American unipolarity and the rise of China

September 22, 2020
Dr. Mansour Al-Marzouqi

Liberal hegemony and the return of politics of great powers and institutions of the international system:

My discourse here is divided into three parts: The first part deals with the liberal hegemony, and the second discusses the return of the politics of the great powers while the third part deals with the institutions of the international system.

The liberal hegemony is the talk about the American unipolarity. This is necessarily the talk about the international system. So is the case with the rise of China as this rise does not take place in vacuum but on the international arena.

Therefore, it is justified, and even necessary, from a methodological point of view, that our discourse is about the international system. In a nutshell, we can talk about the international system through three components:

First: The international system consists of a system of values (and these values may be composed of ideas surrounding peace and the role of diplomacy in achieving peace).

Second: These values gave birth to a set of written rules and customs, and both play a role in framing the behavior of states.

Third: International institutions that operate in accordance with these rules and customs.

The balance of power, whether in the form of multipolarity, bipolarity or unipolarity, plays an important role in the emergence of these three elements, their growth, as well as their transformation, and the extent of states’ commitment to them.

Thus, it is present due to the balance of forces, and at the same time these three elements influence this balance. There are two main factors that contribute to shaping the international order: the number of superpowers present on the international arena, and the political ideology of the dominant states.

During the Cold War, the international system was bipolar: the Eastern Pole led by the Soviet Union and the Western Pole led by the United States of America.

The vast majority of international stances on major issues on the international arena were arrayed in one of the two camps. The examples for this were the Korean War that was fought between 1950 and 1953, and the Vietnam War that took place between 1955 and 1975.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States of America woke up to a world in which it is the only superpower, and eventually the talks turned to American unipolarity.

About this moment, an American thinker argues that with the rise of Western liberal democracy after the break-up of the Soviet Union in1991, humanity has reached the utmost end of history.

This means the end point of humanity’s ideological development and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of any political arrangement that the people can reach out to.

Here we must note the roots of this idea, philosophically, in the concept of “modernity” and the justifications for colonialism.

Despite the difficulty of defining “modernity”, one of its most important characteristics is the assignment of the task of building a bridge between what is (the moral state of man, for example) and what should be to the human mind, rather than to sacred sources.

In theory, this means that the mind is able to reach the desired development point.

There is also a colonial root for liberal hegemony represented in the belief of the West that it is truthful in its liberal democracy and has the right to impose it on the world.

Centuries ago, the West had imagined itself as the center and the rest of the world as mere periphery.

Its foreign policy works by using several tools (such as the economy and military power) to protect and develop its interests, while the grand strategy works to regulate the causal relationships between the tools.

Based on the aforementioned, the dominant state in the global system is a liberal democracy, and this system seeks to achieve three goals:

1- Spreading liberal democracy, as was evident in the example of the color revolutions — Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

2- Enhancing economic openness — Western countries have pressed fiercely to impose agreements on several countries and obligate them to open their markets to Western companies (as they did in the opium wars with China in the 19thcentury).

3- Incorporating more countries into more and more institutions, and subsequently, the number of international institutions and international conventions has doubled. The dominant liberal state does not pay attention to the policy of balance of power (realpolitik) as it sees no other powers.

Liberal hegemony has failed for several reasons; the most important of which include the attempt to impose democracy has triggered movements for the protection of nationalism among states and peoples.

Another reason is that this liberal hegemony is based on rejecting and liquidating the one who is differing from it. Also, everyone must become a liberal democrat otherwise he will be labeled as backward and immoral.

Similarly, shifts in the international system are also working to return to the politics of the great powers.

Regarding the return of great-power politics, some experts argue that a shift in the international system to multipolarity will force the United States to change its grand strategy from liberal domination to “off-shore balancing”:

Washington will abandon ambitious efforts to reshape the world and focus on maintaining the American hegemony in the West, and confront any country that seeks to impose hegemony over the regions of importance to — Europe, Northeast Asia and the Arabian Gulf.

This means that the United States depends more and more on regional powers to maintain its interests, while sharing benefits and responsibilities with these regional powers.

Accordingly, the main goal of the United States should be to maintain the regional balance of power in Europe and Northeast Asia where there are two most powerful states — Russia and China.

The United States is extremely anxious about these neighbors, and is vigilant not to allow either of them to expand their dominance to the West, which is the arena of Washington’s domination.

Among the strong candidates that poised to challenge the American power is China. Some experts argue that China has its own grand strategy in this respect.

China is pursuing a grand strategy that combines elements of internal balance and external “soft balancing”.

The internal balance strategy aims to increase China’s relative power through economic development and military modernization, while the soft balance strategy is designed to contain or hamper US policy initiatives that are deemed harmful to Chinese interests.

And that hampering may take place through diplomatic efforts in multilateral institutions (this concerns us with regard to the importance and role of the institutions of the international system), and also through bilateral partnerships (as we see in the context of the upcoming Sino-Iranian agreement).

The strategic logic is to maintain a stable external environment for China to focus on economic growth and the accumulation of strength — without provoking a strong response from the United States.

Here, we remember the famous saying of former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping: “hide your strength, bide your time.”

In the long run, however, it is likely that a strong and prosperous China would shift to a more aggressive stance in foreign affairs. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was not an economic power, China is emerging as an economic superpower.

Unlike the Soviet economy, which was not intertwined with the economies of the United States and Europe, at present there is hardly any store in the West that is not flooded with products from China.

Therefore, the Western pursuit of reducing economic interdependence with China was one of the most important strategic moves, as evidenced by the Western position on Huawei and 5G technology.

Based on the above, it is evident that the institutions of the international system are a major arena for conflicts between major powers, which may cause three things:

First: pushing the institutions of the international system towards ineffectiveness, in a way that exceeds the levels of the Cold War.

Second: Obstructing the existing activities, whether by the United Arab Emirates or the BRICS countries, which seek to reform the institutions of the international system, such as the UN Security Council.

Third: The ineffectiveness of the institutions of the international system is likely to be negatively reflected on issues at the regional level, such as those in the Middle East.

— This is an analysis by Dr. Al-Marzouqi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Prince Saud Al-Faisal Institute for Diplomatic Studies.

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