The Near-Unipolar World Reconsidered Yet Again

The rise of the continental-scale US national economy at the turn of the century made the global balance of intrinsic war-making capabilities considerably more asymmetric that it had been for centuries. As Adam Tooze describes in The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, Europeans recognized the transition considerably after the fact. For if Madison’s data is to be believed, the transformation of the distribution of intrinsic war potential had already been consummated at the turn of the century. The near-unipolar world can be thought of as a bag of potatoes of varying sizes the largest of which is at least twice as large as all other potatoes in the bag. That is, we use Schweller’s criteria for polar powers.

More precisely, we define the near-unipolar world as one in which one great power is at least twice as big in economic size as all other great powers. The French economy had been less half the size of the US economy since 1883; Germany fell below the 50 percent threshold in 1901; and finally, the UK went under in 1905. In 1905, the near-unipolar world was born since for the first time all European great powers’ GDP fell below the 50 percent threshold: France 30.3; Germany 46.6; UK 49.7. In the early interwar era and through the postwar era, the combined GDP of the European great powers never exceeded that of the United States. Figure 1 shows the GDP of the “Big Three in Europe” as a proportion of US GDP in constant 1990 international dollars.

Figure 1. Big Three European great powers.

According to Maddison’s data, Soviet economic size exceeded that threshold in a single year, 1938; Japan never exceeded it at all; and, at least in constant 1990 international dollars, the near-unipolar world came to an end as early as 1996 when China’s GDP in chained international dollars exceeded the 50 percent threshold. But we have more reliable market data for the latter period. In market prices, as late as 2000, China’s economy was just 12 percent of the United States’ so it is hard to get excited about what the international dollars data means. Rather, we can say that the century of American economic preeminence definitely came to an end by 2012 when China’s GDP, even at market rates, exceeded one-half America’s. So the century of American economic preeminence was 1905-2011.

Figure 2. China’s GDP exceed half the US GDP in 2012.

American economic preeminence meant that other great powers could not hope to prevail against the United States in a general war or in an extended rivalry. Once the European great powers had slaughtered each other’s young men at sufficient scale in 1914-1916, they faced a great power secure behind an impregnable moat, with tens of millions of men of military age, and a large and technically-sophisticated economy capable of fielding millions of them on the European battlefield longer than any other great power. They also faced a great power that held all the purse strings. The British got an early taste of American financial hegemony when they went hat in hand to Washington. Once the United States weighed in the balance, the war was decided.

In The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, Adam Tooze argued that German radicalism in the 1930s was motivated by the specter of the permanent American hegemony. In his unpublished Second Book in 1928, Hitler worried that European great powers would be reduced to the status of Sweden:

With the American Union, a new power of such dimensions has come into being as threatens to upset the whole former power and orders of rank of the States.

A continental-scale Lebensraum for the German people was necessary if Germany was to be co-equal with the United States. So unlike on the western front, in the east, Germany fought a war of extermination against the Soviet Union. The goal of Generalplan Ost was to depopulate vast swaths of land between the German border and the Urals through liquidation and expulsion. As a German military journal explained in 1935, “totalitarian warfare is nothing but a gigantic struggle of elimination whose upshot will be terrible and irrevocable in its finality.” Disorganized survivors were to be enslaved and made available to German capitalism and German homesteaders. The idea being to replicate  settler colonialism at the scale of the United States. Not until the thermonuclear revolution in the mid-1950s would American nuclear war planners develop operational plans estimated to kill upwards of 100 million people in the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were radicalized too. Through forced-pace industrialization, Stalin hoped to replicate America’s war potential. The Soviets succeeded to a considerable degree in forging a military-industrial complex of comparable scale; more so than Germany, which is why they prevailed in the Soviet-German War. An interesting question is whether the radicalism in the German military was driven more by the rising strength of the Soviet Union than the threat of permanent Anglo-American hegemony. Guderian in particular worried much much more about the Soviet Union than the United States. We shall revisit the problem posed by Russo-German relations to the near-unipolar frame at the end of the essay.

In the Venezuelan crisis of 1895, Britain backed down after Washington threatened war. At the turn of the century, the Admiralty informed the War Office that it had no plan for the defense of Canada. By 1900, once the impossibility of fighting the colossus had sunk in, the British surrendered naval primacy in the entire western hemisphere to the United States. Indeed, all three major confrontations of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were rigged from the moment that the unipole decided to join the struggle. And postwar orders in the aftermath of each of these confrontations were dictated by the unipole.

