Wednesday, January 31, 2007

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Are we moving towards apolarity?

Fareed Zakaria frets about this possibility in Newsweek after going to Davos:

We are certainly in a trough for America—with Bush in his last years, with the United States mired in Iraq, with hostility toward Washington still high almost everywhere. But if so, we might also be getting a glimpse of what a world without America would look like. It will be free of American domination, but perhaps also free of leadership—a world in which problems fester and the buck is endlessly passed, until problems explode.

Listen to the new powers. China, which in three years will likely become the world's biggest emitter of CO2, is determined not to be a leader in dealing with global environmental issues. "The ball is not in China's court," said Zhu Min, the executive vice president of the Bank of China and a former senior official in the government. "The ball is in everybody's court." India's brilliant planning czar, Montek Singh Alluwalliah, said that "every country should have the same per capita rights to pollution." In the abstract that's logical enough, but in the real world, if 2.3 billion people (the population of China plus India) pollute at average Western levels, you will have a global meltdown....

The ball for every problem is in everybody's court, which means that it is in nobody's court.

The problem is that this free ride probably can't last forever. The global system—economic, political, social—is not self-managing. Global economic growth has been a fantastic boon, but it produces stresses and strains that have to be handled. Without some coordination, or first mover—or, dare one say it, leader—such management is more difficult.

The world today bears some resemblance to the 1920s, when a newly globalized economy was booming, and science and technological change were utterly transforming life. (Think of the high-tech of the time—electricity, radio, movies and cars, among other recent inventions.) But with Britain declining and America isolationist, that was truly a world without political direction. Eventually protectionism, nationalism, xenophobia and war engulfed it.

In a provocative essay in Foreign Policy three years ago, the British historian Niall Ferguson speculated that the end of American hegemony might not fuel an orderly shift to a multipolar system but a descent into a world of highly fragmented powers, with no one exercising any global leadership. He called this "apolarity." "Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic new Dark Age," Ferguson wrote, "an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism, of economic plunder and pillage in the world's forgotten regions, of economic stagnation, and civilization's retreat into a few fortified enclaves." That might be a little farfetched. But for those who have been fondly waiting for the waning of American dominance—be careful what you wish for.

A few thoughts:
1) It's fascinating to contrast Zakaria's column with Gideon Rachman's take on Davos. Zakaria is gloomy because of the absence of U.S. policymakers; Rachman is (somewhat) more optimistic because of the optimish of American businessmen.

The fact that Rachman and Zakaria can draw such contrasting takes suggests that Davos is more of an IR Rorshach test than a place where consensus is created -- people take away from the conference the preconceptions they bring to it.

2) Zakaria -- and Ferguson -- exaggerate the lack of existing policy coordination and underestimate the extent to which China and India have been brought into important global governance structures. Pointing out that there's been little progress on global warming and only grudging progress on trade talks is not evidence of apolarity. A decade ago, when the US and EU more clearly held the levers of power.... there was grudging progress on global warming and little progress in advancing trade talks. This has little to do with the distribution of power and a lot to do with the thorny domestic politics of these issues.

[Er... what about the point on global governance structures?--ed.] I'll have a lot more to say about that in the near future.
[Ooooh, foreshadowing!--ed.]

posted by Dan on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM


India's brilliant planning czar, Montek Singh Alluwalliah, said that "every country should have the same per capita rights to pollution." In the abstract that's logical enough, but in the real world, if 2.3 billion people (the population of China plus India) pollute at average Western levels, you will have a global meltdown

Well, sure-- but that's not really the outcome we'd expect under tradeable rights, is it? In the short term, the U.S. would buy up a ton of emissions rights from China and India, as the latter countries play industrial catch-up. As they're getting more industrialized, the U.S. (and other rich countries) should be able to afford to get greener over time, etc.

