Thursday, April 13, 2006

A World without a Superpower – Paradise or Anarchy?

After a day of voting (in my poll, that is), a clear preference has arisen for a world with no superpower. Certainly there is a great deal of appeal in such a world. However, I’m not convinced that a world without a watchdog is conducive to maintaining a secure, stable world.

The Utopian Vision

The first inclination is that a world without superpowers should work well. In theory, if there are no superpowers, a natural balance should occur, allowing variant cultures to exist without pushing their views on each other. There would be a tendency to be more tolerant of other cultures within any given society, as countries would try to entice new citizens to immigrate to their country. Further, without the imperialism addressed in earlier posts, the tensions that exist today between countries would not be present, and thus the greater conflicts that threaten us in the here and now would cease to exist.

I think that those would be true positive ramifications of a society without superpowers. I think that a natural balance would occur between cultures, and that countries would settle into a comfort zone, with trading partners, allies, and countries which are tolerated. Without a superpower, opportunities would open up, and people would look for countries with those opportunities, in some cases. And today’s conflicts certainly would not be a factor if there were no superpower inflicting its views on the world.

The Reality?

But would that last? For the better part of the last 1000 years, at least, Europe has acted like a world onto itself, simply colonizing any areas that they encountered outside of the European continent. With so many powerful countries in Europe at the time, including England, France, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, eventually Germany, and Russia, no country ever rose to the status of superpower. But did that prevent the conflicts, the wars, the strife, the or the imperialism? Not at all!

Europe was plagued with everything from petty squabbles to all-out wars for the entire period I’m referring to. While arguably the continent moved into periods of natural balance, the balance would inevitably be destroyed by the greed of one nation or leader. The European countries did become more tolerant of other cultures, and often enticed new immigrants with advanced opportunities. But consistently, as the power of any group within a society would increase, the country housing the community would crack down upon it, solidifying the government’s power base.

Similar behavior has been seen in the Middle East over the centuries. The various regimes in the region have been feuding there over any variety of issues for as long as time remembers, and the struggles for power have become almost common place. In fact, this state of affairs lends itself to an odd trait in the region: mortal enemies can become close allies at the drop of a hat. Regimes have flopped sides whenever it is politically expedient, as countries in the region, and their leaders, continually reposition themselves to maximize their power base. And in the end, the region has always fallen into its own natural balance.

It should be noted that the feuding in the Middle East appeared far more acceptable to Europeans I've met along my journeys then it ever did to Americans I speak to. Perhaps because the United States has not seen the level of conflict on its own soil, Americans seem not to understand that the struggle for power is a natural thing. Indeed, the behavior seen in the Middle East has been seen in Europe for quite some time, and I believe that is why it is more acceptable to Europeans.

Reasons a Superpower-less Society has not worked in the Past

I believe that many of the principles we would attribute to a world without a superpower existed in Europe over the past 1000 years. But I also believe that lust for power is a natural instinct, and in the absence of a deterrent, countries and leaders will strive to acquire more power. To me, that is simply human nature.

The existence of a superpower acts as a watchdog, essentially stating in definitive terms that there are consequences for behavior that is counterproductive to world stability. Today, The United States completely serves the roll of the watchdog. From ethnic cleansing to terrorism, from nuclear threats to natural disasters to sunken submarines, when the world is in trouble they turn to the US, and the US acts like big brother. And the very behavior that causes other cultures to hate us is also the necessary behavior for a superpower, and for the security of the world.

The same behavior existed when there were two superpowers. Sonia was absolutely correct in pointing out that there were multiple large scale conflicts associated with the Cold War (though I don’t believe the Korean war was as much a result of the Cold War as it was a precursor to it), but I don’t see The Cold War era as nearly as unstable as the long period proceeding it. With two world wars and tens, maybe hundreds of smaller conflicts, without a watchdog, any leader with ambition could bring about chaos.

There was always a certain caution in the air, the palpable sense that small military actions could cause a major international incident between the two superpowers. And because of this, many of the smaller to medium-sized conflicts never took place. Leaders collaborated to find peaceful solutions before situations got out of control, and despite the few larger conflicts that were seen during this period (Sonia mentions Vietnam, Korea, and Angola, though I would have pointed first to Afghanistan and the Cuban Missile Crisis to accompany 'Nam), I think this period was far more stable, if far more tense, than the periods that came before or after the cold war.

New Challenges or Aids?

