Overtime For The Unipolar Moment




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In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, America adopted a new posture vis-a-vis the world, awakening to a threat that had been gathering for some time.  The nation, its leaders, its armed forces, and its people adapted.  But so did the enemy.  Initially, the adversary was Al Qaeda, a shadowy yet tangible network of Islamic extremists under the operational direction of Osama bin Laden.  Today, as manifested by two alienated Chechen immigrants in Boston, the threat is completely invisible and wholly self-initiated.  No matter how many terrorists are eliminated, more will only materialize from the ether, inspired by the innumerable denunciations careening online.  The apprehension wrought by unforeseeable attacks is quite a reversal from the heady days when America found itself the lone superpower.  Daily news of terrorist attempts and the proclamations of a “post-American world” -- they all seem to confirm the “unipolar moment" has indeed passed.  Or has it?

Just a Moment in Time

In his landmark article “The Unipolar Moment,” Charles Krauthammer declared that, contrary to conventional wisdom, power in the post-Cold War would not be distributed, that America’s continued active global engagement would not be automatic, and that the threat to world peace would actually increase, particularly in tandem with and because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  

Krauthammer acknowledged sustaining involvement abroad would have to surmount the impulse to rest after the labors of the Cold War and to become more selective as to what values and interests were deemed vital.  He argued recognizing new threats would require standing ready to avert chaos, a mission less grandiose than defending democracy against totalitarian ideologies.

Unfortunately, the potential of such insight was only partly realized.  

America only addressed the threat posed by “weapon states” like Iraq after September 11; the procrastination and lack of preparedness resulted in a bloody and costly decade-long occupation.  America not only upheld interests around the globe but complicated their defense first, by insisting on receiving multilateral endorsement, and second, by expanding the definition of vital to include ending genocide and thwarting climate change.  

Lastly, as Krauthammer warned, unipolarity has indeed been brief because America has failed to address the altruistic overstretch undermining its economy.

Accordingly, observers now describe a “non-polar world” and predict the world is “marching toward anarchy.”

The latter prognosis was submitted by Robert Kaplan, who, like Krauthammer, reiterates the opposite of anarchy is not stability, but hierarchy.  Krauthammer was diagnosing the international state system, but Kaplan was describing an anarchy set in motion by the latest phase of globalization and facilitated by the permeation of network technologies which have empowered individuals to a degree unforeseen when Krauthammer first submitted his thesis twenty-three years ago.

Krauthammer and Kaplan both agree hierarchy, while inherently unequal, provides the basis for order.  

However, the hegemon Krauthammer envisioned is no longer threatened by a challenger, but a network of insurgents, as predicted by military theorist John Arquilla, and global guerillas sharing inspiration and weapons know-how across the Internet, as described by another military theorist, John Robb.  They decline to exercise sovereignty as they have awoken to the “power of statelessness,” as demonstrated by American scholar Jakub Grygiel.  In a cruel inversion of American strategist Tom Barnett’s thesis that disconnectedness defines danger, connectivity has engendered it.

Updating Krauthammer’s Essay or Why Overtime May Be Sanctioned

According to Krauthammer, the "most crucial" aspect of the post-Cold War world was the "emergency of a new strategic environment marked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."  Krauthammer introduces the concept of "weapon state" to describe the monstrous dictatorships armed to the teeth, harboring deep grievances against the West, and ready to subvert the status quo at any turn.

Replace “weapon state” with “radicalized loner” and the nature of the threat to the Westphalian state system becomes evident.

As noted previously, states are extremely reluctant to relinquish sovereignty and the United States, for one, has demonstrated the capacity to adapt.  Witness America’s forging of its own counter-network -- the Joint Special Operations Command, a veritable “industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.”  

In May 2012, American commandos killed Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan. Unmanned American assets undertake strikes against enemy operatives and are being based around the world.  The current administration has declined to identify how many of the enemy have been killed by remotely-piloted vehicles, but one prominent Senator stated the number was 4,700.

In 2001, the nation’s allies declared “we are all Americans,” but when America sought to wage war on the enemy’s soil rather than its own, its allies refrained.

In 2013, France, the most prominent critic of American “hyperpuissance,” took the fight to Al Qaeda-inspired extremists in Mali.  American assistance in the form of unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets was critical.  

If the prism is the state system and the degree of polarity, then the Unipolar Moment is indeed over.  

If the prism is the Westphalian era and the durability of the state system, then the American Unipolar Moment will go into overtime...

Caveat Bellator

The American government has yet to publicly delineate and specify the basis for its use of remotely-piloted assets against enemy operatives on foreign soil and domestic opinion, while increasingly skeptical, remains firmly in favor of their continued use.  Similarly, international opinion, save for disingenuous protests from Pakistan and a United Nations investigation, has generally been muted.

America’s pioneering use of drones demonstrates counter-terrorism can be surgical, cheap, and casualty-free.  Relying on drones means never having to deploy occupation forces.

...but, of course, overtimes end in sudden death and the end of an extended unipolar moment could similarly be abrupt and unsettling.

As with the unipolar moment’s antecedent, the Cold War, a technological breakthrough only begets an arms race and America’s advantage is only tenuous at best. According to American scholar Michael J. Boyle, 680 drone programs are presently underway around the world and, at least 76 countries have acquired unmanned aerial vehicle technology, including Russia, China, Pakistan and India.  

Boyle warns the proliferation of drone technology could divide the world into haves and have-nots.  Incumbents of the Westphalian system are counting on this prospect but do so only at the risk of Boyle’s other more pertinent warnings:  states will inevitably use drones in ways that are inconsistent with US interests; drone technology will undermine the concept of deterrence; and norms on the use of force will diminish.

If the unipolar moment is to last just a bit longer, then why Krauthammer articulated his conclusions is worth remembering.  

Krauthammer submitted his argument not in thrall to the notion of American hegemony, but in service of reminding American leadership they must soberly recognize the challenge presented by “abnormal times” and accept the responsibility of conceiving and enforcing new rules for a new security environment.

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