Testing the Currents of Multipolarity

The tendency toward a multipolar configuration of world politics, in which a number of regional power centers compete for hegemony over their spheres of influence within a framework of international agreements and institutions, is a long term process involving incremental gains and losses for the major players.

The transition to multipolarity -- if it prevails -- has been set off by the severe problems confronted by the United States in its occupation of Iraq and by the decline of the dollar in international currency markets. The former has revealed the limitations and vulnerabilities of U.S. military power and the latter has brought forward underlying weaknesses in the U.S. economic system that are symbolized by persistent trade and budget deficits, and are rooted in changes in the world balance of economic power.

At present, the U.S. has lost the position that it was perceived to have after the fall of the Soviet Union as the undisputed global superpower presiding over an economic order integrating a world of market democracies. Contemporary global politics are structured primarily by a struggle of regional powers to assert themselves against efforts by Washington to reclaim at least some of its dominance.

What Washington has most essentially lost is acquiescence to its leadership. Other powers no longer have any compunction about opposing U.S. policies and preferences when it is not in their own independent interests to follow them. It is a game of every power for itself, in which each regional power center cooperates with others when it shares common interests with them and opposes them when interests conflict. The result is the absence of a single paradigm of world order or even of a coherent pattern of alliances. In their place are coalitions of convenience that -- taken together -- have no consistent direction.

Currently the major presumptive power centers are China in East Asia, India in South Asia, Brazil in South America, the Franco-German combine in Europe and Russia at the center of its multiregional periphery. As an area of contention that is internally divided and subject to strong pressures from outside powers, the Near East has no single presumptive power center, although Iran is bidding for that role. There is no state in Africa that has the resources to be a hegemon, although Nigeria and the Republic of South Africa might take that position or share it in the future. The U.S. has secure dominance in its North American base, but its global reach is in question as it faces challenges and tests from ascending powers elsewhere.

Assessing the status of the struggle between Washington and the other power centers demands constant attention to incremental changes in every corner of the world since everything is in play. Sometimes a measure of the currents can be taken, especially when international gatherings spotlight ruptures and alliances. During the week of December 5, the drift toward multipolarity was confirmed at six international meetings -- with one special exception -- at which Washington's power was challenged to the detriment of its perceived interests.

E.U. Weapons Sales to China

The most significant geostrategic issue that came up for deliberation in the week of December 5 was whether the European Union would end its arms embargo on China. The E.U.-China summit at The Hague, Netherlands illustrates the tendency of regional power centers to deal directly with one another, apart from international organizations and from Washington.

At present, China is under arms embargoes imposed by the E.U. and the U.S., dating from the suppression of the Chinese pro-democracy movement in 1989. Beijing does not expect Washington to lift its embargo, but it wants to resume military trade with Europe. Beijing's request is supported by Paris and Berlin, and opposed by the states that rely on Washington to balance the power of the Franco-German combine.

The purpose of the summit was to spotlight, consolidate and advance the growing economic and political links between China and the E.U. The E.U. has become, since its enlargement, China's biggest trading partner, and China has become the E.U.'s second-largest trading partner -- total trade between them is now $200 billion per year. Beijing and its European supporters believe that the Sino-European relationship has reached a level at which China should become a full partner with no restrictions. The opponents of lifting the embargo cite Beijing's continued human rights violations, but they are also motivated by pressure from Washington, whose interests are primarily geostrategic.

For Washington, E.U. cancellation of its embargo would be "unacceptable." Washington does not want China to have advanced weapons technology that it could employ against the U.S. in any future Sino-American military confrontation, particularly over Taiwan. It also fears that Beijing will be able to sell the technology to Washington's adversaries and that American technology will find its way into Chinese hands through U.S.-European weapons sharing. Washington has threatened to curtail military cooperation with Europe if the embargo is lifted.

Despite Washington's opposition, the summit reached a result favorable to Beijing. E.U. President Jan Peter Balkenende announced: "Within the E.U. there is a willingness to lift the arms embargo. We have given a positive signal." The final decision awaits the completion of an E.U. "code of conduct" on arms sales that is expected in early 2005, when the embargo would end.

If Washington cannot find a way to stop the embargo's cancellation, its diminished influence in Europe will be confirmed, as will the independence of the E.U. as a regional power bloc with global reach acting in its separate interests.

South American Community of Nations

Another instance in which a regional power center acted independently and against Washington was the creation -- led by Brasilia -- of a South American Community of Nations at a meeting in Cuzco, Peru. The Community unites the Andean Community of Nations (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela), Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), and Chile, Guyana and Surinam. The ultimate aim of the initiative is a transnational entity with a single currency and a parliament modeled on the E.U., although that result is probably decades away, if it is ever realized. At present, the Community does not even have a separate institutional structure. Its geostrategic importance is as an alternative to Washington's design of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (F.T.A.A.) that it would dominate.