Today, a world with no superpower would be a completely different situation than in the past, but it’s hard to say if such a society today would be find it harder or easier to find stability.

For starters, greater communication would add a very new dimension to the world with no superpower. People are more aware today of events in other lands; people know of opportunities open to them, of situations which may offend them, and are able to make more informed choices as to where they live and what they believe. Further, enhanced communication allows the average person to understand other cultures a bit better, and perhaps can serve to increase acceptance (though it hasn’t to date).

On the flip side, enhanced communication allows for hatred and insurgencies to spread. It can cause leaders who are bent on consolidating their power to have better information on the actions of their neighbors, and to isolate weaknesses in their defense. It can further allow one country to cause unrest in another country without ever entering it, either destabilizing the country or leaving it vulnerable to external attacks.

Increased military power makes matters much more complicated today as well. Countries can attack nearly any other country in the world, regardless of whether or not they are bordering that country. Long range weapon capabilities, whether utilizing a plane, a ship, a sub, or a missile, makes it much harder to ignore growing threats throughout the world.

Further, the possibility of total destruction is a reality of life today. With the push of a button, entire regions can be wiped out, if a country has the technical capability and the desire to do so. And again, the enemy need not be close to affect this total annihilation.

The long-range and destructive capabilities of today’s armies can greatly enhance the view of a leader or country that they could exert their influence and increase their power base, but it can also act as a deterrent to further action.

Also, and I’m sure this is a controversial point, but I believe there have been moral advancements in the world today, that people are more conscious of the needs of the community than they ever have been, and that these needs are taken into account in many of the actions we see in the world today. Many countries are less willing to target civilians, to carry out massive destruction, or to even attack without full confirmation that are attacking the correct enemy.

This can serve to help promote a society without a superpower, as societies should be more tolerant of each other. Societies that are more "politically correct" tend to be more inviting to variant cultures. But it can also lead to societies less prepared for ruthless attacks and the barbarity of war, and openings for the ruthless countries to grab power..

The Big Question

The big question is whether the world would fall into complete chaos in the absence of a superpower. Clearly, there are some advantages to a society without a superpower imposing its will. Still, I am skeptical, and believe that human nature will push countries and their leaders to try to acquire more power in the absence of a superpower. But who knows the truth? That will only be told when the situation presents itself.

Other Points

I have already received so many great comments on this issue, and some of them will be posted when I write on 3 superpower and 2 superpower societies, or in the posts better defining the state of the world today. But I did want to add in here the posts that were very relevant to the no superpower society.

First, Walker Willingham, who has a great site called Choosing Hope, brought up the great point: that stability may not be the goal which we should shoot for. Check out what Walker has to say:

I suspect you are at least partially right when considering stability. Stability is a good thing, but it does not guarantee the absence of strife or oppression. It sometimes seems remarkable to me that as many democracies have developed as have which catered to the notion of equal opportunity and a modicum of fairness. Since scruples tend to reduce power, there should be some tendency for the unscrupulous to dominate systems. I'm interested in figuring out what constitutes the most important counterweight to that dismal tendency, as clearly there is something, or we would all live in terribly oppressive societies with monsters at the top.

Good stuff, huh? No question that strife and oppression does still occur in societies with a superpower or multiple superpowers. And as is obvious from the post, Walker and I are right in line with the tendency for the unscrupulous to dominate the political scene. I’m not sure there is an answer for this trend, but I do believe the existence of superpowers keeps this trend in line more than a lack of superpowers in the world.

My friend James sites the need for checks and balances, again along the same lines that I refer to here::“Just like the micro-cosm of our government, the world works better when there is a system of checks and balances against imperial aspirations”. In the absence of the checks and balances, any nation could become imperialistic, and with sufficient investment in their military could become the superpower to fill the void we are depicting here.

Both Callisto and Tricia would like to see a world with no superpower, but each sees it as impractical today. Castillo says: "In an ideal world this may be possible but where there is business, money and ego... well look where we are now." Tricia says this: "It's probably unrealistic to think that the world could ever exist with no superpower, because there would have to be peace throughout the world as well as the majority of Countries having stable economics. No, as long as politics and religion exist there will be wars and unrest and unfortunately the need for two or more superpowers." Both excellent points, and each raises factors I didn't even examine!

Anyway, lots of questions in this post, and some of my answers and the answers of other readers. I look forward to hearing (and posting) your answers.

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Posted by Scottage at 4:46 AM / | |