"An era of instability in world politics"

For the past generation, the major political actors in the world have been trying to find their ways to a new formula of stability in the wake of the collapse of the bipolar framework set up by the opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Bipolarity simplified world politics by organizing a variety of regional conflicts under the main confrontation, limiting the former through checks imposed by the two leading patrons and protectors. After the fall of the Soviet bloc, the conventional wisdom had it that the United States was the sole remaining "superpower," bringing the possibility of a unipolar order. At the outset of the post-Soviet era, U.S. President George H.W. Bush announced the design of a "new world order," in which the United States would lead a broad alliance of states in the task of pacifying and stabilizing a global capitalist economy. Under the elder Bush's vision, the United States would be the primary protector of the international market economy and would reap strategic and economic advantages from performing that essential role. The high point of the new world order was the first Persian Gulf War, in which a broad coalition led by the United States repelled Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Globalization, Empire and Multipolarity

Through the 1990s, a new paradigm of world order seemed to be emerging that was encapsulated in the term "globalization." For its advocates and prophets, globalization signaled a comprehensive transformation of social organization in which peaceful economic competition conducted through the mediation of market democracies and inter-governmental organizations -- dominated by the United States -- would supplant military conflict. As forwarded by the two Clinton administrations, the globalization paradigm made the United States -- as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously put it -- the "indispensable nation" for keeping the peace and furthering the system of market democracies.

Although it was proclaimed by its adherents as historically inevitable, globalization was never more than one project in a complex political world that also harbored opposing tendencies. There were Islamic revolutionaries, "states of concern" (Iran, Iraq, North Korea), reactionary nationalism (Serbia), an A.I.D.S. crisis, failed states (Sudan, Haiti), impoverishment and resource wars in Africa, an impending confrontation between India and Pakistan, an unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine, and an incipient confrontation between the United States and China over the latter's long-term plans for hegemony in East Asia.

Globalization received its first blow in 1999 at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Not only was the conference disrupted on the streets by protests mounted by a wide spectrum of groups that had coalesced into an anti-globalization movement; inside the meeting halls, participants could not agree on a way forward to further reductions in trade barriers. Since then, international efforts to advance a global capitalist economy have stalled.

The hammer blow to globalization was administered by the American response to the airplane bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, which brought forward Islamic revolution as a threat to the security necessary for the globalization project to proceed. The initial response of the Bush administration to the attacks was an invasion of Afghanistan to remove al-Qaeda bases and training camps, and depose the Taliban regime, which had allowed the revolutionaries to operate.

America's Afghanistan intervention won the support of the preponderance of international actors and opened the possibility of a consensus response to Islamic revolution that would give globalization a lease on life. The decision by the Bush administration to effect regime change in Iraq militarily eliminated that possibility and ushered in the present period of a drift toward multipolarity.

Operation Iraqi Freedom followed along the lines of the Bush administration's post-9/11 National Security Strategy that transformed the multilateralist vision of globalization into an explicit plan for American military hegemony in the world that involved preemptive and preventive warfare, emphasized American national economic interest, and embraced unilateral action if efforts at international cooperation failed.

Until the failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom became plainly evident, there was a brief period in which neoconservative and Wilsonian liberal writers put forward the idea that, rather than globalization, American "empire" was the destiny of world politics -- the formula for world order. Carrying forward the claim that America is the indispensable nation, the new imperialists envisioned a world in which the United States would spread market democracy and police world capitalism overtly, using its military supremacy to enforce an order that other powers would have to accept because they would have no alternative.

Dreams of American empire are today only memories. More than anything else, Operation Iraqi Freedom has exposed the limitations of American military power at the same time that it has severely impaired the country's diplomatic resources. Presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry both acknowledge the "hard work" -- as Bush put it in his first debate with Kerry -- necessary to restore American power. At present, globalization has lost its self-designated protector, and centrifugal and dispersive tendencies have asserted themselves in world politics.

An Era of Instability

The most important and least noted consequence of the revelation of American military limitations is the opening up of a partial power vacuum in world politics. The suspicion that the United States will find it difficult to undertake another preemptive war and will be hesitant to play its military card in regional trouble spots -- yet might still do so -- creates a general climate of uncertainty across the globe. Each great and regional power is constrained to reassess its geostrategy to accord with the perceived opportunities and threats that have arisen in the new definition of the situation. Those reassessments are conducted within a general horizon of uncertainty, because there is no paradigm of world order to which policymakers can refer.

Uncertainty is the symptom of a relatively open political situation, in which the actions of the respective powers will codetermine a more stable balance of power, if one eventuates in the medium term. This means that no single actor can gauge with precision the effects of any initiative that it might take, adding to uncertainty the strong possibility of miscalculations that could intensify instability. Each great and regional power has an agenda of unfulfilled interests that are opposed by other powers. How far will each one go to pursue perceived advantages? How will each one respond to the initiatives of others? Those questions are open, not only to outside observers, but to decision makers themselves.

Although it is impossible to predict with accuracy the future configuration of world politics, it is reasonable to expect that a stable pattern will not crystallize in the short term and that the coming decade will be a period of testing by state and non-state actors to determine how much of their agendas they can achieve. The agendas themselves will change through the play of initiative and response, adding to uncertainty, unless and until a set of stable expectations arises among the actors.

An Era of Danger

As great and regional powers test their own and one another's limits, they will do so in an environment fraught with danger. All of the issues that were present before 9/11 and the Iraq intervention are still open and there are also new ones.

The list of trouble spots and threats to global stability is familiar to political analysts and observers, but it is useful to aggregate them to get a comprehensive picture of the current world political situation in which the testing of power will occur.

At the top of the list for the two U.S. presidential candidates is the threat that an Islamic revolutionary group will get hold of a nuclear or radiological weapon and detonate it in a major urban area or at a strategic industrial site. Although there is no doubt that such an event would affect the world economy adversely and would drive vulnerable states into a garrison mentality, overstressing the danger diverts attention from other equally or more important issues. If asymmetrical nuclear war was really such an overwhelming threat, one would expect that it would have moved to the top of the agendas of all concerned powers, but that has not yet been the case. In fact, the United States is the most vulnerable to nuclear terrorism and other powers are less threatened. American preoccupation with this danger takes its focus away from other threats to its power.

Similarly, nuclear proliferation in states outside and within the globalization system is a major concern of American policymakers. As Power and Interest News Report analyst Erich Marquardt has argued, however, nuclear weapons are primarily defensive and might work to promote stability. The danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea, Iran and now Brazil is not so much that any of them would make a first strike or even attempt blackmail or provide weapons to non-state actors, but that they would alter regional balances of power and spur compensatory responses by other powers.

Indeed, the major threat in the new environment of uncertainty is the spread of militarization around the world, as great and regional powers gird themselves to advance and defend their interests. Both China and Russia are explicitly on the track to create state-of-the-art militaries. China intends to assert supremacy over the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, and Russia strives to restore its influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia and some of the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe.

Brazil would like to elbow the United States aside in South America. India is determined to keep itself free of external influence over its foreign and domestic policies, and to settle the problem of Kashmir in its favor. Like India, Iran wants to preserve its autonomy and also is trying to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea.

Insofar as there is a general disposition to militarize, decision makers will be subject to temptation to play their military cards as they jockey for power. The prospect of serious military confrontation among great and regional powers that might trigger remilitarization or intensified militarization in Europe, Japan and South Korea is at present speculative, but it is a genuine possibility in a world drifting toward multipolarity that has no international or superpower arbiter.

The probability of confrontation is raised by the possibility of disruption of energy supplies and rising prices of energy caused by increasing demand in emerging economic powers like China, India and Brazil. High energy prices could depress industrial economies, triggering intra-societal tensions and moves by regimes to channel resentments toward external opponents and to secure energy supplies for themselves. It is possible that the combination of militarization and resource competition would lead to economic nationalism and regionalism, reversing globalization and increasing the chances for military confrontation, as was the case before World War II.

The larger pattern of testing that is likely to mark the next decade will be played out in an environment in which failed states, resource wars, epidemics, Islamic revolution, irredentism, separatism and communal conflict will probably be persistent features, complicating the major sources of opposition and providing opportunities for exploitation by greater powers. Without an arbiter, any of those situations could spill over its local bounds, provoking more serious conflict. It is not clear that the world in its current stage of relative political disorganization will be able to manage the sources of instability successfully. It now seems obvious that the United States has neither the capability nor the will to police the world, and that it does not want any other center of power to do so. This leaves the configuration of world politics resembling most a classical balance of power paradigm in its phase of readjustment to a power vacuum.


The scenario of instability sketched above is only one possibility present in the current world situation, but it needs to be considered because it is based on a widespread and well grounded perception that American power has been diminished and that there is no international or single-power replacement for it. The utopian decade of the 1990s has given way to a period of uncertainty and testing with increased possibilities for miscalculation.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov