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#4387, 14 April 2014

Eagle Eye

US, Ukraine and the End of Unipolarity
Chintamani Mahapatra
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU

When Ukraine became a sovereign independent republic following the Soviet disintegration, a unipolar world order was born. Now with Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and the annexation to Russia, the death of the unipolar world seems certain.
US unilateralism during the era of a unipolar world order remained unchallenged.

There was no one to question then US President Bill Clinton’s decision to rain missiles on Afghanistan as a response to the bombing of two US embassies in Africa; no one could challenge then US President George Bush’s decision to unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, withdraw from Kyoto Protocol, invade Iraq, and overthrow Saddam Hussein from power. 

Incumbent US President Barack Obama promised to promote a liberal world order; employ more diplomacy and less force; end occupation of Iraq; talk Iran out of a suspected nuclear weapon programme; bring North Korea back to the Non-Proliferation Treaty; positively engage the Islamic world; strive for establishment of a nuclear weapon free world; reach out to the largest democracy of the world; make China a responsible stakeholder; make Russia a partner for peace; and many more.   

However, project Obama, although partially successful, it has largely failed. President Obama can be given credit for Iran’s decision to accept the détente with the US, Syria’s willingness to destroy its chemical weapons, US Navy Seal’s spectacular assassination of Osama bin Laden, and his successful approach to stemming the country’s downward economic spiral.

Nevertheless, his foreign policy flops appear more stunning. The Arab world is clearly on fire with dangerous political upheavals and unrelenting violence. The White House will have to accept a fair share of the blame for the Libyan chaos, Egyptian instability, the interminable civil war in Syria, and the North Korean nuclear tenacity.

Additionally, the US is not in a position to inspire confidence among its Asian allies at the time of growing Chinese assertiveness. All goodwill between India and the US appears to have become a thing of the past following the fierce diplomatic discord sparked by the arrest and perceived mistreatment of an Indian consular officer by the New York Police Department. The Marshall Plan aid to Europe in the post World War II period remains in the history books, and the present day US is simply incapable of instituting a similar assistance programme to rescue Europe from its current economic calamity.

In other words, the unipolar world order was already facing the risk of extinction, when Russia’s response to the political turbulence in Ukraine threatened to alter that order. During the period of Soviet disintegration, pundits could not predict the final outcome of events in Moscow. Similarly, in the case of the Ukrainian political turmoil, no one could imagine the speed with which Russian President Vladimir Putin would be able to dismantle Ukrainian political geography and annex Crimea.  

The Obama administration’s response was slow and meek. Along with the EU, it imposed sanctions against some Russian individuals. Although Russia’s membership from the G8 and its voting rights in the Council of Europe was suspended, no sanctions could be imposed on critical sectors of the Russian economy, and nor could any military measure be contemplated. High rhetoric and docile measures highlight Washington’s response. 

All these are the result of the resilience of a resurgent Russia and the relative decline of the US. The US military presence in Europe is far less today compared to that during the height of the Cold War. There are no US aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean; US navy personnel numbers in Europe have reduced to 7000 from 40,000;  and army personnel numbers have been reduced to 66,000 from over several hundred thousand in the recent past. 

Reduction in the US military presence has coincided with the increased Russian leverage in Europe, especially in the energy sector. Germany purchases one-third of Moscow’s gas; Russia accounts for over half of Austria’s gas imports; and Finland imports all of its gas from Russia. Germany’s exports to Russia stand at $40 billion a year; France’s banks have over $50 billion claims from Russia; and UK reaps billions of dollars of profit from the indulgences of Russian Oligarch in London.

How can the US and the EU unite to resist expansion of Russian sway over Ukraine?

While the European allies have developed mistrust in the US since the Snowden episode, Asian allies lack credibility in the US in the wake of Chinese muscle flexing. Brazil is upset with the US’s eavesdropping activities and India is more than offended by the State Department’s handling of the Devyani Khobragade incident. 

President Obama managed his relations with US allies, strategic partners and emerging powers shoddily, and finds it difficult to deal with Russian advances in Ukraine. South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea have fallen into Russian hands, and three provinces in Eastern Ukraine seem to be in the queue. As the dominoes fall, the unipolar global order also appears to be breaking down.

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