A return to balance of power

Print edition : March 14, 2003

French President Jacques Chirac (right) and his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio da Silva, key players in the new balance-of-power politics. - PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP

The self-assertion of "Old Europe" as well as countries like Russia, China and Brazil heralds the rebirth of balance-of-power politics, with the lesser powers moving closer to active cooperation and the global movement against anti-corporate globalisation adding diplomatic and material weight to the effort to contain the United States.

PEOPLE speak and write today about the feelings of utter powerlessness to prevent the coming war. So powerful is the United States. And so determined to strike.

Impotence in the face of the supremely powerful. With our imagination limited by memories of the superpower standoffs and ambiguous victories and defeats of the Cold War period, it is tempting to see the current situation as unique.

Yet the world has been here before. In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, when Nazi Germany's determined drive to global dominance seemed unstoppable by any possible combination of forces. In the Europe of the early 1800s, when a seemingly invincible Napoleon put to rout in battle after battle any military alliance his many foes could muster.

The last few years have been and the coming ones will be bad for world peace. They are, however, rich in lessons about international power relations. And the lessons are not all grim.

To be sure, the first lesson is discouraging: that unchallenged superpower status stimulates conflict, not peace. This did not seem so clear in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Then, there was, widespread in the West, an expectation that the U.S. would use its status of being the sole superpower to undergird a multilateral order that would institutionalise its hegemony but assure an Augustan peace globally. Even some people not enamoured of the U. S. speculated that with superpower rivalry gone and all other potential rivals taking themselves out of the competition, Washington's quest for military superiority and strategic advantage would slow down. Europe, Japan and China seemed ready to settle down to a condition of controlled competition in the economic sphere while accepting long-term American dominance in the security area.

In fact, as the 1990s rolled on, it became clear that what the end of the Cold War ushered in was a volatile period more dangerous than the Cold War, when the superpower standoff warded off big wars, contained smaller wars, and gave a certain predictability to the relations among states. The instability of the new era did not stem primarily from the emergence of "irrational" non-state actors that were prepared to engage in "asymmetric warfare" against conventionally powerful state actors, though many Beltway intellectuals made their names painting terrorists as the greatest threats to global peace and stability in the post-Cold War era. It came from the transformation of the balance of power in the global state system.

The balance of power among states is the subject of John Mearsheimer's magnum opus The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Regarded as the definitive work on the subject, the book argues persuasively that in all balance of power systems, great powers aim not so much to achieve a defensive balance against their rivals as to achieve a significant degree of military and political advantage over them. Mearsheimer is also correct that "bipolar" systems such as the US-Soviet face-off that dictated the dynamics of the Cold War period are more stable and less likely to break down than "multipolar" systems like the pre-Second World War situation, which was marked by relative equality among a number of powerful states.

What Mearsheimer fails to tell us, however, is that the situation most productive of conflict, tension and instability is one where there is one overwhelmingly dominant power surrounded by a number of midget powers - meaning today's world. He quotes with approval Immanuel Kant's comment: "It is the desire of every state, or of its ruler, to arrive at a condition of perpetual peace by conquering the whole world, if that were possible." Yet he does not seem to appreciate the fact that Kant's insight is perhaps of the greatest relevance in the post-Cold War world, where American military and political preponderance is unmatched.

This intellectual failure is jarring, and it stems from a primordial belief that Washington, unlike other great powers, is not just motivated by naked realpolitik but by the desire for a benign global order as well. These ideological blinders prevent Mearsheimer and many other American intellectuals from appreciating the fact that the U.S. has switched its role from that of being an "offshore balancer" against would-be hegemons like Hitler and the former Soviet Union to being itself an aggressive power bent on achieving world hegemony.

Many critics of U.S. power, for their part, attribute George W. Bush's unilateralism to the self-centred, provincial worldview of the American Right. This explanation confuses cause and effect. Bush's unilateralist ideology is a product of a unique structural conjuncture: the consolidation of the civilian-military "defence establishment" that won the Cold War as the dominant faction of the U.S. elite and the disappearance of an effective countervailing force to U.S. power in the global state system.

