A World Without Superpowers
No. 3 2003 July/September
Yevgeny Primakov


Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry, member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs, former prime minister of Russia (1998-1999).

Any discussion focusing on global stability and security would prove to be futile without first understanding the main global processes that have been taking place over the last few years. September 11, 2001, is popularly believed to be the watershed event in these processes.

Indeed, the “mega terror” acts in New York and Washington made people take a new look at the world, at least from two vantage points. First, they dramatically underlined the new threats looming over all of mankind in our post-Cold War era. These are, above all, international terrorism and the catastrophic danger of its “merger” with weapons of mass destruction. Second, the events of September 11 have instigated a heated confrontation between the two contrasting methods for ensuring world order. On the one hand, it is argued that the ongoing efforts to preserve the world order should be organized under the auspices of particular collective agencies, such as the United Nations. On the other hand, the U.S. is pushing forward with a singularly minded agenda of “unilateralism” where it wants to unilaterally address mankind’s vital problems on the basis of Washington’s biased views of the global situation.

Generally speaking, the world must decide which of the following two models are the most acceptable for preserving the world order: one based on the joint efforts of the global community to counter various threats arising in the world and stabilize the international situation; or the other alternative which calls for unilateral decisions and actions which are in opposition to the UN Charter, as well as the opinion of a majority of states.

Lessons of postwar Iraq

The second model was clearly implemented in Iraq. Now the question must be asked if this model has achieved its goals and brought about stabilization in the post-Saddam state. The real state of affairs in Iraq prohibits one from offering a positive answer to this question. Yes, the military operation in itself was a success. But it was exceedingly difficult to imagine a different outcome of this conflict considering that it was between the mighty U.S. (supported by Britain), and Iraq –a second- or even third-rate military nation. Despite the military successes, unilateral actions failed to produce the desired results when it came to stabilizing the situation in Iraq. Iraqis continue to organize armed attacks against the U.S. and British soldiers. Since President George Bush announced the end of the Iraqi war, the U.S. has lost approximately 100 troops in Iraq, almost as many as were killed during the military operation. Many British troops have been killed or wounded as well. The occupation authorities have been unable to put a halt to the everyday occurrences of robberies, looting and general lawlessness. The Iraqi economy is paralyzed, while the real danger of a humanitarian catastrophe is growing, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. to improve the situation.

The allies have also been unable to find and rely on a local force that would be able to establish some sense of order in the country. The present developments in Iraq underline the soundness of George Bush Sr’s position when he rejected the proposals of particular members of his staff to stage an attack on Baghdad after Saddam’s army was routed from Kuwait in 1991. Apparently, he realized that it was much easier to achieve a military victory over the Saddam regime than to bring Iraq back to normality after its collapse.

“Iraqi distraction” and Afghanistan

Iraq’s occupation has distracted global attention away from the antiterrorist operation in Afgha-nistan. Developments in that country have begun to deviate from the scenario that the U.S. had implemented two years ago with the international community’s universal support.

First of all, the U.S. has failed to isolate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Judging by numerous reports, he is hiding in a Pushtu-controlled area near the border with Pakistan, which was described by President Bush as being Washington’s main ally in the antiterrorist operation. The leader of the overthrown Taliban regime, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is reportedly based in this area as well. Not long ago, he made a public statement calling on all Afghans to fight the foreign troops in the country to the death. However, neither the Pakistani army, nor the U.S.-led coalition, has set foot into that area in order to capture or liquidate bin Laden, Omar and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. One has the impression that the capture of bin Laden and his closest associates has ceased to be the primary task for the U.S., as was proclaimed two years ago. U.S. leaders no longer mention this subject: the “more topical” subjects of reconstructing postwar Iraq, and which new targets should be attacked next, have sidelined this question.

Meanwhile, there are already signs that the Taliban movement has not been crushed; moreover, it has set itself the goal of restoring the overthrown regime. Mullah Omar has named an anti-U.S. leadership council of ten field commanders fanatically loyal to the Taliban. Occasionally, Talibs attack troops of the “antiterrorist coalition.” The Hamid Karzai government actually has no control over the situation in the provinces that have been swept by ethnic and religious clashes. Not surprisingly, the national economy is in ruins and crime is rampant.

The general instability has been aggravated by a sharp increase in the production of narcotics which, according to UN estimates, reached 3,400 tons of raw opium, an equivalent of 340 tons of heroin, late last year. As a particularly dangerous trend, an increasing amount of Afghan peasants are opting to harvest the opium poppy, and they will be very hard pressed to give up their high earnings. Peasants have even begun killing representatives of the Kabul government who are involved in the prevention of drug trafficking.

The formation of a new Afghan army has been very slow; field commanders are in no hurry to relinquish control over their armed groups. Indeed, most of them display no level of obedience to the Karzai government. All of these developments support the conclusion that the ruling regime in Afghanistan is unstable.

