What Does It Mean to Live in a Multipolar World? We May Be About to Find Out

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Yves here. A teeny quibble re Marshall’s fine piece on our multipolar future. It’s hard to square calling Russia’s’ integration of Crimea an “annexation” when Russia relied on the same process that we used with Kosovo.

By Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The breakdown in the Sino-U.S. trade talks has led a number of commentatorsto suggest that America’s “unipolar moment” of post-Cold War preeminence is over, as Washington lashes out against a rising China, whose economic rise threatens America’s historic dominance. Direct military violence is highly unlikely, given the inherent fragility of high-tech civilization. We therefore may see Cold War–style conflict between the two superpowers, as relations in trade or national security matters become increasingly poisoned.

So what happens to the rest of us? Will a hitherto globalized world increasingly retreat into bifurcated competing blocs, much as occurred under the original Cold War? Or can the rest of the world develop a more muted and stable form of multilateralism?

After all, we are well past the point where parts of the globe are increasingly carved up via competing ideologies (e.g., capitalism vs. communism), given today’s broad embrace of various permutations of capitalism, or divided via proxy wars, or the “great game” of colonial expansion. Today, most nations focus on maximizing the relative productivity of their own respective economies, as opposed to establishing their ideological bona fides as quasi-colonial client states for either the United States or the former Soviet Union. Another important dimension to recognize is that what we understand to be global or international is, for the most part, owned and controlled by industrialized countries: 93 percent of foreign-owned production is controlled by Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) economies. Even the historic tendency to focus on state power should be questioned in this moment. In 2016, 69 of the world’s largest 100 economies were corporations, with their own range of interests and methods of functioning.

One of the (self-serving) fears governing the end of American hegemony is that in its absence, the world will inevitably revert to some sort of brutal Hobbesian “state of nature” characterized by a balance of power clashes, in which the strong dictate to the weak.

Is that a reasonable assumption? The reality of the 21st-century world is that neither the United States nor China can readily force third-party countries to join their respective competing blocs as the United States and Soviet Union were once able to do. Of course, they both have leverage, but these are often overstated. China can periodically raise the specter of a rare earths cutoff (used in everything from lithium batteries, cell phones, wind turbines, or electric cars), or threaten to liquidate its stockpile of U.S. Treasuries to cause a collapse in the dollar and bond market in order to flex its muscles. But rare earth production can ultimately be established elsewhere, and the “nuclear option” of selling U.S. bonds is a fantasy (see herefor the reasons). Likewise, the United States can deploy trade sanctions, or military muscle. But this kind of aggressive unilateralism is ultimately self-defeating, as it drives away potential allies in the process.

Indeed, the so-called era of “Pax Americana”—an alleged state of relative international peace overseen by the United States—has not been all that it has been cracked up to be. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Pax Americana” itself has been characterized by a surprisingly large number of unilateral wars of choice from “Americana,” and comparatively little “Pax.” There’s no reason to expect that to change under a bullying U.S. president, dominated by hawkish champions of perpetual warfare such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. This is particularly the case, given that the virulent nationalism embodied in Trump’s “America First” vision is largely unilateral in scope and therefore inimical to alliance-building. Rather than seeking a voluntary coalition of the willing, the Trump administration tends to rely more on a coalition of the coerced.

Developing economies could offer themselves up as viable supply chain manufacturing alternatives in the growing Sino-U.S. trade dispute, without actually being forced to take sides, whether they be an emerging Asian economy like Vietnam, a growing South Asia power such as India, or a Eurasian regional player such as Turkey or Iran. They can do so safe in the knowledge that there is a multiplicity of developmental modes to national prosperity (as opposed to an economic bible directed on high from Washington-dominated institutions such as the International Monetary Fund). To take a very basic example, blueprints for factory construction are downloadable from the internet.

As for Europe, it may share some of America’s ambivalence toward Beijing, but it remains highly resistant to the confrontational (and increasingly militarized) posture toward China that Washington urges upon them (especially as such confrontation appears to be coming at the EU’s own economic expense). Europe is increasingly moving to extricate itself from the U.S. security umbrella, whether via proposals to create a new European security policy to boost defense cooperation, or developing an alternative payment systemto modify U.S. dollar dominance in the current Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) payments system (particularly given the recent American proclivity to weaponize SWIFTas a means of punishing what the United States sees as “rogue regimes,” such as Iran). Therefore, in the words of Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau:

The most creative thing the EU can do in the current circumstances is to leverage the instruments it already has, and turn them into geopolitical tools. Among such instruments, none is more potent than the euro, especially if combined with a deep capital markets union and a pan-eurozone treasury bond and treasury bills. If there is one reason to keep the euro, this is it.

