Fourteen years ago U.S. forces moved into Afghanistan, and we have been at war ever since. Afghanistan has not been “fixed”, and the war theatre has expanded to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and part of the Sahara. Terrorism is more alive than ever and extremist groups now control substantial territory in the Middle East and North Africa.
Over time a number of justifications have been given for our policies in the Middle East, but one major assumption underlies them all: that the U.S. has a “duty” to organize the world as it sees fit, with military intervention a legitimate part of our role as “the world’s sole superpower.”
How dangerous such an attitude can be is well illustrated in history – particularly by the career of a brilliant man of war: Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1776, the year the American Colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the leading power in Europe was France. It had the largest population, the most fertile soil, thriving industries and a universally admired culture.
It also suffered from a major flaw: a wasteful, inefficient government, controlled by a corrupt minority of aristocrats and courtiers, who had built a crushing national debt at the people’s expense. The result was growing popular discontent, followed by revolution, allowing Napoleon to become France’s dictator.
An immensely ambitious man, Napoleon marshalled the country’s vast resources into a military machine that rampaged through Europe for two decades. His goal: to forge the continent into a single empire, led by France, with himself at the top. Napoleon’s “Great Army” won victory after victory until it ran into two unyielding adversaries: Britain, a small island nation commanding the wealth of a far-flung empire; and Russia, vast and backward, but with resources greater than even France. Between 1812 and 1815 the “Great Army” was wiped out, and Napoleon died in exile on a small Atlantic island.
The victors wisely decided that no single power could rule Europe – only a multi-lateral system would do. They invited France (minus Napoleon) to plan the future of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Their multi-lateral, “balance of powers” design gave Europe a century of peace. But France itself never recovered its “European superpower” status after the Napoleonic adventure, and its example raises the question whether our “sole superpower dream” entails similarly negative consequences for our own country.
We currently have problems similar to those besetting 18th century France: a decaying economy with increasing income inequality; a huge and growing national debt; an immensely wasteful central government; crippling regulation and taxes; an unstable financial system. Our focus should be on internal issues, not far-flung wars.
But what of terrorism and global instability? Well, since the “sole superpower” approach has not solved the problem, but apparently made it far worse, we could try the approach that worked so well after the Congress of Vienna: multilateralism.
As opposed to our current unipolar model. Multilateralism implies a balance of power between sovereign nations, each with its own legitimate interests and sphere of influence. It is, in a way, a democracy of powers, as opposed to the imperial model of a single dominant state.
It has significant advantages:
- Respect for sovereignty: it recognizes that nations and ethnic groups have legitimate interests, one being the management of their domestic affairs, which cannot be surrendered to other nations or to some supra-national bureaucracy.
- Balanced political and trade relations: both economic and political developments remain under local control and are compatible with national interests.
- Cooperation: the recognition of a number of power centers implies that cooperation is the first choice to resolve disputes
- Stability: once recognition of sovereign interest has been accepted as a general rule, it is in the interest of all concerned to keep the system in place.
It is worthwhile to note that, while Napoleon financed his campaigns by plundering conquered territories, the balance of power system introduced by the Congress of Vienna resulted in steady economic development, the industrialization of Europe, and major wealth creation.
Which raises a key question: Could the introduction of a similar approach today remedy the imbalances and predatory behaviors characteristic of globalization leading to resolution of the major economic issues facing the United States and the world?
Rather than force our idea of a globalized, “New World Order” on other world powers, maybe we should recognize their spheres of influence and sovereignty. Maybe we can develop a world order based on cooperation and restore our own lost sovereignty.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.