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 © 2007 The Australian National University
The Coming and Going of the Unipolar World
Coral Bell 
Paper presented at the Australian Defence College,Weston Creek, Canberra16 April 2007
The unipolar world; that is the world of
US paramountcy in the society ofstates, was with us only rather briefly—for approximately 10 years, from January 1992 untilSeptember 2001. The first of those dates, the beginning of unipolarity, marks the dissolutionof the old Soviet Union at the end of December 1991, and the emergence of a much weakerRussia, and 14 other sovereignties, from its ruins. The second date, obviously, marks thetraumatic challenge, by a non-state actor, not only to US power, but to the entire globalstructure of which it was the paramount power. That traumatic challenge came not only froma non-state actor, but from a newly-potent force in the Islamic, the non-Western, world—a jihadist movement headed by a stateless (originally Saudi) millionaire, Osama bin Laden,under the protection of a group of Islamic militants in Afghanistan.The brevity of those 10 years of unipolarity would not have come as a surprise to the US journalist who first gave the term its currency. He called his article ‘The Unipolar Moment’,and ‘moment’ is an appropriate term for 10 years in history. But neither he nor anyone elsecould have anticipated the way in which that moment would end. The journalist concernedwas a neo-conservative, and there were others among that ideological group who believedunipolarity could be made to last much longer, maybe even forever, by Washington’sdiscouraging other sovereign states from attaining any real equality of power (especiallymilitary power) with the United States.For the first eight months of 2001, before 11 September 2001, that aspiration had lookedalmost possible. China was, and still is, a long way from being able to even consider amilitary challenge. Russia, though still in possession of a vast nuclear strike-capacity, wasthen in such a state of internal malaise that it seemed likely to take decades to recover. TheEuropean Union and Japan, though both economically powerful, had no reason to try tomatch the United States militarily. Both had lived comfortably enough under the US nuclearumbrella, which saved them a lot of defence costs.So, no challenge from a rival great power to US paramountcy.
Dr Coral Bell
was formerly Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex (UK), and earlier amember of the Australian Diplomatic Service. She was awarded an Order of Australia (AO) in 2005. Dr Bell'sresearch interests are mainly in crisis management and the interaction of strategic, economic and diplomaticfactors in international politics, especially as they affect US and Australian foreign policies. Her latest book entitled
A World Out of Balance: American Power and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century 
was co-publishedby
The Diplomat 
magazine and Sydney-based Longueville Books, and her monograph
Living with Giants 
(a studyof Australian policy in a changing world power-balance) was published as a Strategy paper by the AustralianStrategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in April 2005. She also authored a chapter entitled 'The International System andChanging Strategic Norms' in Ball and Ayson (eds),
Strategy and Security in the Asia-Pacific 
, Allen & Unwin,Melbourne, 2006’.
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre 
 © 2007 The Australian National University
The intelligence services of the Western powers knew quite a lot about bin Laden and the jihadists. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) indeed had supported him with weaponryafter 1979, because of his role in the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Theyhad been conscious, moreover, ever since the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in1983, that the US presence in Muslim lands was a source of Islamist rage and resentment.There had been an attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and an attack on theUSS
in Aden Harbour, Yemen in 2000. But very few people, even in the CIA, thenbelieved that the jihadists’ capabilities could ever match their ambitions. So they did not, aswas said after 11 September 2001, ‘connect the dots’.Thus the foundations of the unipolar world seemed, to many people at that time, strongenough to sustain it for a few decades. The rise and rise of US paramountcy had then beengoing on for more than a century, from the time of the war with Spain in 1898, and in allthose 100-plus years, was hardly met with a check. Early in the 20
century, the UnitedStates overtook Britain in naval power, and after 1945 it was very much the dominanteconomic power in the world, only rivalled by the European Union until the rise and rise ofChina and India very late in the century. And its diplomatic clout of course reflected itseconomic and military ascendancy. So, in 2000, one could say that the unipolar world restedon three apparently very sturdy pillars: US unequalled military capacity, its long-sustainedeconomic ascendancy (then also unrivalled), and its worldwide diplomatic clout.The story of the years since is the story of how those three pillars have become erodedrapidly, especially over the last four years. I will talk about the demographic and economicchanges later, but the most surprising aspect of the change was to me on the military side,and I know that must be of most professional interest to you, so let us look at it first.In retrospect, high noon for US military ascendancy was clearly at the time of the KosovoCampaign of 1999. The Europeans (who had originally claimed that they were the naturalcrisis-managers for the long-running Balkan crisis) were obliged to acknowledge theircontinuing dependence on US power by needing to call in the United States Air Force(USAF) to induce Serbia to take its troops out of Kosovo, a small province of only about2 million people, which should have been quite manageable by the Europeans themselves.The USAF bombing in Serbia forced Slobodan Milosevic to the conference table in about8 weeks, without a single casualty among its air-crew, even though Serbia had considerableair-defences. American capacity looked invincible, and the Europeans ridiculously weak. Thiswas particularly the case for the Russians. Serbia had been their old ally, and a fellow-SlavOrthodox protectorate from earlier centuries. The policymakers in the Kremlin did make a bidof sorts for influence on the outcome, but it came to nothing much. China too was beginningits rise to diplomatic influence as well as economic stardom, but was not then expected tohave much influence outside East Asia.The Gulf War of 1991 had already created on impression in the world that victory in hostilitieswould inevitably go swiftly and almost without cost to US power, especially for the USAF, andKosovo seemed to confirm it. So as I implied earlier, as the new century opened, Americanparamountcy in a unipolar world looked to many people as if it might last forever. A fewpolicymakers, mostly in the Pentagon rather than the State Department or the CIA, felt that itcould and should be made to do so. You can see a hint of that in the
National Security Strategy of the United States of America 
(http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html) ofSeptember 2002.
