At this noontide of U.S. power, it may seem premature to talk of the twilight of unipolarity. But after all, every noon presages a transition toward twilight. My reasons for believing that this moment of transition has passed are not the usual ones of “imperial overstretch”, burgeoning budget and trade deficits and so on. Those are problems that could well be remedied by the next U.S. administration, or even by the current one if it exerted itself to do so.
The global tendency that will prove decisive is beyond remedy by even the most Machiavellian or, depending on one’s point of view, enlightened policymaker in Washington: the current and by historical standards rapid redistribution of power internationally. This trend, which is quite unstoppable, is based on two linked developments: the rise of the un-West and the split of the old West. Together, these developments will disestablish three main pillars of post-Cold War U.S. unipolarity: American economic dominance, the capacity of the United States for diplomatic bandwagoning, and the appeal of American “soft power.”
Thus, even without the obvious or rapid rise of a classical “peer competitor”—to borrow the Pentagon’s language—the age of American unipolarity will end. I do not expect American paramountcy in advanced weapons systems and both conventional and nuclear war-fighting capacity to disappear for a very long time. But as events since September 2001 have shown, that paramountcy is by no means as conclusive an answer to U.S. security problems, or as much a boon to U.S. statecraft, as its original sponsors (or present directors) expected.
The Rise of the Un-West
Probably everyone is aware that by mid-century India and China each will have populations near the billion and a half mark, together making up about a third of the 9 billion people expected then to inhabit the world. But most of us are less conscious of other prospective rates of population growth. According to UN projections, Pakistan will be approaching 350 million; Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil and Nigeria each about 300 million; Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and several others more than 100 million—all compared to a projected U.S. population of about 400 million.
At the same time, Russia will be moving downward toward 80 million, to hold that vast swath of territory from west of the Urals all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The European Union as a whole may grow to about 600 million, but Japan and individual long-time U.S. allies within Europe will shrink.
As significant as raw populations totals, the shape of populations will be of great consequence. The current reductions in infant mortality that are dramatically increasing the populations of what we used to call the Third World took place long ago in the West. The phenomenon that will continue to characterize reductions in mortality in Western countries now comes at the other end of life. So there will be ever more 80- and 90-year-olds in the present dominant powers of the West, and ever more 16- to 30-year-olds in the newly arriving powers of the un-West.
There is no getting around the basic economic implication of these demographic data: Young societies grow faster than those with lower ratios of workers to dependent oldsters. Just as important, many of the younger populations of the arriving powers show signs of wanting to change the social and political status quo of their own societies and of the society of states as a whole-whether by jihad or by other, mostly indelicate, means.1 About two billion among these youths will be Muslims.
I am well aware that in the past mere population size has been no indicator of either economic or military clout—nor has a psychologically restive youth bulge. In many cases, as any sentient reader of history knows, large numbers of disgruntled, poor and uneducated people have represented a significant net liability to the accrual and exercise of national power. But that was before the civilizations of the non-Western world regained their full sovereignties after centuries of eclipse, and acquired competent governments that in many cases are strongly nationalistic and determined to take their rightful places in the diplomatic sun.2
Perhaps more important, as literacy rates and higher educational levels among the peoples of these countries move toward equality with those in the West, and as a more integrated world economic system enables more rapid and widespread distribution of wealth, large populations need not be impediments to national power—quite the reverse. Only a deeply habituated condescension, in which peoples of European origin are so well practiced, prevents many in the West from crediting this possibility.
Of course, not all of the new titans of the un-West will be successful, well-governed and affluent states. The power of the un-West can express itself in negative and in simply unconventional terms, as well. Take Bangladesh, for instance. A first reaction might be to dismiss it as a place with no assets and little more than a multitude of very poor people. But who these days is inclined to argue that 100 million young Muslims with very few jobs or prospects have no means of making an impact on the society of states? South Africa’s potential status depends on its regional influence, which may be greater than its raw power would suggest. Vietnam’s strategic location vis-à-vis China and the United States, and its historical record of resistance to Chinese hegemony in the region, give it, too, a potential role exceeding conventional measures of clout.
Moreover, whether wealthy or not, stable or not, modern communications will keep the citizens of the un-West fully informed about how citizens live in the West. We should therefore not be surprised if these populations and their governments become decidedly revisionist with regard to what constitutes a fair share of the world’s resources. In any event, increased demand for those resources cannot but have a significant impact on world prices, as is already the case, for instance, with oil.
Above all, the advent of several, if not many, relatively competent, wealthy and populous new powers will profoundly affect the basic structure of the society of states. Let but one not-so-distant example illustrate.
As things stand today, the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are heavily determined by the views of the U.S. Treasury—rules that reflect relative power at the time the system of weighted voting for the Bretton Woods institutions was created. But in a few years the absolute majority of international capital liquidity will reside in Asia, and much of it in China. A re-weighted voting system in the World Bank and the IMF would likely produce policies very different from the ones we see today, policies—on the conditionality of loans, for example—not generally to the liking of the United States.
If one multiplies this example and applies the principle to the international system as a whole, it is clear that U.S. economic dominance and the political prerogatives that flow from it will be vastly eroded. With that erosion will come a reduction in the appeal of diplomatic bandwagoning with the United States and in the attractiveness of its soft power. If it is true that everyone loves a winner, it follows that fewer will love a power that loses and draws as often as it wins. The sense of global order will weaken as American power ebbs. In consequence, the international landscape of a few decades hence may resemble that of Easter Island: dominated by giants, and battered by tempestuous winds of change. And the United States may not have its traditional allies with it to withstand those winds.
Le Defi Européen
Some may be skeptical of the impact of the joining of demography, economics and global arriviste politics I have sketched here. It is harder to ignore the growing Transatlantic and Transpacific rifts and the evident truth that their causes lay not in personalities or other superficial factors, but in the massive tectonic shift of post-Cold War circumstances that has, in turn, allowed long-standing attitudinal and cultural differences to emerge in full.
For the moment, the challenge to America’s strategic position seems to come from an ideologically motivated jihadist movement. In broadly diplomatic terms, however, it is not precisely a threat, for despite—or rather because of—its capacity to inflict death, grief and damage almost anywhere, the jihadists’ war tends to induce solidarity among the governments of the world. There is no diplomatic glue like a common enemy.
Most analysts predict that China will be America’s future challenger, but China’s capacity to mount a plausible bid is still decades away—though its economic clout is already being used very adroitly to political effect in some surprising places (even Australia). Besides, it is by no means assured that China’s aggregation of economic power will continue for another two decades without significant interruption.
Though we may wish to dismiss the possibility for cultural reasons alone, it is the European Union that represents the more likely and immediate rival to the United States. The EU is the only actor that has recently had reason to feel that the time may be coming to set up a diplomatic bandwagon of its own. What should surprise us is not that Europe may become a competitor to the United States, but that the European impulse to desert the U.S. bandwagon has taken so long to emerge. The prime factor that created the Atlantic Alliance back in 1946, the fear of Soviet intentions and power, vanished 16 years ago. Europe now faces no military threat other than that posed by the same jihadists who threaten America, and it is hard to see how American military power can be of much use to Europe in light of the nature of that threat. Indeed, many Europeans believe (quite mistakenly) that a public divorce from U.S. power and purposes would exempt them from danger, and let them get on more easily with the business of assimilating their large Muslim communities into the mainstream of their societies.
If I may preempt a likely counter-argument, the recent defeat of the proposed EU “constitution” (more a treaty revision than a constitution, strictly speaking) is likely to accelerate rather than retard the EU’s progress. This is because in the fullness of time that defeat may reduce the obstacles to strengthening the EU in two key states on its western and eastern periphery: Britain and Russia.
Perfidious Albion: During the century-long rise of the United States to its present ascendancy beginning in 1898, Europe’s longstanding tradition of balancing against any prospective hegemon emerging on the horizon was never invoked against America. Americans tend to explain Europeans shrugging off the implied threat to their own preeminence by pointing to the genuine benevolence of American intentions and the undoubted merits of their democratic way of life. But another reason is clearly visible in retrospect: the strategic choices of Great Britain.
For some centuries, the traditional convenor of the European balance of power coalition has been Britain. Just before the turn of the 20th century, however, the powerful foreign policy establishment in London decided that Britain could no longer afford to be at odds with the United States. One can see that resolution in the settlement of an obscure little crisis in 1895 over the border between Venezuela and a slice of British colonial territory now called Guyana.3 The same resolution was visible several years later, when the United States and Great Britain were together “in the dock” as far as general European opinion was concerned—the United States over the Spanish-American War and Britain over the Boer War. Concern over the security of Canada might also have been a factor in Britain’s approach to the United States right up to World War I.
From the 1940s onward, Britain’s sense of the importance of the U.S. security relationship became even more dominant. The military disasters of 1940-41 taught London that the collapse of the Continental powers before a determined aggressor left it with no prospect of help except from its overseas connections, primarily the United States. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Party’s great white hope before the advent of Tony Blair, reflected that feeling when he rejected early bids for the integration of Britain into Europe with the words, “For us the open seas and a thousand years of history.” And no British prime minister since then to this very day, save for Edward Heath, has ever believed the European connection more important for Britain’s future than that with the United States.
If Britain’s strategic choices have given such basic direction to the European diplomatic posture toward America in recent centuries, it follows that a change in British attitudes, even in its reduced post-imperial position, would make a difference. What is the prospect for such a change?
The current Conservative leadership in Britain shows little inclination of ever deserting the Atlanticist definition of Britain’s destiny—or much likelihood of ever getting back into office. On the other hand, a new center-Left coalition of Liberal Democrats and Labour dissidents, even if it never forms itself into a Social Democratic Party, could modify the British attitude toward America. Such a post-Blair coalition could conceivably grow strong enough to block decisions as bravely unpopular as that which the Prime Minister took in 2003 to ally with America against Iraq.
Even such a coalition would not be enough to overwhelm Atlanticist sentiment in Britain, but other recent developments-or rather the prospect of non-developments following the French and Dutch vote against the European constitution—make Europe more palatable as an alternative identity in Britain. The setbacks to the proposed constitution indicate that at least for the time being the EU’s future is not with deepening or “ever closer union”, as the euphemism has it. Since, except for the few true believers, that is what mainstream British opinion has feared most, the diminished prospect of a future “United States of Europe” will bring Britain closer to the EU for a host of practical reasons.
Moreover, if the EU continues to be seen as primarily an economic, security and cultural community, not a would-be sovereignty, that may also increase its appeal as a useful model for much of the rest of the world, especially for prospective new members on the periphery of today’s 25-member-strong grouping. So as the threat of deepening recedes, the prospect of further widening may grow. That, in turn, will increase the appeal of the EU in Britain.
Russia in Europe: With time, then, the idea of Europe as a security and economic community with a cultural basis, but not as a threat to familiar national sovereignties, may come to coincide with the traditional geographic definition of Europe. And that traditional geographic definition includes Russia.
“Europe” as a meta-geographical construct has included Russia ever since the time of Peter the Great. Many of the major stars of European culture have been Russians: Tolstoy and Chekhov are right up there with Shakespeare and Mozart. The economic case is also powerful: Russian oil and gas supplies to western Europe are lifelines for both sides, and European foreign direct investment is Moscow’s best hope of rapid economic advance.
Above all, there is an inherent strategic advantage to a close connection for both sides. The Russians may face the prospect later this century of defending territories that stretch right to the Pacific with too few people for the purpose. They are going to need a sturdy alliance system, and an assurance that their western front in Europe is secure if push should ever come to shove in the Far East. So a strong alliance with the West, either through the EU or NATO, will be in the Russian national interest. The Europeans, for their part, may well see such a development as their only way of achieving anything like parity in strategic clout with the United States—and strategic independence of it. And Britain, so long the “balancer” in the European diplomatic constellation, remembers Russia as an historically familiar ally: against Napoleon, against the Kaiser, against Hitler.
Demographically, too, the Russian connection offers an advantage to the EU. Many of the French and Dutch voters who resoundingly rejected the EU constitution apparently did so because they feared that the changes would somehow enhance the probability of Turkish membership. Only a few decades hence, the Turkish population is slated to reach 100 million people, almost all Muslim and a great many presumed likely to seek better prospects further west. Many Europeans are reluctant to see a Muslim society as prospectively the largest member of the EU. They argue that Turkey is neither in Europe geographically nor of European culture. Some undoubtedly remember that in its first few years Europe was idealized as a sort of return to Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, Christendom in political form.
Russia’s prospect, contrarily, is of population decline, which should reduce the current popular fear among Europeans of being overrun by foreigners wanting their jobs (the Turkish truck driver joining the Polish plumber as an object of dread). Christian Russia indeed could be seen, rather, as a sphere of opportunity, more likely to need extra people than to export them, and endowed with plentiful natural resources just waiting to be developed by European capital.
Politically speaking, the authorities in Moscow seem at present more comfortable in their strategic relations with NATO than in those with the EU. That is partly because the EU people keep harassing them about human rights and Chechnya and such, whereas the NATO people just talk about strategy and armaments. But contemplating a more distant future when the Russian political leadership will have changed, Moscow’s norms may conform more to EU standards. And the EU has now a tested technique for imposing its norms on societies anxious to join its ranks. Ordinary Russians would be considerably advantaged if the prospect of membership drove Moscow’s decision-makers to move their own policies in the EU’s direction. Considering all the changes that have already occurred in that part of the world in so short a time, this does not seem all that improbable.
An EU-Russia hook-up could well inconvenience Washington, especially as Russia’s oil and gas reserves increasingly give it an economic clout it has never enjoyed before. At present rates of growth in demand, the United States, the European Union, China and India may all in time be bidding there for supply and cultivating Moscow politically and diplomatically to that end. The EU may in time be in a position to take a decided advantage in that competition. But that still begs the main question, however, of how a wider EU that includes Russia could be a strategic challenger to the United States. If the European Union can only widen at the expense of deepening, how could it acquire a genuinely common foreign policy and a decision structure that could deploy a truly unified military? Doesn’t it need these attributes to be such a challenger? The answer is not necessarily, and certainly not to begin with.
An EU-Russia conjunction would have, at the least, a considerable power of diplomatic denial. Such an EU may or may not be able to initiate and carry through a cohesive and independent strategy of its own, but it could deny the United States the ability to recruit coalitions of the willing from among its members. In so doing, the EU could withhold enough legitimacy from U.S. actions to give any sitting administration pause.
More arresting is the possibility that an EU which widens instead of deepens may retain a capacity to deepen after it has widened. Most consequential errors in the history of diplomacy turn on a single factor: a failure of imagination, whether of tragedy or triumph. Who thought in 1919 that another world war was only two decades away? Who thought a century ago that France and Germany could ever be allies, or half a century ago that the Cold War could end decisively without a shot being fired? Europe could indeed widen to include Russia before it deepens into an effective unitary strategic actor, and it could be a very adept military actor at that.
It is true, of course, that the EU has shown little military ambition in recent years, but it was not always so, as the history of the abortive European Defence Community attests. Nor need it always be so. The EU today includes countries with long military traditions and weapons-building capacities, two of them nuclear, some very rich and nearly all with advanced scientific and technological skills in the relevant fields. There is no impediment to European military power on the basis of means, only of will. With Russia, Ukraine and other states added to it, together with the changes in the scope of opportunity and challenge they will bring to the EU, who can be sure that the will must remain lacking as the future unfolds? For American statesmen to assume that could come to constitute a failure of imagination of the first order.
Balance or Concert?
The rise of the un-West will diminish America’s relative power, challenge the legitimacy of the post-World War II liberal order with which America is so closely associated, and make Washington’s self-assumed management tasks as much more than international primus inter pares all but impossible. The likely development of the European Union, buttressed by closer association with Russia, would simultaneously limit sharply Washington’s capacity for diplomatic bandwagoning. And the combination will erode the appeal of American soft power. This defines the twilight of American unipolarity.
But American statesmen are not helpless in the face of such trends. Multipolar international systems can function as either a balance of power or be shaped by diplomatic agency into a concert of powers-and the two are neither as separate nor as incompatible as is sometimes supposed. The five nations that made up the core of the European Concert of Powers from 1815 to 1914—Britain, France, Russia, Prussia and Austria—mutated into a balance of power when the consensus among them failed, as it did temporarily in the period between 1854 and 1871, and as it did catastrophically in 1914.
Washington’s diplomatic and military choices in the next two decades will determine whether and to what extent the current unipolar world mutates into a multipolar global balance of power—probably a tension-ridden and fractious one—or coalesces into a more cohesive, crisis-managing concert of powers. The world will be much less in danger of hegemonic war if the foundation of the second model is laid during the long unipolar twilight before us, for preventing such a war is the primary function of a concert of powers. And we have evidence that it works.
The historical evidence appears to indicate that the 19th-century Concert was more successful at preventing hegemonic war than the Wilsonian systems that succeeded it. There was no hegemonic war between 1815 and 1914 despite continuous high tensions between Britain and France over Africa, and between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and Persia. The two major wars of the century, the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, did not become hegemonic wars because consensus within the Concert prevented it. By contrast, in the period of the two formal international organizations, the League of Nations and the United Nations, there have arguably been three hegemonic wars: World War II, the Cold War and now the jihadists’ war—which is a hegemonic war at least in the sense that it is about the order of power in the world and is strategically global in scope. In this light, it seems reasonable enough to say that the old, informal Concert was more effective in its most essential task than its two successors (though the question of why that is so is too large to discuss here).
As with the 19th-century Concert, then, our world in the future will be much safer if the major powers operate, or seek to operate, primarily as a concert. For one thing, there will be at least seven nuclear weapons states among them, possibly more. In the asymmetric war we now endure, the jihadists can inflict death and damage on what seems a large scale, but the assessment for a nuclear war among the great powers is 300 million dead in the first hour. Not even the most ambitious jihadist could aspire to that.
Some fervid U.S. nationalists may be inclined to see the essential processes involved in maintaining a concert of powers—processes having to do with multilateral decision-making and consultation—as the lately ubiquitous Gulliver again allowing himself to be tied down by Lilliputians and railed against by Yahoos. But the realities of the relationships that are already emerging will force the recognition on even the most Jacksonian-minded Americans that some of the possible challengers are by no means Lilliputian in size. Most will come to see, too, that the alternative prospect, a balance of power, might readily be converted into an anti-hegemonic alliance directed against the United States. That would be the worst possible outcome for Washington’s diplomacy, but for the first time in U.S. history it is no longer inconceivable.
Indeed, there has already been a moment when that outcome looked close to emerging. At the decision point of the Iraq crisis in mid-March 2003, one could see it as a specter hanging in the air of the UN’s corridors. The final prewar resolution seeking UN legitimation of the invasion of Iraq had to be withdrawn, not because France was preparing to cast a veto, but because the resolution might have failed of a simple majority in the Security Council. And some of the countries that were steeling themselves to refuse approval of Washington’s strategy were ones which earlier would have been seen as U.S. client states. Their desertion would have been a first milestone on the path away from unipolarity, a development that the first Bush term made more likely in many ways.
Most of Washington’s allies, formal and informal, were willing and indeed eager to stay on the U.S. bandwagon during the Cold War because, some bad moments aside, the general course of American policy seemed prudent. But from 2002 to 2005 that vital attribute, prudence, seemed absent from Bush Administration policies. The United States became, as Owen Harries eloquently pointed out in his 2003 Boyer Lectures, a revisionist power that aimed to transform the whole society of states into something that looked suspiciously like an image of itself writ very large. Indeed, the world just then could be seen as torn between two fundamentalist revisionist doctrines, since the jihadists are even keener on transforming governments, especially Arab ones, than the most ardent Washington hawk.
The results were sobering. At the end of 2001, the United States enjoyed the sympathy and support of almost the entire world, save for a few Muslim communities. By the end of 2005 popular sentiment even among its two closest allies, Britain and Australia, is pervasively anti-American. A few years ago it would have seemed almost certain that the Latin Americans would remain on the U.S. bandwagon. But the Organization of American States has elected as secretary-general a candidate that Hugo Chavez and his friend Fidel Castro liked rather than the one favored by the State Department; refused to back Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s proposals for a new defense accord; and refused to support, even diplomatically at the United Nations, the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Even Chinese diplomacy seems to be doing better in some regions lately than American. The July 2005 communiqué of the Shanghai Group (Russia, China and the Central Asians, joined for this meeting by India, Pakistan and Iran) inquired tartly when the United States was going to remove its bases from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Russia-China connection is a reminder that Russia will probably inherit Britain’s old role as the “balancer” in any revived multilateral balance, since it has the potential to align with the EU, China, India or the United States, as best suits its national interests.
In the second Bush term, the prospect of widespread and sudden allied desertions has faded for the time being. But it can rise up again like the phoenix, and would almost certainly do so if Washington appeared bent on intolerably dangerous and destructive strategies. The most obvious such strategy would be one likely to precipitate war with China, but there are other forms of dangerous and destructive strategy, as well. Some of them are bound up with what could turn into an injudicious campaign to democratize the Middle East.
The changes the United States desires in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds are indeed desirable, but can democracy really be exported on Abrams tanks? And the assumption that democracies never make war on each other, so blithely and regularly asserted by President Bush, rests on very thin historical ice. Until about the middle of the 20th century there were very few democracies, and still fewer that had been in existence for a reasonable length of time. The three most important and obvious examples, Britain, France and the United States, showed no tendency whatsoever to avoid the use of warfare (think of the 19th-century histories of all three). Democracies tend to be fervently nationalistic, particularly young democracies. And wars of nationalism above all have composed much of human history for the past three centuries. Nationalism’s fervor seems now to be subdued in Europe, its original home, but to be burgeoning in the rest of the world. No case exists for assuming that it will prove less lethal among its new hosts than it was among its original ones.
The faith-based, ahistorical assertions of the Bush Administration are already sufficient explanation for a certain rarified form of anti-Americanism, mainly in the West. The pervasive, almost automatic anti-Americanism of much of the contemporary world, however, stems from another source. The very fact of unipolarity is in itself a fount of resentment. Every society has to reflect from time to time that, though all sovereignties may be theoretically equal, one is for the time being a great deal more equal than all the others. The great powers of the past were similarly resented, but those resentments could at least be divided among a number of targets. Now they are practically all directed at Washington, seen as arrogating to itself the management of the world, and as managing it badly by the light of illusion-ridden concepts of what level of enforced change in other societies is possible.
It doesn’t help, either, that the tarnished image of American competence has been accompanied by shocking and unexpected questions about its probity. Lord Acton’s old tag that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has seemed uncomfortably relevant at times, especially when the news has been from Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.
Washington can in due course offset prevalent views about U.S. power. All that is necessary to begin is for U.S. statesmen to treat the emerging company of giants as if they were a concert of powers. Treated as such, they will have strong incentives to act that way, for it is in their overall interests in order and stability to do so. The twilight of unipolarity is likely to be quite long drawn out—20 years or more—so there should be time enough for useful habits of consultation to set in. For Washington, the interim period could be regarded as a sort of “practice session” to develop the necessary diplomatic modes before the realities of power redistribution make them mandatory. The first effort must obviously be to reduce the suspicion, widespread among governments as well as common citizens, that Washington is irredeemably unilateralist. A unipolar world undoubtedly does tempt the paramount power to pursue unilateralist policies, but that temptation can be resisted by policymakers who understand the diplomatic costs of yielding to it.
The mix of military hubris and nationalist messianism among neoconservatives and Evangelical Christians, which fostered the disastrous strategy in Iraq, has apparently exhausted itself. At least the past few months of U.S. policies on North Korea and Iran appear to indicate as much. Washington has let China carry the ball on North Korea, and the Europeans and the UN do so on Iran. That has been encouraging. Moreover, recent policy on India and Japan seems to signal that someone with real clout in the Administration (Dr. Rice?) is thinking in balance of power terms. The Wilsonian rejection of that traditional rule of thumb is likely to prove impractical in the emerging society of states, which is probably going to run to twelve great powers, most of them nuclear.
Luckily there is already to hand a diplomatic grouping that can help promote the inevitably slow mutation from balance of power calculations to concert of powers architecture. In diplomacy as in bridge-building, any viable construction has to be based on a prudent preliminary assessment of strengths and stresses. The diplomatic asset I have in mind is not the Security Council (one can hardly see John Bolton developing zeal for the task) but the G-8, which could readily become the G-12 if the present members decide to issue the invitations. The next to be invited should clearly be India and China. The group as a whole could evolve quickly into an embryonic concert of powers, at first economically focused and in time diplomatically so. Its dominant spirit at the moment is Tony Blair, and he may retain that status for longer than his formal role, because the other possible contenders (Bush, Koizumi, Chirac, Berlusconi, Merkel) all seem to have some count against them. But the truly crucial players in this diplomatic enterprise will be the decision-makers of the great powers in the 2020s and 2030s. For the rest of this decade and probably for much of the next, the jihadists’ war seems likely to serve as a sufficient bond to hold the great powers together. They all have something to fear. It is when that threat has waned or vanished that a stable consensus on the advantages of cooperation will be vital.
It is therefore imperative that American statesmen look beyond current challenges and grasp the shape of the future. The current restiveness among traditional U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific is only part of the formidable complexity of the next phase of international history, rather little of which, when one comes right down to it, is liable to focus on Muslim terrorists or the dangerously vulnerable states of the Middle East. As many are wont to remind us lately, the owl of Minerva takes wing only at dusk. As the twilight of the unipolar world deepens, let us hope that it has an appointment in Washington.
1 As described in Zbigniew Brzezinski, "The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign", The American Interest (Autumn 2005).
2 As described in Kishore Mahbubani, "Asia's Destiny, America's Choice", The American Interest (Autumn 2005).
3 Some of the U.S. press denounced British policies as an attempt to undermine the Monroe Doctrine, and some policymakers in London became rather huffy about what they regarded as U.S. intervention in an issue that was none of America's concern. There was even mention of hostilities, but more prudent voices prevailed.