Stratfor - 2000-2010: A new era in a traditional world

For the last 500 years, since European imperialism began the process of creating a single, global system of international relations, the international system has maintained a certain predictable rhythm and pattern. During each successive era, at least two and frequently more powers have competed against one another for preeminence.

From the Portuguese and Spaniards in the 16th century to the Americans, Russians and Chinese toward the end of the 20th century, the world arena has seen an unchanging pattern of great power competition. In this competition, all nations eventually became players, prizes or victims. Each competition was global not only in the sense that it covered the entire world, but also in the sense that it involved all arenas of competition: economic, military, political, cultural and ideological. Each epoch came to an end, usually in a cataclysmic war, often with the implosion of one or more of the competitors.

As each epoch ended, a short interregnum occurred in which it appeared that the victorious powers would enjoy permanent, unfettered dominion. From the Congress of Vienna in 1815, to Versailles in 1919 to the United Nations in 1945, it always appeared the end of an epoch would permanently change the underlying pattern of the international system. The victors always harbored the hope that victory would remain permanent and unchallenged, the interests of the victors effortlessly perpetuated. Yet the dream always proved an illusion. Victory was never so absolute as to preclude the emergence of new powers or coalitions of old ones dedicated to limiting the power of the victors or even overthrowing the order they created. Sometimes entirely new competitors emerged. Sometimes the same competition re-emerged. Whatever the particular circumstances, competition among great powers was permanent.

The end of the Cold War is no different than the end of any other epoch. The coalition formed by the United States became victorious when the Soviet Union collapsed. The institutions that the anti-Soviet coalition created seemed to have inherited the world. The distinction between NATO, the IMF and the United Nations, for example, seemed to become irrelevant, as all were equally bent to tasks set for them by the United States and its allies. Even more important, the cultural and ideological victory of the anti-Soviet coalition appeared to be absolute. Liberal capitalism became the universally accepted doctrine. Even China’s official communism appeared to be irrelevant, as it was swept into the single, integrated system of relationships dominated by American power. Apart from a handful of “rogue” nations like Iraq or Serbia, the world appeared finally at peace, integrating rapidly into a single global system where everyone shared in the benefits of free trade, human rights and prosperity.

Yet the last ten years did not constitute the end of history. They were simply an interregnum, like so many others before it, in which the victory of a single power or coalition could appear to be so complete that the emergence of a new challenge to that power was unthinkable. America’s victory over the Soviet Union was so stunning, unexpected and absolute that it seemed that American values were now global values and that American power was now absolute. However, no set of values is ever global, and no nation’s power, no matter how great, is ever absolute.

Beneath the surface of the last ten years, the shape of the next epoch has been quietly emerging. Its shape is not yet fully revealed, but can be seen well enough to describe. Most important, the next epoch will look much like the last five hundred years. The details will change, the dynamics will shift, but the essence will remain the same. The game of nations is not over.

The United States remains at the center of the international system. It is the preeminent global military, economic and political power. Militarily, the U.S. Navy controls the world’s oceans more completely than any empire in history. As important, the United States exercises almost complete control of space, enabling its intelligence apparatus to see deep and its military to shoot deep and with precision. Economically, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented boom, surging past all other regions of the world. This military and economic power yields unprecedented political influence. This is complemented by geography. As the only great power native to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it can influence events globally with an ease that magnifies its inherent power.

Thus, the fundamental question of the next decade – for both individual countries and the international system as a whole – will revolve around the United States. The question, increasingly, will be this: How can other countries limit American power and control American behavior?

There are two processes that will shape the manner in which this question is answered. One is the permanent process whereby the international system seeks equilibrium. The second is a process that we feel will drive the early stages of the next epoch. We call this process the de-synchronization of the international economic system. The former process will drive nations to form coalitions to block the power of the United States. The second process will generate intensifying friction between not only the United States and the anti-American coalition, but between all regions and within regions as well. It points to a decade of increasing political and economic tension – both between great powers and within the spheres of influence created by the great powers.

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