The False Promise of Multi-Polarity in International Relations

16 09 2008


With the collapse of the USSR and other socialist States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, multipolarity became the much sought after ideal for almost all progressives as they sought resources to counter the rampant global strides of the sole superpower, the USA. Today when a return of the former socialist States is neither possible nor perhaps even desirable, multipolarity is seen as perhaps the only option to hedge in the arrogant brutality of the US war machine. I would like to argue that multipolarity is like the “opium of the masses”, it is merely a “sigh of the oppressed creature” which provides fleeting relief in times of trouble, but like opium it is a poison which may even prove fatal in the long run.

The conclusion of the Second World War with the defeat of Nazism inaugurated an era of bi-polarity in international relations with the world divided into two armed camps led by the United States and the Soviet Union. While on the face of it, this was like any other armed face-off between two militarily powerful groups of allies, there was a qualitatively different nature to this conflict. The USSR and its allies provided an alternative to the oppression, aggression and exploitation of the old colonial powers, now organised around the military might of the United States. It is no coincidence that the leading countries in the Non-Aligned Movement ended up indirectly supporting or taking the support of the USSR and its allies. Colonies fighting for independence and people organising against exploitation often found dis-interested help and support from the USSR and its allies. The State Department of the United States wasn’t too off the mark when it accused the Non-Aligned Movement with “aligning” with the Soviet Union. The objective conditions of the world were such that for any newly independent country which wanted to preserve its political independence and defend its economic autonomy from attacks by the imperialist powers, the only option was to lean on the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the USSR and its allies themselves were riddled with shortcomings and weaknesses. Internally they were totalitarian political structures which often denied their own citizens basic democratic rights and had, in a strange manner, depoliticised their own working classes and peasantry. Even in their external relations, while the former socialist States did support and help the decolonising world, often their sectarianism got in the way. Who can forget the deplorable Soviet military forays into Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Who can forget that in 1979 China attacked and invaded Vietnam, which had just emerged out of three decades of the most brutal war with France and USA. Finally, the socialist States could not break out of the trap of low productivity and economic – political stagnation. Despite all these weaknesses and shortcomings the socialist States played a progressive role, especially in the context of the third world and in keeping a check on the ravages of imperialism.

The collapse of the socialist State system led to a breakdown of the balance of power and the emergence of the USA as the sole superpower. This new, and unquestioned, military dominance was quickly put to use to concentrate economic and political power with the USA. What is important to remember is that prior to 1990-91, the military power of the United States was used to defend the interests of the imperialists powers of the entire world – from Japan to Europe. But with the collapse of the USSR and its allies, the objective conditions changed overnight. The military power of the United States was now its own to shore up its individual power vis-à-vis the other powerful nations of the world.

Within a few years of the collapse of the Soviet Union a new trade regime – World Trade Organisation – was instituted and Nato started expanding from the North Atlantic to Eastern Europe. The USA also moved quickly to physically control the oil resources of the world. In much of this, it has been largely successful and even today its military – economic – political might remain unparalleled. It alone spends half the global military budget, has military bases strewn all over the world and controls, through an increasingly restrictive intellectual rights regime, much of the advanced technology of the world. Almost half of the world’s capital is concentrated in individuals and companies which are based in the United States.

This absence of an opposite pole and the increasing power of the United States reduces the space other countries have of taking sovereign decisions and often forces them to compromise their own national self-interests for the sake of peace and economic stability with US demands. This has created a strong demand for one or more power centres to check the hegemony of the USA. This subjective demand has been complimented by the objective rise in economic and political power of some other components of the global imperialist system. Europe has started consolidating into a truly common economic unit which is a clear rival to the USA. China is clearly emerging as a military and economic heavyweight in Asia and the Pacific. Russia too has started flexing its considerable military muscle in association with its increasing control over hydro-carbon reserves of Siberia and Central Asia. Together these two Eurasian powers are emerging as important checks on US military hegemony, if they are still some way off from becoming economic competitors. On the other hand, the EU is emerging as a serious competitor to the economic domination of the US even though it has no independent military power outside of US controlled NATO. The proposal for a European army outside NATO is yet to be acutalised, even though Germany and France seem quite keen.

In a very real sense, the world is slowly but surely moving into a phase of multi-polarity and for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA finds its authority and power being seriously questioned. But this check on the hegemony of the USA is coming from States which themselves harbour imperialist ambitions and are intrinsic parts of the globalised economic world system. They do not provide any alternative to the USA in terms of ideology, ethics, economic organisation or social justice. They just want to combat the hegemony of the pre-eminent power so that they can exercise their own power in exactly the same manner. An analogy would be that a neighbourhood is tormented by one domineering and violent mafia gang which controls all economic activity and then there emerge one or two alternate mafia gangs which challenge the power of the former. For residents of that neighbourhood, the emergence of rival gangs can sometimes provide immediate relief of the most basic sort from the depredations of the main mafia gang. But in the long term, all it does is to make the neighbourhood more dangerous and violent and reduces the possibility of civil life even further.