There are also increasing signs of a growing rapprochement between the EU and Russia, in spite of the latter’s annexation of Crimea. Certainly, as global polarization increases, the EU is less likely to reflexively submit to the current U.S. dollar-centric monetary system, given mounting geopolitical divergences and increasing trade tension. Even the national populist governments in Europe that are ostensibly more aligned with Trump ideologically (e.g., Hungary, Italy)are more obsessed with Islamophobic policies than in containing China, which shares their anti-Muslim views. From Europe, accordingly, we should expect to see this policy divergence reflected in efforts to expand the influence of the euro (which was originally designed in part to mitigate the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege”), as well as accelerating energy ties to Russia via Nord Stream 2.

Accepting multipolarity does not simply mean assuming a reversion to an Adam Smith-style “Wealth of Nations” world whereby individual nation-states trade with each other on the basis of some outdated 19th-century concept of “comparative advantage.” The recently announced Fiat Chrysler–Renault mergerdemonstrates that many industries will continue to transcend national borders. Disrupting supply chains is easier said than done. But as this particular merger demonstrates, such tie-ups are likely to become more regionalized, less geographically diverse (especially as this particular one could well be accompaniedby some diminution of the ties between Renault and Nissan).

The European Union and Asia stand out as two obvious blocs (although in the case of the latter, Japan’s military ties with the United States and its problematic history with China complicate the geographic logic). In this regard, the European Union is probably evolving, albeit in fits and starts, toward the optimal future template (especially if and when it drops its prevailing austerity bias). Ironically, Trump himself might have catalyzed this evolution in a way that no other factor could do.

As far as the United States itself goes, given the increasingly tenuous ties with the EU, plan B is likely a smaller U.S. bloc consisting of NAFTA (the newly reconfigured USMCA Treaty providing a template), and possibly the Anglosphere (given the linguistic and cultural ties). On paper, the GDP would be less than in an ideal U.S.-EU bloc, but it would be an actual coherent American-led bloc. By some projections, Mexico will be the seventh-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) by 2050.

Geopolitically, the task that falls to most nations is to grasp that this is not an “either/or” existential choice like the old Cold War. More likely, it will be a “back to the future” embrace of the old Palmerstonian ideathat there are no eternal friends or allies, only eternal interests, which can change from time to time. It does not follow that the resultant global Balkanization will inevitably lead to Balkan-style conflicts. Nor is there any ironclad law mandating that multipolarity is inextricably tied to a Hobbesian world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” If nothing else, the experience of a once war-torn Europe dominated by centuries of destructive conflict evolving into a far more stable European Union should give rise to some comfort that an alternative paradigm is possible if the countries concerned simply seize the opportunity. Nation-states are not going to disappear, but the narrowly destructive forces unleashed by Trump and his populist counterparts in the rest of the world do not represent a viable alternative.

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  1. Thuto

    Trump’s White House, the place where globalization went to die circa 2020. Gazing long into the future, the death of globalization may not necessarily be something to lament (“regionalizing” trade will be easier on the environment for one) and once the inevitable, reflexive belligerence of a US keenly aware of its declining influence fractures the globe into even more regional blocs (in a misguided attempt to enforce allegiance to an anachronistic monster called the “established international order” aka the international community), the world will be better for it.

    It’ll be a bumpy ride with lots of turbulence before we get there so better strap yourselves in. Persistent attempts to throw sand into the gears will inevitably follow as vested interests seek to maintain control over a world trying to extricate itself from the clutches of hegemony. And maybe, just maybe, after the dust settles over a long period of time, the MIC will become the PIC (Peace Industrial Complex).

  2. Jesper

    The trend I see is the rise of the multi-national corporations at the expense of the nation-states. Already now we can see how (among others) the US government is doing the bidding of multi-national corporations – IP being one thing, another is helping out with taxes/subsidies, yet another is opposing regulation as being obstacles to trade.
    & something that might open up a can of worms…. I do agree that countries are trying to increase their GDP and they do pay some lip-service to increased productivity but the actual thing done is trying to increase populations in the rational expectation that the increased population will then increase GDP. Migration on the behalf on the most important of all – the corporations and the upper middle class professionals.
    My personal fear is not other countries, my personal fear is that the country that I am living in becomes more like what economists claim to be a better country…. Better for who and how it will be better is somehow to be defined by economists putting prices/values of clean air, free time etc. Economists are aware that whoever dictates the terms also dictates the outcome, they are also aware that their income depends on whose interests they propagate.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      lots of corps have been supranational for a long while…de facto, if not de jure.
      some of the weirder “alt right” people even celebrate this…envisioning a post-geographical neofeudalism where one is a “citizen” of Exxon, or Oracle…with CEO’s as lords of the manor.
      contracts instead of constitutions.
      sounds terrible, to me…the worst cyberpunk dystopia, a polluted hellscape of bladerunner or judge dredd.

      as a counter, perhaps, i expect a sort of neo-city state-ism arising…even in Texas the sprouts are evident: the “Texas Triangle”(bounded by DFW, San Antonio and Houston) is where everybody lives, and everything happens, economically….and places like Houston do trade deals independently already, as well as big attempts at regulation and other policy that the state and federals have left laying around, ignored and forgotten. i also expect pushback, like we saw in Texas, the Texas Lege banning or rolling back ordinances that run counter to the One True Faith(minwage, antifracking).
      the long Righty agitation for “states rights” could go further than they might have hoped…a regional level federalism, perhaps?….as the Centralisation continues to degrade.

    2. juliania

      Your post, Jesper, dovetails a bit with my own thought answering the article’s headline question of “what does it mean…?” The fear is indeed what will happen in the US, since our ptb have seemed so reluctant to ‘become part of the program.’ One errant thought that came to me was we might find ourselves against all such effort obliged to turn ‘economist’ into ‘ecolomist’ sooner rather than later. The winds of change seem to be upon us. . . whether we like it or not.

  3. Ignacio

    Very interesting article. Yesterday I attended a meeting in Madrid with Jeffrey Sachs and he was saying that Europe should enhance ties with China and the silk road initiative. His vision is that the US has a deeply corrupt democracy in which oil interests (including Wall Street deeply involved in oil investments) have taken control (decades ago) of the institutions and have taken a confrontational approach against China which is identified as the biggest menace to their interests. He looked fearful of this new cold war attitude. Although there is some hope in the fact that a few democrat candidates have a GND agenda, and accordingly, a different vision of world geopolitics, he appeared to have little hope that any of these migth succeed.

  4. Peter

    It’s hard to square calling Russia’s’ integration of Crimea an “annexation” when Russia relied on the same process that we used with Kosovo.

    Both situations are not really comparable. Kosovo decided without a referendum to seperate, Kosovo had been part of Serbia since the 1300’s, while Crimea was never part of Ukraine before 1954 but was ceded to be administered in the 1950’s due to a transfer by Chrustchev and Ukraine being part of the USSR.
    The Ukranians had actually no right to Crimea after the dissolution of the USSR as the conditions under which the transfer happened no longer applied.

    The situation is quite similar to the one in Canada, where Quebec was given administrative power of parts of other provinces, with the clear understanding at the latest referendum that after secession those parts were to return to those provinces or to the crown.

    The problem was that the drunkard Yeltsin upon the dissolution of the Warsaw pact and the USSR should have demanded the return of Crimea – which he simply forgot to do.

    Ever since Ukraine becoming independent, Crimea in several othere referenda always voted for an autonomous status, which having achieved in some way was threatend by the coup against Yanukovich wwhen Ukraine was threatening to revert this status by sending troops into Crimea.

    After that it obviously was imperative for the Russian majority in crimea to return to Russia as an indepent status would be challenged militarily by Ukraine and therefore was not an option.

    This is quite different from the Donbass situation where the RF denied the validity of a referendum after militias organized one becasue it was held under chaotic circumstances with slightly more than 50% approval. It was also Ukraine who send tanks into Donbass starting the shooting war ignoring advice by the RF to come to negotiated terms wth the militias.

    1. Jeff

      To be complete, Kosovo decided indeed to separate, but at the UN, there was subsequently a discussion, a vote and an agreement that basically it is the people that decides where they want to go. So, UN decided, if Kosovars wanted their independence, it is not the ‘old’ country to decide whether that is acceptable.
      Putin has referenced exactly that same statute after Crimea held a referendum and wanted to integrate Russia, hence the statement that ‘Crimea is like Kosovo’.
      I think it was Russia that warned at the time that such a decision from the UN was setting a dangerous precedent. Crimea is but one example, but looking at eg Catalonia, or the Spanish Sahara or numerous other situations, that decision is indeed going to be a source of conflicts for ages.

      1. Software Entrepreneur

        Kosovo did indeed have a referendum on independence. They did so in 1991and they overwhelmingly decided to create their own independent state. They also declared in parliament in 2008 their own independence. Kosovo struggle to separate from Serbia specifically, even within the confines of the Yugoslavia, are well documented.

        1. Peter

          You are right, I missed that the referendum was held AFTER the Kosovo parliament declared Kosovo an independent state and dissolved itself after this declaration.

      2. Marshall Auerback

        Comparing Kosovo and Crimea opens up a new can of worms and I didn’t really want to get into that in this piece. FWIW, I think Russia’s incorporation of Crimea was largely a product of the mischief-making created by the west in the Maidan coup. Professor Stephen Cohen has an excellent account of this. But that’s really the subject for a totally different piece and would simply distract from the main points I was trying to make here.

    2. voislav

      As a Serbian, I have to make some corrections. Kosovo was a part of Serbia since 1912, Serbia itself only regained it’s independence from Turkey in 1868 (autonomy in 1815). Kosovo was indeed a part of Serbian medieval kingdom in 12-14th century, but was overrun by Turks and lost its independence in mid-15th century. Warfare in 17th and 18th century greatly reduced the number of Serbs in Kosovo, as they tended to support invading Austro-Hungarian armies, so they moved north in several waves and were resettled north of Danube (present day Vojvodina) and in what became Austro-Hungarian Military Border (Vojna Krajina) in present day Croatia.

      Kosovo independence in 2008 was declared without a referendum, which would have been undoubtedly successful. It was a simple act of parliament, so there are issues regarding the legality of the said act as it contravened the constitution of then UN-administered territory. This was one of the issues debated by the UN court, which decided that the independence declaration was not unconstitutional as it was done not by parliament as an official body but a group of parliamentary representatives (Kosovo Serb deputies were not present) in their unofficial capacity acting as a group of citizens.

      Kosovo, Crimea and Donbas are all quite different situations. In Kosovo, independence was declared very haphazardly, with no referendum and legal process, and only enforced through support of US. Crimea followed some sort of a legal procedure as an autonomous territory and held a referendum. Crimean case is also helped by the fact that the Maidan government overthrow was de jure illegal and can be considered a coup. Donbas case is in between, where the insurrection itself is clearly illegal, but so is the Ukrainian government trying to fight it.

      1. The Rev Kev

        So the Crimean case was like the case of Texas which first became an independent Republic and was then annexed by the expansionist James K. Polk after he won the election of 1844. Thing is, Crimea was a part of Russia since before the U.S. was a country and voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Russia when they finally had a chance.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Before 1783, it was known as the Crimean Khanate. Then, the Russian empire and the Ottoman empire fought a war.

          And in 1944, the Crimean Tartars were deported to Central Asia. Today, many live in Turkey.

          Do they have a say in this?

          1. The Rev Kev

            They already did. During the referendum for deciding to join with Russia or not, most of the Tartars voted yes. The result may have been due to the neglect of the Ukrainians over the previous two decades. It may have been the promise of military attack by right-wing thugs – which was confirmed by brutal attacks on Crimeans on a returning bus group or a train of thugs that tried to enter Crimea but which was stopped. Or it may be the realization that they were being used by other parties to be the assault troops against their fellow Crimeans to seize power. In any case, they have done far better for themselves going with Russia than if they had remained with the Ukrainians.

    3. JEHR

      Peter, Re: “The situation is quite similar to the one in Canada, where Quebec was given administrative power of parts of other provinces, with the clear understanding at the latest referendum that after secession those parts were to return to those provinces or to the crown.”

      I wonder if you would explain what this means. What parts of other provinces did Quebec have administration over? As far as I know, the referendum applied only to Quebec because it is a “sovereign” province and there were no other parts of provinces that it could claim (unless you are talking about the beginnings of Canada before it was a country). French citizens live in other provinces but I don’t think they claim parts of other provinces as belonging to Quebec. Two islands in the St. Lawrence are French but that doesn’t apply. Do you have references for your statement?

      The province of NB is the only province that claims to be bilingual but that doesn’t have any bearing on what you have stated.

  5. timotheus

    “It’s hard to square calling Russia’s’ integration of Crimea an “annexation” when Russia relied on the same process that we used with Kosovo.”

    Or, needless to say, the way Israel declared itself sovereign over Jerusalem and the Golan. With more to come, all accompanied by cheers from Washington.

  6. Eclair

    What I love about NC: posts that hold little nuggets of paradigm-shattering information such as this:
    … what we understand to be global or international is, for the most part, owned and controlled by industrialized countries: 93 percent of foreign-owned production is controlled by Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) economies. Even the historic tendency to focus on state power should be questioned in this moment. In 2016, 69 of the world’s largest 100 economies were corporations, with their own range of interests and methods of functioning.”

    With a link to an OECD publication’s article: Multinational Enterprises in the Global Economy. Loaded with data. Which I admit I have not read, due to the turgid prose which seems to be deliberately off-putting to ordinary readers wandering in for a peek. But, thank to Auerbach for wading right in and giving us the gist.

    1. Joe Well

      To be fair, OECD isn’t just the most highly developed economies since it includes Mexico and Brazil, which have just “high” Human Development Index rather than the very highest level.

      But still, that is absolutely a good point, the world is dominated by the top 25% most developed countries and calling that “globalization” is just window-dressing.

      1. Eclair

        I can’t find Brazil on the list of OECD countries. Aren’t they part of BRIC?

        And, somewhere today, did I not read that Mexico will soon be the world’s 9th largest economy?

        What surprised me was the realization that 69 of the world’s largest 100 economies were corporations.

        1. Joe Well

          Ack, you’re right. Sorry about that.

          Chile, not Brazil. And Turkey, which is at a roughly similar level of development.

          If Mexico becomes the world’s 9th largest economy, it will certainly not be on a per capita basis even if yo exclude tiny countries like Brunei or Denmark, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches the world’s 9th highest GDP.

          I am curious how they compute comparable figures for corporations and for countries.

  7. southern appalachian

    Well, not going to write too long of a reply, just mention that this is an interesting article and I wish they had incorporated increasing climate disruption into the analysis. Could be treated as an accelerant for some trends, disrupter of others. Floods, rising sea levels, droughts, and tornadoes at some point no longer externalities, but drivers. Harder to project power if Norfolk Va US is underwater, as an example. Resilient infrastructure would be a thing, I imagine.

    Leads me to believe we will be unprepared.

    1. Ignacio

      This is a good point and I would add that policies addressing climate change will have also a profound impact on geopolitics. India for instance faces a survival threat that IMO is much more important than the muslim-hindu antagonism that Modi fed. India is a very hot country where temperatures near human resistance limits are frequently reached. The same applies to Pakistan.

      Heat havoc scalds city, IMD forecasts 44° today

  8. K Lee

    The most important change in global economic policy is to restore the fiscal power of the nation-state to invest in public purpose.

    The Legacy of Friedrich Von Hayek: Fascism Didn’t Die With Hitler

    “Remove sovereign nation-states from a role in economic development and all you have is the oligarchy’s cartels. The so-called Gingrich Revolution is just the latest effort by the House of Windsor’s agents and useful fools to repackage the same Conservative Revolution that has brought death and destruction to civilization throughout much of the past century.”

    The second most important change is to end the “stubborn detachment” of myopic endless economic growth.

    “These are very respected, not hyper-partisan economists, yet their complete failure to engage with the scientific consensus makes their work an utter fraud and a pitiful waste. Their success shows economics’ stubborn detachment from the real-world context around us. Here on planet Earth, both future generations and the current desperate global poor are better served by environmental policy that creates jobs cleaning up our mess, along with a desperate crash course to restore the declining ecosystems all around us.”

    1. Summer

      RE: Legacy of Hayek

      Reading articles like that one sees clearly the total lack of will or imagination to envision any non-authoritarian system. It’s hundreds, thousands of years of “innovating” or “rebranding” various forms of authoritarianism, constant tweaks to give the illusion of throwing of the same chains from lines of the same families.

  9. ObjectiveFunction

    The Schiller essayist has a point. Barring nuclear war or ecological catastrophe that unhinges global trade and makes autarky relatively efficient, nation states have never held *less* power to appropriate surplus value from world trade, save perhaps for a few scarce metals.

    This paragraph is key:

    Developing economies could offer themselves up as viable supply chain manufacturing alternatives in the growing Sino-U.S. trade dispute, without actually being forced to take sides, whether they be an emerging Asian economy like Vietnam, a growing South Asia power such as India, or a Eurasian regional player such as Turkey or Iran. They can do so safe in the knowledge that there is a multiplicity of developmental modes to national prosperity…. To take a very basic example, blueprints for factory construction are downloadable from the internet.

    That last bit is important, and it doesn’t stop at blueprints! However, cloning a factory doesn’t automatically plug you into the global supply chain (see below).

    1. The epic capital tidal wave of 1998-2018 that washed the world’s manufacturing base into a single destination – China! is already washing out again, at a speed that will astound everybody, not least Beijing. The CPC will find themselves like King Canute, powerless to contain the waters. China Inc. will also be less free to toss around money to sustain the appearance of multipolar superpowerdom.

    2. In the upcoming phase of globalisation, emerging markets will find themselves bidding against each other to offer:
    (a) skilled and hard working but low-priced, pliant labor;
    (b) reliable infrastructure and logistics;
    (c ) reasonably stable rule of law (for them anyway);
    (d) tax breaks and other special rights.

    …. to highly nimble and truly global multinational locators (many of these will be Chinese, btw, happy to get out from under Beijing).

    3. Refusal or inability to offer up (a)-(d), or excessive red tape and corruption, will lead to being marginalized, failure to climb the national “tech tree”, and huge disaffection among the aspiring classes who want the good life they can now all see on their screens. These folks will seek regime change to whichever strongman can deliver (a)-(d) and the desired jobs and development.

    These dynamics and the global funding mechanisms that underpin and enforce them are amply (though disapprovingly) described in the essays by JK Sundaram, published lately in NC.

    4. The other key change in the next phase will be that EM oligarchs lose their leverage. In the dependensia past, when multinats were largely extracting and shipping away resources, it was easy for local rulers to take a big piece, with the threat of adverse legal action or expropriation lying behind (unless the Marines or Etranger were available to enforce the foreigners’ franchise).

    But the first 2 decades of the Pacific century has demonstrated that fixed capital plant, and even the knowhow to build and operate same, is cheaper and more fungible than ever. Even sophisticated chip fabs may be abandoned and rebuilt if conditions require it. In the global game, it’s the throughput that makes money, not the plant; the spice must flow.

    Many thanks to Marshall for the thought provoking essays.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      “… it’s the throughput that makes money…”

      Thank you for that hard-to-overstate point. Ever-increasing throughput has indeed been the Holy Grail for quite a while, though little understood.

      It’s also an unacknowledged reason why shifting away from our ecocidal/suicidal economic model is such an intractable problem.

    2. Summer

      Nowhere in there do people just get sick of the same crap after 500 years?

      You do see how that’s just lipstick on the same pig?

  10. The Rev Kev

    America’s dominance of world affairs was the result of a confluence of factors that came together but which are now dissipating. The world is adapting to the new arrangement of nations as some countries rise and others fall. The same thing happened after WW1 and WW2 as well as after the dissolution of the old Soviet empire. The trouble is that a whole generation of people have come to mature age living in a per-eminent America but will have to adapt to the fact that it is now only one of several powerful countries. Trying to maintain this superiority is a fool’s errand and all that is happening as a result is that America is buying the bitter enmity of countries like Russia and China.
    Other people have pointed out America cannot do stuff that it once could like build massive infrastructure projects, win clean wars, topple any country with ease, form coalitions, provide its people with decent jobs and health care and so forth. People think of America as a young country bit in truth it is about a quarter of a thousand years old. It is in desperate need of reform but the present elite will not allow any change to the status quo. In fact, the elite are trying to cement their hold even more. And that is how a Donald Trump came to be seen as a reasonable alternate choice in the last election when he is supremely unfit for office. But there it is.
    Auerback was correct to point out the saying that counties do not have friends but only interests. Looking at the present situation, the only countries that Washington is willing to align itself with are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which are in the middle east and are on the other side of the planet. The fact that both these countries are reviled for their behavior and actively work against America’s interest seems to be beside the point. America might do better choosing who their real friends are but at the moment they are not doing this. If anything, they are treating their allies as vassals to be leant on for more money for American industries. This is already achieving blowback as Washington is having great difficulty putting together an sort of coalition against countries like Iran which are not weak and can fight back.
    Trump in his Presidency has merely accelerated the changes in international relationships as countries re-assess their own place in the world and a ‘you are with us or against us’ moment will no longer fly. America will still be a powerful country but it will not be the biggest kid on the block anymore and will eventually have to go back to learning the lost arts of diplomacy and negotiations which have fallen into abeyance at the moment. America remains a great country but it is just that the center of gravity is moving east now as another country has their moment in the sun.

    1. Summer

      It’s often said, but it is all still the mess left over from WWI. This is all still that war.
      But that narrative belies narratives of progress or war solving anything. Thus they give all the conflicts names as if they are separate wars.
      The USA taken the lead role of containing WWI since 1919, with some backlash up to the 1940s.

      It’s hard to say the world has made it out of the shadow of the 19th Century when people are still around doing the bidding of the House of Windsor and the like.

      1. Eclair

        “This is all still that war.” Good point, Summer.

        From the vantage point of another planet’s beings, looking down at the turmoil of the early 20th century workers’ unrest and attraction to Socialism, the so-called WWI, the Russian Revolution, the ferocity of Japan’s push for empire into China, the European settler colonialism and extractive exploitation of the African and Asian continents, followed by their bloody uprisings and fights for freedom, and then into WWII, with the battles for control of the oil rich countries in the Middle East, followed by the Chinese Revolution with its accompanying struggle to throw off the shackles of French colonial domination in Viet Nam and surrounding countries …. well, its just an unbroken stretch of misery.

        The fact that we in the US have been spared most of the fallout from those unceasing wars gives us a skewed vantage point. PAX America, may sainted grandma!

  11. PlutoniumKun

    Much as I welcome the end of the ill-named Pax Americana, one of the unfortunate consequences we are seeing is a surge in independent military spending. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others in Asia are very obviously looking to their own defence needs, and its pretty clear that some high level decisions have been taken in Europe that it must invest in its own industry (but as so often in Europe, it will take years for them to get their act together). If you look at all the money that Europe, Japan, Turkey, India, South Korea are going to spend just on developing their own independent air superiority fighters alone, you are looking at a monstrous amount of money and resources thrown away.

    This is another way of saying that we can go for a multipolar world where ‘peace’ is maintained through fear of war, or we can go for a multipolar world where there is rule of international law. As we know the US has no interest in International Law (and this is not just a Trump thing), then everyone else will have to take up the slack. It is very much in the interest of the main powers – most obviously Europe, Russia and China along with Japan and others, to take the initiative.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Nothing is certain.

      We can look at Pax Romana and see it was good for many people, and bad for many others.

      Just or not, would one prefer to live at the time when Rome ruled, or the centuries after?

