This week’s Lexington column in The Economist discusses the eagerness of some people to brand the U.S.’s bilateral, backseat role in Libya as evidence of an Obama Doctrine. Libya hasn’t defined an Obama Doctrine, The Economist argues, so much as “repudiated an old one.” The old one being the Powell Doctrine, the centerpiece of the two-decade (and counting?) era of U.S.-led unipolarity, following its half-century Cold War period of bi-polarity with the Soviet Union.
Now, with the Group of 20 set to replace the Group of 7, there’s debate among political economists about what sort of global power structure will emerge next, or if we’re already in one. An obvious possibility is a bi-polar system between the U.S. and China. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations believes we’ve already entered into what he calls an age of non-polarity, in which nation-states compete with non-state actors for power: multi-national corporations, NGO’s, terrorists. That’s certainly close to what’s playing out in Libya. The first country to act was France, with its sizable oil contracts in Libya.
The closest thing to Haas’s vision of non-polarity in the last century was Europe during the lead-up to World War I. France, Britain, Germany, and Russia struggled for power — just as the British Empire was fading from the height of its Pax Britannica — which actually marks the last time a uni-polar global hegemony existed.