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Emergence of 3rd Post-WWII power structure challenges US Superpower status

Dr. Ralph Buultjens, professor at New York University, addresses the emergence of a third Post-World War II power structure, during a talk at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck.
Dr. Ralph Buultjens, professor at New York University, addresses the emergence of a third Post-World War II power structure, during a talk at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

Technology giving power to the people; climate change restructuring economic power, the resurgence of militant Russia, the emergence of China as economic and political world power, rearrangements of alliances - all of these are giving rise to the third Post-World War II global power architecture, says Dr. Ralph Buultjens, professor at New York University, former Nehru Professor at Cambridge University, consultant/advisor to the United Nations, author of 10 books including "The Decline of Democracy: Essays on An Endangered Political Species," former chairman of the International Development Forum and the Society of Asian Affairs, and syndicated columnist.

The US place as a singular superpower or even a co-superpower is not a sure thing - but will largely depend on domestic politics, he adds.

The days have passed when the United States could snap a finger and the rest of the world snap to. Is it because Obama is "feckless" or that the world is a radically different place with a different set of dynamics that made the US, briefly, a singular superpower?

But the world spins. History marches on. And as much as the adages "the more things change, the more they stay the same" and "history repeats itself" may hold some truth, but we are in a different time. Who could have imagined Israel befriending Russia, China building a railroad across the country, and Israel using technology to become an oil and gas producer?

Whether the US can hold onto its place as a singular superpower or even a co-superpower is not a sure thing going forward - but will largely depend on domestic politics, Buultjens adds

This was spelled out at a fascinating talk on Friday, March 28, by Buultjens at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, to which the community. Buultjens has made this annual trek to Great Neck for many years, each year, seizing on the current topics.

This year's topic, "American Foreign Policy & Its Reaction to Worldwide Change," properly reflected the reemergence of the Russian Bear and the most serious crisis between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Putin's aggression has prompted the anti-Obama claque to blame Obama's "feckless" foreign policy - a seeming preference for diplomacy and engagement over military action (and yet, they refused to support bombing Syria when Assad went over the "red line" of using chemical weapons on his own people), and criticized him for going into Libya (after criticizing him for not going into Libya early enough).

To set the scene: Russia has taken over Crimea and threatens to take over more of eastern Ukraine by force. Obama has spent a week meeting world leaders in Europe - at the G-7 (was the G-8 but they threw Russia out), at Nuclear Summit,

Meanwhile, Michele Obama has been doing soft diplomacy in China, a major economic power and a rising political one.

And on the evening that Buultjens spoke, Putin had just phoned Obama to discuss the US proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Crimea.

What follows are notes, virtually verbatim, from Buultjens (key points in boldface).

Buultjens begins his talk quoting the poet Matthew Arnold:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead

The other powerless to be born

We are transiting to something new, not yet quite clear what it is– but is clear it will be different from the earlier periods

Look at most of the disturbing events as contemporary crisis – what we are seeing is new structure of world power that is emerging.

[Reshaping of world profile of power isn't new, he says. It happened after World War I, with the emergent powers redefining national borders, punishing Germany, vigorously colonizing the Middle East, Africa, Asia.]

All changed during World War II – after WWII – was the first model, the first structure of post WWII power architecture – America and the Soviet Union – Europe had gone away, disappeared, other countries were not very significant

Every other part of world was subordinate to these two powers.

America had its allies – Western Europe, South America, Japan, Philippines, SE Asia; the Soviet Union had Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, North Korea, Vietnam. China was confused but leaning to Soviet Union.

A number of contested areas switched: Pakistan moved closer to America, India to the Soviets. In the Middle East, America had Israel, Turkey; the USSR had Syria, Iraq. Egypt alternated between Russia under Nasser and pro-America under Sadat and Mubarak. Iran was allied to the US under the Shah, and anti-American after the Islamic Revolution.

These were all less important to the great two figures that dominated for 40-45 years-producing a fairly stable balance punctuated with the occasional crisis – Berlin Wall, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam.

