WARSAW — Listen carefully these days to Israelis and South Koreans. What they are hinting at is no less than a tectonic shift in the international system: the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world.
Israelis are rediscovering Europe. They intuitively sense that they can no longer rely only on the absolute security guarantee represented by the United States’ combination of active and passive support. The war in Lebanon, so frustrating for Israel, accelerated that subtle change. Now Europe and its various contingents are playing a leading role in picking up the pieces there.
America, of course, remains Israel’s life insurance policy, but enlargement and diversification of diplomatic alliances is starting to be seen as crucial by Israeli diplomats, if not by Israeli society. The Quartet, whose members include the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, used to be regarded as “One plus Three,” but that is no longer the case. Europe and Russia no longer see themselves as secondary players, because the U.S., not to mention Israel, needs them.
As for the South Koreans, they are counting on China to deal with the North Korean nuclear crisis. They, too, see the world through a prism that makes America continue to appear essential, but no longer preeminent. Recently, a high South Korean official listed in hierarchical order the countries that mattered most in the North Korean nuclear crisis. China came first, followed by the U.S., Russia, Japan, and South Korea, whereas Europe was absent.
These are only a few signs among many others. One could also mention the recent Sino-African summit in Beijing, or the intensification of Venezuelan-Iranian relations. All these developments subtly indicate a deep trend that can be formalized in one sentence: America’s unipolar moment, which began in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, is over.
Of course, one should not “bury” the U.S. too soon. America is much more resilient than its critics believe. It has a unique capacity to rebound, and it controls unparalleled military, intellectual, economic, and even political resources. The Republicans’ defeat in this month’s midterm congressional elections is a sign that the majority of Americans want to sanction their leaders for their strategic and ethical shortcomings, and they did so with gusto.
But this resilience should not hide a deeper evolution. The U.S. is no longer alone. America no longer qualifies, if it ever did, as a “hyper power,” to use former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine’s term, though it is still far from being a “normal” power.
America’s inadvertent “passivity” in the Clinton years and the wrong directions of the George W. Bush years coincided with the rise of China and India, as well as Russia’s renewed international clout as a result of high oil prices. These developments ushered in the slow, imperfect return of an unbalanced multipolar system. The world in which we live may be moving toward the multipolarity wished for by French President Jacques Chirac, but not necessarily in a successful and stable way.
If, contrary to the traditional “Gaullist” vision, multipolarity is not bringing stability, but instead generating chaos, there are two reasons for this outcome:
Key emerging actors — China, Russia, and India — are not ready, willing, or even capable of performing a stabilizing international role. They are either too cynical or timid in their vision of the world, or they have others priorities, or both. They probably contemplate with barely disguised pleasure the difficulties currently encountered by the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere, but they do not feel any sense of a “compensating responsibility” for global stability. The common good is not their cup of tea. They have too much to catch up with, in terms of national ego and national interest, to care for others.
The EU is the only natural American ally in terms of values. It is the EU that can make multipolarity work if it plays its role positively. If the EU appears more concerned with the best ways to avoid the responsibilities that may befall it as a result of America’s new and enforced modesty, then multipolarity will result — by default, not by design — in a more chaotic world, rather than leading to greater stability.
Europe has a unique chance to demonstrate that it can make a difference in America’s post-unipolar moment. It starts right now in the Middle East. The world that Europe has called for is coming closer, and it can fail abysmally without the EU or improve at the margin thanks to it.
In some ways, the end of a unipolar world could truly be the “Hour of Europe.” But that can happen only if the EU regains its confidence and steps into a positive role — one that it must play with, not against, the U.S.
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