[Overseas view]Evolution vs. revolution
Lately, commentators on international affairs seem to be consistently coming back to one idea. They say that Aug. 8, 2008 (8/8/08, a day that already has a mystical formulation) has come to constitute a historical date, marking the emergence of a new world order.
Indeed, two events that appear unrelated seemed to make this day pivotal in international affairs. This simultaneity gave credence to the idea of a historical rupture.
The first was the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, a symbol of a China moving up to the forefront of the international stage, and its willful opening up to the world in order to assert its athletic, economic and technological success.
The day also marked the beginning of a mini-war between Georgia and Russia. Moscow would emerge militarily and strategically victorious from the conflict, while giving the Western world a brutal reminder that it should not be underestimated.
History did seem to be winking at us on Aug. 8. On this same day, two potential rivals of the United States forcefully asserted themselves, each showing its power in its own way. Both China and Russia proved to the world on that day that they will have to be reckoned with much more than before when global decisions are made, declaring that they will no longer be consigned to the background.
Did 8/8/08 represent the end of the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Can we say that this is the end of the international order in which the United States could alone decide the beat to which the world would march, without taking into account the opinions of other nations?
The simple answer is no; this is a hasty assertion that is far too unwarranted and is more of an optical illusion than a strategic reality.
It is very obvious that the world today could not be described as one dominated by a single power. The United States remains the greatest force in the world, not only at the strategic level but also in the technological, economic and cultural fields. In each area, it is still far ahead of both Russia and China.
But Washington now can’t pretend to be the world’s undisputed superpower. It has gotten bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq and its economic situation is worsening. Moreover, America’s popularity in the world is declining and its influence on international politics is constantly getting weaker. The United States remains the world’s greatest power, but it no longer has hegemony.
America believed it was living in a single-power world, an idea which led it to invade Iraq without considering the international community, and it is paying for this illusion. Because we live in a globalized world, where power is multiform and diverse, one player, powerful or not, can’t set the rules alone. Besides, the two candidates for the presidential election admit that the United States should be more multilateral in its moves - John McCain in a limited way, and Barack Obama more broadly.
It would be a mistake to think that 8/8/08 represents a historic turn. Neither Russia nor China have been elevated from the status of minor state to the level of great power. It’s more a step forward in the evolution of geostrategic balances.
China didn’t rise in August. China was clearly visible during the Olympic games, but as spectacular as it was, the event was just one step among many in China’s path back to power. The rise of China started in 1978 and continues today.
Russia today bears no resemblance to its former ruined state under Boris Yeltsin, when it was unable to defend its national interests. Indeed, since the beginning of the 2000s and Putin’s election, Russia has been steadily restoring the authority of the state, improving its economy and making a comeback on the world stage.
In fact, world multipolarization (which doesn’t mean that the different poles are equally powerful) is a process that we can’t identify with definite dates, as we could with the fall of Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, and the end of the Cold War. As any process, this one is made of several embedded episodes, to such an extent that we can’t know when it all really started.
We are facing a relative diminution of the United States - which nevertheless remains the world’s first power - and the emergence of other international players, not only China and Russia but also Brazil, India and many others. But sometimes, in order to simplify things and to catch the public’s attention, the commentator tends to turn the headlines into history, evolution into revolution, a process into a historical rupture.
In this respect, 8/8/08 is rather the confirmation of a tendency with ancient roots.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface