Imperialism is morally wrong – one country controlling and exploiting other nation(s) should be repugnant to any reasonable person. So, wouldn’t a multipolar and free world unleash peace and prosperity? Unfortunately, geopolitics is complex and even ugly. A multipolar world can easily disintegrate into regional hegemonies – or miniature empires all over the world. Without an overarching set of robust rules that bind all nations, there will be terrifying anarchy.
The world needs some sort of a hierarchical system – a multilateral, rules-based order – that guarantees fair play and protects nations’ sovereignty. Such a system should impose restrictions on the powerful and protect the weaker nations.
Ideally, such a framework will be led by a democratic, international coalition.
The world took initial steps towards such a system after WW2 by establishing the United Nations and numerous other systems for commerce, trade, banking etc. However, the world split into two spheres – one dominated by the USSR and the other by America. In that contest, America won with a superior system and has enjoyed unipolar hegemony for the last 30 years.
While there are lots of justified criticisms of American domination of the world, the world cannot afford for the U.S. to withdraw abruptly either. People who think that the world will be a utopian paradise without American imperialism are like those people who want to defund the police. Without cops, cities and small towns will be swiftly taken over by thugs, robbers, drug dealers, and the mob. It’s the same situation in geopolitics.
Imagine for a moment that the U.S. suddenly shuts down all of its 800 military bases in 140 countries and stops using economic sanctions against rogue nations.
Here is what would happen next:
Explosion of Regional Wars
Nature abhors vacuum and so does geopolitics. Without a superpower to constrain them, countries around the world will start maximizing their spheres of influence and forming military alliances to advance their interests. The dynamics will be similar to how the world looked like in 1913, just before World War 1. Here’s a map of some of the biggest empires at that time – British, French, Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Japanese etc.
In the current geopolitical atmosphere, the world will quickly revert back to a similar disorder.
In the Middle East, for example, Iran will add Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to its “Shiite Crescent,” which will ignite wars with Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Erdogan will start dreaming of Ottoman Empire 2.0.
Putin will run over Ukraine and Georgia in a couple of days to secure Russia’s strategic interests in Black Sea. He may even try to recreate the Soviet Union, starting with Central Asia. Xi Jinping will invade Taiwan and immediately assert dominion over the so-called nine-dash line, which extends 1000 miles from China’s borders. Weaker countries like Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia will either submit to China or there will be disastrous wars, which will invariably pull in Japan.
Civil wars and tribal conflicts will erupt in numerous regions. Afghanistan, which is already collapsing, will devolve into a war-torn nation teeming with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Many places in Africa – like Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria – will witness civil wars and attract outsiders with malign agendas. Totalitarian regimes and non-state actors will also acquire powerful missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Disruption of Global Trade
Wars also disrupt sea lanes, land routes, and supply chains. We live in a highly interdependent world where even minor interruptions to supply chains can cripple the global economy. Lack of just one key component can halt the production of everything from pharmaceuticals to computers.
Wars in the Middle East or Asia can shut off Suez Canal or Malacca Strait respectively, paralyzing global trade. Opportunists everywhere will attempt to seize strategic natural resources – oil, coal, iron ore, lithium, cobalt etc. Imagine the leverage China will have after conquering Taiwan, which manufactures 92% of the most advanced semiconductor chips in the world.
Either the rest of the world will comply with such new blackmails or powerful states will be forced to send in fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and soldiers to restore order.
Ergo, we will be back to square one.
Human Rights Abuses
There are vulnerable ethnic and religious minority groups everywhere – Shiites in Sunni countries, Hindus and Christians in Muslim countries, Muslims in communist countries, and the list goes on. Women, gays, refugees, and the disabled are also particularly susceptible to human rights abuses. As seen in Libya, even slavery can come back. Without overarching global norms and supervision, horrific crimes against humanity will be perpetrated all over the world.
While a multipolar world is inevitable, it is also extremely fragile. The transition from a U.S.-led world to a multilateral system should be done gradually, cautiously, and judiciously. Else, we will simply replace one superpower with numerous tyrants.
We take the current international order for granted since the world has been relatively peaceful since WW2. However, one just has to look at the perpetual wars not just before the world wars of the 20th century but during the previous 5000 years to realize how human beings are innately warmongering.
By the way, while the U.S. has abused its hegemonic powers, it has also been possibly the most benevolent empire in history. America not only made transformational contributions to science, technology, medicine, economics, and political governance over the last century but also shared them with the rest of the world. Imagine where China would be now without semiconductors, internet, cell phones etc., which were all American inventions.
Developing nations have also benefited enormously from U.S.-led organizations such as the U.N. and the WTO, U.S.-designed financial frameworks, and the American military that protects global trade routes and supply chains.
However, moving forward, the United States has to reduce its military footprint in the world and architect a stable alternative. The three great centers of geopolitical influence – USA, EU and China – need to work with Russia and the United Nations to forge a great compromise that will re-imagine the world order and secure global peace and prosperity for the 21st century.
-Chris Kanthan, author of China, China Chyyna – Greatest Disruption to American Century