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The fate of the unipolar world

When my friends and I welcomed the new decade alongside the intermittent crashing of waves on the delectable shores of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, we took a moment to predict what the 2020s would herald for our own lives and the potential events that might shape up the world in the years immediately ahead. Besides a few very predictable hits along the lines of “graduating” and “running it back the following New Year’s Eve,” most of our predictions fell flat and are probably resoundingly laughable at this point in time. Surprisingly enough, the only major one we managed to hit on the nail was the high possibility that we’d finish college in the midst of a recession, or at the very least teetering close to one. 

Predicting the world to come is no easy task and no one can do so with total absolute certainty, but a recurring theme regarding the future seems to arise more frequently as the nature of the global world order breaks the mold cast by the circumstances of the end of the Cold War: the end of the “unipolar world.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in the final days of 1991, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. The bipolarity that had defined the international stage for nearly five decades gave way to American unipolarity. Thanks to the country’s vast network of international alliances and bilateral partnerships, the United States found itself in a position of primacy, where the defense of her interests could go virtually unchallenged. It was the perfect storm for the United States to cement herself as the most powerful country in the world, as a mass transition towards democracy in the developing world returned governments that were much more akin to allying themselves with Uncle Sam and checking as many items off America’s wishlist as they could: trade liberalization, privatization, free and fair elections and easier paths for foreign direct investment.

Up until this year, I had never heard of this concept, but became invested in it after it became one of the President of Russia’s favorite topics to spew vitriol against since the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War back in February. Throughout many of his speeches, especially those directly related to the ongoing war, President Putin has repeatedly stated his wishes for the world to do away with American unipolarity. Back in August, he asserted that the current unipolar model, which he considers obsolete, will be superseded by a new world order. Last week, he blasted the West, saying it was doomed and promised “a liberation anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony.” Beyond the propagandistic value of his statements, made to assuage domestic concerns regarding Russia’s underperforming military, does Putin make a valid point regarding receding American influence? 

To an extent, America’s standing on the world stage is not the same as it was in the recent past. Russia’s desire to hold former Soviet republics in a tight clutch, combined with China’s aggressive push to extend its influence into the developing world through both hard and soft power definitely weakens unipolarity, as it creates additional bands of nations that seek to act on a different set of interests than Washington’s. All that is predictable, as Russia and China have never been on the best of terms with the United States. However, what about the rest of the world, where the United States sways sizable influence? As other countries grow and consolidate their power, they naturally become more confident in moving forward as they see fit. This means the United States has to put more effort in maintaining its friends worldwide.

Within Latin America alone, countries beyond those perennially conflicted with the United States are now more willing to buck the American line. Mexico, which had been a relatively loyal companion to the United States in its preceding four administrations, now takes a significantly more independent path under President Lopez Obrador, often finding itself at odds with the approach Washington wished it took. For instance, since taking office in 2018, his government has pursued several economic and drug policies that directly counter American interests. The same can be said of other Latin American governments like Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru, which have shown a higher willingness to go their own way. The recent election of left of center administrations that highly pride their sovereignty will definitely test the United States’ ability to retain good relations with a part of the world that has remained within her sphere of influence for multiple decades now.

A world away, the United States also has to face challenges with its European and Asian allies, as the election of more nationalistic governments in Europe creates uncomfortable tensions and leaders like newly elected Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. attempt to pull off a balancing act and draw closer to both Beijing and Washington. Although the United States has a long list of domestic concerns that need to be urgently addressed, it cannot let foreign policy fade into a secondary concern. It is important that the sovereignty of nations be respected, but the multipolar world Russia so eagerly awaits is one where liberal democracies lie on one end, and authoritarian regimes coalesce around the others. The world is shifting and the United States needs to learn to shift with it, lest President Putin’s wish be granted. Now, more than ever, the United States needs to find ways to remain at the forefront of the promotion of values considered indispensable to a proper society like freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It may be time for the United States to return to the drawing board and rethink the way it guarantees its place in the world, but it cannot by virtue of stronger rivals abandon one of its raisons d’être. The circumstances may change, as change is the only constant in life, but for the United States to accept a fate prescribed by its adversaries and quietly shepherd itself into a managed decline would be the ultimate act of betrayal to the values hundreds of millions hold close to heart, and enable authoritarianism to flourish unchecked.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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