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Dreams of a Comforting Future

By Taylor Marvin

At Ordinary Gentlemen, Nob Akimoto admirably strives to create a theoretical case for Mitt Romney’s proposed foreign policy, one that rests on the belief that the US must continue to exert hegemony over as much of the world as possible:

“The United States and its interests are most secure when it has a preponderance of military power. In short: a unipolar world is the safest world. US foreign policy in turn should be about the maintenance of unipolarity as much as possible.”

This argument is nearly identical to one offered in the foreign policy section of the Romney campaign website:

“When America is strong, the world is safer. It is only American power—conceived in the broadest terms—that can provide the foundation for an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies.”

The United States was able to enjoy a unipolar world for the last two decades primarily because it was the only existing great power left standing, rather than particularly adept statesmanship. The first wave of nations to industrialize and consequently create militaries capable of creating true regional hegemonies and projecting limited power on a global scale destroyed these capabilities in the two European world wars of the early 20th century. Of the second wave of industrializing powers, only the US and USSR’s industrial bases and consequently military might survived the Second World War. By 1990 the US was left the sole global power as the USSR’s inability to grow its non-defense domestic economy and manage political dissent ended its great power status. What’s important to realize is that while the US attained global hegemonic power partially through “exceptional” traits — an ocean’s worth of distance separating it from any rival, for instance — the unipolar world of the era between 1990 and maybe 2020 was mostly due to external factors the US had little influence over: European powers’ propensity for destructive wars and imperial overreach, Japan’s self-defeating aggressiveness, and the Soviets’ inability to manage their domestic economy.

Romney and his fellow neo-conservative travelers appear to have misinterpreted the United States’ asent to mastery of a unipolar world to mean that the only thing standing between America and perpetual unipolarity is will: only a “strong” America — and the Romney campaign reads strength only as hegemony — can preserve the postwar international system.

It may be true that a multipolar world will not be as amenable to the open and globalized system of the post-war era. But it is not clear that America has any real power to preserve the current unipolar world order at all. Today a third wave of industrialized countries with rapidly increasing military capabilities are emerging and, in a world where industrial and information technology is rapidly disseminated, the basis for great power status is increasingly population, not technological and social infrastructure. China and India both have much larger populations than the United States; while the United States will retain global military superiority over these countries for decades to come, it is silly to think that a country with both a population and economy many times larger than America’s will not be able to exert control over its own region. Unless these rising powers are hampered by insurmountable internal weaknesses like the USSR there is no reason to think it is possible — or desirable, if you admit that economic growth and associated rising standards of living abroad are good for humanity in general — for the United States to preserve a unipolar system.

Basing foreign policy around the idea that maintaining the unipolar world is essential is magical thinking, and is a recipe for a more dangerous future. The United States should not chart impossible courses. Barring an unforeseen upset, China will become the dominant power in East Asia in the foreseeable future. Attempting to prevent or delay this shift is unlikely to succeed at acceptable cost, and will only convince future generations of Chinese leaders that the current international system is hostile and worth combating.

With many missteps the United States managed the transition from a bipolar world to today’s unipolar one. If it cannot admit that a multipolar world is coming, it will be unable to peacefully manage this future transition.

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