Quite suddenly and painlessly this changed with dramatic speed in 1989-91- USSR dissolved without war, conflict and no one else rose to take its place.

For 20 years, the US was the dominant force in world affairs, Pax Americana – that period was begun with two agreements.

In 1990, as Eastern Europe was moving out from Soviet control, they worried that Russia would seek to recapture them by military means as they had done in Hungary in1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968. There were strong forces to urge Mikhail Gorbachev to use the Soviet army to bring them back under control.

So the first agreement: Western nations promised Russia they would not extend military alliances into Eastern Europe and not take Eastern Europe into NATO.

A couple of years later, Ukraine which had left over nukes from the USSR. The second agreement, signed by US and Russia assured Ukrainians that if gave back the nuclear material to Russia, its sovereignty would be assured.

Today, those agreements in tatters.

Over a 20 year period, 1990-2010, second post-WWII balance of power arose – the US made tremendous gains while many former Soviet states were taken into NATO and the European Union: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Albania.

That Pax American lasted 20 years. Now, once again, we are in the midst of change and what we see emerging is a third post-WWII architecture of power.

That really has begun to be the dominant challenge for America and rest of the Western World.

Six developments demonstrate to us the immensity of change taking place in global structure- two technological, one historic, three political:

Technology: What is reshaping the world and the world of politics is the digital revolution. We have seen the gallop of connectivity, out of 7 billion people, 5 billion have at least one mobile device (telephone, tablet, netbook).

In non-Western countries, like China, 90% use mobile; in India 60%; Mideast, 70-80%.

This is the first time in human history that those who cannot read and write can communicate over distance; the first time that young people have universal access to devices- mobile telephone is single largest selling device in history. This is having tremendous political impact-every political upheaval [in recent history has been ] driven by the mobile telephone: Cambodia, Brazil, Ukraine, Thailand.

Today, in half an hour, you can collect a crowd of tens of thousands of people – no need to visit, put up posters – but you can mobilize people through mobile technology.

Will the spread of devices make society ungovernable? I do not know – but this very recent phenomenon is changing the balance of power.

The second technological development connects environment and resources producing impacts never seen before. Global warming is changing boundaries between land and sea, melting of the Arctic ice cap is creating a new north passage –cutting transport distance from Asia to Atlantic by 50%. 90% of all goods are transported by sea so the impact of this is tremendous.

Also, [the melting] is exposing new resources that were covered with ice for thousands of years.

An Arctic Rush – like a gold rush – is beginning, with nations and companies going to capture resources in and around the North Pole. And suddenly, economic profiles change.

Greenland. The name hadn’t been mentioned once, now you can’t not talk about Greenland. A huge frozen island, one-fourth the land area of US, as its ice melts, it is slowly giving up huge amounts of coal, gas, mineral reserves. Only 50,000 people live there, a cornucopia of wealth, slowly become available to those who reach out.

New technology like horizontal drilling, fracking is changing the world of oil, natural gas. Who would have thought that Israel would be on the brink of being natural gas and oil exporter, with consequences for geopolitical Mideast?

Now, they can drill 5 miles down - ten years they could drill only one mile).

In East Africa, huge pools of hitherto unknown fresh water are being discovered. In a water-short world they will pump to the Middle East and become the water sheiks of Mideast.

New techniques mean that the principle source of oil in the US is not the Mideast but Canada. The US is within striking distance of energy independence.

How will this affect the balance of geopolitical power in the Mideast?

The third observation is historical. In the past decade for first time, the western world suddenly found itself on wrong side of history – since beginning of world affairs, 500 years ago, Columbus opened new world, [Marco Polo], Asia.

Now that balance is changing – and we don’t know in what direction. Europe‘s great days are gone, Russia trying to assert itself. China is trying to assert itself.

Today, America is the last great Western power left, and if the US declines, fades or becomes less significant, the West goes as well. The US is the only Western nation capable of being great power.

What does this mean for Western world and US?

There are three challenges to Pax Americana: Jihadism, China, Russia.

