Sex and the Single Superpower

I don’t really disagree with what Matt Yglesias is saying about diplomacy here. I’ll just point out that our unipolar moment makes diplomacy look rather different than historical models. And for that reason, non-coercive “win-win” bargains may be genuinely elusive, howsoever disposed the next President may be to seek them.

A lot of historic examples of successful diplomacy only make any sense in the context of competing major powers. The opening to China was possible because the Communist powers had broken decisively years before and by the early 1970s America had been weakened by Vietnam and social and economic turmoil and was willing to embrace a former ideological enemy as a practical ally against the greater threat of the Soviet Union. Sadat was willing to break ranks with the rest of the Arab League and make a separate peace with Israel because in the wake of failure in the Yom Kippur War and in the context of a switch of allegiances from the Soviet to the American side in the Cold War, peace was the best way for Egypt to achieve its national objectives of regaining the territory lost in 1967. There’s even a famous game – and it’s all about defeating other powers through more honorable (making alliances) and less honorable (betraying those allies) diplomatic gambits.

But we don’t live in a world of competing powers. We are the overwhelmingly predominant power in the world today. That’s particularly true in military terms, but not exclusively; Japan, China and Europe are genuine rivals in economic power, but the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, America still has the largest economy, Japan has gone through nearly two decades of negligible growth, China has only very recently emerged as a meaningful economic power (and is still overwhelmingly poor), and Europe is not a unitary entity by a long ways yet.

That necessarily means diplomacy means something different than it did in the days of the Cold War, or in the old 19th-century days of multi-state rivalries. Negotiating with America is more like negotiating with the Roman Empire, or Imperial China, or 1995-era Microsoft. It’s worth recalling that while in retrospect the rest of the world misses the kindler, gentler hegemony of the 1990s, they didn’t like it at the time, and major diplomatic successes were few and far between in the period. The fact that the Bush Administration’s strategy of across-the-board confrontation has proven counterproductive doesn’t mean that there are a lot of win-win negotiations to be engaged in with Iran, North Korea, etc. The best we may be able to hope for is “lose less.”

It may well be a bad thing that we have this kind of global predominance. But bad facts are still facts, and it’s not practically possible to disclaim the power we have.