13 11 2021

The difficult new multi-polar world

Kennedy giving his seminal speech at the American University in 1963, called the peace speech Kennedy giving his seminal speech at the American University in 1963, called the peace speech https://www.american.edu/initiatives/jfk/

Despite many denials, it is clear that the hegemonic US-lead liberal international order is on its way out. What has to come is necessarily a multi-polar world, with the US as one of the heavy players, but one among several. If you have any doubts, just listen to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, declaring that the US is entering a “tripolar” world. It will be very difficult for the US political and military establishment to accept this bitter reality, and a politician accepting it is facing a risk of political demise. This is probably the reason there is so little debate among US politicians about how the US can find a new place in this new, difficult world.

The US has been there before. After the Second World war, it was the supreme leader of the world. It came out of the war practically unscathed and with an economy producing more than ever. Japan and Germany were completely defeated and destroyed, the Soviet Union had suffered incredible destruction during the war and was struggling to come to its feet again, Britain had avoided major destruction at home but was heavily indebted to the US and was facing increasing unrest in its colonies, particularly India. Furthermore, US had as the only country in the world the nuclear bomb, and it had shown its willingness to use it by dropping nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 105,000 people immediately and another tens of thousands afterwards from burns and radiation.

The US nuclear monopoly ended when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1949. However, it took decades before the Sovet Union could produce enough means to deliver it (long range bombers and intercontinental missiles), so the US supremacy lasted until the beginning of the seventies, when the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity with the US. It was extremely difficult for the US to accept this parity.

US President John F. Kennedy said in a seminal speech in 1963: ‘No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements--in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage. He continued: ‘So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal’. The speech caused astonishment in the US and was very well received in the Soviet Union, where it was broadcast in its entirety. The two superpowers entered into a period, not of cooperation, but of relatively peaceful coexistence, which lasted until Ronald Reagan started a new arms race in the eighties aiming to break the parity, and was very close to triggering an all-out nuclear war.

I think Kennedy’s 1963-speech could be a guide to how the US approach the new multi-polar world. Just try substituting ‘communism’ in the quote above with ‘Russia’, ‘China’ or ‘Iran’. The US and NATO don’t have to like the way other countries arrange themselves. They are free to criticise them and protest. But they have to accept that other countries with their own way of organising themselves exist and understand that these have genuine security interests, and will defend themselves if they try to overthrow their governments and subdue them. It doesn’t help that this is done with the stated aim to ‘defend our values’, ‘spread democracy’ or ‘defend human rights’. We live on a small planet, and we have to live with our neighbours, even if we don’t like them.

The US thinking regarding foreign policy is normally seen as divided into two schools. The first is the ‘exceptionalists’ who argue that the US has a special historical role to bring democracy, free markets and order to the world, and to do this it should continue to strive for unrivalled military supremacy. And make war when needed. This is the dominant thinking in the US establishment. It is supported by both political parties, and by an odd mixture of old cold war warriors and ‘progressive’ human rights warriors, often even called ‘leftists’ for reasons that are difficult to understand. The other thinking is the ‘realist school’, which thinks the US should recognize that there are limits to its power, and that it must accept that there are other powers with which it will have to find a balance. The ‘realists’ are a small minority fringe, mostly old-school conservatives and absolutely no peacenicks. They also believe in US military power, support an inflated military budget and think that the US should go to war when it is considered in its interests. But they are more selective regarding when war is a good idea. So most of them argued against the wars in e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq, as they simply couldn’t see how these could be in the US’ interest. Some even were against the Vietnam War, as they didn’t believe in the then so popular ‘domino theory’, which stated that if South Vietnam ‘fell’, the other South East Asian countries would fall as dominoes. History showed that they didn’t.

President Jaques Chirac, France, was one of the few Western Leaders who embraced the concept of a multi-polar world. https://www.institutmontaigne.org/ressources/images/Blog/jacques-chirac-explorateur-du-monde-multipolaire.jpg

The US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has been a prominent advocate for neoliberal free-market shock-policy in Bolivia, Poland and Russia (with devastating effects) but now has a more benign view on international politics, has written a book proposing a new foreign policy, where he argues that there is a third school, which he denominates ‘internationalists’ and to which he says he belongs. He believes that ‘exceptionalism’ is a dangerous illusion for the US and that hard-nosed balance-of-power ‘realism’ is excessively pessimistic about the potential for cooperative diplomacy. So he advocates respect for the UN charter, arms control which accepts military parity, active diplomacy to solve conflicts, cooperation to meet the global challenges and increased development aid. He would probably have former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in his camp, but pretty few in the American Establishment. Anyway, it is a commendable effort.

It is always difficult for an Empire to dismantle itself peacefully. The Roman empire was liquidated as neighbouring warring tribes invaded and conquered it. The Spanish Empire was beaten militarily by the emerging British Empire. The Russian, Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman empires all fell victims to World War I, while the German and Japanese empires were destroyed in World War II. For a politician, dismantling an empire is an unthankful undertaking, even when it is obviously necessary. Take the dismantling of the British empire after the second world war. Winston Churchill didn’t want to: “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” As it turned out, the Empire was liquidated anyway, even if Churchill avoided doing it himself as he was lucky enough to be voted out of power in 1945. So the unthankful job fell to his successor from the Labour Party, Clement Atlee. The French President Charles de Gaulle was braver – he did it himself, conceding independence to Algeria in 1962 after more than a decade of a bloody war against the Algerians claiming independence. But it was not without costs for him. The same year he survived narrowly an assassination attempt by the terrorist organisation OAS, who believed he had betrayed France by giving up Algeria.

The difficulties are clearly visible in the recent NATO defeat in Afghanistan after twenty years of bloody war. Most people with a little bit of common sense knew that this war was not winnable and had to come to an end. Among all his blunders, former President Trump had the courage to say so and negotiate a settlement with the Taliban insurgents. And President Joe Biden had the guts to carry it through, something it is very doubtful Trump would have had. Biden didn’t do it very elegantly, but he did it. Of course, all the ‘exceptionalists’ fell over him. How could he? What about the Afghan girls? What about….? There is already now a ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend being created (see here, and here). More troops, and “we” would have won. Just a decade more, and all would be fine. The European NATO partners say they feel betrayed. If the European NATO partners really felt so betrayed they should just have said: ‘Fine, you leave, and we will take over this for-ever war’. Did they do that, or did I miss something? Some soul-searching over what they were doing in Afghanistan in the first place would have been heartening.

Biden has also aired a laudable idea of changing the US Strategy for use of Nuclear Weapons, proposing a so-called ‘sole-purpose use’ of nuclear weapons. China has a declared ‘no-first-use’ policy. The Soviet Union had that too, but a militarily weak Russia changed that strategy in 1993 allowing for use of nuclear weapons in case of the nation being attacked and in danger, even if with conventional weapons (very similar to ‘sole-purpose’). The idea of ‘sole-purpose’ is a second-best solution to ‘no-first-use’, but has already received a resounding rejection from NATO countries as France, Germany and UK and NATO-ally Australia. The protest from the European countries is strange, as the whole of Europe would be completely destroyed and made inhabitable in case of a major nuclear conflagration, while the US might just survive.1)

There are still people who seem to be fascinated by the idea of a nuclear war in Europe. Here the Tabloid The Sun from

As we can see, even these very timid steps towards a more peaceful multi-polar world turn out to be extremely difficult. So it seems the new multi-polar world will face a difficult birth indeed.




1) The US strategy was contained in a secretive document called: Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), valid until 2003. After that there is a renaming, but we don’t know what it contains. The calculation of the casualties from the SIOP from 1962 in case of a nuclear war were completely insane. ‘If the United States received information about a pending Soviet nuclear attack, it would then unleash a preemptive nuclear strike involving 3,423 nuclear weapons. It was estimated that the U.S. nuclear attack would kill around 285 million Soviets and Chinese and another 100 million Eastern Europeans. Another 100 million people in allied NATO nations would likely die, as would an additional 100 million neutral citizens around the world, all from radiation spread by the fallout from these attacks. Given the need to assure that a given target was hit, redundancy was built into the SIOP-62 plan, which had several nuclear weapons, in some instances between six and ten, assigned to each target. In short, the United States was committed to a plan of global destruction that could occur based simply on a perception of Soviet intent or out of a limited, nonnuclear conflict’ Scott Ritter: The Scorpion King, 2010.


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