The Unipolar Moment is (Almost) Over: What’s Next?

According to the International Comparison Program at the World Bank, China will be the largest economy in the world by the end of the year.  This is the first time the U.S. has ceased to be the global economic leader since 1872 when it surpassed Britain.  Because of constraints on the Presidency, America took its time to convert its financial prowess into political influence; Xi Jinping’s China does not seem to have the same hang-ups.

America has “Weary Titan” syndrome: after more than a decade of wars in the periphery, decreasing productivity, and the shock of the Great Recession, the U.S.’ appetite for maintaining the post-Cold War order seems to have waned under the too vast orb of it’s fate.

As Colonial Secretary in 1902, Joseph Chamberlain described Britain as a "weary titan." Source: The Guardian.
As Colonial Secretary in 1902, Joseph Chamberlain described Britain as a “weary titan.” Source: The Guardian.

The main trouble with rising Great Powers is that they tend to change their stripes: today’s responsible stakeholder can become tomorrow’s unlimited-aims revisionist.


So, what should the U.S. do now that the unipolar moment (which turned out to be two decades long) seems to be coming to an end?

The U.S. has four options: it can (1) pull back; (2) pivot; (3) lean forward; or (4) pursue primacy.

Pulling Back

This could also be called the “George McGovern Doctrine.”  In his futile run for the Presidency, then-Sen. McGovern said, “Come Home, America.” He suggested the U.S. pull out of the war in Vietnam and pursue a retrenchment strategy.  While castigated as an extreme dove whose poor judgment would endanger national security, some of McGovern’s ideas were akin to a “Nixon Doctrine” on steroids.

US president Richard Nixon. (photo credit: National Archives & Records Administration, public domain)
US president Richard Nixon. (photo credit: National Archives & Records Administration, public domain)







Today, this strategy would accept the demise of unipolarity and the emergence of other great powers, including China.  It would involve pulling back from a number of international obligations, such as NATO, and compel allies to provide for a greater share of their own national defense.  Many hawks suggest that retrenchment would make the world more chaotic because critical states would be compelled to bandwagon with their aggressors.  However, evidence suggests just the opposite dynamic: when endangered, most states are willing to balance against threats to their national security.  A striking example is Iran during the early Cold War.  Tehran was willing to balance against Soviet aggression even before it started receiving assistance from the U.S.

Pulling back would not only mean continuing the trend of getting out of places like Afghanistan, but accelerating it.  It would also require the U.S. turn its back on issues from trans-national terrorism to drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and nuclear proliferation.  (America would have to give up any hope of attaining “Global Zero” because it would need to rely on nuclear deterrence to ward off direct attacks.)

Those who find the current defense cuts to be alarming would be mortally offended by the drawdown a retrenchment strategy would imply.  The U.S. would have to move to a one Major Regional Conflict (MRC) standard, meaning limit itself to fight one Gulf War One-style conflict.

With the money saved from defense spending, proponents of retrenchment argue we can use those funds to reinvest in education and infrastructure and fuel a new economic boom.  Others, known as defensive realists, contend that a less assertive America would be a safer America: other states would feel less, not more threatened, and therefore have fewer incentives to behave aggressively or support terrorism.


Can retrenchment be pulled off?  Will it make America safer?

Retrenchment is a political landmine for any state.  Look at the effects the war in Algeria had on Fourth Republic France, or attempts to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza have on any sitting Israeli government.  In the U.S., the defense establishment is notoriously well connected and fights even the smallest cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.  Many of the major defense contractors have established presences in nearly every state.  This was done so they could threaten Congressmen and Senators with the prospect of being held responsible for job losses.

Second, will it make America safer?  Much of this depends on the present and future intentions of China.  The former is difficult to gauge even among China experts, while the latter requires the skills of a Nostradamus.


The term “pivot” to Asia has been over-used and under-defined by the Obama Administration.  It has taken on several meanings, but it sounds like offshore balancing.  The U.S. would pull back from a number of commitments in places like the Middle East and Africa, and place them (where needed) in East Asia.

One version of the pivot could have America’s allies in the region become increasingly responsible for picking up the tab for their own defenses.  This would involve allowing- even encourage- the remilitarization of Abe’s Japan.  The U.S. would pursue a two MRC standard and stay above the fray where possible, but throw its support to the weaker of two sides in any conflict.  This would usually mean balancing against China.

