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Time to come to grips with life after US dominance

  • 09 November 2015

In 1985-1990, as the defeated and dysfunctional Soviet Union eked out its final years under Gorbachev, Western foreign policy theorists were thinking about the looming end of US/Soviet Cold War bipolarity and its replacement with a stable multipolar global system.

They envisaged an international security system resting on several great powers, not necessarily equal in power, but in which all felt their national security was protected by a UN Security Council-based and rules-based international order.

It turned out we were 20 to 30 years too early. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world entered a long unipolar moment of US hegemonic exceptionalism, which ended ...

But when did it end?

With the 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US heartland?

With the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq after a costly and bloody military occupation?

With Russian President Putin's newfound resolve in 2008 when, after eight years of trying to reach a modus vivendi with a triumphant United States, he began to confront US/NATO pressure to move into Russia's vulnerable Western borderlands, first in Georgia and later in Ukraine?

With the coming to power in China in 2012 of the vigorous nationalist leader Premier Xi Jinping?

Or now in 2015, with Russia's military assistance to the Assad government in Syria, and China's intensification of its fortification of islets and reefs in the South China Sea, despite US anger?

Professor Ramesh Thakur at the Australian National University has noted that it is hard to map great power transitions with confidence while they are occurring, and that there are increased risks to peace during these transitions. We are in such a period now.

Whatever the date of the tipping point, the US unipolar moment is ending. Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa (the BRICS) and Iran are testing new multipolar arrangements for sharing world power — initially in finance and trade, but as we will find in coming years, in politics as well.

The former 'indispensable' power' of the past 25 years hates and fears these changes, and would prefer to corral everybody back into the familiar bipolar camps of the past.

We are looking, at worst, at a potential new bipolarity of the US with its loyal allies or satellites (NATO/ EU, Japan, Canada and Australia, pro-US Arab states) confronting a new Eastern continental power bloc led by an economically strong China, but with Russia's revamped military strength providing much of the nuclear deterrent, conventional power projection forces and strategic depth.

This would be