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Viewpoint

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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News

‘We have the exact wrong fiscal policy’: Paul Ryan criticizes inflation response

Paul Ryan knew it was time to move on after 20 years in the House of Representatives. Two terms as the youngest speaker of the House since 1869 was enough for Ryan, who did not seek re-election in 2019.

“My last two terms were Speaker of the House, which is such a consuming job that it really took me away from my family so much more than I really wanted to be away,” Ryan said in an interview with The Observer. “I had three kids in or entering high school at the time, and I knew if I only saw my kids on Sundays, I just wasn’t going to have the kind of relationship I needed or wanted.”

Now, Ryan guest lectures at Notre Dame and serves on the board for the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO). Teaching at Notre Dame was appealing for Ryan after he left Capitol Hill, having grown up a Notre Dame fan in an Irish Catholic household that saw two of his brothers attend the University.

“I’ve been coming to games here since I was 10 years old,” he said.

In addition to teaching at Notre Dame, Ryan currently does additional policy work for the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. But after 20 years in public sector economics, Ryan made sure to branch out and learn how businesses “actually work and grow.” He is now a partner at Solamere Capital, a private equity firm, and also serves as vice chairman of Teneo, a CEO advisory firm. Upon his retirement from Congress, he launched an anti-poverty foundation in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.

“In Congress, I always thought it was important to do multiple things in your life,” Ryan said of his portfolio of enterprises.

Three years after he left Congress, Ryan said he does not miss the “performance politics” that are growing increasingly prominent. Instead of working to formulate and negotiate actual policy solutions, politicians today choose to “entertain” in the culture war in an attempt to get famous fast, he said.

“I agree with conservatives on the culture war, but I’m not a culture warrior. I don’t like inflaming [the] culture war because it just polarizes,” he said. “I do think you should take a stand against ridiculous, woke extremes, but I don’t think it’s great to try to politically profit off of these things, because all you end up doing is polarizing the country.”

There are still policymakers in Congress who care about making good policy, he said, but the culture war “entertainment artists” overshadow them. If he were in office right now, he said his number one priority would be fighting inflation.

Ryan said the economy is on the cusp of a recession. The federal government has been fueling inflation by spending, threatening businesses with higher taxes and raising taxes on businesses, he said.

“We have the exact wrong fiscal policy right now. This thing is not the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s sort of the opposite,” Ryan said of the package signed into law in August.

Although he said the Federal Reserve responded to the pandemic well, they were too late to respond to inflation, he added.

“They’re playing catch up. They were late. They should have been stopping the asset purchases earlier. Money supply was too high too fast for too long,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he does not know when the economy will start to significantly improve. The Federal Reserve will keep raising interest rates to about 4 or 4.25% and hold them there, he predicted. And with the war in Ukraine triggering an energy crisis in Europe and China experiencing economic struggles, Ryan expects a global recession to occur down the road.

While President Joe Biden currently mulls running for re-election in 2024, Ryan said Biden “missed the moment of being a centrist” during his term and has instead inflamed the polarization between the two parties. He explained that many Republican-leaning suburban voters voted for Biden because they disliked former President Donald Trump and expected Biden to govern from the center-left.

By catering to the progressive left, Biden passed on an opportunity to work across the aisle to put together deals, he said. As a result, populism has become more pronounced in U.S. politics, he added, and polarization is preventing major progress from occuring.

“Nothing is getting done that is substantial. No big problems are getting solved, and they just are trying to stick to their wish list of progressive things,” Ryan said, specifically referencing immigration and inflation.

The Republican party has also seen its “center of gravity” shift farther toward the extreme as well, he said.

“We have the same problem in our party, so I understand the pressure. I know very well,” he said. “But [Biden] succumbed to it.”

Contact Ryan at rpeters5@nd.edu