Monday, April 17, 2006

Two Superpowers: The Ultimate Solution?

I would think everyone who is reading this blog has some recollection of a world with two superpowers, as The Cold War only ended 16 years ago and consumed the world’s consciousness for nearly 45 years. Without question, it is the most tense of all the superpower statuses possible in the world today. But is it the most stable, the safest? Despite the gut reaction that it can’t be based on that tension, it just may be more stable than any other possible today. So let’s dive right in and see what a two superpower world holds for us today.

The Two Superpower World we just Left Behind

For 45 years, the balance of world power stood on the head of a pin, but it was, for the most part, set in stone. Every country knew clearly whether they were supporters of the United States or of the Soviet Union, or whether they were, in fact, neutral to the entire conflict. Few countries ever switched allegiance, and often an attempt to switch allegiance was met with military force, both pushing for change and pushing for the status quo. Few of the attempts to switch allegiance were successful and the world was relatively stable aside from these small pockets of extreme chaos.

The most famous, and bloodiest, of the battles for allegiance was in Vietnam, where the Soviet and Chinese-backed North Vietnamese struggled to unite the two parts of the country under communism while the US-backed South Vietnamese struggled to maintain their democracy-based half of the country. The US first sent troops in 1955, the conflict really took shape in 1957, and in 1959 the first US serviceman was killed. There is no report on when the first Russian or Chinese serviceman was killed that I know of. What is clear is that in 1973 the US pulled out its support, and in 1976 Vietnam was unified under a communist government.

Clearly, The Soviet Union was the winner of this war. But the war over a relatively weak country in the power play between two superpowers lasted nearly 20 years, during which the balance of power in the world hardly shifted at all. The key was eliminating an enemy presence in the back yard of a superpower. South Vietnam was a US ally in Russia’s neighborhood, and they had to go. The same can be said for the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.

But the war never spilled over onto the soil of either superpower, neither superpower nor their closest allies broke down into the type of chaos that accompanies a major conflict, and both superpowers maintained a strong propaganda machine to keep it that way. Chaos only ensued when the propaganda machine began to breakdown, and people demonstrated against the war. And there is a difference between the chaos of war and the chaos of demonstrations against a war. Still, in many ways this chaos led to the US pullout from the region, showing once again that the two superpower system was maintaining stability throughout the world, although pockets of chaos emerged.

The battle that I see as more indicative of the nature of the cold war was the Cuban missile crisis, which is one of dozens of situations where one of these conflicts over a backyard enemy almost erupted. Tensions mounted, and negotiations heightened as The Soviet Union and the US faced off over a little island just off the coast of Florida. But in the 59th minute of 23rd hour a solution was reached a solution which neither side loved but both sides could live with. And the stability was maintained.

The stability was maintained because each side had the ability to destroy the other, completely, with nuclear weapons. At the same time both superpowers knew that, should such an action occur, the other side would have enough time to destroy them as well. And thus both sides were scared to break that stability, and threaten complete world destruction. That simple thought, the concept of mutually assured destruction, kept the world stable for 45 years, in a century that had already seen two world wars. Not bad!

Does That Carry Over Globally?

Actually, the scenario that played out would logically play out in any two superpower scenario. Mutually assured destruction is a fact of life now, and more countries are entering the nuclear club, including North Korea and Iran. And it’s now easier to bring the battle to your enemy, so the fear of total destruction should continue to prevent total chaos, and even to ward off many of the smaller battles that could occur.

Still, it would be the backyard countries that would be most at jeopardy, and for obvious reasons: you don’t want your enemy close enough to spy, to infiltrate, to sabotage, and to easily attack. You want to create as large a safe haven as is possible for yourself.

As such, if Iran does become a superpower, Israel, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia would be targets. Interestingly, if Hamas actually reached an agreement of any nature with Israel, they could become a target. What’s more, in many ways Hamas’ standoff with Israel is a huge measure of security for the Jewish state. Were Hamas to become a negotiating partner with Israel, it would become much more acceptable to bomb the country, as they would not be killing true allies to an Islamic state

If Russia were the superpower again, I’m sure we would be looking at similar controversial countries as we saw in the Cold War. And if China emerged to become a superpower, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and perhaps even Japan would become countries of potential dispute between the superpowers. But the vast majority of the world would probably experience similar tensions and stability as was experienced during the Cold War.

There’s Always a But...

There’s definitely an exception in this theory, and it’s a huge one. If Iran becomes the superpower, and it happens while Ahmadinejad is still president, and if he truly believes that the world’s salvation could be bought about by the destruction of the world, then the two superpower solution becomes very unstable. In this case, Iran would be looking for any excuse to bring about nuclear war, and would never be deterred by the concept of mutually assured destruction.

This would be the scariest scenario by far. A superpower in a two superpower system that wanted to bring about the destruction of the world could essential do whatever he wanted to, continually push the envelope to provoke their enemy into a major war, because the major war is exactly what they want. And with large populations in so many countries, who knows how far Ahmadinejad would push the envelope. Yes, James, it’s true; whenever I talk about Ahmadinejad I froth at the mouth a bit. But it’s with good reason, as he is a huge wildcard in this very important issue.


I think that a two superpower system holds the best possibility of providing maximum stability over a longer period of time. This will be a tense environment to live in, and there will be a few countries that are pockets of war bound chaos. But for the most part the world will be a more stable place to live in. However, should a superpower arise that would benefit from mutually assured destruction, any hoped for stability would be lost.

Other Points

Beaman indicated that he would like two superpowers, but that the two superpowers should be the US and the EU. It’s an interesting point. I tend to think of superpowers as being opposing countries, and I would tend to think that the EU and US will always be allies instead of enemies. What’s more, in the absence of a representative superpower, I suspect that the Islamic communities will always turn to alternative measures to achieve a voice in the world order, namely terrorism. Terrorism is chaos incarnate, and exactly what we need to avoid.

JB wants one superpower, the United States. But, he also wants to create a second superpower, a governing body to regulate the one superpower comprised of all other countries.

One superpower, and that's the USA----but. and it's a big BUT. I would include one caveat about that US superpower status being somewhat regulated to certain ends. remember those Liliputians tying down Gulliver? that's more or less the idea. one US superpower---and the rest of the other countries, if they're smart enough to be united, forming into something weighty enough to sometimes "compel" the tendency of the big brat to listen when listening has global consequences, and not just walk out on things like the Kyoto Protocol.

Now I’m not sure how you would great such a governing board, how different countries would get different levels of power in it, and how you would get countries to even participate, but it seems like a good idea, and perhaps I’ll write on this further at some point (or maybe someone else will pick it up). Great point JB!

Finally, along the same line, MVas calls for no superpowers, and a “United Federation of Countries”. Again, I’m not sure how you go about filling it and making it work, but it’s a great idea, and deserves more attention. Thanks for the out-of-the-box thinking, mvas!

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