In 1990, columnist Charles Krauthammer first pronounced the coming demise of the Soviet Union as the beginning of what he termed the political globe’s “unipolar moment.”
The term was not Krauthammer’s invention, nor were the implications new to history. Indeed, most of world history to this day has consisted of imperial regimes, from Rome to China, which governed their regions from a singular source, or “pole.” However, with the end of the European “multipolar” order after World War II, the world entered nearly a half-century of “bipolar” struggle between the forces of democracy and totalitarian communism. In 1990, that “bipolar” period was closing, and a new dawn, with The United States in the ascendancy, was about to emerge.
But the moment lingered. A decade later, Krauthammer revised his estimate, and wrote, the “unipolar moment” was in fact a “unipolar era,” one, “unlike anything ever seen,” and an order likely to last for decades to come, (National Interest, Winter 2002).
Anarchy has always been the essential condition of world politics, particularly under the European order, insofar as there was never a hierarchical structure or a common culture to control events, as in all domestic political systems. But the term was qualified by the existence of an amorphous conceptual entity called the “balance of power” which was able to provide at least a mechanism, often given as automatic, which enabled member states to live within a rational political universe.
The best definition of this historic entity was provided by the British Foreign Office over a hundred years ago as Britain began aiming its foreign policy against a rising Germany. The “only check on the abuse of political predominance” by a rival, the author Eyre Crowe wrote, “has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or a combination of several countries forming leagues of defense. The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power….”
In today’s atmosphere, such strategic calculations have been lost to history. The political climate of world politics, especially from the Obama Administration, concentrates on “world community,” the environment, and social equality as the cutting edges of foreign policies for the new century. The rise of the European Union, while providing peace after centuries of war, has demonstrated a similar mindset with regard to security and, led by Germany, has welcomed the dangerously large wave of refugees into its borders. Such actions reflect the new anarchy infecting contemporary world politics and provides an accurate forecast of times to come.
Unlike the balance of power, when there was a semblance of structure and coherence, today there is no recognized balance of power nor, like Britain in the past, no “balancer” to check revolutionary states or global movements. The last definitive time that the United States provided such leadership was early in the Cold War under the doctrine of containment and the formation of NATO. Containment ultimately led to the Reagan Doctrine of “rollback” with its global coalition including the Vatican, Saudi Arabia and the Afghanistan Mujahedeen (1980s).
Since September 11th, 2001, fourteen years ago, the United States has been actively fighting insurrection, jihad, violence and political unrest in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The results, after thousands killed or wounded, the rise of new entities (ISIS) and the destruction of whole states and geopolitical arenas have seemed to send the region into a new dark age, another description of anarchy. Russia is now an active competitor in the region.
The U.S. won World War II in three and a half years, World War I in about six months. Today, the Middle East festers for decades while the President recently told 60 Minutes that “My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change.”
The primary campaigns for 2016 reflect the same nonchalance: the main war now being fought, it seems, is against “women,” while a single incident, Benghazi, has been the focus of almost all strategic attention.
The French have a saying, sauve qui peut, “save yourself if you can.” There may have been a unipolar moment for the United States, but nobody seemed to have told the politicians.