US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in November 2012  (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in November 2012 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


Like retrenchment, the politics of retrenchment make it so that it is easier to get into a conflict than it is to get out.  Extricating the U.S. from places like the Middle East will be a political landmine for any President.  But allowing other states like Japan to remilitarize may create it’s own set of problems.  This includes raising the likelihood of arms racing and miscalculation between states that have historically been hostile to one another.

Lean Forward

This is also known as engagement.  Unlike other strategies driven by “Who gets more” thinking, under engagement we stop worrying about how big a slice of the pie China gets, and instead focus upon growing the whole pie.  Under this strategy, we give up none of our commitments.  Instead, we take up new ones.  We attempt to influence China’s present and future behavior by using positive inducements (“carrots”), while ensnaring them and us in a web of increasingly intricate international organizations

Scholars like Alastair Iain Johnston suggest that China’s participation in international organizations has had a moderating influence on Beijing’s foreign policy since the days of Mao.  Jeffrey Legro argues that since Deng Xiaoping, China has pursued an “integrationist” strategy that has benefited its growth.  Until outside events demonstrate that it’s current strategy is not working or has failed, Chinese elites have little reason to favor a course correction in a more aggressive direction.


Has this ever worked?  Some would suggest that engagement has never worked because declining states rarely try it.  Declining powers are wary of trying it for fear that concessions given to rising powers today will be used against them in the future.  China could pocket concessions and use them later in order to further America’s demise.  China may also see this as little more than cheap talk: a U.S. ploy to get its way and maintain primacy on the cheap.  After all, such a doctrine does not involve deeper defense cuts than what we have now.


The U.S.’ sole objective is to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor.  Whereas “pulling out” accepts the rise of a peer competitor and the pivot seeks to defend the status quo, under a doctrine of primacy the U.S. would attempt to recreate the unipolar moment and eliminate a peer competitor.  Washington would not seek to merely contain China; it would try to kick it down the international ladder every chance it got.

Instead of entertaining further defense cuts and reinvesting the savings in, say, education and clean energy, a primacy strategy would take the guns-versus-butter calculus in the other direction.  Like the British Naval two-power standard, primacy demands that the U.S. be more powerful militarily than the next two, maybe three, states combined.  It would require investing even more in the weapons systems of the future and finding new ways to wage war to ensure China stays a step behind.

This approach is also less discriminating than the other doctrines when it comes to the use of force.  In some circumstances, crises may prove to be opportunities to take China down a peg or three.  It would not welcome the remilitarization of states like Japan, for they, too could become potential future challengers.

Right now many economists have expressed concern that the Chinese economy is beginning to slow.  While both the U.S. and China have gotten rich from the interconnectedness of our economies, a primacy strategy would actually welcome a hard landing for Beijing’s economy.


The upside of primacy is obvious: you get to call the shots; you get your way most of the time.  But what’s the downside?  Primacy strategies and preventive wars are driven by the fear of falling.  Great powers, like everyday people, tend to be more risk acceptant when they anticipate a loss than when they believe they are about to make a gain.  It was none other than Otto von Bismarck who likened waging a preventive war to committing suicide for fear of death.

Ironically enough, we are close to marking the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War- a conflict partly driven by Wilhelmine Germany’s fear of being overtaken by Tsarist Russia.   Yet, it led to Germany’s humiliation and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. If the past decade’s worth of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown us anything, it is that conflict is costly.  Policies like primacy, which raise the likelihood of conflict with China, are likely to dwarf the expense of our recent interventions in the periphery.

What Should America Do?

During the 1980s, the U.S. was as fearful of a rising Japan as it was of the Soviet Union.  Japan wound up in a prolonged, multi-decade recession that it is still trying to crawl out of.  Throughout the Cold War, U.S. strategists feared the Soviets were either rising or had gotten ahead of us (remember the “missile gap” that never was?)

While America feared being overtaken by the Soviet Union and Japan, it never happened.  This time it’s different, in part because the economic indicators are more believable.  Each strategy has it’s risks.  However, the pivot is a takeoff from Britain’s traditional balance-of-power strategy- one that seemed to work before and after the Napoleonic Wars.  Pulling out is similar to the Nixon Doctrine.  Whatever Nixon’s failings, foreign policy was not one of them.  While leaning forward and primacy sound nice, there’s no guarantee either will work.

About the Author
Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at ADA University in Baku, Azerbaijan. He has written extensively on international security and Middle East politics.