Already Clearly Past Its Zenith

The Sole Superpower in Decline: The Rise of a Multipolar World
By Dilip Hiro

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States stood tall — militarily invincible, economically unrivalled, diplomatically uncontestable, and the dominating force on information channels worldwide. The next century was to be the true “American century,” with the rest of the world molding itself in the image of the sole superpower.

Yet, with not even a decade of this century behind us, we are already witnessing the rise of a multipolar world in which new powers are challenging different aspects of American supremacy — Russia and China in the forefront, with regional powers Venezuela and Iran forming the second rank. These emergent powers are primed to erode American hegemony, not confront it, singly or jointly.

How and why has the world evolved in this way so soon? The Bush administration’s debacle in Iraq is certainly a major factor in this transformation, a classic example of an imperialist power, brimming with hubris, over-extending itself. To the relief of many — in the U. S. and elsewhere — the Iraq fiasco has demonstrated the striking limitations of power for the globe’s highest-tech, most destructive military machine. In Iraq, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two U.S. presidents, concedes in a recent op-ed, “We are being wrestled to a draw by opponents who are not even an organized state adversary.”

The invasion and subsequent disastrous occupation of Iraq and the mismanaged military campaign in Afghanistan have crippled the credibility of the United States. The scandals at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba, along with the widely publicized murders of Iraqi civilians in Haditha, have badly tarnished America’s moral self-image. In the latest opinion poll, even in a secular state and member of NATO like Turkey, only 9% of Turks have a “favorable view” of the U.S. (down from 52% just five years ago).

Yet there are other explanations — unrelated to Washington’s glaring misadventures — for the current transformation in international affairs. These include, above all, the tightening market in oil and natural gas, which has enhanced the power of hydrocarbon-rich nations as never before; the rapid economic expansion of the mega-nations China and India; the transformation of China into the globe’s leading manufacturing base; and the end of the Anglo-American duopoly in international television news.

Many Channels, Diverse Perceptions

During the 1991 Gulf War, only CNN and the BBC had correspondents in Baghdad. So the international TV audience, irrespective of its location, saw the conflict through their lenses. Twelve years later, when the Bush administration, backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, invaded Iraq, Al Jazeera Arabic broke this duopoly. It relayed images — and facts — that contradicted the Pentagon’s presentation. For the first time in history, the world witnessed two versions of an ongoing war in real time. So credible was the Al Jazeera Arabic version that many television companies outside the Arabic-speaking world — in Europe, Asia and Latin America — showed its clips.

Though, in theory, the growth of cable television worldwide raised the prospect of ending the Anglo-American duopoly in 24-hour TV news, not much had happened due to the exorbitant cost of gathering and editing TV news. It was only the arrival of Al Jazeera English, funded by the hydrocarbon-rich emirate of Qatar — with its declared policy of offering a global perspective from an Arab and Muslim angle — that, in 2006, finally broke the long-established mold.

Soon France 24 came on the air, broadcasting in English and French from a French viewpoint, followed in mid-2007 by the English-language Press TV, which aimed to provide an Iranian perspective. Russia was next in line for 24-hour TV news in English for the global audience. Meanwhile, spurred by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Telesur, a pan-Latin-American TV channel based in Caracas, began competing with CNN in Spanish for a mass audience.

As with Qatar, so with Russia and Venezuela, the funding for these TV news ventures has come from soaring national hydrocarbon incomes — a factor draining American hegemony not just in imagery but in reality.

Russia, an Energy Superpower

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has more than recovered from the economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After effectively renationalizing the energy industry through state-controlled corporations, he began deploying its economic clout to further Russia’s foreign policy interests.

In 2005, Russia overtook the United States, becoming the second largest oil producer in the world. Its oil income now amounts to $679 million a day. European countries dependent on imported Russian oil now include Hungary, Poland, Germany, and even Britain.

Russia is also the largest producer of natural gas on the planet, with three-fifths of its gas exports going to the 27-member European Union (EU). Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, and Slovakia get 100% of their natural gas from Russia; Turkey, 66%; Poland, 58%; Germany 41%; and France 25%. Gazprom, the biggest natural gas enterprise on Earth, has established stakes in sixteen EU countries. In 2006, the Kremlin’s foreign reserves stood at $315 billion, up from a paltry $12 billion in 1999. Little wonder that, in July 2006 on the eve of the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Putin rejected an energy charter proposed by the Western leaders.

Soaring foreign-exchange reserves, new ballistic missiles, and closer links with a prospering China — with which it conducted joint military exercises on China’s Shandong Peninsula in August 2005 — enabled Putin to deal with his American counterpart, President George W. Bush, as an equal, not mincing his words when appraising American policies.

“One country, the United States, has overstepped its national boundaries in every way,” Putin told the 43rd Munich Trans-Atlantic conference on security policy in February 2007. “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations…This is very dangerous.”

Condemning the concept of a “unipolar world,” he added: “However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it describes a scenario in which there is one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making…It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And this is pernicious.” His views fell on receptive ears in the capitals of most Asian, African, and Latin American countries.

The changing relationship between Moscow and Washington was noted, among others, by analysts and policy-makers in the hydrocarbon-rich Persian Gulf region. Commenting on the visit that Putin paid to long-time U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar after the Munich conference, Abdel Aziz Sagar, chairman of the Gulf Research Center, wrote in the Doha-based newspaper The Peninsula that Russia and Gulf Arab countries, once rivals from opposite ideological camps, had found a common agenda of oil, anti-terrorism, and arms sales. “The altered focus takes place in a milieu where the Gulf countries are signaling their keenness to keep all geopolitical options open, reviewing the utility of the United States as the sole security guarantor, and contemplating a collective security mechanism that involves a host of international players.”

In April 2007, the Kremlin issued a major foreign policy document. “The myth about the unipolar world fell apart once and for all in Iraq,” it stated. “A strong, more self-confident Russia has become an integral part of positive changes in the world.”

The Kremlin’s increasingly tense relations with Washington were in tune with Russian popular opinion. A poll taken during the run-up to the 2006 G8 summit revealed that 58% of Russians regarded America as an “unfriendly country.” It has proved to be a trend. This July, for instance, Major Gen Alexandr Vladimirov told the mass circulation newspaper Komsolskya Pravada that war with the United States was a “possibility” in the next ten to fifteen years.

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