Thursday, 29 May 2008

21st Century is not for Superpowers

21st Century is not for Superpowers
Shabir Choudhry

America is known as the only Superpower in the world. There are many people, especially Muslims who disagree with this title; and claim that only the creator of this universe - Allah is the Superpower. No earthly being, mortal in nature, could be bestowed this title of being a Superpower.

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for a long time, and it is up to us to decide to call them Superpower or a great power of the time; but when their time was up they extinguished from the face of earth. Apart from that we have seen rise and fall of great empires. Romans were the superpower of the time and so were the Muslims and the British, just to mention a few; but with time they all experienced a gradual decline.

With decline of the Ottoman Empire in 19th Century a new balance of power emerged, especially after the French - German war of 1870s. There was no single power but a number of major powers which had alliances with each other and that arrangement helped to maintain balance of power and rule the world until the First World War. At that time America did not have a big say in the world affairs because of a policy of 'isolation' and also America needed considerable time to recover from a disastrous Civil War. Among the major powers were Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungry, Turkey and Russia, although Russia's image of being a major power suffered a serious blow when Japanese defeated them in a war of 1904.

The balance of power dramatically changed after the First World War with America emerging as one of the few major powers with considerable say in world affairs. But still at that time there was no concept of a Superpower. It was the Second World War and its outcome that resulted in the emergence of two Superpowers and the world was divided into two major camps even though some countries were considered as 'non-aligned'.

It is a law of nature what goes up comes down, and nothing is eternal, only thing permanent is the process of change. The Soviet Russia saw its peak and had to experience decline and fragmentation, and America could not be exception to the law of nature. America has seen its peak and earned the title of being the most powerful nation on earth - a 'Superpower' that could not be defeated.
After attaining the highest position - a peak - then there is nothing else to be achieved. After that one could only endeavour to maintain that position as long as it is possible, but the law of nature gradually gets into a motion and then begins a journey in the opposite direction. Still America is the strongest country in the world but its image of being a 'Superpower' has already seen some cracks. One only has to look at America's departure from Somalia. America has the best military hardware and biggest military machine, and they can afford to spend more than anyone else on defence but what they can't afford is to lose the American lives. Soon after some American military personnel were killed in Somalia, under pressure the government decided to withdraw from there.

Despite that retreat America decided to lead from front, and with help of NATO managed to maintain its status of being a superpower be it Bosnia, Kosovo or East Timor. Of course there was some tacit understanding with Russia - we look this way when you deal with Chechnya and you do the same when it is our turn wherever that may be. An American Professor, Daniel C. Maguire at Marquette University, in an article titled, 'America: A Superpower No More' wrote:

'When I boarded the Midwest Express plane to Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001 at 8:00 am (Central Time), I had no idea that the definition of power on planet earth would be re-written within the hour. I read the paper, enjoyed a nice breakfast, and felt quite secure. Why not? I was a citizen of the "world's last remaining superpower."

This "superpower" was pouring into its "defence" budget some thirty million dollars an hour, nine thousand dollars a second to keep me safe. As we neared Washington, the pilot announced that the Washington airport was closed and we would be heading back to Milwaukee. Within minutes he reported that the airport in Milwaukee was also closed and we were to land at the closest airport, Columbus, Ohio. Cell phones and television at the Columbus airport told us the news, that our
superpower status was a myth. In a superpower, the president would not have to hide out in Louisiana and Nebraska because of "credible evidence" that he could not return to the Capital; the congress would not be running from the Capitol Building; schools and businesses throughout a superpower could not be forced shut; I would not suddenly be looking up into a sky where no airplane could dare fly. These were the facts of this new world order. The Defence Department could not defend us-or its main temple, the Pentagon - from hatred and a mode of power that we had never before known. It was not Pearl Harbour revisited. The bombers had left no return address. The instinct to retaliate with bombing is an anachronism. Fewer than twenty men had brought us to our national knees and raised the biggest question facing us in the twenty-first century, posed by a little girl and reported in the press:
"Why are they killing themselves and killing all those people?" '

This long quotation says a lot. It is clear that many Americans also believe that America is no longer a superpower and invulnerable country. It was one thing America waging wars against other nations far away from it shores but it is completely a different ball game when flames start reaching the American soil; and moreover when with only one strike America's pride of being impregnable is buried under the rubble of pentagon.

This indeed hurt America. It shook the world and specially the American people. Like millions of other people I was also shocked as so many innocent people lost their lives; but the thought of what the 'superpower' might do to restore its tarnished reputation sent shivers up my spine.

Those responsible for the tragic events of the 11th September must be punished, but before that their guilt has to be proved. Even if Osama Bin Laden is responsible for these events a way could have been found to resolve the issue, as it was done with the accused of Lockerbi incident. America and Britain waited for many years before Libyan leader Col.Gadafi finally agreed to hand over those accused which even included his own brother.

Many commentators think this time agenda was completely different and there was no time to wait. Whoever is culprit of the incidents of 11th September have provided America and Britain with an excuse to strike at Afghanistan. They had no time to establish guilt, nor they cared about it. The aim was obvious - destroy Taliban government and with it Osama Bin Laden's network; and replace it with a 'friendly regime' there. This 'victory', on one hand will restore America's image, and on the other hand secure a route to energy reserves of Central Asia- a much bigger prize. Many think they wanted to have access and control of oil and gas route from Central Asian countries. It is believed that these oil and gas reserves are much larger than those of the Middle East.

When the Americans and the British took their positions against one of the poorest country in the world, many thought that with this military might it would be a matter of days before the Taliban government with very meagre resources would collapse. Some even predicted that after a few days of hammering, Afghans would hand over Osama Bin Laden to the Americans.

All that has proved completely wrong. The bombing campaign has entered fourth week. Every possible weapon from the air has been tried and 'tested'. Even a taste of ground fight is also experienced. Despite claims that it was successful, ten days after the first ground encounter there hasn't been another ground fight. This suggests that the first experience was not so good otherwise there would have been more ground fights to 'root out the Taliban government'. It also suggests that despite all the claims the Taliban are still strong on the ground (Taliban never claimed to fight in the air), and their performances against the Northern Alliance also proves that.

Isn't that another blow to America's image and prestige? A 'superpower', with help of so many others, fights an impoverished country for so long and the expected victory is not in sight yet. No doubt they have successfully destroyed already destroyed country with more than 1000 civilian casualties; successfully destroyed houses and some military installations, not to mention UN food stores. How many Taliban military personnel and what military hardware is destroyed is not yet known, but their performance indicates that they still have considerable left over to fight.

The Americans and the British will win this battle of overthrowing the Taliban government, but it is difficult to predict outcome of this war, as it will continue even after the fall of the Taliban government. The war, in my view, perhaps after lull will escalate and lead to a wider conflict with unimaginable destruction. This war will surely lead to some geographical changes with new alignment and new balance of power. In this new world, like in the Nineteenth Century, there would be no place for superpowers. The pendulum will swing again and new 'major powers' will emerge to hold balance of power, like it was before the First World War.

Author is Director Institute of Kashmir Affairs, London

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