A unipolar military power in a multipolar economic world
Oct 13, 2010

A unipolar military power in a multipolar economic world

The US remains the worlds dominant military power: global, unprecedented, and more asymmetrically powerful in the wars it engages in than any other empire in history. For a long time its economic, diplomatic and cultural influences were also asymmetrically powerful and the world was unipolar (or bipolar while the soviet union exists) in these factors as well as the military factor.  What we are experiencing however is a transition to an increasingly multipolar economic world. Moreover, since economic power leads these other types of power we should expect a future transition to an increasingly multipolar world in these other factors.

That the US does indeed represent a unipolar military power deserving the term "empire"  is documented in my post here.  That the world is becoming increasingly multipolar economically is actually close to the surface of the public discourse. China fears are particularly prevalent and it is well discussed how their rising economic strength might detract from western economic strength.  Concerns about the US trade imbalance, concerns about US foreign indebtedness, the currency, the strength of foreign multinational companies like Japanese cars and the like are all commonly understood in the public discourse.


One can track the economic multipolarization in many ways. For instance, the proportion of the world GDP attributable to the US is steadily dropping, as the ratio to the next largest country by GDP: China. While the USD remains the worlds reserve currency, currency reserves in many countries are moving away from exclusive USD backing or USD pegging and opting for adding in components of various other currencies or baskets currencies and commodities. as currencies are a bellwether for a regions economic strength, the advent of the Euro and possible future advent of an Arab currency is an indication of the increased influence of these regions. American companies now face fierce competition abroad in many markets both with private companies from other countries but also from public companies such as those competing for oil interests with various state oil companies.

The reason that "multipolar" is I think a particularly apt word is that instead of merely "flattening" the global economic playing field (as Thomas Friedman likes to put it) it conveys the idea of the world having several different regions of large and influential economic power. It is often thought or implied that to lose unipolar status would necessitate a decline for the US. Instead, the dominant theme of the multipolarization of our economic world is in other countries or regions playing catch up and quickly rising towards the standard set by the US. While there are of course consequences and inevitable effects on the US and the west in general, the decline is largely one merely of a less relatively asymmetric world. In this sense, it ought to be heralded.

If one claims a multipolar world, one must indicate what these poles actually are. Three are obvious: the US, the EU and China. However I think South America, East and South Asia, Africa, former SU countries and the Middle East also are deserving of a polar designation (not necessarily in that order of precedence). This may seem vacuous in that this is a largely geographic and indeed continental breakdown, however economic strength in the world has legitimate differences motivated by cultural and political similarities which tend to be geographically related and a geographic breakdown remains a very apt way to discuss. Certainly, these regions are not precise, may overlap or exclude many countries in their mix and other difficulties, but they paint the general picture. These regions have recently all been both unifying and growing economically, politically and even militarily. As we shall see, there is a direct relationship between economic ties and ensuing political and then military ties.

The EU almost by definition epitomizes the shift towards a multipolar world in that it takes a geographic collection of countries and unifies them into a single pole. Their union at the core is an economic union. The single largest component of the transition to the EU is the currency, the euro. This ease of money transfer among the union is the top to a larger picture of an ease of moving companies, capital and humans freely among the region. The countries or course still have some significant protectionism, but is a far more coalesced region than ever before. Together, the EU is on the same order of magnitude as the US in most factors. With the economic union comes a political union and a military one. Politically, the EU established a political system and tries to present a unified face for Europe in tackling big issues like wars, rogue countries, financial reform, global warming and the likes. They have had some success and some failure at this. The unification undoubtably makes the region more influential as a whole, however political bickering among the constituents often reduces the effectiveness and cohesiveness of their message. Military alliances in the region of course presaged the official Union however we have seen a very close working relationship among many EU countries in military encounters such as Afghanistan. Britain stands out as a separate in the EU framework and can be seen as a minipole. Economically, by retaining their currency as separate they maintain further autonomy. There has also been a political and militaristic divergence epitomized by the British siding strongly with the US in the war on Iraq. Their raw military power remains stronger than their EU neighbors  as does their willingness to act differently than their neighbors. On the other hand, the UK can be seen as straddling the gap between European and American poles although I think their strength and influence remains sufficient to be classified as a mildly independent "minipole" power.

