America’s preeminence on the world stage, its unipolar moment, is over and Washington must redefine its role in the world before emerging powers do it for us. The coming multipolar world will be one where power is balanced based on the supremacy of technology. Global security will be defined by whoever controls the marketization of technology that influences investments in hydropower and artificial intelligence. In order to project power, the access to important maritime lanes will be as important as access to data lanes, as data management will become the backbone to an economy where trade is far more digitized.
What is behind the possibility of a multipolar international system?
Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey are some of the key players helping to shape the dynamics of a new international order.
A multipolar order is comprised of four or more competitive actors whom exert an equal amount of political and economic power. There is no one empire that has the military might to institute and control political order and no dueling economic ideologies (i.e. Communism vs. Capitalism as in the Cold War) to bifurcate the world into neatly defined competing camps.
America is quickly entering a world where politics will be defined by geography and where geography will be defined by the next wave of globalization. The politics of geography will compel America to focus on Iran, Turkey, and Russia as each seeks to use small-scale tactical warfare to build political influence in the Middle East. China will use its influence over geography to grow its economic power with its Belt and Road policy, with Beijing quietly growing its competitive edge by investing in a comprehensive economic model guided by the political application of overseas investments, eventually sidelining American influence in setting the standards on technological applications such as artificial intelligence.
If the next wave of globalization is guided by the quickening pace in the exchange of ideas, America must decide whether it wants to compete or work with China in developing guidelines for new age industries in the technology sector.
We are no longer in an ideological war, nor are we in a repeat of the Cold War. There is no one great country to defeat and no competing philosophy to usurp the economic benefits of the globalized capitalism that drives world trade. It is no longer Russia or Communism that will challenge American hegemony, but other countries using the benefits of globalization to acquire the knowledge to build competing (and maybe better) trade models in order to dominate their regional zones of influence.
America may have won the Cold War, but Washington’s political influence to control world order, and thus globalization, it being contested by two former Communist countries. Russia and China have profited by opening up their countries to the benefits of globalization, using past experimentation in Marxism as a political identity rather than an economic one.
Russia and China have acquired political muscle by working within the current American-led international order and seek to challenge American power by redefining their roles within this system. Russia is using its military as a defensive tactic in places like Ukraine and Syria in order to stop what they deem as Western (and NATO) encroachment on territory they covet as buffer zones against wider threats. China is using its growing power to build a parallel economic model to compete and eventually remake the standards for trade in the Asia Pacific, potentially making a path to gain a future stronghold in European markets.
Thus, our era is one where empires of old are challenging the American-led liberal international order, reasserting power through asymmetrical means such hybrid warfare (Russia) or the creation of new economic models (China). Never before has America been challenged by a multipolar world, one that is encapsulated by the quickening spread of globalization and the equalization of knowledge. In the time from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has dominated world politics, finance, and culture. Washington’s hegemony was roughly defined through its waging of ideological wars, such as Vietnam and Iraq, with its military strength used as a vehicle of political power. But Washington’s usage of military empire never transformed into hegemonic political power. Judging by the standards of today’s time, Vietnam and Iraq are looked at as unnecessary wars where no clear political outcome was achieved. They were not wars of national interest.
In the coming multipolar world, America will not have to ability to expend resources on military adventurism; especially if military might does not lead to political capital. Having a bigger military will no longer equal with being the strongest in a world where cyber warfare is steadily becoming the weapon of choice. It is easier for an enemy to knock out systems that control the application of weapons than to be defeated by those weapons on an even playing field. If America has no grand strategy, not only will its military struggle to use its power wisely, but also its political influence will begin to wane.
For now, the Trump administration will continue down a path of ad hoc foreign policy, where goals are short-term, ill-defined, and domestically divisive. President Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal that was signed under Obama in 2015 is a sign that he has no overarching strategy toward the Middle East that is not defined by either all out war or a complete withdraw. Pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal gives Iran the mantle of political opportunity to reframe its diplomatic power, but will be thwarted by the very real possibility of American attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, with a high probability of low-grade warfare with Israel through its military proxies in Syria and Lebanon.
There will be political repercussions for pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal. How President Trump chooses to respond will give us a future glimpse at the boundaries of American power on a more crowed world stage. Who will America be in a multipolar world?