The formation of the Community is a political victory for Brasilia, which has a geostrategy hinged on South American integration that would permit it to lead a regional power bloc within international organizations. Such a bloc would be adverse to Washington's interests. Finding the path to the F.T.A.A. blocked by Brasilia and the left-of-center administrations in other South American capitals, Washington has concentrated with mixed success on forging bilateral trade agreements in the region, hoping eventually to coordinate them into a comprehensive free trade area.

The South American Community is currently a weak fledgling. Brasilia continues to negotiate deals with the E.U. and N.A.F.T.A. independently of Mercosur, Buenos Aires resists Brasilia's dominance, trade among the two uniting blocs is small, and Washington's strategy has not been convincingly thwarted. Nonetheless, the twelve states within the Community see it in their interests to make the initial move toward integration, which indicates that they want at least a counterweight against Washington's influence. Although the prospects of the Community to achieve its maximum aims are problematic, it will probably block the full realization of U.S. dominance over the Western hemisphere, increasing the possibility that Brazil will emerge as a full-fledged regional power center, effectively pursuing interests independent of Washington's.

U.S.-India Military Cooperation

Washington also encountered resistance to its geostrategic interests in South Asia at a meeting in New Delhi of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with his Indian counterpart Shri Pranab Mukherjee. Washington's South Asian policy is to cultivate strong military ties with both India and Pakistan. That policy is compromised by the persistence of conflict between the two states over the disputed region of Kashmir. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad wants to see the balance of military power shift in favor of its adversary. Washington tries to walk a fine line between keeping Islamabad as a collaborator in the struggle against Islamic revolution and gaining influence over the geostrategic direction that New Delhi's rising economic and military power will take.

Were it not for the "war on terrorism," Washington would favor India over Pakistan. As it stands, Washington is committed to selling $1.2 billion worth of military equipment to Pakistan, including surveillance planes, anti-tank missiles and anti-missile gun systems. In addition, Islamabad is asking for F-16 aircraft. New Delhi strongly opposes the sales, warning that they could damage the peace negotiations between India and Pakistan that are in the early stages of detente.

Rumsfeld was met with calls by Indian officials to cancel U.S. arms sales to Pakistan. External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh asserted that New Delhi would "ensure that our defense preparedness is not compromised in any way." It is not clear how much the growing security ties between Washington and New Delhi would be compromised if the sales to Pakistan go through, but the incident indicates the difficult choices among conflicting interests that Washington faces in South Asia. India's overriding geostrategic interest is to be the regional power center of the subcontinent and it will cooperate with Washington only so far as it perceives that cooperation serves that interest.

N.A.T.O. Training Mission in Iraq

Further opposition to Washington's desires surfaced at the meeting of N.A.T.O. foreign ministers in Brussels, where U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell encountered the refusal of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Greece to participate in a mission to train Iraqi security forces. As in the case of potential E.U. arms sales to China, Washington was backed by N.A.T.O. members that rely on it to balance the power of the Franco-German combine: Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands promised increased contributions to the mission.

Powell responded to the six non-cooperating states by accusing them of "hurting the credibility and cohesion" of N.A.T.O., yet their rejection was a foregone conclusion, even though the mission is a N.A.T.O. policy. This latest demonstration of the rift between the Franco-German combine and the U.S. points to the continuing failure of Washington to restore its leadership of the North Atlantic alliance structure. N.A.T.O. is now a disputed entity and no longer a secure beachhead of U.S. strategic dominance in Europe. The refusal of the six non-cooperating states marks the first time in N.A.T.O.'s history that members will not participate in an authorized mission.

Powell had come to Europe to mend fences and smooth the way for President George W. Bush's planned visit there in February 2005. He left seeing the divisions widened.

Middle East Reform versus Palestinian Peace

From Brussels, Powell proceeded to Rabat, Morocco for a meeting with leaders from the Middle East and Europe. Originally inspired by Washington to showcase and push its "Greater Middle East Initiative," which was a move to commit Arab states to a program of democratization and market reform in exchange for economic aid, the conference was dominated by calls from the Arabs and Europeans for Washington to abandon its unwavering support for Israel and to act as an honest broker in that country's conflict with the Palestinians.

The Rabat meeting underscored the failure of Washington's strategy of spreading democracy in the Middle East through a successful demonstration project in Iraq. At present, democratization is in severe question in Iraq, given the Sunni Arab insurgency and the growing rivalries between the Shi'a Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities and their political representatives.

Long before Powell arrived in Rabat, the original aims of the meeting had been pared down to making progress on economic and social development without reciprocal political reform. Washington had hoped at least to avoid focus on the Palestine issue, but the other participants were emboldened by Washington's failure in Iraq to make a public show of their opposition to the Bush administration's pro-Israel stance.