Similar is the danger of the rise of multipolarity. In an immediate and very basic sense, it challenges the power of the United States but the rise of other, equally predatory imperialist powers merely adds to the violence and oppression of the world. Multipolarity is good news for the non-US based capitalist classes, it is more of the same for the working people and oppressed. It is a chimera we need to rid ourselves of at the earliest and start building truly democratic global institutions which will provide an alternative to our crisis ridden, violent, exploitative and oppressive world.

~  ~  ~






8 responses

16 09 2008

I see the logic behind your argument, it is going to be more of the same.

And it might not necessarily bring greater stability: given the shared economic and political worldview of the new players, it will be more of the same. Instead of one country being “adventurous”, there will be more of them.

The multipolar world in the making wouldn’t challenge the basic tenets of the world order, so why not let go of it? The question then is this: is there any alternative that can be lobbied for?

16 09 2008
Abhik Majumdar

I agree with your projections about the present and the future, but was the past any different? I wonder how valid the phrase “dis-interested help and support” is.

17 09 2008

A couple of points need to be made before we make any conclusions regarding the world supposedly moving into an era of multipolarity.

Firstly we need to understand the basis of US hegemony in the current phase of history. To me, the singlemost basis comes from the unique role played by the US Federal Reserve in it’s ability to issue the only currency that can act as the global medium of transaction. This puts US in a unique position: it is the only country which can follow a truly independent economic policy by running as much of current account deficit it wants, without getting into a debt or financial crisis, since any such crisis will also pull the entire world with it. As dollar constitutes the major element of foreign reserve holding of the entire world, the rest of the world, in a sense, is obliged to finance the current account deficit of US. No challenge to the US hegemony is possible without challenging this basic role played by dollar in international transactions.

Secondly, this unique role played by dollar comes from it’s ability to maintain the stability of it’s value vis-a-vis commodities, especially those commodities that form an important part in any production chain. The most important of such commodities, of course, is oil in particular and energy in general (which might include natural gas as an alternative source of energy). This explains why US is so keen to control, militarily and politically, almost the entire oil and energy reserve in the world. Recall that one of the main provocations behind US attack on Iraq in 2004 was a threat by it to delink oil trade from dollar. This also explains how Venezuela, to an extent, is able to follow an independent economic policy when most other neighboring countries had earlier failed to do so.

Hence, for ANY developing country, of whatever orientation, to follow an independent economic policy, it is important to challenge the stability of dollar price of energy, which can only be done by challenging the US military and political control over energy resources. I do not view that happening in near future, hence I do not see how the world is moving to an era of multipolarity. However, I do feel that for any one interested in an economic policy anywhere that is independent of US, the armed resistance movements in Iraq as well as the events in Central Asia hold an important promise. These events are more important than a simple fight for hegemony, since these events, in the long-run has the potential of challenging the unique role played by dollar in the world economy.

17 09 2008

One more small point: don’t you think that it is a distortion of history to suggest that China attacked Vietnam? Was it not Vietnam which invaded Cambodia at a time when it was putting in place one of the most radical economic policy in the history of the region? Correct me if I am wrong!

21 09 2008
Aniket Alam

Some more action here and onwards…

21 09 2008
Oppression » Mumia Abu-Jamal -- Just in the Name of Democracy

[…] The False Promise of Multi-Polarity in International RelationsWho can forget that in 1979 China attacked and invaded Vietnam, which had just emerged out of three decades of the most brutal war with France and USA. Finally, the socialist States could not break out of the trap of low productivity … […]

21 10 2008
Nabina Das

Thanks for coming to my space…
Here’s my reply (on my blog too)
“yes, inshallah! by the way, nice to see you finally in my blog space, der aye par durast aye…

Hey, if I’m rich and famous, I’m sure to squander everything traveling and eating (and of course buying books…). But the tragedy is that abhi bhi ‘miles to go before I sleep’! Anyway, cliches apart, I still need to wrestle on my novel manuscript that’s lying I’m sure, in the publisher’s slush pile… kuchh karo baba, use your clout and tell them I’m the next aravind adiga!

Why no recent blog updates? do you write only scholarly stuff?”
Talk soon, cheers!

22 10 2008
Nabina Das

I like this padha-likha blog but yes, you need a less formal voice… so giddy up and get another space. As about kadvi sach in meethi goli, can we do it face to face, please?! Besides, even if you postpone it for ever, I won;t mind now! And I’m bringing back Charulata on my FB, decided I like the epithet! So there’s a new movie huh? Will check it out. Lal Salaam.

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