These days it is not fashionable to speak of empires, which are considered to be aggressive, mercantilist relics supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history with postWorld War II decolonization and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many then predicted that ethnic self-determination would drag the world into a new era of political fragmentation as the number of countries proliferated from fewer than 50 at the end of World War II to, potentially, hundreds in the 21st century, with every minority getting its own state, currency, and seat in the United Nations.
But for thousands of years empires have been the world's most powerful political entities, fulfilling people's eternal desire for order -- the prerequisite for stability and meaningful democracy. Rome, Istanbul, Venice, and London ruled over thousands of distinct political communities until the advent of the nation state in the 17th century. By World War II, global power had consolidated into just a half dozen empires, almost all of them European. Decolonization put an end to small nations ruling by force over foreign colonies -- but it did not end empire itself. Empires may not be the most desirable form of governance, given the regular occurrence of hugely destructive wars between them, but mankind's psychological limitations prevent us from doing better. In the 21st century, will we do better than empire?
It is inter-imperial relations -- not international or inter-civilizational -- that shape the world. America, Europe, and China are not only unique empires, they are exceptional in their expansionism. These three powers together increasingly command the world economy, form the largest trading blocs, and set rules for the rest of the world to follow. They lead by example, and by treaty. Each represents its own mode of diplomacy: For America it is coalition; Europe touts consensus; and China's style is consultative. The United States offers military and regime protection and aid; Europe offers deep reform and economic association with its union, and China offers full-service, conditionality free relationships.
But at the same time, it is hard to overestimate the fluidity of the early 21st-century landscape: America vacillates between shunning and embracing the international community, the Chinese politburo remains a black box, and the European Union cautiously exercises strategic leverage. But we must also consider that America may not be able to afford its excessive consumption, nor Europe its expansion, nor China its environmental and social burdens. All three superpowers might retrench if they are unable to maintain present commitments or if blending with their peripheries proves too cumbersome.
Then there are the many swing states of the "second world" that complicate the picture drastically: energy-giant Russia, aspiring India, and technological juggernaut Japan. Beyond these three major states, there are those with a strong anti-imperial mindset. In a world of alignments, not alliances, their imperial networks or spheres of influence increasingly overlap, with other countries multi-aligning: balancing and bandwagoning in order to gain economic assistance from one power, military aid from another, and trade ties with the third. In addition to playing the dominant powers off one another, countries like Venezuela, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Malaysia will continue to focus as much on building ties among themselves as with Washington, Brussels, or Beijing. Not only will these countries take the best of what each superpower offers to achieve their own vision of success, they will also partner directly with one another in order to extract oil reserves, share intelligence, combat terrorism, reduce poverty, implement capital controls, and build modern infrastructure. They will use their sovereign wealth to buy Western banks, ports, and other strategic assets. Their regional groups will continue to construct their own economic zones, development banks, peacekeeping forces, and criminal courts. Airline connections have sprouted to connect Arabs, South Americans, and East Asians directly to one another.
How will global governance be affected by this unprecedented and complex geopolitical landscape? As America's claims to exceptionalism wane, other powers quite rightly want their place in (or as) the sun, to be the world's Ordnungsmacht. For the first time in history, there exists a multipolar and multicivilizational world of three distinct superpowers competing on a planet of shrinking resources. For each, mere raison d'état has become raison du système: The extension of their core rationality and vision of order constitutes the highest morality. The more America considers itself exceptional, the more its rivals will seek to advance their own exceptionalism at America's expense. China feels it upholds the burden of maintaining tenets of international law like sovereignty and noninterference, while Europe's approach to world order transcends the interstate system altogether. Each in its own way undermines the international architecture of global governance, eroding the fiction that laws and institutions alone can restrain imperial competition.
A Damaged Security Architecture
Institutions of global governance must reflect the underlying geopolitical foundation in order to retain credibility and legitimacy. Other states might have continued to support the imperfect United Nations as a common forum for authoritative global diplomacy if the United States had, but its negligence of the United Nations gave others the excuse to do the same. The United States is more responsible than any other country for creating the post-World War II international architecture, but it is now doing as much as any other country to undermine it. Double standards and legal isolationism have undone America's exemplary record of promoting human rights, and unsanctioned preemptive war has undermined the authority of the UN Security Council. When superpower interests collide, the United Nations has proven to be as catastrophically irrelevant as the League of Nations.
The United Nations only has the power ascribed to it by the dominant states -- and at this point that is very little. The United Nations is not viewed by any of the three superpowers as an overarching governance mechanism but as a forum in which to posture and, most importantly, block the others. It was never a central actor in geopolitical affairs, but instead has always been a stage. The United Nations is a place for consultation and joint declarations, but it is not where decisions are actually made. The United Nations operates at the mercy of the great powers and their budgets. The less they have in common in their approach to the world, the less they will use it. The United Nations has had many major humanitarian successes, from peacekeeping to providing food and medical aid around the world. It has created a democracy fund, increased its peacekeeping forces, and established a human rights council, but its standards for these will only matter where the superpowers do not bother to intervene -- mostly in the Third World.
As stealthy, globalized escalations continue among the great powers undeterred by global governance norms, the potential for conflict grows: resource competition in the Caspian and South China seas, terrorism with nuclear weapons, an attack in the Gulf of Aden or the Straits of Malacca. The uncertain alignments of lesser but still substantial powers such as Russia, Japan, and India could also cause escalation. Furthermore, America's foreign lenders could pull the plug to undermine its grand strategy, sparking economic turmoil, political acrimony, and military tension. War brings profit to the military-industrial complex and is always supported by the large patriotic camps on all sides. Yet the notion of a Sino-US rivalry to lead the world is also premature and simplistic for in the event of their conflict, Europe would be the winner as capital would flee to its sanctuaries.
These great tensions are being played out in the world today as each superpower strives to attain the most advantageous position for itself, while none are powerful enough to dictate the system by itself. Global stability thus rests between the bookends the French philosopher Raymond Aron identified as "peace by law" and "peace by empire," the former toothless and the latter prone to excess.
Historically, successive iterations of balance of power and collective security doctrines have evolved from justifying war for strategic advantage into building systems to avoid it, with the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe as the first of the modern era. Because it followed rules, it was itself something of a societal system. Even where these attempts at creating a stable world order have failed -- including the League of Nations after World War I -- systemic learning takes place in which states (particularly democracies) internalize the lessons of the past into their institutions to prevent history from repeating itself. The English economic historian Arnold Toynbee viewed history as progressive rather than purely cyclical, a wheel that not only turns around and around but also moves forward such that Civilization could become civilized. Yet empires and superpowers usually promise peace but bring wars.