Why Obama does not want a multipolar world order

Zaki Laïdi – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
As recently as five years ago, it was not possible to talk seriously about the international system without the premise of an American superpower wielding the power of life and death over the planet.
Today, the simplification works the other way round. It has become common currency that the US is in decline and President Barack Obama represents an America that gladly accepts we live in a multipolar world.
Yet, at the very least, this hypothesis is debatable. If the world is multipolar, it is very imperfectly so, and American diplomacy aims to keep things this way.
Power is currently expressed in terms of three assets: material wealth, without which nothing is technically possible (the collapse of the Soviet Union is a case in point); strategic power, which implies the capacity to project force to one’s periphery and beyond; and, finally, what might be called the power instinct – that is, the will to weigh in on world affairs. This last can be through one’s ideas, capabilities or attractiveness.
The evolution in power relations is most palpable on the material front, even if, contrary to general wisdom, the shift in power from the west to Asia has been a relatively slow process. There are now four great economic centres of power: the US, Europe, China and Japan. They are very distantly followed by India, Brazil and Russia. However, it is important to note that Russia’s gross domestic product, for instance, accounts for only 1 per cent of global GDP, compared to a 22 per cent share for the US. This is a long way from economic multipolarity, which would require that the power of various centres should be roughly equivalent.
On the strategic front, the imbalance is even more striking: there is one military superpower that surpasses all the others by far (the US); a rising power (China); a power that lives on its past and can only maintain its rank by dint of its energy resources (Russia); and a plethora of middle-sized actors whose projection capacity remains very weak.
There is no evidence whatsoever of movement towards strategic multipolarity; aside from China, which has the will and the means, and Russia, which has the will but not necessarily the means, no credible aspiring global power has emerged. Brazil and India are certainly becoming stronger militarily. Their strategic ambitions will, nonetheless, remain regional for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, China’s ascendance might reinforce Japan’s strategic dependence on the US, notwithstanding any short-term rifts in Japanese-American relations.
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