Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"A year in context, part 1/2: Is it the end of the world?" September 11, 2007.

Back in 1969, I had a gig as a photographer on a project that produced a preliminary scan of pollution along the Fraser River. We stopped at communities along the way—Abbotsford, Hope, Lytton, Lillooet, Quesnel, Williams Lake. When we got to Prince George, our host took us down to a sandy spot at the side of the river.

We sat down and made ourselves comfortable. It was the end of a long day. He lit up a joint, and as he reached it slowly in my direction, said, “So, is it the end of the world?”

Looking back over the last year, the main theme of World Report has been multipolar realignment, the return of a multinational world order.

Multipolar realignment is a shift, real or anticipated, from a world order dominated by the “sole remaining superpower” to one in which leadership must be shared. It is—or would be--a new balance of power.

Is it really happening? What does it or will it or is it likely to look like? As an end point, a multipolar world order would be one in which no single state was able to achieve (or impose) its will without the cooperation of the other powers.

The defining dynamic of a shift to such an order would be a decline in the effectiveness of the “sole remaining superpower” accompanied by an increase in the power of one or more nations or groups.

We would expect this realignment, if it is happening at all, to proceed in the manner of a hiistorical evolution. It's progress would be ragged and uncertain. For every eight steps taken in one direction, seven will go in the other, with some events too ambiguous to interpret one way or the other.

I have some biases I should be clear about. Two years ago, I said that the term “superpower” is “borderline gibberish.”

I said that in 2003,

“Everyone, including the President, whose public speech is heavily laced with such linguistic junk food, called the US 'the world's only superpower.' People all across the political spectrum asked what country was next on America's hit list, as if nothing could prevail over US military might.

It was a delusion. But it was, in those days, a very common delusion.”

In my opinion, the President's use of language hasn't improved in the last four years. But the number of people who share the delusion that a big, expensive army is invincible seems to be declining.

By 2005, with the mission still not accomplished, the perception was beginning to take root “that Washington could be opposed effectively without incurring unacceptable costs" (Weinstein and Bendersky Realignment Jun 20 05).

This inevitably led to whispers that Uncle Sam's ability to become “the unquestioned political and military arbiter of the globalizing world economy” was less than you might expect from such an amazing collection of military hardware.

Indeed, the status of the US as the world's sole remaining superpower comes from three sources: military, economic and political dominance.

Viewed in this way, one of the most important events of the last twelve months was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in January. The test brought the possibility of asymmetrical warfare to outer space, a special worry to Americans and Canadians who believe that space has not already been “weaponized.”

According to John Pike, a satellite expert at, "Our space assets are the first asset on the scene....

"They are absolutely central to why we are a superpower; a signature component to America's style of warfare" (qtd Brooks Bulletin Jan 18 07).

But the trouble had started before that. By this time last year, the official cessation of hostilities in the Lebanon war (July 12 to August 14) had taken place nearly a month before on August 14, 2006. Here was yet another war that appeared to demonstrate that an army could establish full spectrum dominance, and still lose the more important political war both abroad and at home.

The collapse of domestic support for Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was certainly striking. But much bigger surprises came from Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese Prime Minister.

Siniora is a strong supporter of the western influence in Lebanon and is even described by some as a puppet of America. But as President Bush found out last month when Hamid Karzai described Iran as “a helper and a solution” indeed as “a supporter of Afghanistan, in the peace process that we have and the fight against terror and the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan" the puppets seem to be acquiring minds of their own.

In a series of press conferences during the war in Lebanon, Siniora repeatedly called attention to the Palestinian refugees' right of return. He also repeated that sooner or later Israel would have to establish friendly relations with its neighbours and one time expressed the view that Lebanon would be the last Arab state to recognize Israel.

In Afghanistan, all three pillars of American dominance—military, economic and political—are on the line. More, the future of NATO is in question. Former Indian diplomat to the region M K Bhadrakumar observes
“it was apparent to anyone that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a divided house and that the United States' old European allies didn't share its apparent intention to turn Afghanistan into a client state under a NATO flag from where US power projection into the Persian Gulf and the Middle East and South Asia and Central Asia would become possible” (ATol May 19 07).

By this time last year, it was clear that the Taliban, which had been driven from the field in 2002, was back in force.

Last year was the worst for Canadian troops, and it seemed that 2007 might be even worse yet. That hasn't turned out to be the case. Canadian casualties for 2007 are slightly lower than for 2006. The Taliban's spring offensive that was talked about all winter didn't materialize.

Even so, we do not appear to feel threatened by the Taliban. For whatever reason, the reconstruction of Afghanistan has not gained traction with Canadians as a great national project.

Nagging NATO didn't put any more troops in the field either.

Bhadrakumar again: quote

“There is an Afghan opinion building up over the imperative of an intra-Afghan dialogue leading to genuine power-sharing. But the US and NATO pretend they aren't seeing the groundswell of opinion.

Their emphasis is on the existential challenge posed by [the] Afghan war to NATO's global role. They look over the Afghan ridge toward the new cold-war horizon. Meanwhile, the US is inexorably losing its monopoly over conflict resolution in Afghanistan. And regional powers include some that are against the open-ended presence of NATO forces.”

Blaming Pakistan has shaken Musharraf's hold on power, but it doesn't appear to have made Pakistanis glad at the prospect of Americans flying missions into their country.

In fact, the whole matter of air support for NATO forces has been identified as the main cause of the increase in civilian casualties inflicted by NATO forces.

The economic source of the US status as the world's sole superpower is scarcely more secure than the military one. In October, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank delivered a 700-page report that called climate change "the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen" (Oct 30 06).

A few days later, a study published in Science magazine concluded that at the rate species were being lost there would be no more viable fish or invertebrate species available to fisheries by 2050. Another market failure requiring intervention since the results also showed that these trends are still reversible.

Economic dominance of institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are in decline because China and Venezuela have emerged as alternate sources of development funding.

Cold War analysts keen to see the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a new version of the Warsaw Pact have seized on joint military exercizes and the presence of Iran as key features. But it's more complex than that and we're getting short of time. Suffice it to say for the moment that the SCO is another alternate source of funding and energy cooperation for countries of the region.

The WTO negotiations known as the Doha Round are also in trouble. Whether you think all this superpower in decline stuff is bad news or good, there have been some developments that run in the other direction that might make a good starting point for next week.

So is that the end of the world? Maybe not. My Prince George friend and I were not ready to embrace a secular version of the apocalypse, until after we had examined a few other catastrophes of varying scope—say the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, and the Fall of the Roman Empire.

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