paranoia about an incoming apocalypse from new world wars at the slightest provocation, I don’t think we want to revert to that. Superpowers which thrive on the economic reciprocity of true globalism keeping their satellites well behaved because it’s in their interest not to involve their trading partners in a costly and politically messy conflict would seem at least somewhat better. It does raise the possibly very disturbing question of how a satellite state would be kept in check and one would hope that it would be only by significant monetary inducements, but it significantly reduces the specter of MAD looming over the horizon once again. Though considering how superpowers usually behave, it’s very unlikely to be all fun, games, and occasional joint military exercises if another superpower emerges.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    The chief benefit (perhaps one of the few) of M.A.D. is that it did keep the world intact. (Albeit with minor proxie wars and considerable human rights abuses sanctioned by the major powers.)

    This had little to do with a sudden outbreak of sanity; raher, it came from the desire of the leaders to keep their power and property intact.

    The current situation is more aggressive; attempting to force other nations to follow policies beneficial to the aggressor. The problem is making someone do something is far more difficult than preventing them from acting. Given the current shunning of negotiation (which generally requires something be given by both sides), and the presence of NGO actors (who, thanks to technology, have far more destructive power and reach at their command than ever before), and the current round of warfare makes more sense.

  • VroomFondle

    I think your assessment of the current world situation and ensuing comments are a few months out of date. The current superpower is embroiled in an insurrection(by their own admission) in Afghanistan in which the best it can expect is to disengage itself from without any resolution other than by negotiation(Which by the way I think is almost impossible given the attitude of the Taliban and their allies al Qaeda and the Pakistani Intelligence Service allies). However, other than the enormous economic and Human cost to the populace, on the world stage this is not a major conflict.

    I suggest the current situation although quite fluid is tending more and more toward the peaceful, negotiated resolution of conflicts. While it is true that there are many potential conflicts ready to erupt this not at all an is unusual circumstance. My perception is that many people both in civilian and military leadership are beginning to realize the negotiated resolution of conflict is not only possible but preferable to open hostility. I predict with the rise of worldwide communication on a personal level this century will be much less violent than the last one.

    However, to quote the great Yogi Berra “Predictions are difficult, Especially when they are about the future”.

  • Greg Fish

    I suggest the current situation although quite fluid is tending more and more toward the peaceful, negotiated resolution of conflicts.

    How so? Yes, there were initial peaceful abdications during the Arab Spring and Saleh did leave his post in Yemen through a negotiated resolution, but with the current NGO crackdown by SCAF agents in Egypt, the civil war in Lybia, the violence in Syria, and the ongoing hostilities between the Taliban and the U.S., I’m really not seeing a whole lot of peaceful resolutions happening around the world lately…

  • VroomFondle

    As I have stated my opinion about the conflict in Afghanistan, I will concentrate on the aspects of the Arab Spring you cite here. While these are very real and tragic conflicts, they can hardly be seen as destabilizing to world military order. They are all popular uprisings against authoritarian and repressive regimes which have for decades maintained their control through violence. These dictatorial regimes maintained power with the sanction and economic assistance of the superpowers I might add. The combined casualties from these liberation movements are hardly the same as say the genocide Rwanda which to by some estimates has claimed 800,000 human lives in 100 days of “complete insanity” or the Yugoslav Wars which resulted in deaths of 140,000 people.

    I admit the situation in the middle east is troubling in that the final outcome of the political picture remains somewhat shrouded in the fog of emerging democracy, however most reasonable people would agree this is much preferable to the continuing repression of it’s people by these tyrants.

    As we who have the luxury of living in democratic countries well know, Democracy is messy.

  • Jypson

    I mostly agree with Vroom on this subject, with one small addendum. I haven’t seen any indications that this “Arab Spring” is resulting in, or even trending toward emerging democracies. Yes the people have been pushed to the breaking point, and it’s elevated to violence in the streets, but that doesn’t mean they are going to suddenly abandon thousands of years of culture and tradition just because they can get on facebook now. If I had to wager on the outcome, I would say that when the dust clears you’re going to see new faces, but the same ideologies and government structure.

  • Greg Fish

    I haven’t seen any indications that this “Arab Spring” is resulting in, or even trending toward emerging democracies.

    Jypson, on that I’d refer you to this post. I really do think that democracy was the original goal, but now, with a regional power vacuum, traditionally powerful religious groups are using newly organized elections to legitimize their rule. The SCAF do seem to act like a second incarnation of Mubarak, but they now have to contend with the Brotherhood and the Salafist al Nouiri without using violence and political repressions…

  • Jypson

    Intentions aside, I stand by my original assessment that I have not reviewed any data that indicates that the unrest in the middle east is a precursor to a new democratic style government.

  • Greg Fish

    Well, I think that’s a fair and sober statement. It’s somewhat discouraging, yes, but it seems that many of us in the West got a little too excited at the popular uprisings and forgot to account for all the variables…