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Will we adapt to a multipolar world, or face endless war?

Ten years ago this week, 100,000 American troops were assembled in Kuwait as the US and UK were poised to strike, the neocons driving them on to “seize the unipolar moment”; the UN Security Council was split; and at London’s biggest demonstration ever, the crowds had heard Tony Benn’s call: “Another world is possible”.

Ten years on we face yet another scenario of Western intervention in Mali, yet again in the name of fighting terrorism. Now like the US-UK in Iraq in 2003, and NATO in Libya in 2011, France has overstepped a UN resolution which called specifically for an African force under African (ECOWAS) leadership to stabilise the situation.

The attack on Iraq was as much a direct attack on the UN and its founding principles. President Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine aimed to overturn the global consensus on non-intervention. For the neocons, this was necessary in order to ‘prevent the rise of any potential challenger’ to US leadership. President Obama returned to the multilateralist fold only to whittle away at the boundaries on intervention from within to keep power in the hands of the militarily strongest. Now France, by inserting itself into the driving seat to intervene in a civil war situation arising out of the marginalisation of Mali’s north, is extending further the precedent of ‘humanitarian’ intervention which is now in great danger of becoming accepted as the rule.

The anti-war predictions of 10 years ago that the attack on Iraq was the path to endless war seem to have been proved correct. Nevertheless, the world is not what it was in 2003. The balance of power has been shifting and the multipolar trend has become more pronounced. Advanced countries’ share in world economic output has fallen from 80 per cent in 2002 to 62 per cent by 2012. An equivalent fall over the next 10 years would leave them making up less than half of the world economy. 10 years from now, China will be on the verge of overtaking the US as the world’s biggest economic power, and today’s emerging economies will have all but edged the Europeans out of top 10 list of world economies.

Back in 2002, the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice warned unequivocally against multipolarity as a ‘theory of rivalry’ which had led to the Great War; Tony Blair echoed this claiming: ‘There is no more dangerous theory in international relations today’. But they got it wrong: the multipolar world that is emerging is one of greater interdependence and widening opportunities, driven by economic growth in the developing world. African resources have been fuelling China’s rise which in turn has contributed considerably to alleviating the global effects of the recession caused by the financial crash in the US.

Africa too has been rising with a growth rate averaging around of 5 per cent over the last 10 years, whilst undergoing a qualitative shift in its relations with the outside world. China’s role is not reducible to that of ‘resource exploiter’: China is developing broad economic relationships with both resource- and non-resource producing nations in the continent. It provides assistance for infrastructure, developing trans-regional programmes which are helping in the formation of regional blocs, augmenting the Africans’ capacity to negotiate with the West. With Brazilians, Indians, Russians, Middle Eastern powers and more besides joining the Chinese in queuing up to invest, African nations are growing in confidence and finding the space to act more independently.

No longer commercially dominant in Africa, Western powers see themselves as the losers in all this.  Using terrorism as an excuse to militarise the region, they attempt to turn the situation to their favour.  With China viewed not merely as a competitor but as a rival, Africa is to be transformed in to a new theatre for a strategic ‘Great game’. Following the formation of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at an historic summit in Beijing in 2006, attended by nearly 50 African heads of state and ministers, the US brought its African Command – AFRICOM – into operation in 2008. Its brief is ‘to protect the flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market’, that is, to beat China through control of resources.

This year the Pentagon is to further its plans for the total militarization of the continent with the deployment of 3,000 soldiers in 35 African states. At the same time, with its new ‘Asian pivot’, the US looks to Britain and France to take the lead in military challenges that it regards as being in their ‘backyard’. Both France and Britain are willing partners here, seeing Africa as a vital base in shoring up their status as world powers.

It has been evident since the Mali coup in March 2012 that confusion there might provide the opening for a new Western intervention into a key strategic region. Chaos in Mali has the potential to throw the whole of the Sahel region into turmoil, and, knowing that Western interventions often achieve the opposite of their declared purpose, at the same time very conscious of the country’s political and humanitarian crisis, Mali’s own leaders as well as its neighbours have been divided on issue of intervention.

What the Malian government and eventually the army, the regional countries, including Algeria, and the wider international community did agree to was a UN resolution calling for an African stabilisation force This was just part of a comprehensive package addressing not only the immediate security and humanitarian crises but also Mali’s longer term needs for political stability and economic development. Whist possibility not perfectly balanced between all concerned parties, it potentially offered a real practical opportunity to find a solution to the crisis through an inclusive political process.

The French action had no UN mandate; it has put the emphasis on the role of the military but militarist responses cannot solve Mali’s problems, rooted as they are in the marginalisation of the North.

The British response has exposed how far our foreign policy is degenerating into incoherence, with Cameron committing Britain to a new ‘generational struggle’ to counter terrorism and at the same time announcing cuts to the armed forces. In parallel with our outdated instinct to assume the role of world leader in military-political affairs is a distorted economic engagement with the wider world which has seen Britain exporting more to Ireland than to China.

Our own economic future now clearly lies in diversifying our markets beyond Europe and the US, and this demands that we shift our foreign policy from narrowly defined short-term geo-political goals to look to the long term.

Instead of trying to resist the shifting world balance of power through miitarisation, Western countries should be working with the multipolar trend, cooperating with both emerging and resource-rich economies in the design of new mechanisms for resource development and sharing which are mutually beneficial for the poor but resource rich countries like Mali and for the whole of the international community.

Tony Benn’s insight was to see the need to formulate positive alternatives. Now, in the rising economic confidence within the developing world, it is possible to glimpse a new world of global multilateralism pursuing norms of shared prosperity emerging from the ruins of global financial crisis.

But for this is to possible and for us to benefit from the new economic opportunities provided by rapid economic expansion of the Southern continents, we have to give up our UN trickery, we have to abandon our neo-colonial paternalism with its assumption of the global right to rule and we need to treat developing countries on an equitable basis.

Jenny Clegg is author of China’s Global Strategy: Towards a Multipolar World published by Pluto. It is reviewed here.

2 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    Multi-polarity is a guarantee of war between the major powers. In a bi-polar set up the two protagonists only confront each other by proxy and never directly as the power balancing calculations are straightforward until one of them simply collapses from within. In multi-polarity the protagonists always clash head on as the variables are so complicated for three powers or more than it is impossible to effectively balance power and war soon breaks out. It wasn’t nuclear weapons that kept the `peace’ during the Cold War but bi-polarity. Multi-polarity means that the use of nuclear weapons is only a matter of time.

  2. Dave says:

    Great article Jenny, thanks.

    If a future in which pursuing norms of shared prosperity is to become a reality we must do everything possible to ensure the concerns of ordinary people are able to find political expression.

    The task may, at times, seem hopeless, particularly in view of the recent pro-militarisation speech, favouring ‘preventative intervention’, by Labour’s Jim Murphy*.

    But it is worth remembering, opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war at first consisted only of a gathering of a dozen Quakers in Washington, yet opposition to the Iraq disaster consisted of millions demonstrating throughout the world, including up to 2 million in London, even before the conflict had begun.

    Certainly those who want to diminish the voice of ordinary people have achieved influence but have, at the same time, lost credibility. This is shown in the U.K. by the rising popularity of electoralist anti-establishment formations.

    And it is even possible that, under pressure from an outside electoral threat, the L.P. could return to its senses – and careerist politicians like Murphy will then ask: “Where is the electorate going? Let me know so I can get there first and lead them.”

    *http://www.labour.org.uk/how-the-uk-responds-to-extremism-in-north-west-africa-and-beyond,2013-02-14

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