Multipolar or Multilateral?

The idea of a multipolar world has forever appealed to those who criticize America’s powerful global influence. Their idea would be to have China, Russia and, likely, one day also the European Union march alongside America. This way, America’s power and influence would be limited by opposing powers. This sounds progressive, like a system of checks and balances, like a division of power that would guarantee peace.

Yet the multipolar reality that has unfolded in recent years looks different. China and Russia are not looking to uphold international law. Quite the opposite. They are de-strengthening the already weak web of international standards. What concerns them is being able to have free rein to exert their superiority over the countries that border them. Both nations’ reactionary tactics are destabilizing: China is pursuing control of the surrounding seas, Russia for control over former Soviet territory.

China’s expansion is not that spectacular. She takes two steps forward — escalation — and then one step back — détente. The Russian approach is more aggressive and, therefore, provokes considerably more opposition. Both countries are, however, testing the waters and seeing how far they can push things before they meet serious resistance.

Three things stand in their way: the international system in place since 1945, the aim of which is to prevent the return of ruthless power politics; the resistance of neighbor states affected by such politics and Western opposition, mostly under the leadership of the United States, which has played the role of guarantor of power for the international system.

America is not being swayed by widespread perception. It is much more China and Russia’s neighbors that are asking Washington for support. Their aim is a solid military alliance with the U.S. because only a credible guarantee of support from the “hyper power” that is the United States can be certain of authoritatively deterring the greedy heavyweights into respecting the sovereignty of smaller nations, as well as the integrity of their borders.

Contrary to popular belief, America does not push for a role in this. After George W. Bush’s militarily expansive phase, the Americans want to limit their role in world politics. It is clear that Obama is hesitating — red tape is set in place and then taken away. Washington hopes to encourage its allies to assume more responsibility. Europeans and others, however, demonstrate little will to do this, as they are used to following America’s lead.

Beijing and Moscow are exploiting Western weakness in order to express their own claims to power. They are fighting for a different international order — one of multipolarism instead of multilateralism, the rights of the powerful as opposed to the power of what is right. In their eyes, the world is separated into competing power blocs, each led by regional “superior nations.” It is no accident that this harks back to how things were during the Cold War.

What is different, however, is that those who oppose the West are not looking for an alternative politico-economic order. Quite the opposite. The globalized world, which has been shaped by the West, is the premise for the position of power they adopt. A Russia that rejects diversity needs the income from selling oil and gas more than ever, and China’s rapid rise depends upon the country’s integration into the global economic order.

Russia and China’s greatest handicap is their lack of appeal. They have very few allies, as their nationalistic and authoritarian notions of order rarely go down well outside their borders. Their approach to international order not only lacks those universal claims of salvation that communism long fed upon in times of great need, it also proves itself to be egotism in its purest form, at the cost of weaker nations and the international community.

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