THE BEAR'S LAIR The multipolar hazard
By Martin Hutchinson
France's recent decision to sell an advanced helicopter carrier with all the
latest equipment to Russia is yet another indication that not only are the old
Cold War certainties gone, but so are the assumptions of the benign United
States-centric "globalized" world of 1991-2010. The new multipolar world order
that seems to be emerging is a much more dangerous affair, and it is not at all
clear how it should be dealt with, politically or economically.
Multipolar global political systems are much more difficult to control than
unipolar or bipolar systems because in a world of diverse cultures, religions
and economic attainments there inevitably will be fundamental differences
between powers about what the world should look like. Before 1789, those
could be settled through small and not very damaging wars (though the 1618-1648
Thirty Years War showed that belligerence could run out of control).
Since 1945, a global war has become a devastating possibility but has been held
in check first by the bipolar system of 1945-91 and then by the lack of any
serious challenge to the United States. However, the experience of the collapse
into war of the multipolar political system prevailing before 1914 demonstrates
that even when war is so unpleasant as to bring no net benefit to any major
participant, in a multipolar system there is no absolute guarantee against a
There are a number of reasons for this. In a multipolar system, there generally
are no agreed rules by which the emergence of new global powers, or the
stabilization of existing ones, can be mediated and conflicts settled. The most
effective system to ensure such settlement was the Quadruple/Holy Alliance,
created by Prince Metternich and Lord Castlereagh at the 1814-15 Congress of
Vienna. That represented an agreement by the world's major powers to submit
disputes to regular congresses and to suppress outbreaks of radical disruption
wherever they occurred.
The alliance was possible only because all five major powers (including the
defeated but now Royalist France) were wearied by two decades of war and agreed
that the new order brought into effect by the Congress of Vienna needed time to
settle down, without disruption by popular attempts to overthrow existing
governments. The Holy Alliance lasted only seven years as an effective force
because once peace had been reestablished, there proved to be too little
agreement among the major powers as to what political and social arrangements
would be permitted, particularly in the newly independent states of Latin
America. However, by that time, its work had been done and Europe remained free
of a general war for the next century.
There is no such effective body today. The United Nations is a lowest common
denominator of almost 200 nations, with a corrupt bureaucracy whose major
objective is to expand itself; it has repeatedly proved wholly ineffectual in
preventing conflict. Thus, when newly ascendant major powers come into even
moderate conflict with major powers benefiting from the status quo, there is no
body that can usefully mediate between them.
The problem is worsened today, as it was before 1914, by the existence of minor
powers whose principal objective is destructive. Being unable because of their
political/economic makeup to prosper in a peaceful world of free trade and free
markets, and having long-held grievances of some kind against the system, they
seek to provoke conflict in the hope of benefiting from that conflict.
In 1914, Serbia was such a power. It had a long-standing grudge against
Austria-Hungary and a desire for extra territory extracted from its neighbors.
Being backward, landlocked and poorly governed by a dynasty that had taken
power in 1903 through assassinating its predecessors, it also had little
opportunity to become a prosperous society through peaceful free-market means.
In order to achieve its expansionary goals, the Serbian government played on
its Pan-Slav affiliation with Russia and undertook terrorist attacks against
Austrian targets such as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It successfully provoked
a world war and gained immensely from the subsequent peace, being given
jurisdiction over Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia, the
latter three being sawn off from the remnants of the destroyed Austria-Hungary.
From the point of view of Serbia and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, its disruptive
strategy was a triumph (at least until World War II). From the point of view of
human welfare, it was a disaster. Serbia's success would not, however, have
been possible in a unipolar or even bipolar world, because it would not have
had the opportunity to use its destructive capability to feed off Great Power
It need hardly be said that the current world order has a number of such
destructive powers, which are unable because of their own political and
economic failings to achieve prosperity in a free market, and which thus seek
to disrupt the existing world order. Their level of danger to the global
political economy varies.
North Korea and Myanmar, for example, are so isolated that they can do little
damage other than by outright military aggression, which if carried too far
would become suicidal. Other countries such as Iraq and Syria have links with
each other and with terrorist groups that make them much more formidable. All
four countries have neighbors that have achieved prosperity under economically
capable governments, but the economic and political freedoms necessary to
produce such prosperity are a mortal threat to their existing regimes.
Russia is a borderline case. Until about 2005, it seemed that Russia might
achieve prosperity through its own efforts and its immense natural resources.
Since that date, it has become increasingly clear that under the current
Russian government, prosperity is unlikely since the regime's kleptocracy and
disregard of property rights make it impossible for the free market to
flourish. While the price of oil, Russia's principal export, remains high, it's
likely that the interests of the regime will be served by Russia remaining
approximately within the international "concert" of powers and adhering to
international norms. Should oil prices decline, pushing the Russian economy
into difficulty, the temptation to the Russian regime to revert to military
aggression and irredentism may well prove irresistible.
An international system that is no longer a Pax Americana is thus highly
unstable. The norms and wishes of emerging powers such as China and India are
in conflict both with those of each other and with those of the United States
and the fissiparous coalition of countries making up the European Union.
Economically, China and India both benefit immensely by a system of free trade
and free markets, so one can hope that they will act to secure its indefinite
continuation. Their military power is rising, but they are not yet directly a
threat to the previous hegemon, the United States. However, the forecast that
by 2027 or so China's gross domestic product will surpass that of the US has an
important corollary: with four times the population, it will also at that point
have more military power than the US.
It does not need much imagination to envisage scenarios in which a destructive
power saw an opportunity in exacerbating the rivalries between the major powers
of China, India, the United States and the European coalition to further its
One possibility would be Russian success in splitting the European Union,
gaining allies perhaps in France, Germany and some of the minor countries to
make it militarily a Great Power in its own right. Another possibility would be
one or other of the Islamic destructive states, allied with terrorists, to use
China, Russia or other allies to further their attempts to destroy Israel. A
third possibility would arise if Pakistan became a destructive power and
exploited the potential India/China rivalry. The nightmares are endless; all of
them will become more likely as the relative predominance of the United States
The only means by which one or other of the nightmare scenarios can be
prevented is by the Great Powers aligning in a Quadruple/Holy Alliance
arrangement, limited to smoothing over any disputes between them and to
presenting a united front against any attempt to destroy the peaceful
However, the formation of such an arrangement is itself dangerous. If the
alliance is incomplete, as were the alliances in the years before 1914, it
produces a reaction in the countries excluded from it, of banding together in a
counter-alliance and increasing the overall level of tension. The Anglo-French
entente of 1904 was not a useful defense against war; it exacerbated the
"encirclement" fears of Wilhelmine Germany and ended by producing the very
outcome against which it was supposed to guard. Only by including Germany,
Russia and Austria with Britain and France in an overarching alliance
guaranteeing the world order could an effective defense against major conflict
have been formed.
Before 2020, US economic and military predominance is likely to remain
sufficient to prevent the outbreak of major conflict. After 2050, if peace has
been preserved, the multipolar world should have evolved mechanisms to protect
itself against destruction. However, the 30 years between those two dates may
be dangerous indeed.
Martin Hutchinson is the author of Great Conservatives (Academica
Press, 2005) - details can be found on the website www.greatconservatives.com -
and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of Alchemists of Loss (Wiley,
2010). Both are now available on Amazon.com, Great Conservatives only in
a Kindle edition, Alchemists of Loss in both Kindle and print editions.
(Republished with permission from PrudentBear.com.
Copyright 2005-10 David W Tice & Associates.)