The Coming and Going of the Unipolar World 
Coral Bell
 © 2007 The Australian National University
3Those of you who are interested in US military doctrine, and I guess that is most of you,might like to consider the probability that those previous 10 years, 1992–2002, of almostunbroken military success for US forces, must have been a contributing factor in DonaldRumsfeld’s decision to mount the invasion of Iraq with what many US generals thought fromthe start were seriously inadequate land forces, and with no apparent consideration of theneeds of the occupation, as against the initial drive to Baghdad, which as I am sure you allremember took only three weeks, and led the President to proclaim victory, in effect, at thebeginning of May 2003, four years ago, from the deck of the USS
Abraham Lincoln 
. But thatwas actually just the beginning of the asymmetric war, which has been with us in Iraq andAfghanistan ever since.As there are already whole libraries of books about what went wrong in Iraq, I will not lingeron that point. We need also to consider the years of the mostly bipolar balance of power, theyears of the Cold War, from 1946 to 1989, and why they ended as they did, in a period ofunipolarity. Some commentators are rather given to forecasting a new Cold War, a bit laterthis century, between the United States and China, and I want to explain why I do not thinkthat to be likely. Basically it is because the next balance of power will be multipolar which,although more complex than a bipolar balance, will allow for more diplomatic adjustment.The reason I say that the military balance of power in the world was mostly but not alwaysbipolar during those 43 years of the Cold War was that China sometimes added an elementof tripolarity to the balance, by swinging this way or the other. For the first nine years afterMao Zedong came to power in 1949, China defined itself as a close ally of the Soviet Union,so in those years there was no ambiguity in its stance. However, in 1958 Mao began toquarrel with Nikita Khrushchev, who at that time was Josef Stalin’s successor at the Kremlin,so the Sino-Soviet alliance really began to fall apart after only eight years. The reason theyquarrelled was very significant as it was over basic strategy in the Cold War, which indicatesthat Mao’s views were already then for more hawkish than those coming from Moscow.At the time there was (as usual) a crisis in the Middle East, and (as later) it concerned regimechange in Iraq. In 1958, there occurred the first military coup, the one which removed theHashemite constitutional monarchy, installed by the British (mostly Winston Churchill andT.E. Lawrence) way back after the First World War. It was run at the time by an individualcalled Nuri Pasha al-Said, who had actually ridden with Lawrence, but he and the monarchywere butchered by the new military autocracy. The United States and Britain were so worriedby what was happening that they sent troops to Lebanon, and the British went into Jordan. Atabout the same time, there was another crisis going on in the Pacific, in the Taiwan Strait,over two little islands—Quemoy and Matsu—which are very close to the mainland, but arestill held by Taiwan, even now, 50 years on.What happened back then was that Mao wanted Khrushchev to take some vigorous action inthe Middle East, but Khrushchev, who understood much better the significance of Americannuclear superiority, refused, very sensibly, to do so. In terms of the then existing Sino-Sovietalliance, this meant that Moscow began to understand that it had a rather dangerous ally inChina, and Mao became resentful that Moscow was not going to take any risks on behalf ofChina’s interests. So the alliance decayed little by little over the next 11 years until, by 1969,Beijing and Moscow appeared close to hostilities—over a small border island called Zhenbao(which the Russians call Damansky).And at that point, there appeared in Washington a new and resourceful foreign policymaker,Dr Henry Kissinger, who actually understood how to manage the balance of power, and thestrategy of détente as a mode of swaying it in the direction you wanted it to go. So, first heconstructed a détente with the weaker of Americas two potential adversaries—China—starting with a visit to Beijing in 1971; then came a détente with Moscow in the mid-1970s. Bythen, the balance was trilateral, and Washington was on better terms with Beijing and

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