China is quickly growing to be the third major pole. As its economy surges past Japan to the second largest in the world, as it remains the worlds largest holder of US debt, as its economy moves past low value added manufacturing and embraces mid and high value economies, and as its state and private companies expand around the developed and developing world, China has truly become an important economic power. While there are concerns about it being an artificial inflation, Chinas growth rate is truly remarkable while much of the rest of the world suffered recently. As I have discussed, fears about China's economic rise are widespread. We should expect China to increase its economic power and the world to become more multipolar, but this is not a priori a bad thing. As its economic strength grows so to does its political and military strength. By personnel it has the largest military in the world and while it has typically reserved usage of its military to internal conflicts in the last 50 years its external capacity should not be understated. Should the Chinese ever get it in their heads to try something like invading Taiwan (not that I think this is likely) there is absolutely nothing the west could do to stop them. Politically it has retained a lot of power by virtue of its security council veto, however the focus of its use of this power has been on regional issues while effectively voiding its veto on world issues outside of its region. Recently however as its economic interests have grown worldwide it has undergone a marked increase in its political and diplomatic influence both through the international organizations and multilateral negations such as those sponsored by the UN as well as direct bilateral influence on specific countries. Very often it acts to secure its economic interests compared to the rhetoric often given in the west which focuses (rightly or wrongly) on humanitarian or militant security issues. All things considered, it is safe to say the China is a rising economic pole and that political and militaristic power is coming with that.

While the US, the EU and China represent the dominant poles, most other regions are involved in a polarization of themselves and forming into economic, political and militaristic unions. In South America the Union of South American Nations is rising in political importance. As South America begins to embrace a truer liberal democracies than ever before, intra-SA economic ties are exploding. In Africa, the African Union is demonstrating how they are starting to get the capacity to come together as a continent and have military forces from around the continent fight for the same cause. Kenyan and Ethiopian troops now fight in Somalia under the African Union pretext. In Eastern and South Asia, Japan and tigers like Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and others have been a dominant economic strength for about 40 years. Economic unions like ASEAN are further binding the region together and increasing its power. Likewise in the Arab world there is considerable political ties among its leaders. The Arab League is considering forming its own regional currency, another type of economic union. In former SU states we are often seeing a swing of countries back towards Russia. The last election in Ukraine or the Russian invasion of South Osseta in Georgia are examples of this.

The result of this is that around the world, regions are increasingly coming together in economic, political and militaristic unions are forming that bring groups of countries together. The world is become increasingly multipolar in each of these aspects. Power is determined less by individual nations (although two of the poles, the US and China are individual nations) but by regions and through unions of various kinds. The political situation in Iran is an excellent case study of this where by Turkey and Brazil managed to actually extend considerable influence on solving the nuclear problem (admittedly effectively rejected by a foolhardy US) while China and Russia both have economic concerns in Iran and of course the US and EU have enormous military concerns about the region. We thus see a competition and relevance by many of the major poles in the regions. The so called south-south relations that spring up between countries like Brazil and Turkey or India and Indonesia speak to the regions these countries are in becoming poles of their own and not merely dependent on the previous unipolar world order.

At first glance this idea of multipolarization may seem to be in contrast to the Friedman idea of "flattening" where by the aspects of globalization increases access and making every country more level and equal with others. Truly global, integrated supply chains are an example of this. However, I think they are compatible in the following sense which I will use the playing field metaphor. With multipolarization we see the bumps of the playing field coalescing into bigger bumps. With flattening we see the bumps in the field getting smoothed out and more equal. The result is that the field transforms from a large number of small jagged bumps dominated by one or two monsters into a small number of smoothed out mounds representing the poles. Both a flattening and a multipolarization are occurring.

We come now to the question that if we accept an economic  multipolarization, what will be the consequences of the US's current unipolar military empire? A study of past empires shows fairly clearly I think that long term stability of military power is conditional on economic power. Without the economic power to maintain such a unipolar military empire, it will likely shrink. As it is, fiscal troubles in the US are very large and the cost of its military is a record high. The logical choice for many people (such as myself) is to cut the military  budget over raising taxes or cutting domestic spending. Furthermore, as other poles rise in power, their ability to have military power will rise. Inflation adjusted military spending is at an all time high worldwide and growing faster than the economy. We have seen examples in places such as Africa where their unions have allowed for increased military power over their domain which is significant for a continent that has had so mug conflict and been at times entirely dependent on the west for security. As other poles rise, their tolerance for American empire will likely decline. The US ring of bases from UAE to Japan faces resistance (recently Dubai kicked Canada out of one of their bases used for the war in Afghanistan, and the last Japanese PM lost over the US military base issue). Likewise, countries like China put increasing resistance to US naval operations in their theater. Finally, if one considers a relative strength, the increases in military power around the world would necessitate an increase in military power from the US to be relatively as power as it is today. Already, the US relies tremendously on its allies simply to maintain two wars at the same time. The result is the clear idea that as the world becomes economically multipolar, military multipolarism is bound to follow.

I should conclude by noting that I have not yet passed judgement on whether this process is good or bad. While that question ought to be left to another post, I will quickly note that ultimately it is likely both with good and bad consequences. Global economies are not zero sum. Having the political and military capacity and will to deal with a humanitarian crisis is not zero sum. Other regions can grow in these countries and it may not be to our detriment and instead may be to our benefit. Furthermore, there is a certain moral hazard of having a singular unipolar world power and I believe that moral hazard has been realized in some cases with US imperialist influence around the world. Thus while my focus in this post is identifying the veracity in this shift towards multipolarization, there is also reason to believe that it is a good thing.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: