PolicyMic pundit David Beitelman recently outlined how the U.S. remains a superpower in this day and age. Beitelman’s theory, however, is faulty. He is using classical realism as his paradigm of analysis, for which power is the only viable criteria for analyzing international relations. It has never been possible to reduce the complexity of the world to mere power ratios; it is irrational and unpredictable. Multipolarity offers a better analytical paradigm, because no single power can ever have complete control over the world, and in a time of declining U.S. influence, it is increasingly important to use it to reflect the rising regional players.
Andrei Gromyko’s definition of superpower, which Beitelman uses, as “a country that has a say in every corner of the globe and without whose say nothing truly substantial can be achieved in any such corner” is sufficient for our purposes. Cyber attacks, as showcased by China, can have a detrimental effect on infrastructures in America. The global economic turmoil we’re facing began with the meltdown of Lehman Brothers three years ago. If China releases its trillion dollar reserves, the U.S. will be over as a political project; hyperinflation tends to reset small states but will likely destroy the United States’ political unity – suddenly power assumes an entirely new quality. The purpose of these examples is to illustrate the deep interdependence of the international system, both in the way of strengths and vulnerabilities that go above the state level; in this way, a unipolar analysis is simply irrelevant.
Communications and global finance offer an alternative to power as understood by classical international relations theory. Both have global reach and consequences that do not involve hard power but have arguably greater effects. Hard power remains a potent means of foreign policy, but it is eclipsed by the aforementioned interdependence of the international system – namely, multipolarity.
In the not-too-distant past, Turkey and Brazil offered a solution for the impasse of Iran’s nuclear program independent of U.S. involvement. And last week, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, submitted a bid for Palestinian member-state status in the UN, in spite of America’s intense diplomatic effort to prevent that from happening. These examples beg the question: is America still a superpower? If you ask Gromyko, no; these events show that America is trying hard to impose its relevance in global affairs, when the rest of the world seemingly thinks its opinion or position are not essential or necessary — a sign of accelerating multipolarity.
Beitelman attempts to justify GDP as a criteria for power — I put that argument to rest in my previous PolicyMic article on China with the assertion that China does not need to be economically more powerful than the United States to be relatively stronger.
We have been living in a multipolar world for about 10 years now — else France and Germany would not have opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, China would not be expanding into Africa and flexing its foreign policy muscles, the euro would not have become a fact in 2002, and Russia wouldn’t be buying Mistral carriers while calling America a "parasite" in the global financial system without Washington’s seal of approval. The calls for establishing a new reserve currency also puts the fate of the dollar on the map. Russia has always been able to make consequential choices without U.S. involvement. In the 2008 war with Georgia, for instance, Tbilisi’s American-trained personnel and equipment didn’t help in the end.
America has enjoyed a dominant position in the world. Yet, a multipolar system has been with us from the dawn of the 21st century and it has been accelerating proportionally with American decline. Thus, calling the world unipolar is not accurate.
The U.S. is trying to force its relevance on a world that increasingly does not see it necessary — this is the reason for Beitelman’s theoretical errors. Global finance and technology give global reach for a "developing" country like China — hard power is not necessary. Thus, we can keep the definition of superpower, but the meaning has effectively changed.
Photo Credit: wlodi