This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending an event, which had one of the highest concentrations of international relations intellectual horsepower that I have ever seen.


The luminaries were discussing a very fundamental topic recently arising after the Iraq War fiasco, namely, "After the Unipolar Moment: How Fragile is the World Order?" As you know, the words hyperpower and unipolar world were used for the USA after the Soviet Union collapsed. But now Gulliver has been tied down and the limits of his power have been rather cruelly exposed. So what did the luminaries say and what do I think about this? Who is the world's daddy then?


The event was chaired by Dr. John Chipman, Director General & Chief Executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, which is one of the premier think tanks in the world in this area. Then we had Professor Sir Adam Roberts, Montague Burton Professor of International Relations, Oxford University, Dr. Edward Luttwak, Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies and Vice-Principal (Research) Department of War Studies, King's College, London (he is my doctoral supervisor, so be warned!) and Professor David Calleo, University Professor, Dean Acheson Professor and Director of European Studies Program, John's Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C..


As one can see, I wasn't exaggerating when I said that the lecture theatre was fronted by a huge concentration of intellectual horsepower. The questions that were posed to the panel related to (1) What is the world order? (2) How fragile is it? (3) Which countries take the lead in preserving order? The world order has been defined as the group of rules, regulations, rights and institutions, etc. which all together make up the world's political system. Also, people and countries will intervene to defend this world order. One additional aspect which was brought out was that this is primarily based around the Anglo Saxon framework, where individual rights are paramount over community rights. An example of community rights is the Islamic one with a single Ummah concept, where the ideal state means all Muslims in the world are under a caliphate ruling over them all. Edward Luttwak mentioned that after the fall of Communism, even China has now bought into this concept.


As for fragility, there was agreement that the world order is pretty much okay at this moment, despite USA's troubles in Iraq. International war has been reduced dramatically; major issues are on the way to resolution - such as the Cyprus problem, the Northern Ireland Problem, the Indo-Pakistani issue, etc. The United Nations is working reasonably well; EU is bedding down and expanding, etc. etc. Professor Michael Howard, who was also in the audience, (see? I told you it was serious mental horsepower on tap) commented that there was unparalleled prosperity, travel became easy and widely used, trade is growing rapidly and polarity is collegiate.


From a long term perspective, the long term impacts of colonisation and imperialism are still working its way through the system. Some element of disorder is actually good, competition is good and political change is good, because order taken to extreme is status quo. There was some debate about who will get to intervene to preserve the world order. It depended upon the issue, such as Saudi Arabia taking a lead with Palestine, China with North Korea, UK in Sierra Leone, France in Ivory Coast, etc. The world is getting quite small and people are getting quite excitable about political and social issues around the world. This means that people want their governments and supranational organisations to react to political issues.


But interventions are getting very dangerous and difficult. So the world is no longer US-centric unipolar as people tend to think, but it is multi-polar with India, EU, China, Russia, etc also in the picture. It goes back a long time to the empires - the British came in with their gunboat diplomacy, then the Americans, who worked with hegemony's imposing order, culture, etc.


Now it is the use of soft power along the lines of how the EU operates. Professor Freedman talked about the fact that non-state-actors, ranging from NGO's to terrorist groups are unable to live with collegiate polarity and don't really like it. So to summarise what the worthies said, the world is not unipolar, it's not really fragile, and people will defend the world order even though intervention is difficult. Also, the idea of intervention is changing from hard military efforts to soft economic (trade) and legal (ICC, etc.) efforts.


I agree with most of what was said, but I believe that there is more unipolarity than they think. I want to pick up on one point which David Calleo mentioned, but did not explore fully due to the format of the event. He said that interventions need to be judged on the basis of who wants an intervention and who can intervene. In other words, it is important for us to know who has the capability to intervene. A further point is, who is against the intervention?


At this moment, there are only very few countries who are capable of intervening in situations which are either morally driven or are very large in magnitude. For example, at this current situation with the USA and UK along with some support from NATO are all pretty much tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, besides some other reasons, is why Darfur will keep on bubbling away, as nobody else has the (technical and logistics) capability to put effective troops on the ground. On the other hand, the entire Muslim and Arab world is against any interventions in Darfur.


This is where the inconsistencies come out. The same groups in the USA and UK who were marching against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Palestine, are now split into two. The classical liberals plumping for intervention in Darfur, but the others not wanting anything to do with it. In other words, if it is Muslims killing Muslims, it is acceptable, but not if its outsiders doing the same. So the western powers are caught in a cleft stick, their people request intervention, but the ground realities will not allow it to do a Bosnia or a Kosovo in Darfur. There is still the question of the logistics and technical expertise to intervene.


For example, there are only very few countries which have the ability to move say a light infantry battalion of soldiers at short notice, even if we don't talk about the availability of the soldiers. Countries such as India, France, UK, USA, Russia, possibly China are capable of doing so. Supporting them - say over one year - is also tight in terms of logistics and economic capability to do so. So in terms of polarity, I would say that the USA is still head and shoulders above other countries. Would it change in the near future? Nope! Not for the next 10-20 years or so. Welcome to interesting times, dear reader! All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!