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Tam Hunt: The Unipolar Moment Reconsidered

With U.S. domination of the world on the wane, the time is now to embark on a multilateral future

Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2004 that the predominance of U.S. power in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union was a “staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.” Krauthammer and his fellow neoconservatives famously concluded from this disparity in power that the United States needed to adopt an aggressive foreign policy agenda to enhance and continue its dominance in the “New American Century.”

Tam Hunt
Tam Hunt

This conclusion was the wrong lesson from history and from any reasonable and compassionate view of the desirable future arc of humanity. Rather than consolidate and expand U.S. power in the 21st century, with a mix of military, economic and cultural coercion — the neocon strategy — the United States should instead seize what is still our unique unipolar moment and work toward a truly multilateral and multipolar world.

The last two centuries have been dominated by one nation — the hegemon, which comes from the Greek for “leader.” Britain was the first global hegemon, and indeed the “sun never set on the British empire.” Britain’s dominance was fueled, literally, by coal, which allowed the industrial revolution to work its magic first in Britain. This led to great economic might, which was translated into military might. With a sense of cultural superiority, the “White Man’s Burden,” the British empire was ruthless in its domination of areas of the world as far-flung as North America, India, Jamaica, Gibraltar and Australia. Britain at its peak, however, never comprised more than 10 percent of the global economy.

The United States, fueled by coal and oil, which was first found in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, an expansive and ever-growing territory that spanned a whole continent, and a sense of “American exceptionalism,” was the successor to the British empire, reaching 19 percent of global economic output in 1913, at the verge of World War I, and 35 percent at the height of World War II. The United States is now about 20 percent of the global economy, its share shrinking as other nations grow rapidly. The United States’ historical wealth of oil, coal and natural gas allowed it to grow to such a dominant economic and military position that it is truly deserving of being called an empire.

As a global empire, the United States spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. If Britain was the first global hegemon, the United States became the first hyper-hegemon. We keep about 800 military bases in 160 nations. There is no place immune from our power and, increasingly, no place immune from our surveillance. We are now expanding and enforcing our empire with increasingly inhumane robotic drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries, creating a whole new generation of bitter enemies.

There are chinks in our armor, however. Clearly. The neocon agenda was made real after the 9/11 attacks, with the Bush administration launching ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Obama administration expanding the Afghanistan war into Pakistan. These military responses are exactly the wrong lesson to be learned from history and will do nothing in the long run to improve humanity’s lot on a limited planet.

The longer-term threat to U.S. dominance is economic. The United States is by far the largest economy today, although down to a “mere” 20 percent of world economic output from its World War II peak. Economic threats loom not far over the horizon, however. China surpassed Germany as the third largest economy in the world in 2007 and will likely surpass Japan as the second largest this year. The United States remains, however, almost three times as large as China and Japan in economic terms.

But China is set to surpass the United States as the leading economy in 15 to 20 years, based on Goldman Sachs projections, and by 2050 the United States and India will probably be about half the size of the Chinese economy.

Goldman Sachs projections of global economic growth by 2050.
Goldman Sachs projections of global economic growth by 2050.

With economic might comes military might. As Martin Jacques writes in When China Rules the World (2009), China is best described as a “civilization-state” because of its history as a unitary civilization in essentially the same borders for about 2,000 years and a 5,000-year cultural history going back even further. It has exercised its power beyond its borders, as a “tributary state” that collected tribute from surrounding nations without subjecting them to the same type of control that Western colonial powers perfected. Until recent decades, however, China limited its influence to East Asia.

More recently, China has become increasingly aggressive in securing the resources it needs to continue its rapid double-digit growth, using its largely state-controlled companies like the China National Offshore Oil Corp. to snap up oil resources around the world. China knows full well the role that energy plays in economic growth and national power.

Less discussed as a challenger to U.S. dominance is Russia. Isn’t Russia old news, with its influence minimized since the fall of the Soviet Union? Well, yes and no. Russia is projected by Goldman Sachs to be the world’s sixth largest economy in both 2025 and 2050. However, beyond “mere” GDP comparisons, Russia’s influence will be magnified in coming years because of its huge hydrocarbon resources. Russia is now the world’s largest producer of oil, surpassing Saudi Arabia. Russia produced almost 10 million barrels per day of oil in 2009, beating the Saudis by about 800,000 barrels. The United States was third, with about 8.5 million barrels per day and Iran a distant fourth.

But Russia’s natural wealth goes far beyond oil. Russia is the world’s largest natural gas producer, producing more than 20 percent of the world’s demand in 2009. The United States was second and Canada a distant third. Long-term, Russia has by far the biggest natural gas reserves of any country. As the world decarbonizes, which means in the electricity sector switching to natural gas and renewables from coal, natural gas production will become an increasingly important component of national power. We’ve already seen this story unfurled in Europe over the last few years as Russia has used its natural gas supplies to exert control over neighboring countries like Ukraine and Belarus.

Russia is not dominant in coal production; China is by far the biggest producer of coal. The United States is second. But China and the United States use all of their own production, and Australia and Indonesia are the largest coal exporters, so the net hydrocarbon export situation is surprisingly not changed much by looking at coal in addition to oil and natural gas.

Net hydrocarbon exports of selected countries — million tons of oil equivalent.
Net hydrocarbon exports of selected countries — million tons of oil equivalent. (Energy Information Administration graphic)

This energy dynamic can be summed up nicely by comparing net hydrocarbon exports. This measure subtracts from total hydrocarbon production what each country consumes itself. The nearby chart, compiled with Energy Information Administration data, compares the world’s largest economies and the world’s major hydrocarbon producers. It is an interesting alternative view of what constitutes national power. It’s more difficult to predict what the future holds for this dynamic because as nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia continue to grow they consume more of their own products.

The Export Land Model attempts to project how quickly major exporting nations cease to export oil due to increased domestic consumption and declining production, demonstrating how quickly net exporters can become net importers, as China did recently with coal and the United Kingdom did with oil. However, the long-term trends in heavily import-dependent nations like the United States, Japan, China, etc., are exacerbated because these countries’ hydrocarbon wealth has long since peaked and it’s all downhill moving forward.



It looks, then, like China and Russia are the key U.S. competitors in coming decades. The inevitable peak in global oil and other hydrocarbon resources will further exacerbate these issues. Do we want a unipolar world dominated by either Russia or China as the new hegemon? My answer is a resounding “no.” These nations are not models for an enlightened human future, to say the least. And nor is the current U.S. empire. These are not, however, the only choices.

The United States should, in these remaining years of global dominance that constitute the “unipolar moment,” use its influence to create a truly multipolar and multilateral world order. What does this mean?

A multilateral world is one in which no single power, no matter how dominant economically or militarily, can dominate geopolitically or bully others into submission by whatever means used historically. A multilateral world is one in which no hegemon is possible or required. A multilateral world is one in which international organizations like the United Nations wield real power, designated and determined by its members, but in a far more egalitarian and democratic manner than is currently the case.

The U.N. Security Council, the key body in the U.N. system, has 15 members, five of them “permanent.” The P5, as they are known, are essentially the World War II victors: the United States, Britain, China, Russia and France. The P5 wield veto power over any decision before the Security Council. No other nations enjoy this privilege. The other 10 nations on the Security Council rotate through each year and all decisions must be approved by a majority vote. The United States has historically wielded its veto power far more than any other country, demonstrating its influence in this key international forum, as is the case with all other similar forums like the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and World Bank.

Conventional wisdom holds that it is futile to expect the P5 to give up its veto power or to extend this veto power to other nations. Conventional wisdom has, however, been proven wrong time and time again. This is how change happens. And an egalitarian international order won’t happen by itself — it must be dreamed of first, with the hard slog in the middle and the desired outcome at the end.

As Gandhi said about his movement for nonviolent overthrow of India’s British overlords: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

We will tackle some of the most serious problems we’ve ever faced in the coming decades, including peak oil, climate change, the rise of China and Russia, and others. If we are to forge a path to progress in international and human affairs at the same that we tackle these momentous problems, we must ensure that a multipolar and multilateral world is our goal — not a world with continued U.S. domination because, simply put, U.S. domination will not last much longer.

— Tam Hunt is an attorney, consultant and a lecturer on climate change law and policy at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.

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