Only in the past decade have we come to understand that Islamic Jihadism is a defining issue, more and less dangerous than Fascism: less because fascism could have taken over the world, but more dangerous because we don’t know where it comes, no particular country, route, center. We have to deal with this challenge, but we must not in the course of this, make the mistake to assume every Islamic person, every Muslim is jihadist.

How to deal with this in the foreseeable future is playing out in the Mideast today.

The Mideast has gone through tremendous change in past 3 -4 years. For the first time since the collapse of Ottoman Empire, there is a big restructuring of Mideast underway.

The process that began 3 years ago is far from over. Then only two countries were in conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, it is the whole region – civil war in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, confusion in Tunisia, instability in Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, etc.

The Middle East is a cauldron full of Jihadis, Sunis, royalists, militarists, Kurdists, modernizers, traditionalists – all armed with the most modern weapons.

One of the things that struck me is that in many of these countries, absolutely half of the country is determined to kill the other half, with automatic weapons.

All this comes together in Syria. We tend to look on Syria as one conflict, but there are three layers, each with lethal potential that is tremendous. On the ground layer is Assad and his proponents who have run the country for 40 years. The conflict overlaid – a regional political conflict – pits Assad (supported by Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah) versus the Saudis, Turks, Jordan which supply their local proxies.A step higher, is the international drama between Russia, to some extent China supporting Assad, and the US and Western Europe supporting opponents.

This will go on for years, and is symbolic of what is happening in Middle East today [with many of the same complicated and confused alliances with Al Qaeda].

These stressors and conflicts will go on for a long time.

The question, when reach Saudi Arabia – with a population of 25-30 million, 70% below 30 years of age; 95% literacy, 90% use mobile – how long will a feudal monarchy control that country?

This will pose a tremendous challenge for America when the royal family gets into trouble will ask us to defend them. We will be asked to put boots on ground or they will be wiped out Then we will have to decide whether to get into major war on behalf of the Saudi royal family, or let the oil fields to go Jihadists.

In the midst of all of this, Israel has managed quite well. For generations, the principal struggle was Israel facing its neighbors, that has been overtaken by Shias.... With Israel's enemies fighting among themselves, the situation in Israel better than for long time.

Israel's economy is doing well – Israel innovation is tremendous; the prospect of oil and natural gas is very helpful, hopeful thing for Israel – who would have thought? The Palestinians are not giving much trouble, Gaza…

One would think excellent time to make agreement on Palestinian issue [and the US is trying to facilitate an agreement]. But two things stand in way: the attitude of the Netanyahu government continuing to build settlements on West Bank; and the other thing, the militants who advocate killing any Jew.

Israel going through profound change, and will be different 10 years from today. [After 60 years of relying almost entirely on its friendship with the US], Israel is now reaching out to other countries.

The Israel-Russian relationship is remarkable – 90% of Israeli population was born in Russia – and there are [ethnic] connections [language, Socialism].

Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel [in June 2012]. Israel abstained from the United Nations vote condemning Russia for its takeover of Crimea.

But the big story is Israel's friendship with China –a tremendous development – not recognized as deserves.

Last September, the richest man in China gave the largest contribution in history to Technion - $120 million – with one condition – open Technion campuses in China. Hundreds of Chinese will study at the Israeli University and many Israelis will study in China.

The single largest construction project in Israel is a new railroad from the Mediterranean coast across to Red Sea – tremendously useful, so Israel can bypass the Suez Canal – financed and built by the Chinese.

There are very big changes taking place in Israel – the international atmosphere, the economic atmosphere is promising

But there are serious internal problems in Israel - perhaps the real danger to Israel is not from outside, but internal conflicts- Last week the Knesset passed bill which would oblige young orthodox to serve in military – it will be contested tooth and nail for next few months. The Knesset also passed bill to reduce number of political parties. It passed a bill that [requires any deal ceding Israeli territory to Palestinians] must be brought to a national referendum.

These are challenges of the Mideast- and promise to change the power structure in Mideast. [The US] can no longer dictate to that part of world.

See next:

Resurgent Russia, Surging China but greatest obstacle to US global power? Us

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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