To mask its shift from containment to hegemony, however, the defence establishment needed a rationale, and the last decade saw its invoking a succession of actors to fill the role vacated by the Soviet Union - North Korea, China, Al Qaeda, the "Axis of Evil". Paying very little respect to the actual state and capacity of the targeted regimes, this process was embarrassingly opportunistic and failed to achieve credibility even among a critical mass of its prime target group, the American people. From this perspective, the September 11 attack was a godsend that consolidated domestic support for the open-ended and pre-emptive unilateralist interventionism that was articulated in George W. Bush's historic speech on September 17, 2002.

As for the multilateralist paradigm, this was never a serious alternative entertained by any significant faction of the U.S. elite except perhaps for marginalised old liberal circles and personalities like Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton, who distrusted fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, may have invoked multilateralist rhetoric but he did not hesitate to act unilaterally - as he did when he ordered the bombing of Serbia despite European objections during the Kosovo crisis.

That is the bad news. The good news is that even when backed up by overwhelming force, unchallenged hegemony is a transient state. As was the case in Napoleonic Europe, lesser powers may calculate that a posture of compliance or subservience may be necessary in the short-term, but they know that it is disastrous as a long-term strategy, for it is simply an invitation to more aggression.

This is what the U.N. Security Council standoff over Iraq is all about. It is less about Saddam's compliance and more about containing a hegemon that feels it has a blank cheque to intervene, topple and depose anywhere in the world with the dangerous rationale of preventing a threat, no matter how abstract, from "reaching the American people". If France and Germany at this point seem willing to go the distance in stubbornly blocking the U.S. from waging war on Iraq, it is to discourage future U.S. moves that might pose a more direct threat to their national security. Cultural bonds or a sense of generosity for being liberated from Nazism 50 years ago are weak rationales when compared to the fear of encouraging aggressive ambitions that could translate into economic bullying in the short term and military blackmail in the long term.

However the current Iraq crisis is resolved - and indeed France and Germany may yet capitulate under pressure - it has already accelerated the decline of the Atlantic Alliance of the Cold War era, a development captured in U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's disdainful comments about a recalcitrant "Old Europe". And it marks the rebirth of balance of power politics, with the lesser powers moved into active cooperation to contain U.S. aggression. Joining France and Germany in what is emerging as this era's version of the pre-First World War Triple Alliance are China and Russia, with the more weighty developing countries like Brazil and perhaps even South Korea eventually hopping on board. Though individual members may change, this coalition is likely to be a long-term one. And, unlike currently, where its real dynamics are clouded by the debate over the question of Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, its basis will eventually be more clearly articulated as the defence of national and global security against the American threat.

This re-emergence of a system of containment at the level of the state system must be seen in the context of the advance of other movements of global resistance. There are, of course, the Islamic fundamentalists, who have made tremendous gains among the Arab and Muslim masses owing to the U.S. mailed-fist response to September 11 events and its alliance with Israel.

The coming war on Iraq is likely to weaken drastically the so-called moderate regimes in the Arab and Muslim world and eventually give rise to governments uncompromising in their resistance to U.S. interventionism. Not too long from now, we may see radical Islamic regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

Then there is the burgeoning global movement against corporate-driven globalisation, which has, in the last year and a half, fused with the anti-war movement to form a powerful anti-U.S. front at the level of international civil society. Like the Islamic fundamentalist movement, elements of this diverse movement are likely to assume state power in a number of countries in the coming years. Indeed, they already have in a number of Latin American countries in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Islamic fundamentalism and the anti-corporate globalisation movement will not function mainly to add diplomatic and material weight to the containment of the U.S. What they will do is something equally important though, and that is to erode the legitimacy of the American enterprise and expose it for what it is: a naked bid for hegemony. This is critical since the staying power of hegemons is ultimately based on the perception of their legitimacy.

The next few years and decades are likely to witness ever more brazen efforts to reorder the world to serve U.S. interests better. But they will also consolidate an anti-U.S. coalition of the less powerful while accelerating the spread of anti-U.S. movements in global civil society. This is not the unchallenged hegemony that Washington aspires for, but the classic dynamics of overreach, of overextension. For if there is one unambiguous lesson in the history of nations, it is that empire is transient while resistance is permanent.

Walden Bello is Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines and Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based analysis and advocacy institute.

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