It is not even clear that Washington desires the democratization of Arab states anymore. For the neo-conservative perspective that informs the Greater Middle East Initiative, democratization would reduce the alienation of segments of Arab societies that support Islamic revolution. Yet were those sectors to gain a legitimate political voice, they might install Islamist regimes. As it stands, Washington has fallen back to effective support of the Arab crony regimes and has lost any leverage to open up reform. Without support from the Europeans, Powell was reduced to saying that getting the participants in the conference to meet at all was a "victory."

The official statement issued at the end of the conference registered the defeat of Washington's explicit aims. The participants "reaffirmed that their support for reform in the region will go hand in hand with their support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict." The clear signal is that there will be no reform without movement to satisfy Palestinian aims. Rather than realizing Washington's hopes, the Rabat meeting affirmed the very linkage that Washington wanted to avoid. Washington does not have as yet any strategy to replace the Greater Middle East Initiative.

Confrontation with Russia at the O.S.C.E.

Washington's most direct geostrategic confrontation came early in the week of December 5 at the meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) in Sofia, Bulgaria. The issue there was Moscow's behavior following the disputed presidential election in Ukraine, which had led to a political crisis marked by mass demonstrations and blockades of state institutions in Kiev aimed at forcing a second run-off between opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko and Moscow-backed putative winner of the first round Viktor Yanukovych following documented reports of widespread electoral fraud and intimidation.

In the Ukrainian election, Moscow had followed its neo-imperialist strategy of having President Vladimir Putin endorse a favored candidate and supplying campaign support to the favorite. When that strategy failed, Putin responded by affirming Yanukovych's victory and supporting efforts to block the second run-off. By the time the O.S.C.E. meeting had convened, Ukraine's Supreme Court had voided the first run-off and Moscow had fallen back to accepting the result.

Viewing Ukraine as essential to maintaining and consolidating a sphere of influence on Russia's periphery, Moscow attempted to dig in its heels at the O.S.C.E. The day before the meetings, Putin warned the Euro-American alliance not to interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs through its attempts to broker a new election. The E.U. and U.S., which share a common interest in extracting Ukraine from Russia's sphere, met Moscow head on, insisting that their efforts were legitimate.

At the meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Western alliance of "political manipulation." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell responded that O.S.C.E. election monitoring and mediation activities in Ukraine were not interference, but "the international community coming together to support democracy." Powell also took the offensive by calling for Moscow to withdraw its troops from the breakaway mini-states of Trans-Dniester in Moldova and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. The meetings ended without a unified policy on Ukraine, due to Russian opposition to the Euro-American position.

Following the O.S.C.E. meetings, a compromise was reached in Kiev opening the way for a second run-off and a reconstituted electoral commission, but conceding to the pro-Moscow camp a new constitutional arrangement in which parliament would gain powers at the expense of the president, putting a possible brake on the pro-Western Yuschenko should he win the run-off. When the N.A.T.O. meeting convened later in the week, Lavrov signed on to a unified statement calling on all parties to refrain from intimidating voters in the second run-off and "to work to ensure a free, fair electoral process."

The provisional resolution of the Ukraine issue was a victory for Washington, but one that it did not win through its own efforts. If Ukraine is partially pried away from Moscow's influence, it will be because of a popular movement within that country and the diplomatic pressure afforded by a coincidence of interests between the U.S. and E.U. The latter has the most to gain from a Western-oriented Ukraine, which could become a key element in a possible future expansion of the bloc.

Moscow misjudged and mishandled its role in Ukraine, bringing the erosion of its influence on itself. It has perhaps learned its lesson: in a similar post-election crisis in Abkhazia, Moscow has retreated from its hard line support of its favorite presidential candidate and has brokered a deal between him and his opponent.

How serious a loss Moscow has taken will depend on the results of the run-off and the balance of forces in Ukraine's parliament. The Ukraine affair shows that when it works with another power center, Washington can gain an advantage. The five preceding cases show that Washington is vulnerable to the diminution of its influence when it must act alone.


Except where Washington had the support of Europe, which stood to gain most from successfully confronting Moscow over Ukraine, its geostrategic aims suffered setbacks at the six international meetings that were held during the week of December 5.

The drift toward multipolarity has been confirmed by the E.U.'s move to lift its arms embargo on China, Brazil's success in starting a South American Community as an alternative to the F.T.A.A., India's opposition to U.S. arms sales to Pakistan, the Franco-German combine's refusal to support the training mission in Iraq, and Euro-Arab insistence on coupling the Palestine issue to democratic reforms.

In most international meetings, a consensus is reached in advance so that conflicts will not be highlighted under the glare of publicity. Washington's loss of leadership is indicated by the fact that the meetings in which it participated during the week of December 5 were marked by clear public opposition to its policies.

In the wake of the Iraq intervention, Washington continues to retreat and retrench. How far that process will go depends more on how the regional power centers contesting Washington take advantage of their opportunities instead of on anything that Washington can do.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov