Making the world safe for multipolarity

America’s unipolar moment is over. Now, shaping a multipolar global order is the crucial, overarching foreign policy challenge for President-elect Barack Obama. In his Nov. 23 Times Op-Ed article, “Obama’s multipolar moment,” A. Wess Mitchell convincingly argues for a “fundamental break from the post-Cold War U.S. strategic playbook” and, in particular, the Bush administration’s blind efforts at global power projection. So far, so good.

Far less convincing, however, is Mitchell’s “new” proposed strategy. His “ABC” approach (allies, bargains and checked balance of power) is nothing more than a return to the old Henry Kissinger realist playbook, except with one cunning twist: Mitchell tries to sell the principles of foreign policy realism as “deeply rooted in American democracy.” This is a rhetorical stunt that even the arch-realist Kissinger -- whose constant references to 19th century Metternich Europe never resonated with the American political imagination -- did not manage to pull off as secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

In any event, it would have been a nice try if it didn’t lead us in the wrong direction. Mitchell’s domestic analogy of checked power and counterbalancing is wrong and is, if followed, outright dangerous to both U.S. national interests and the well-being of the emerging multipolar world. The “elaborate dance” of counterbalancing works at the domestic level because of one crucial ingredient that Mitchell fails to mention: institutions. The most important institution in this case is the U.S. Constitution, with its most crucial contribution being the institutionalization of trust. Players accept defeat in the domestic arena because they trust that while they might not have prevailed this time around, the rules of the road will give them another shot further down the line. This is why, for example, Al Gore and the Democrats accepted defeat in the 2000 election.

In the international arena, there is no global constitution. That is why the raw case-by-case counterbalancing proposed by Mitchell is dangerous. Those countries at the receiving end of counterbalancing have neither trust in a second chance nor in the overall protections afforded by a constitution. Therefore, they fight back. Such is the case with Iran, which found itself “counterbalanced” by the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s. And such might be the case with China if Washington continues with the ill-fated counterbalancing that is at the heart of the recent U.S.-Indian nuclear deal.

Instead of the Kissingerian counterbalancing that only leads to tit-for-tat blowbacks, we need global institutions to build trust among the key players in a multipolar world. The good news is that Obama is on the case. In his Berlin speech this past summer, he emphasized, “Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

This is no less than a tall order. Obama is well advised to take inspiration not from the likes of Kissinger, but from the genius of FDR, whose “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” inspired the pillars of the post-1945 order of global and regional institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

Yet building global institutions that withstand the messy politics of a multipolar world won’t be easy. It will require turning China, India, Brazil and other rising powers into joint stakeholders of the global system. It will mean confronting those who violate the rules of international society while, at the same time, keeping communication channels open. It will mean making the existing institutions such as the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund fit to face the realities of pressing global problems and shifts in global power. It will also require abandoning outdated institutions such as the Group of Eight industrialized nations and investing in new formats such as the G-20.

Obama can help make the world safe for multipolarity, but only if he invests in building institutions for the 21st century instead of falling back on the treacherous wisdom of 19th century European statecraft. And if the first American president with a truly global biography can’t lead the way, who could?

Thorsten Benner is co-founder and associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin (, a nonprofit think tank focusing on effective and accountable governance.