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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchAmerica Needs Strategic Empathy in a Multipolar World

America Needs Strategic Empathy in a Multipolar World

Authors: Arta Moeini and Coleman Hopkins 

Affiliation: The Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (Toronto, Canada) and Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship (Washington DC); Research Associate at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest

Date/Place: May 2, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article

Word Count: 1884



Keywords: The Ukraine War, America’s Grand Strategy, Middle Powers, Respective Regional Security Complexes (RSCs), Realism, Liberal Internationalism, Multipolar World




The two authors argue that the United States is unable to act in the world today in the same way it did when it was at the height of global primacy, especially since its political rhetoric and behavior toward the ongoing Ukrainian war suggest that it still views the world through the liberal internationalism lenses (following a Manichaean hubris idealist logic) that is causing the end of the Pax Americana. Washington no longer has the ability to act freely. America has changed and the world has become closer to multipolarity, especially with the increasing rise of middle powers in the international system. The article focuses on the influence that middle powers have had on the emerging geopolitical arena and shows ultimately that the United States has limited options for the foreseeable future.


The article is divided into three parts. The first part explains the different nature of today’s multipolar world, in which America cannot act as it did in the unipolar world. The Ukrainian war is showing the influence that the middle powers can have in determining the nature of the international system structure and has showed the limits of American action in the respective regional security complexes (RSCs) of these powers. The authors consider Russia an effective middle power (perhaps the powerful one among the existing middle powers), but not a great power, given its limitations in projecting power globally. In the beginning, the authors compare the American discourse and behavior towards the Ukrainian war to its rhetoric and behavior during the George W. Bush administration era after the September 11 attacks. Washington adopted a Manichean utopian policy dividing the world into “black and white”, “who is with us and who is against”, and “the free liberal world against the authoritarian world.” It is the same liberal internationalist approach that has caused the decline of American standing and security, empowered regional rivals such as Iran, created new security challenges, and even caused the end of Pax Americana. This unwise approach does not take into account the emerging geopolitical changes, most notably the rise of middle powers and their growing influence in the international system. The authors refer to a recent report they co-authored, issued by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy titled “Middle Powers in the Multipolar World,” which provides an important theoretical framework for assessing this issue. The report argues for the centrality of middle powers, noting that they “occupy an inherently dynamic position in the emerging geopolitical mandala.” Although these powers are confined to particular regions mainly because of their “geographic rootedness”, they are considered influential powers, especially in their RSCs due to their comparative power vis-á-vis their neighbors. The report concludes that it is difficult to coerce or subdue the middle powers within their RSCs because they persistently seek to pursue their concrete interests within their vital spheres. They also have the capacity to help support the existing international order if they find it advantageous, or challenge it and play the role of revisionist powers if they don’t. Thus, the report calls on the distant great power (the United States), which seeks to encroach on the RSCs of these powers, to instead recognize the strategic autonomy of these central states and take them seriously when making its Grand Strategy. The authors consider Russia as one of the most powerful middle powers, but despite its position within its RSCs, Washington has not wisely recognized this fact and has not given Russia any consideration in any issue related to its sphere over the past decades, leading to the war in Ukraine. Washington’s failure to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns, such as NATO’s eastward enlargement, is a disastrous mistake. When Moscow articulated its red lines, Washington should have listened carefully.


The second part explains how liberal idealism (which Washington insists on) has clashed with the new geopolitical realities of today’s world, particularly the reality of the middle powers’ growing influence. When Washington proceeded to rally allies against the Russian invasion and imposed sanctions on the Putin regime, it was surprised by the hesitant attitude of many countries, including their traditional allies, rather than obviously siding with it. Most of these countries that have refused blind adherence to Washington’s policy are middle powers with independent regional, security, and economic interests that conflict with the Manichean American view of the world. Moreover, these powers have noted how Washington has ignored Moscow’s security concerns for decades while it has been nudging Ukraine toward a peril that led to a devastating war. Therefore, it is possible that Washington will not take seriously the interests of another middle power in its vital sphere unless there is an intersection of views between them. In addition, the Ukrainian war has revealed that the middle powers’ keenness to achieve their core strategic goals in their RSCs trumps their relations with Washington. It has also made clear that it is preferable for the peripheral or fault-line states adjacent to one of the middle powers to work with the latter side by side rather than blindly following the American line, and reveals that diplomacy is perhaps the first and only strategy for Washington if it wants to compete with the middle powers in their RSCs.


The last part confirms the failure of the liberal internationalism currently adopted by Washington in achieving the necessary American interests. The approach has contributed to the Ukrainian war and then exacerbated it by presenting the conflict in a simplified Manichaean form between black and white, which has led many middle powers to oppose Washington’s policy towards Russia and the war. The United States does not want to acknowledge that the world has become multipolar, with the rise of China as a great power and the rise of civilizational states and established middle powers capable of benefiting from America’s hubris and strategic overreach. Therefore, Washington must adjust its posture to avoid further embarrassment and harm to its vital national interests, especially its global financial primacy. Washington should also pressure, through diplomatic means, to end the conflicts in which middle powers are involved, such as the war in Ukraine and Yemen. Any prolongation of these conflicts causes more attrition and instability in the US-led international order that is already pushed to its breaking point. In short, the United States today stands before two options: accepting multipolarity and the rise of the middle powers and thus adopting a more sensible and realist strategy, or denying this reality and insisting on an untenable posture based on doing what it likes in others’ regional spheres and prohibiting the same for other powers. If Washington chooses the second option, it will guarantee an unnecessary conflict in many other RSCs, which will damage America’s standing and jeopardize the lives of billions.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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