Prospects for departure from “unilateralism”

Washington’s reliance on unilateral decision-making has not stabilized the situation in Iraq, nor enhanced the antiterrorist prospects within global politics. These goals can be achieved if the Bush administration is prepared to give up its unilateral approach and pools its efforts with other countries. There have already appeared the first signs of such a policy change in Washington, and this can only inspire optimism.

Although the U.S.-established occupation authorities in Iraq continue to play a major role there, the problem of solving the Iraqi crisis is slowly shifting to the United Nations. The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution, supported by the U.S., which has created a special representative of the UN Secretary General in Iraq. He will participate, along with the occupational authorities, in the country’s postwar reconstruction, as well as with the formation of a new Iraqi government.

If these developments do not remain relegated to paper only, then the possibility of resolving the issue of the future world order in the interests of all states will increase.

There are definite factors that make a departure from the American policy of “unilateralism” more probable. These include not only Washing-ton’s setbacks in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the fact that unilateral decision-making and actions run counter to objective processes in the world economy and international relations. In the economy, these processes include globalization and the transnationalization of corporations, which are making the world a more interconnected and interdependent place. Moreover, the structural changes in international relations that have taken place in the world since the end of the Cold War are incompatible with any degree of “unilateralism” in politics.

Throughout the Cold War years, it was clear that there existed two dominant systems in the world, two “superpowers” – the Soviet Union and the United States. I hold the belief that there are no “superpowers” remaining in the world today: the U.S.S.R. has ceased to exist, and the U.S.A. has lost this status, although it remains the world’s most powerful state militarily and economically and exerts an exceptional political influence. “Superpower” was a Cold War notion: a “superpower” rallied a conglomeration of smaller states around itself, ensuring their security in the face of fierce confrontation with the opposing bloc. It was this role of guaranteeing security to the other states that allowed the superpowers to dominate the decision-making process; the only thing required from their weaker allies was to obey. Now things have changed. The absence of a confrontation on a worldwide scale has made many things redundant, such as the “nuclear umbrellas” which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. graciously “opened” over their allies and partners.

Another factor, which demonstrates the absolute incompatibility of “unilateralism” with the existing reality, is that since the end of the Cold War, the world has been actively developing a multipolar structure. This statement can be illustrated by many examples. The European Union is one of them. Who could have imagined even ten years ago that Western Europe, integrating into one community for economic reasons, would seek political and military integration at the same time? It is already fact that the European Union is becoming a real “center of power” that is comparable with the U.S. in terms of its production capabilities.

And who will dare suggest that China, which is beefing up its economic muscles, will join a unipolar world and obediently follow the drumbeat orchestrated from one center? The same refers to Russia, India, and Japan, which have lately been seeking to make their political influence in the world comparable with their economic potential. Of course, the formation of a multipolar world (which is not identical to a struggle between “centers of power”) will take effort and time, but this is the main vector of the world’s development.

Adjustment of joint actions

A multipolar world will require the more active participation of the United Nations. By insisting on joint decision-making, one should not rule out the need for modernizing existing mechanisms for making collective decisions; this is, again, most important from the level of the UN. It seems inevitable that changes will need to be made, for example, in the composition of the UN Security Council’s permanent members who command the power to veto forwarded initiatives. Furthermore, the present functions of the UN must be revised to make them adequate to the new international realities. The UN must be better adapted at conducting peacemaking operations. At the same time, the UN Charter provision, which states that the UN Security Council must make the final decision on the use of force against sovereign states, must remain intact.

Although many states did not support the U.S.-proposed model for enforcing the world order, demonstrated by Washington’s operation in Iraq, the world has not become irremediably divided yet again. The countries that did not agree with the U.S. actions have muffled their anti-Americanism in their policies. They have realized that without the cooperation of the U.S. it would be impossible to counter international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the impoverishment of peoples who do not live in the so-called “golden billion” countries. At the same time, this does not mean the world should rescind on its commitment to a global policy of joint actions. Such a dialectic approach is creating favorable conditions for the U.S. to adjust its policy, however slowly.

Factors facilitating these developments include changes in the political situation inside the U.S. According to statements made by U.S. policymakers and various commentaries in the mass media, there are three informal groups of influence in U.S. politics.

The first group includes Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Donald Evans and other so-called “traditionalists.” They understand that the U.S. will not be able to solve the myriad problems associated with postwar Iraq, nor will it be able to win the war it has declared on terrorism without international support. They strongly advocate the involvement of the UN for deciding whether or not U.S. actions are legitimate.

The “traditionalists” are opposed by a “power group” led by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They view the U.S. as the world’s only “superpower” which does not need international or UN approval for its actions.

CIA director George Tennet and several undersecretaries of state and defense, described as “neo-colonialists”, hold an intermediary position between the first two groups. Prior to the military operation, they supported the “power group,” but since the postwar settlement in Iraq began to stall they have been inclined to support the “traditionalists.”

On the whole, the policymakers of President Bush are no longer so predictably categorical when speaking about the inevitability of U.S. unilateral military actions as they were at the beginning of the operation in Iraq.