The level of permitted emissions is a separate question from the distribution of the initial rights. It would be a catastrophe if every country got, and used, per capita emissions trading rights that equalled the really existing per capita emissions of the U.S. But under any plausible regime, per capita rights would be much lower than that level, and the U.S. would have to buy a lot of emissions rights from less-developed countries for the foreseeable future.

(I have no idea whether that's a desirable regime overall or not. Just struck me that this particular claim being made about it doesn't hold together.)

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Ferguson writes:
Suppose, in a worst-case scenario, that U.S. neoconservative hubris is humbled in Iraq and that the Bush administration's project to democratize the Middle East at gunpoint ends in ignominious withdrawal, going from empire to decolonization in less than two years. Suppose also that no aspiring rival power shows interest in filling the resulting vacuums—not only in coping with Iraq but conceivably also Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Haiti. What would an apolar future look like?

Are we to take it then that, if the United States became less interventionist, the structure of world politics would suddenly cease being unipolar and suddenly become "apolar"?

What in the world is apolarity? A world without powerful states?

Even if the United States became markedly less interventionist, unless it also dismantled its armed forces, it would not cease being the world's most formidable military power. Other states, all of them, even allied with others, would wield considerably less military power. Why then would the world cease being unipolar, let alone become "apolar"? These other states would always have to consider the superior capabilities of the United States before they took any provocative action.

Ferguson also envisages that nonstate actors would come to wield "global power," and "with ease, terrorists could disrupt the freedom of the seas, targeting oil tankers, aircraft carriers, and cruise liners, while Western nations frantically concentrated on making their airports secure. Meanwhile, limited nuclear wars could devastate numerous regions, beginning in the Korean peninsula and Kashmir, perhaps ending catastrophically in the Middle East."

But thus far the nuclear balance of power on the Indian subcontinent has resulted in no large-scale war between India and Pakistan, and Japan so little fears North Korea that it's thus far continued to rely on American nuclear weapons rather than building its own.

How many tankers, carriers, liners has bin Laden's naval armada sunk thus far? How nugatory has the power of the US Navy been rendered?

We ventured too far in Ferguson's way when we undertook nation-building responsibilties in Iraq. His fear-mongering in furtherance of more such ventures looks even less well advised today than it did in 2004.

posted by: Structuralist on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Just as important is the effect the disintegration of "states" manipulated into being after the first and second world wars has and will continue to have. Ignorance, poor education, backward gov't structures, genocide, subsistance economies, and an increasing balkanization of much of the planet contribute more to the instability of the planet if not to the environment. If there is only one superpower and that superpower is not so "super" any longer, the rate of descent into chaos can only increase until the strongest of the balkanized begin to build empires. And the wheel turns again...

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Zakaria came up in the world by came up in the world by charming and flattering the masters of the status quo. Change of any sort always threatens those who rose to the top by mastering the currrent political/intellectual system. As it was with Imperial China's mandarins so it is with Zakaria's patrons.

"Intersting times" are indeed their greatest fear, and it looks as times are going to get very interesting indeed. So Zakaria is pessamistic.

Entrepeneurs, and those who've created and mastered new technologies have proffited from change - they can embrace it. "Intertesting times" are an opportunity for them. So Rachman is more optomistic. He'd be even more optomistic except for the fact that the Davos business types have at least one foot in the mandarin camp themselves - if not then they'd be wasting their time there.

The real optomistic entrepenuers are out making the future - they don't have time to whine about it at Davos.

posted by: Jos Bleau on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Micheal Mandelbaum wrote an interesting analysis of America's leadership position in "The Case for Goliath, How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century." As you say, those looking forward to America's decline may want to read this book...and be careful what you wish for!

posted by: RAZ on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

The issue of a leaderless world is by far the most important you ever touched. No one seems to be thinking about it. It may end as the twenties, with some resentful country wishing to take revenge and rule others, and a desperate war and a new world order. China has a big load of historical resentment, for example.

posted by: jaim klein on 01.31.07 at 10:25 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?