OPINION

The New World Order: it’s getting messier

The U.S. is a hobbled giant, dependent on allies when they have become harder to find

PAUL WELLS October 22 2007
OPINION

The New World Order: it’s getting messier

The U.S. is a hobbled giant, dependent on allies when they have become harder to find

PAUL WELLS October 22 2007

The New World Order: it’s getting messier

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

The U.S. is a hobbled giant, dependent on allies when they have become harder to find

And that would seem to be the end of that, for now at least, in Burma. A few thousand monks rounded up on the street or in the dead of night or simply shot where they stood. Foreign reporters chased out, blocked from reporting, or dead. Democracy nipped in the bud once again. What can anyone do? The United Nations sent an envoy to talk. George W. Bush said he didn’t like it one bit. Stephen Harper said even less.

That’s kind of the way things go these days. In his second inaugural address less than three years ago, Bush called the struggle for freedom “the calling of our time.” He added: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

My goal here today isn’t to dump on President Bush; that’s too easy and it’s already getting a bit old. What’s more interesting is how quickly the world has moved on. If everything changed on Sept. 11,2001, it has already changed again.

When Bush spoke on Jan. 20, 2005, it was still reasonable to hold a few assumptions. First, that the main arena for the fight between tyranny and freedom would be the Middle East—essentially a struggle to define the role of Islam. Second, that U.S. military power would be freedom’s trump card. Third, that such a stark conflict would divide the world into camps—those who were “with America,” say, and those who were “with the terrorists.”

The Burma outrage is only one example of how rarely those assumptions hold anymore. It has nothing to do with radical Islam, of course, but then a lot of interesting things don’t—the new cold war along Russia’s western border, for instance. The military might of outside powers is essentially irrelevant. And so is a with-us-or-

against-us division among nations.

The new world is messier than the world we thought we were getting into only a few years ago. Not particularly more dangerous or safer, just far harder for anyone, including America and those who like to be counted among its allies, to parse and influence. In an important article published in Le Monde on Oct. 2, Pierre Hassner, an international-relations specialist at the Institut d’Etudes politiques de Paris, tried to describe those changes.

The article’s title is “The Century of Relative Power.” Given how rapidly things have changed in only the last decade, Hassner’s main error may be in assuming he’s mapped the contours of a century. But he offers handy

warnings about the next few years, at least. He asks: “How can we defend our interests and our principles, how can we act in favour of peace and liberty, in a world that we can no longer dominate, where our position will be less and less central, and where our legitimacy as judges or educators is more and more frequently contested?”

By “we,” Hassner means the U.S. and its European allies interchangeably. He’s no stereotypical anti-American Frenchman. But his “we” shorthand means less and less: a “crisis of American power and influence” has helped scramble a world order that “barely deserves the name.” If the end of the Cold War looked to some like an end of history, and the 9/11 attacks like the opening shot of a clash of civilizations, the century’s “third act” will resist any such tidy summaries, Hassner writes. The United States is still the richest, most vital country in the world. “But its illusions of omnipotence and innocence,” which guided its reactions to

9/11, “are being rudely tested. It is confronted with a world from which it cannot withdraw but which it cannot control nor, apparently, comprehend.”

On the one hand, rising powers—China, India, Russia—which don’t fit easily or durably into the categories of friend, enemy or competitor. On the other, countries that used to be allies—that, in an us-or-them frame, should be allies—but whose allegiance is shaky. These trends, already present, have been “incredibly accentuated and accelerated by Western political and military actions, especially the invasion of Iraq,” Hassner writes.

In the Washington Post on the same day Hassner’s article appeared, Anne Applebaum demonstrated his point. She cited a German Marshall Fund survey showing that support for U.S. leadership in world affairs—“That’s whether they want to follow our political lead, not whether they think we’re nice”—is down by 30 points in Germany, 24 points in Poland, 22 points in Britain.

So America will just have to go it alone? I believe I’ve seen books to that effect. Hassner has more bad news. One lesson of Afghanistan and

Iraq is that “spectacular military victory, obtained in days, settles nothing.” Local insurgents ignore classical military victory and keep chipping away; war between states is replaced by “war among peoples.” The target isn’t property or territory, it’s the allegiance of populations, not just in the war zone but at home and around the world.

So the U.S. becomes a hobbled giant whose power is hard to use, inconclusive when used, and dependent on alliances at a time when allies have become harder to find. Here let me leave Hassner and end with a note from Wells. For five years, three successive Canadian governments have sought to streamline Canadian foreign policy by aligning more closely with the U.S. In a world where trouble can come from anywhere and no one country can hope to fix it, that’s an insanely simplistic approach. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells