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2 November, 2012  ▪  Janusz Bugajski

America’s Global Disorder

The USA is restricting its global role and reducing its exposure to global disorder, but speculation on its permanent decline are premature

Geopolitical analysts have failed to define the post-Cold War era. No single phrase has encapsulated the dramatic shifts of power witnessed in the past two decades and which continue to generate confusion among observers and policymakers. Having been the central actor in this historic transformation, the United States is now restricting its global role and reducing its exposure to global disorder.


Twenty years ago the world was a predictable place, divided between the two major powers. While the U.S. had a belt of voluntary allies within its sphere of influence, the Soviet Union possessed a camp of coerced satellites. In between the two superpowers were a string of neutral or non-aligned countries that made little difference to the global "correlation of forces." The two major powers did not attempt to seize each other's allies, although the struggle for influence periodically resulted in proxy conflicts in the Third World.

The era of predictable "bipolarity" ended when the Soviet Union disintegrated and its European empire was liberated. For the next twenty years, the U.S. was the undisputed global power with seemingly limitless political and military capabilities. This phase has been described as the "unipolar moment" and its zenith was reached after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. Washington launched two major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and was seemingly invincible in achieving its goals in the "war against terror."

However, unipolarity turned out to be a briefer interlude than multipolarity. This was not because any single power emerged to counter the U.S., but because Washington could not continue two prolonged wars while maintaining its extensive military posture elsewhere. Although several regional powers raised their profile, no single country was equipped to replace America’s extensive global role.

Contrary to the aspirations of ambitious capitals such as Moscow and Beijing, the immediate future will not be neatly "multipolar," a concept that assumes the world is divided into regions in which legitimate "poles of power" dominate. Much more likely is a protracted struggle for regional zones of influence by larger states in the midst of resistance by smaller powers against outside dominance.

The U.S. will remain the single strongest power but not capable of always acting unilaterally or deploying globally. Moreover, although global "bipolarity" is no longer feasible, "bipolar" or even "tripolar" conditions are now visible in different regions. For example, in Central Asia and in East Asia, China, Russia, and the U.S., are all competing for influence and the affected states are engaged in delicate balancing acts to maintain their independence.

The concept of "polarity" has several limitations. It assumes that a large country possesses sufficient attraction to become a magnetic force vis-a-vis its neighbours. Instead, an assertive government may cajole its neighbours to grudgingly recognize its temporary dominance, but this will generate little loyalty. Putin’s planned Eurasia Union is an instructive example of the process of pressured polarity. "Polarity" underestimates the interests of smaller and medium sized countries, by placing them within the ambitions of larger regional powers. It can be used as a smokescreen for neo-imperial interference that places limits on the independence of numerous subordinated capitals. Relations between Russia and its former Soviet republics underscore this phenomenon.

"Non-polarity" does not automatically mean international chaos as the multipolar theorists claim. The idea of "chaos" assumes a life and death struggle between competing states. Although this could be the case in parts of Africa and the Middle East, in other regions the absence of hegemony could encourage countries to cooperate precisely in order to avoid chaos or dominance.

In reality, the self-appointed "polar" powers may themselves be the source of conflict, either with each other or by following a policy of "divide and rule." Instead of ensuring stability and security, the struggle for "multipolarity" can actually engender conflict, especially where two or more powers compete for predominance while smaller states resist their pressures or even deliberately provoke conflicts between them.


In this polar arithmetic, America's global reach is declining for three core reasons: financial, political, and strategic. Following the global financial crisis and the rapidly climbing U.S. debt,defense spending is being reduced, including funding for “overseas contingencies.” For instance, the USD 702.8bn defense budget for 2012 is about USD 36bn below the estimated 2011 budget, a reduction of roughly 5%. The five-year projection is even more stringent, as the 2016 budget may be 13% below that of 2011.

Such cuts will most probably lead to a force structure that is at least 10% smaller than today. A reduced force could lead to inadequate responses to crises in multiple regions. For example, it would be difficult for the U.S. to deal with simultaneous threats in the Far East, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Politically, Washington's focus during the presidential race is on the resuscitation of the sluggish U.S. economy, where unemployment remains high and growth is almost static. Disputes also rage over whether urgent action is needed to cut budget deficits and reduce the USD16 trillion national debt. Foreign policy only figures marginally in the election campaign, with President Barack Obama claiming several significant successes, especially in killing Osama bin Laden and evacuating U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney has been critical of the White House for allegedly neglecting Israeli security, maintaining warm relations with an aggressive Russia, and paying insufficient attention to European allies. He depicts Obama's foreign policy as weakening American influence around the world. Democrats assert that Romney does not understand the complexities of international politics and may be a replica of George W. Bush. His tough stance on Iran's nuclear weapons program is used to portray him as favoring another war in the Middle East. Nonetheless, international affairs will be a secondary issue during the campaign unless there is a serious crisis in a region where the U.S. has vital interests.

Strategically, Washington will be selective in its missions, while its priorities shift away from Europe. The “defense guidance” announced by the Pentagon in June envisions an American “pivot” toward East Asia and a reduction in U.S. forces stationed in Europe. Americanow defines itself increasingly as a Pacific rather than an Atlantic power and the Pentagon is evacuating two of its four brigades in Europe. This will extend the timeline during which military reinforcements can be rushed to Europe in the event of conflict. More of the burden for common defense will thereby be shifted toward the Allies at a time when the Europeans are cutting their own forces.

EU downsizing and U.S. relocation will also affect future conflict prevention and humanitarian operations in which Washington will not necessarily take the leading role. Analysts fear that without closer American engagement, local wars could take longer to resolve and civilian casualties are likely to be higher. With the EU reluctant to fight any wars, a future conflict in the Balkans, North Africa, or Eastern Europe may not precipitate any significant Western military intervention.

But despite its global downsizing, it is premature to speculate about America's permanent decline. Such prognostications assume that the U.S. will whither away similarly to previous empires and that others will rise to take its place. The current fascination with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries is indicative of this approach, but it is too simplistic.

Brazil has no significant strategic reach and is confined to South America. Russia faces a major social and political implosion especially if its energy revenues seriously decline and the middle class loses patience with Putin. India is wracked by internal ethnic, religious, and regional divisions that could tear the country apart. And China is facing the challenges of political conflict precipitated by rapid economic advancement. None of these states are likely to replace the U.S. and in several instances they will compete for influence and undercut each other’s capabilities.

Some capitals welcome Washington’s selective withdrawal while attempting to forge a "counter-hegemonic" anti-American bloc. However, such a strategy is unlikely to lead to durable cooperation between such diverse countries as China, India, and Russia. It will also be resisted by governments, which either aspire to be part of the West, look to the West for protection, or admire the liberal political model. Opposition to the U.S. is driven largely by political leaders fearful of losing power and international influence and who perceive domestic opposition as a Western plot. However, no encompassing ideology has emerged that can unite and mobilize diverse states with competing ambitions in overlapping regions.


The role of international institutions remains uncertain in an increasingly complex and unpredictable global disorder. Certainly, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will have a limited role as genuine security organizations and will continue to be blocked by veto-wielding members. One useful measure of institutional credibility is the effectiveness of trans-Atlanticism in dealing with conflicts.

Trans-Atlantic relations under Obama have not lived up to initial expectations. Rather than a comprehensive revival of the American-European relationship, many of the fundamental divisions have expanded. The White House does not view the EU as an ascending global power, while EU capitals criticize the U.S. for its neglect of Europe and its narrower international focus. Washington is frustrated with the Union’s perpetual internal problems, its persistent divisions in formulating a coherent foreign policy, its unwillingness to partner with the U.S. by assuming more onerous security burdens, and its faltering soft power capabilities.

As a result of restricted resources and a focus on regions beyond Europe, Washington is not investing significantly in developing relations with the EU and is no longer prodding for Union enlargement and NATO expansion. Washington’s approach has been underscored in the economic arena by its focus on the Group of Twenty (G-20) format that includes rising powers rather than the narrower Group of Eight (G-8) forum, thus diminishing the prominence of European participants.

American politicians are convinced that EU leaders lack willpower, are increasingly inward looking, and take little foreign policy initiative. Washington is frustrated and disappointed by EU capitals unwilling to play a larger global role in supporting the U.S. and effectively deploying their substantial resources. The most telling example has been the war in Afghanistan where most EU governments resisted any increase in military contributions especially in volatile combat areas.

NATO’s Chicago Summit in May brought into sharp relief the growing problems faced by the Alliance. NATO is in danger of becoming a much-weakened organization after it withdraws its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Its longest war has not turned into a victory for security and democracy. Instead, the political outcome in Afghanistan remains uncertain and observers fear that the broader Central and South Asian regions will be destabilized when NATO evacuates. And it seems highly unlikely that the Alliance would be deployed in a similar capacity elsewhere in the future.

The world has become increasingly unpredictable, with escalating transnational threats and political upheavals, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a growing number of failing states, emerging powers with regional ambitions, and the spread of international terrorist organizations. And each of these unstable elements comes at a time when the Alliance itself is experiencing turmoil, evident in severe budget constraints, Europe’s internal preoccupations, and America’s shifting priorities.

The economic and fiscal crises on both sides of the Atlantic have undermined Alliance defense capabilities. But while the U.S. can afford to streamline its military and still remain effectively deployed in a few key regions, Europe’s defense looks increasingly uncertain as budgets are reduced to cope with financial pressures. Several European capitals are imposing deep military cuts. For instance, the United Kingdom plans to be without aircraft carriers for a decade, Denmark has abandoned its submarines, and Holland has eliminated its tank forces.

The EU’s crisis of leadership is also palpable on the world stage. The military mission in Libya was only a qualified success because a mere handful of Allies participated while American equipment and intelligence proved essential in the bombing operations. Facing a potential contraction of the Euro zone amidst conflicts between proponents of budgetary austerity and deficit spending, Europe is looking inwards not outwards and defense has become a secondary concern. Only five of 28 allies have achieved the established target of allocating 2% of GDP on defense. Shortfalls in funding will make it difficult for the Alliance to confront any serious security threats.

As a result of these factors, NATO has lost much of its military value to the U.S. as an inter-regional security organization. If the Europeans cannot invest sufficiently in their own defense, they will not be trusted in out-of-area operations and Washington will simply act unilaterally and with willing and capable allies. However, America's performance on the global stage will ultimately depend on its own economic revival and on the ability to forge constructive security relations with a diversity of regional players.

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Associate in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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