The Nonpolar World

This Richard Haass article from Foreign Affairs (via Andrew Sullivan) is an important addition to the gathering discussion about what will follow America’s unipolar moment. Haass, like Parag Khanna, takes for granted that unipolarity is drawing to a close, for reasons both out of our control (globalization, the rise of non-state actors, the march of history), as well as due to our actions (the Iraq War) and inaction (lack of a meaningful energy policy). Unlike Khanna, he believes that the coming age will be not a multipolar one, but a nonpolar one, where power and influence are atomized, regional, and harder to organize into meaningful and durable alliances.

Haass offers a number of policy suggestions for how America, which will remain the dominant power, can and must manage nonpolarity to keep it from devolving into utter chaos. His thesis for the most part runs parallel to Jim Thomas’ proposed use of indirection as a sustainable strategic approach, but it ultimately dovetails in Haass’ mention of stabilization and reconstruction operations as the principal strategic goals of future military interventions.

Haass is probably correct in arguing that the Second World powers that Khanna identifies (BRIC, EU) face huge challenges, both internally and from the proliferation of non-state actors, that will keep them from pulling the kind of weight we associate with a geopolitical pole of influence. There’s also the simple fact that when it comes to major power influence, it’s a buyer’s market right now (think of the range of suppliers a developing nation can now choose from to forge strategic partnerships).

At the risk of splitting hairs, though, I wonder if nonpolar is really the correct term. Multi-orbital would be compatible with Thomas’ approach, where instead of the dominant gravitational force operating between powers, it operates within regional contexts. It’s true that globalization tends to fragment the concept of locality, but the impact of regional powers in their own neighborhoods remains very concrete.

Haass’ treatment of the fragility of alliances in the coming geopolitical climate, on the other hand, offers a pretty powerful theoretical tool for understanding its nature:

. . .A nonpolar world not only involves more actors but also lacks the more predictable fixed structures and relationships that tend to define worlds of unipolarity, bipolarity, or multipolarity. Alliances, in particular, will lose much of their importance, if only because alliances require predictable threats, outlooks, and obligations, all of which are likely to be in short supply in a nonpolar world. Relationships will instead become more selective and situational. It will become harder to classify other countries as either allies or adversaries; they will cooperate on some issues and resist on others. There will be a premium on consultation and coalition building and on a diplomacy that encourages cooperation when possible and shields such cooperation from the fallout of inevitable disagreements. . .

This kind of nano-coalition, structured like the ephemeral hyperlinks that make an internet video viral one day and forgotten the next, is the essence of a realist, interest-based approach, since a values-based approach demands holding partners accountable. Rapid reaction and short memories become the premium. Russia’s posture towards the West over the past year seems to offer the closest model of what that will look like, with assistance in Afghanistan, ambivalence on Iran and obstruction in Kosovo all concurrent and non-exclusive.

It’s also hard to read that passage without thinking of the role the Bush/Rumsfeld decisions to sidestep the mutually binding aspects of the NATO alliance in Afghanistan, as well as the use of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, played in ushering in the generalized “case by case” era in trans-Atlantic relations. To be fair, internal European divisions, both over Iraq and over EU political construction, exacerbated the effect. And in some ways, the weakened bonds of the alliance allow for some pleasant surprises, like France’s decision to integrate the command structure and contribute troops to Afghanistan. But if the demise of the era of stable alliances was inevitable, it was certainly acclerated by the Bush administration’s approach.

More World Politics Review