      Perhaps the answer is neither, time-wise, and no where in the solar system, space-wise. Here is where religion enters the discussion, maybe. “Life is miserable,” a Buddhist might say, for example.

      1. Joe Well

        I recently finished a monumental history of the post-Roman world, “The Inheritance of Rome” by Chris Wickham, and my mind was blown: it is all far more complicated than the standard image we have of it today. The worst casualties actually happened during the Antonine plagues of the last centuries of the Roman Empire in the West (from circa 150 to 400, the population of the city of Rome fell from 1 million to 500k), then the hungers that followed the disruption of grain shipments from North Africa and then Sicily, and then Justinian’s reconquist of Italy in the 6th century.

        And many of the Roman Empire’s slaves became serfs and local military outposts became local nobility, so it’s hard to say whether people were better off.

      2. Summer

        A large percentage of Rome’s population was slaves.
        What? They were forced to live there for their own good?
        The “glories” of Rome was written by the slave holders.

        Really, it’s time to move the hell on…

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Good for many, and bad for many others…

          I think people get used to new rulers eventually, for the most part.

          The most difficult period is during the transition from one power to another power.

        2. Joe Well

          True, but slavery persisted in many places for centuries after the empire “fell,” and was declining faster than population before that. I think it is a really difficult question to answer whether most people were better off before or after the collapse of the empire. I am guessing you would need access to statistics that can only be guessed at now, and even then you’d have a lot of arguments about definitions.

  12. Planter of Trees

    Occam’s Institutional Razor: collectives will tend to pursue the simplest intelligible objectives they can formulate. It’s a matter of consensus.

    Corollary: as the environment becomes more chaotic, these objectives tend to become more and more zero-sum. Cooperation requires stability, security. Not to say you shouldn’t try.

  13. Susan the other`

    Maybe this train of events: The nationalization of colonialism; the globalization of nationalism; the privatization of globalism; and the environmentalization of private-ism. And then to stabilize it all will be the niche-ism of environmentalism. Maybe then the United Niches.

  14. David

    When you get down into the weeds, ideas of dominant polarity of any kind start to break down. I think it’s arguable that during the Cold War, the superpowers were as much used by their notional client states as they were able to dominate them. There were lots of pragmatic reasons why European nations supported NATO which had nothing whatever to do with the Soviet Union, just as there were pragmatic reasons why Asian states found the US presence in that part of the world useful for their national concerns. The superpowers found themselves drawn into conflicts against their will, and obliged to support client states they could not control. The smarter countries around the world were able to play the superpowers off against each other. It’s true that this was less noticeable after the fall of the Soviet Union, but in reality actual US dominance was never as great as was pretended, and local actors, especially in the Middle East, were often able to exploit the US for their own ends. We can see this with the conflict in Yemen, for example, where the US (and other western states) have so much invested in Saudi Arabia that they have little choice but to go along with the war, for all that they may privately be against it. The tail wags the dog much more frequently in international politics than large states like to admit, and we’ve begun to understand much better recently how apparently weak states are often able to manipulate apparently strong ones . What is called “multipolarity” is actually the default mode of international politics, and the last generation or so has just been a partial exception. But it’s already clear, for example, that the increasing assertiveness of China gives African states someone to play against the West, although I’m not sure the West fully realises this yet.

    1. Joe Well

      >>I think it’s arguable that during the Cold War, the superpowers were as much used by their notional client states as they were able to dominate them.

      Looking at the 30-year dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, he put quite a lot of effort into “lobbying” powerful individuals in the US. But then the withdrawal of US support for him was one of the last straws before his downfall, like with Batista before him or Somoza later.

      So I don’t know if the example of Trujillo supports your theory or not. But it is clear that Washington D.C. became the board on which power politics games were played.

      Was it any different for earlier empires?

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Thanks David, astute as always. Certainly Japan had its ‘Yoshida Doctrine’ from the very beginning which was described by one writer as essentially a declaration of economic war on the West while Japan sheltered under the US military umbrella. And of course all the Gulf States played the US off whatever enemies they chose, and they still do it. At various times the Soviets and Chinese got ‘played’ as well, especially in SE Asia. As the Chinese will no doubt discover, the Central Asian countries have millennia of history of playing off larger powers against each other, they’ll happily let the Chinese join in.

      1. witters

        This is astute? “We can see this with the conflict in Yemen, for example, where the US (and other western states) have so much invested in Saudi Arabia that they have little choice but to go along with the war, for all that they may privately be against it.”

        Special TINA pleading on behalf of the most powerful.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          That is not special pleading, its a simple statement of reality. Yemen is not a war of choice by the US, its a war its been dragged into by its supposed ‘junior’ partner. Getting involved is an inevitable consequence of the manner in which current power relations have been constructed, which has allowed the Gulf States to manipulate its supposedly stronger ally. Contrast with Russia in Syria, where Putin has made it absolutely clear to Syria, Hizbollah and Iran that its support is on its terms only, and it won’t get dragged into other unrelated conflicts.

          The US could have done this a long time ago, but through strategic incompetence and cultural blindness it has allowed itself to become repeatedly entangled into local wars in which it has no obvious interest. This has been a feature of US imperialism since the Korean War at least.

          1. David

            Thanks PK, that’s what I was trying to convey. Major powers generally don’t want to get involved in the wars of their clients, but often find that they have no choice but to support them, or at least not overtly oppose them, for fear of losing influence and status. One of the common themes in the Cold War was the pressure to support “our” state against “their” state in political or even military crises for fear of looking weak.

  15. Ptb

    What we have now, weirdly enough, is the same power projection desires as the Cheney/Bush period, but stripped of the direct and proxy military options that were thought to be viable 10-20 years ago. Economic warfare is now the main tool.

    As long as this remains the case, it’s a major improvement vs regime change by violence.

    Also, powerful tools for strategically obstructing trade between third parties, would have to be complemented by offering investment, or else it will start to look bad after a while.

    The trade treaty framework that was the hope of channeling flows of investment for the benefit of the most important stakeholders proved domestically unpopular. I’m sure that doesn’t actually stop the soft-power investment component, but I’m curious how it is now to be split betw US, EU, and other blocs.

  16. Joe Well

    It makes you sound like Stephen Pinker to say it, but Pax Americana has been a golden age compared to the world of colonial empires leading up to and including WWII. Even if you only include the lives and health saved thanks to vaccines, almost all of them developed in the US, I think any equivalence with previous empires is outrageous. Then there is modern birth control, universal literacy and public education, and at least lip service paid to the idea that racism is bad and all humans are equal.

    On the other hand, the risk of nuclear holocaust and the current climate catastrophe (both products of the Pax Americana) might make all of that seem unimportant to the people living in underground bunkers in the future.

    Whether the US Empire survives or not, the future looks bleak either way.

  17. Seamus Padraig

    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Pax Americana” itself has been characterized by a surprisingly large number of unilateral wars of choice from “Americana,” and comparatively little “Pax.” There’s no reason to expect that to change under a bullying U.S. president, dominated by hawkish champions of perpetual warfare such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.

    This may blow your mind, but realize that by this point in his first term, Obama had Trump beat on the question of régime-changes and foreign interventions. (And by this time in his own first term, Bush, of course, had both Obama and Trump put together beat.) It turns out that Trump is mostly talk. So far he hasn’t started a single brand-new foreign war. Let’s hope it stays that way …

    From Europe, accordingly, we should expect to see this policy divergence reflected in efforts to expand the influence of the euro …

    One wonders how many more European countries will be sacrificed just Greece was to allow the euro to keep that influence. I hope this benefits the big banks, because it sure as hell doesn’t benefit the European people.

    By some projections, Mexico will be the seventh-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) by 2050.

    By some projections, Carlos Slim alone is the seventh-largest economy right now! :-D

  18. RBHoughton

    The end of unipolarity is largely imo a matter of mindlessness from the center. Somehow the highly educated fraction of America has been turfed out of decision-making in favour of spooks and cops who have the same response to every event coming to their attention. Carrot and stick was always a minimalist way of governing. What happened to the subtleties of thought, the nuances of meaning, the openings for contributions from oppressed peoples?

    I am not surprised at the return to favor of the UN and only wish that the Secretariat would take some strong action to ensure and protect its revenues. Dues from member states must be made precedent claims in every country. Once the revenue is assured we can look forward to contributing to our own government in a useful and progressive way.

  19. The Rev Kev

    If the two main countries on the stage will be China and the US, does that mean that we will be living in a Bipolar World? I can see it now. “Do you want fries or rice with your hegemony?”

  20. Sound of the Suburbs

    China was the big winner from an open, globalised world.

    Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.

    China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
    China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.
    China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
    China also had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.

    China had all the advantages in an open, globalised world.

    It did have, but now China has become too expensive and developed Eastern economies are off-shoring to places like Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

    An open, globalised world is a race to the bottom on costs and the West is already paying the price with massive off-shoring.

    This is the logic of an open, globalised world.

    The US hadn’t thought it through when they came up with the Washington Consensus.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Why do US firms off-shore to Mexico?
      See list above.

      US companies prefer Mexico with its cheap labour, lax health and safety standards, and lack of environmental regulations. They can expose workers to hazardous chemicals and just pump toxic chemicals straight out into the environment, without incurring the costs associated in dealing with them in an environmentally friendly way.


      Female workers are best as they are less likely to stick up for themselves and are easier to exploit.

      Every avenue must be explored to reduce costs.

      The lower the costs, the higher the profit.

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