America in the World   /   Spring 2003   /    Articles

America in the World

Samuel P. Huntington

Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula Amstelodami. Copper engraving by Gerard van Schagen (1689).

America’s role in the world has changed, and the impact of the world on America has changed. Many people assume that these changes result from the horrible events of September 11th and that these events have caused us to be living in an entirely new world. Is this, however, really the case? I have my doubts.

The increased role of terrorism as a threat and the cooperative efforts of many nations to cope with that threat have certainly added an important new dimension to global politics. The fundamental characteristics of today’s global politics and America’s global role, however, are the result not of what happened in 2001 in New York and Washington but of what happened over a decade ago in Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War produced changes in three central aspects of the global geopolitical and strategic environment: the global power structure; the bases for the alignment and antagonism of states; and the prevailing type of war in the world. These developments have significantly affected the American role in global affairs.

Global Power Structure

During the Cold War we had a bipolar international system with two superpowers. Each dominated part of the world and competed for influence in the rest of the world. Rivalry between them was inherent in that situation and was enhanced by each promoting its own political ideology throughout the world.

Now there is only one superpower. Much debate goes on, however, as to whether today’s world is unipolar, multipolar, or something else. A unipolar world is one that has one superpower, no significant major powers, and many minor powers. In that world the superpower acting unilaterally with little or no cooperation from other states can effectively resolve major international issues, and no combination of other states has the power to prevent it from doing so. For several centuries, Rome and, at times in history, East Asia dominated by China approximated this model. We speak of the Roman and Chinese empires, and some people today talk approvingly of an emerging American empire. A multipolar world, in contrast, has several major states of comparable strength, which cooperate and compete with each other in shifting patterns and in which a coalition of major states is necessary to resolve important international issues. European politics approximated this model for several centuries.

Contemporary international politics does not fit either of these models. Instead it is a mixture or hybrid of one superpower, which is not an empire, and several major powers. It might be called a uni-multipolar system. This means two things. First, with respect to major international issues, the single superpower is usually able to veto the actions of combinations of other major powers. Second, the single superpower can resolve key international issues only in cooperation with some of the other major states.

In this uni-multipolar world, the global power structure has four levels. At the top, the United States has preeminence in every domain of power. At the second level are major regional powers, which are the dominant actors in important areas of the world but whose interests and capabilities do not extend as globally as those of the U.S.

These include the European Union, Russia, China, India, Iran, Brazil, and others. These countries obviously vary greatly in importance, activity, and degree of dominance. At a third level are secondary regional powers whose influence in their region is less than that of the major regional powers. Finally, at the fourth level are all the remaining countries, some of which are quite important for various reasons but which do not play roles in the global power structure comparable to countries at the top three levels.

The Cold War bipolar structure of power inevitably generated conflict between the two superpowers. This new uni-multipolar structure generates its own very different patterns of conflict. As the only superpower, the U.S. has global interests and actively attempts to promote its interests in every region of the world. This brings it into conflict with the major regional powers, which view the U.S. as an intruder and believe they should play the dominant role in determining what goes on in their regions. Thus a natural basis for rivalry exists between the U.S. and the principal regional powers. Within each region the secondary powers do not want to be dominated by the major regional power, and they try to restrict the ability of the major regional power to shape events in that region.

These competitive relations create a basis for cooperation between the U.S. and secondary regional powers, and that is happening. In the past decade, to counterbalance China, the U.S. has strengthened its alliance with Japan and has supported the extension of Japanese military capabilities. The U.S. maintains its special relationship with Britain, which provides leverage against the emerging power of a united Europe dominated by Germany and France. Poland now rivals Britain as our closest ally in Europe because neither the Poles nor we want Poland again to be dominated by its historic enemies, Germany and Russia. The U.S. has also developed close relations with Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Uzbekistan, as counters to any expansion of Russian power. The U.S. maintains close cooperation with Saudi Arabia to balance Iran’s power in the Gulf. In South America, the U.S. has historically had friendly relations with Brazil and antagonistic ones with Argentina. In the 1990s, however, Brazil emerged as the rival of the U.S. for influence in South America, and the U.S. formed much closer relations with Argentina. In all these cases and potentially in others, cooperation serves the mutual interest of the U.S. and the secondary regional powers in containing the influence of principal regional powers.

The major regional powers share a common interest in cooperating together to limit the influence of the U.S. Many of them—France, Russia, China, Iran, and India—have at times tried to act together to promote their interests against the U.S. At the same time, however, each major regional power usually wants to get things from the U.S.: membership in international organizations, technology, weapons, economic assistance, diplomatic support, invitations to the White House for their leaders. This has so far limited their ability to form a stable anti-American alliance, but that could come in the future.

In the meantime, however, the major regional powers are precisely the countries that the U.S. has needed to enlist in its anti-terrorist coalition. Immediately after September 11th, it was very successful in securing the cooperation of the EU, Russia, China, India, Israel, and even Iran. On the one hand, American relations with Russia and India, in particular, have improved dramatically, aided not only by the mutual concern about terrorism but also by a shared concern about China. On the other hand, American relations with the EU, Iran, China, and Israel are returning to their pre-September 11th pattern.

There is a reason for this. There is no single war on terrorism; there are many wars. The United States is fighting a global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Russia is fighting a local war against the Chechens, China a local war against the Uighurs, India a local war against the Kashmiris, and Israel a local war against the Palestinians. The insurgents in these wars have three things in common. First, they are Muslim groups fighting to achieve autonomy or independence from non-Muslim governments. Second, in terms of conventional military power, they are much weaker than the states against which they are rebelling. Third, as a result, they use terrorism, which has always been the weapon of the weak. These wars are, however, separate wars, and the interests of the U.S. in these local wars do not necessarily coincide with those of the governments fighting them. In due course the rivalries between the U.S. and the major regional powers are once again likely to dominate the scene.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).