The Transition From Bipolar to Multipolar

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The U.S. presidential election campaign has attracted the world's attention, but it has been a long time since we have seen one so straightforward. The careers of individual politicians and the prestige of their parties are riding in the balance now. At stake is the question of who will become the country's next leader as the world enters perhaps the most critical period in the past 25 years.

Such an assertion might at first seem unfounded. After all, starting in the early 1980s, international relations went through revolutionary changes that altered the political landscape beyond recognition. Could it be possible that we are in for something even more earthshaking than the spasms of the Cold War, the collapse of communism, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and terrorist attacks against the United States?

U.S. foreign policy over recent decades has been guided by the same logic that defined international relations during the Cold War. Efforts were initially directed at deploying forces to counter those of its chief opponent -- the Soviet Union. The triumph of the West appeared to create a clear geopolitical and ideological paradigm that defined global relations further. Despite the differences between former U.S. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, both pursued policies aimed at strengthening and expanding the United States' position as the unqualified victor in the global conflict -- not only in the military and political sense, but in moral and intellectual terms as well.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush had to hastily adapt to the unexpected turn of events. But rather than signal a change in the overall paradigm, the attack only fueled perceptions held in the 1990s. From that point on, Washington's efforts to reorganize the world were governed by its pledge to provide national security for the United States in its most literal sense -- that is, by ensuring the physical safety of its citizens.

In truth, the two-sided nature of the fight against terror was immediately evident. On the one hand, the Sept. 11 attacks made opposition to terrorism the dominant feature of U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, it led to Bush's war in Iraq -- the main foreign policy act of his administration. But this war had no connection to counterterrorism efforts; it was motivated by other factors entirely. The U.S. "war on terror" was an attempt to overcome the growing chaos in world politics and to restructure it according to the familiar model of ideological confrontation. "International terrorism" became the United States' main enemy, but transforming it into a predictable element of the new world order proved futile.

It quickly became evident that this phantom enemy could not serve to unite other nations in a strong alliance. Terrorism, in general, is not an independent force designed to promote political change. It is the consequence of flawed strategic and economic policies that have been implemented on a global scale.

Besides global terrorism, there is another candidate for the role of nemesis. Much is written in the United States about "authoritarian capitalism" as exemplified by China and Russia. By definition, it is a better candidate than terrorism to replace communism as the main "negative force" to be combatted. The problem is that the whole debate over "authoritarian capitalism vs. liberal capitalism" is very much contrived. Though it might seem at times to be rooted in a sincere desire to provoke ideological confrontation, it probably stems more from a fundamental inability to explain international relations.

The global transformation that began with the collapse of the bipolar system is continuing at full speed. And though no one knows when it will end, it clearly won't be soon. The West's ideological and political triumph proved not to be the culmination, but only an intermediate stage. Nor does the notorious multipolar world, discussed with such enthusiasm in many capitals today, represent the climax of these changes. Instead, it indicates that the process is continuing. Incidentally, since the world has grown accustomed over many decades of living in a bipolar system, it will be very difficult to adapt to the new, complex and unstable multipolar system.

It is pointless to label current events as a "new Cold War," as politicians frequently do, because the global state of affairs has changed fundamentally since then. And not surprisingly, the current pace of change is even faster than it was, for example, in the 1990s. At least then, U.S. policy followed a definite ideological framework. True, those policies were not very successful, but they are even worse today.

In addition to cleaning up the mess left behind by the current occupant of the Oval Office, the next U.S. president will have to develop a new strategic course that is not guided by Cold War thinking. Jingoistic approaches used over the last 15 years -- from "promoting democracy" to "fighting international terrorism" -- will not help find a conceptual framework for resolving the multiplying problems affecting the United States and most other nations.

The new leadership team will need to take a fresh and unbiased view of existing realities. By this measure, neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain -- two of the current front-runners -- inspires much optimism.

The "Russia question" was an issue in recent U.S. presidential election campaigns. If the Republicans accused Bill Clinton of "losing" Russia, the Democrats are now leveling the same charge at Bush. We constantly hear the question, "Where did the Bush administration go wrong in its relations with Moscow?" But the questions that should be asked are: "Where did it go wrong everywhere?" and "Why is the U.S. position as global leader increasingly being questioned when it seemed so rock-solid just 10 years ago?"

To a large extent, Moscow's current self-confidence and its expanded global capabilities owe their origin less to any particular merits of Kremlin policy than to blunders and stupid mistakes Washington has made in trying to establish global hegemony. Developing an effective approach to Russia will be impossible without a sober recognition of the global situation and a general understanding of how Washington will work to solve common problems.

Given that we are in the midst of an ongoing transition from one world order to another, it is unlikely any permanent solutions will be found now. But maintaining a sober view of events will at least minimize the costs of the transition.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.