An Isolationist Hegemon?
Paradoxically, the last hurrah of superpower unilateralism under George Bush is what will finally push the multipolar world out of its post-Cold War womb. Above all, by attempting to become an isolationist hegemon that shapes the world order from behind its own shield, the United States will prompt other powers, including its traditional allies in a uniting Europe as well as a rising China, to see their own interests more clearly and move more steadily down their own paths. Inexorably, America's global prerogatives will be eroded as a renegotiation of the power balance on a global scale gets under way.
In Europe, a confident Germany is pushing aside the petty resistance of the French to American dominance, embracing the necessity of the transatlantic tie but readily willing to challenge Washington on substantive issues such as the defection from the Kyoto Protocol or the export of genetic crops. As the author of On Contradiction (Mao) would have appreciated, China's assertions of sovereignty seem to grow more aggressive in proportion to the deepening degree of its interdependence with the US that necessarily comes with open trade, investment and the transfer of technology. The stronger the pull of integration, the louder the protestations against it.
This combination of linkages and conflict is why, as the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi writes, the multipolar world order ahead will be characterized not by the total confrontation and division of the Cold War, but by a "hot peace."
Unlike in the modern, ideological and totalitarian 20th century, conflict in the 21st century will be partial, non-ideological and postmodern in the sense that cooperation and opposition will coexist. A collage of fractured interests that don't quite cohere, and among which there is friction, will nonetheless hang together in some loose order because the attraction remains stronger than the repulsion.
In the latter half of the 20th century, war between the major powers was restrained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. In the 21st century, abounding differences will likely not lead to a rupture because of the mutually assured prosperity of global economic integration.
Some relations, such as between the US and China, will be like a bad marriage. Despite irreconcilable differences and regular screaming matches, they will stay together for the sake of the kids and, particularly in the case of the weaker party, to avoid a demotion in their standard of living. The relationship with Europe will be more like an open marriage. It will be extremely strained at times because, in the European way, there will be foreign affairs with other partners not always to America's liking— Russia, Iraq, North Korea. At the end of the day, though, the US will remain Europe's significant other.
The China nuclear spying brouhaha in the US, the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the US-China spy-plane incident, Chinese detention of American residents as spies, the global suspicion over US national missile defense, Europe's angry reaction to the US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the separate European dialogue with North Korea and its flirtations with Iraq, the European machinations behind the vote ousting the US from the UN human rights panel, Russia's new pact with China—all these are signs of the hot peace to come in a multipolar world that is finally arriving.