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Imperial sunset for America?
Sole Superpower Challenged by New Rivals
By Daniel Dombey
Ms. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state

The world that was born with the end of the cold war is dead and buried. Today, America's sole superpower status, which steeled the Bush administration in its determination to go to war in Iraq, is losing relevance. Instead, the US has an ungovernable new world on its hands.

This, at least, is the outlook of some of the world's most seasoned officials and international affairs experts, who believe that the US has lost power and influence and that an uncertain era is about to begin. The age they describe is one dominated neither by Washington's matchless military strength nor the old international -institutions.

"We are going through systemic change," Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, says in an interview. "What has happened in the past six years has been a lessening of respect for American power ... The world is going to be multipolar," she adds, referring to the growing influence of countries such as China and India and the likelihood that they will have greater roles in deciding the world's affairs.

Already, the US is finding both diplomacy and military action increasingly difficult. Tensions over Iran and North Korea's nuclear programmes, the crisis in Darfur, Kosovo and climate change all cry out for urgent attention. But none can be solved by a single power or even a select group of allies - and progress has been haltingly slow at the United Nations. Even more worryingly for Washington, the Bush administration is finding it increasingly difficult to find allies to help fight its battles - whether in the shrinking "coalition of the willing" in Iraq or the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan.

No longer does the US inhabit the lop-sided world created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Instead, the growing diffusion of international power makes this an era in which a profusion of deals has to be done. Yet multilateralism - the use of international treaties, institutions and consultation to achieve diplomatic goals - is harder than it has been for at least half a generation.

This point is hammered home by Moscow, the great loser of the cold war. Three days ago Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, derided what he said was the US's attempt to create a "unipolar" world - a world with "one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making." In a speech that signalled a new post-cold war low in Moscow-Washington relations, he said such a world was both unacceptable and impossible. Referring to the war in Iraq, he added: "Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems ... No one feels safe."

China and India are also thrusting on to the world stage, confident that the future is on their side. China already has the world's fourth-biggest economy, ahead of the UK, and is rapidly closing in on Germany. Even Russia, whose hydrocarbon wealth may not last long into the century, is infinitely more confident than it was when it begged for western aid in the 1990s - as Mr. Putin's speech attested.

"The US has had its unipolar moment for about 15 years but is beginning to realise that it isn't getting the things done it wants," says Paul Kennedy, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. "But just as the US could be moving back to a more multilateralist position, Russia and China may be less interested in agreeing with the west."

While Moscow and Beijing insist on their attachment to international law - hence Mr Putin's denunciation of the US's decision to go to war without UN backing - they also have a hard-headed view of national interests that limits their appetite for deal-making with Washington. On Iran, Russia has watered down proposed UN sanctions to protect billion-dollar defence and nuclear deals. On Darfur, China seeks to prevent disruption to Sudan, in whose oil sector it invests.

Even when agreement was easier to reach, the difficulties and indignities of such dealmaking produced plenty of critics. Charles Krauthammer, an influential American rightwing columnist, decried the Clinton administration for its "fetish for consultation" and its "mania for treaties" on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The net effect, he believed, was to temper American power.

But the Clinton era also contained signs of resurgent unilateralism. The US Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for nuclear weapons and made clear its opposition to the Kyoto protocol on climate change. President Bill Clinton himself decided to go to war over Kosovo without UN backing.

The election of President George W. Bush and his response to the attacks of September 11 2001 took things much further. No longer did the US use its unipolar power for multilateral ends.

"We used to say things such as: 'Multilaterally if you can, unilaterally if you must'," says Ms Albright. "But the Bush administration walking away from a bunch of multilateral arrangements gave people a reason to say: 'Why work with the US?' - and then that was compounded by the behaviour in Iraq."

As Washington grew more assertive, Russia and China improved relations to the warmest since the 1950s, while a ragtag group of countries such as Venezuela, Belarus and Iran deepened ties.

"Right now, China is multilateralist because it is weaker than the US ... but no one can stop China," says Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University. "The US should be sophisticated enough to use international institutions so that when China becomes a superpower it too is educated to act that way."

Traditional European allies have also distanced themselves from Washington, leaving the US to fight an ever lonelier battle in Iraq. Spain and Italy have both pulled out their troops and this month Tony Blair, UK prime minister, is expected to announce a reduction in UK forces. Mr Bush holds out hope that he can win in Baghdad by dispatching more American troops. But outside the confines of the Oval Office few share his optimism.

Meanwhile, the US and the UK are anxiously seeking allies for the bitter struggle against the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan. Volunteers have been hard to come by.

Another theatre of conflict may yet bring tensions to new heights - Iran, whose nuclear programme could be the target of a US or Israeli airstrike. Although such a move would be risky, in the extreme, the US and Israel could eventually conclude that no other course would prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

Western officials protest that no such action is imminent. "We have no intention of attacking Iran," said Robert Gates, US defence secretary, last week. But, equally, no one discounts the possibility that an attack may take place during Mr Bush's presidency. A strike would be almost certain to drive the US further apart from Europe, Russia, China and the developing world, further tearing at the tattered fabric of multilateralism.

In such a world, what hope is there of addressing the risks of nuclear conflict, ethnic cleansing and environmental disaster?

With the US so militarily stretched, an imperfect kind of multilateralism may prove the only answer. "There is limited spare capacity for major military operations," says Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College London. "The implication of that is that you are going to have to work with regional powers and accept regimes for what they are," he says, in a reference to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Indeed, at present, the US is pursuing a variety of à la carte multilateralism that uses both UN and bilateral measures to achieve its goals. It championed a UN Security Council resolution in December that imposed sanctions on Tehran, but is now seeking to persuade the European Union to go further than the UN mandate and introduce additional financial sanctions.

The US and the UK have chosen a similar path on Kosovo, endorsing plans for a UN resolution that would give the province many of the attributes of independence without using the actual word. Both London and Washington expect that, once the resolution is passed, Kosovo will declare independence in any case - and that they, at least, will recognise it. On Darfur, too, Mr Bush and Mr Blair drop hints of a unilaterally imposed no-fly zone, hints they hope will push Sudan and its backers towards acceptance of a UN force.

Other deals need to be done outside the UN. Last night, US negotiators were trying to reach agreement over North Korea's nuclear programme in six-party talks that at times seemed at the point of collapse. Expectations are low for a US-brokered summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders later this month, even though Bush administration officials describe it as the highest level of engagement between the two sides since Bill Clinton's -presidency.

Beyond the US administration, however, there is little agreement on what else can be done to get the world back into shape. Lord Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, argues that the west should relax its conditions on talking to Iran or the militant group Hamas. "We should get out of the idea, which is an imperial one and not fitting for Europe or even the US, that you are doing people a great favour if you talk to them," he says in an interview. "Listening to people is not doing them a favour; it is good sense."

Mr Kennedy says that the world's great powers may ape the Concert of Europe - which reshaped affairs after the fall of Napoleon - and find common ground on issues of overwhelming international concern such as climate change. Similarly, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, both former US secretaries of state, called last month for Washington and Moscow to take steps against nuclear proliferation, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to prevent the world from entering a dangerous new atomic era.

Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary, argues that the best solution for the world's ills is a revived UN with an expanded Security Council, including Delhi. "It can't remain a closed shop forever, with all the massive powers given to it by the UN Charter," he says. But every aspirant for a Security Council seat faces opposition. Many observers conclude that the future of multilateralism rests not with overarching world organisations, but with matching policy to ever more divergent facts on the ground.

In today's fragmented world, says Lord Hurd, there are different rules for the great power rivalry in Asia, the law-based approach of the EU and the near-anarchy of the Middle East. One unifying theme is that the US's role as the protector of Asia and western Europe and the powerbroker of the Middle East is a diminished one.

"We must simply do the best we can in the circumstances of each case," he says. "Our best will not always be brilliant." The dilemma for the US and the world is that the prospects for multilateralism - for diplomacy - are distinctly unpromising. The still more daunting problem is that all other courses may very well be worse.

The above article is from The Financial Times.






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