At the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, the United States dictated the distribution of capital ships among the maritime powers. Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan realized the folly of initiating a naval arms race against the colossus and simply acquiesced. The German question, specifically, the problem of French military primacy and German insecurity revealed by French depredations in the Ruhr in 1923, was resolved by US security and market-access guarantees to Germany in exchange for German disarmament and reparations. J.P. Morgan himself saw to the details on the continent. (I’ll write more about the German question in the 1920s after I have read Trachtenberg’s doctoral thesis, French Reparation Policy, 1918-1921. For the French played a more significant role in the German question after World War I than they would do at the end of World War II or the Cold War.)

In the aftermath of World War II, postwar negotiations were ostensibly carried out in a Big Three framework between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union. American intransigence ensured that many important questions were left unresolved. The most important of these related to the future of Germany. It is hard to overemphasize the centrality of the German question in European history. In Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present, Brendan Simms went so far as to frame the entire history of the struggle for mastery in Europe around the German question; as the European great power struggle to control the heartland of Europe, Germany; until, of course, Germany was unified and the question became what to do about German power.

The Big Three had agreed to eventually resolve the German question in detail at the bargaining table. In 1944, the entire future of Germany was open for reconsideration. Was Germany to be broken up into smaller statelets? Into two, three, or four pieces? Was it to be deindustrialized and turned into an agrarian country to reduce its power as envisioned in the Morgenthau Plan? How was Germany to pay reparations? Under whose sphere of influence would specific territories lie? What about the industrial heartland of the Ruhr? Even after they had been agreed upon, were the occupation zones to be run separately by each occupying power as it wished? What was to be their socio-economic system? Were all non-fascist political parties to be tolerated in all zones? Or was a unified German state to be resurrected? And if so, was the Germany army to be reconstituted? And if German power was to be restored, was Germany going to be neutral or an ally of one of the three great powers?

Implicit in JCS1067, the official policy directive to the military government in the US occupation zone in 1945-1947, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko write in The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, was “maximum zonal autonomy that bordered on partition” in violation of explicit US commitments at Yalta. Of “substantially greater consideration in American planning,” was “the value of Germany as a barrier to Soviet power.” America planners had secretly arrived at a consensus on what was to be done with Germany. German power was to be resurrected and incorporated into a US-led military alliance. Moreover, German recovery was essential to hold the tide against the Left in Europe so there could be no question of serious reparations. Remarkably, despite explicit commitments to the contrary and despite the fact that the Soviets had defeated Germany, the United States unilaterally obtained its preferred outcome on the German question. Why?

The problem with the near-unipolar frame is that America’s economic preeminence suggests the wrong answer. For the balance of strategic power became a question of forces-in-being after the Strategic Air Command became a war-winning first-strike weapon. Even in the late-1940s, the Soviet Union was exhausted and in no position to threaten general war. The introduction of a single currency into the three Western zones—a recipe for a West German state that contained 75 percent of German war potential—led to the Berlin Crisis of 1948. The United States prevailed by threatening general war. The Berlin crises of 1948 and 1958-1961 were not about West Berlin, they were about the German question. Indeed, as we shall see, the German question may be the key to the 20th-century as a whole.

At the end of the 1950s, at a time when Soviet ICBMs began to threaten the US homeland for the first time, at issue was the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into Germany. The United States prevailed by threatening a thermonuclear first-strike. Kennedy and his advisors at the RAND corporation had believed that the Soviets would soon field 200 ICBMs. At Vienna, he conceded to Khrushchev that the Soviets had achieved strategic parity. But spy satellite images revealed a few months later that the Soviets only had 4 operational ICBMs. The Soviet Union had never acquired a bomber command capable of penetrating US air-defense. Soviet nuclear strength was mostly regional. They had a thousand short and medium range nuclear missiles that threatened Western Europe. But they could all be taken out in a massive counter-force strike by the unipole.

A purely counterforce attack on all Soviet strategic nuclear forces would kill perhaps 60 million. A countervalue first-strike made little sense; as McNamara explained, the enemy’s cities are our hostages. But SIOP 62, the only US operational plan available to Kennedy insiders, had been perfected by General LeMay’s SAC over the 1950s. It was both counterforce and countervalue; targets had by now proliferated enough to guarantee the obliteration of Soviet urban civilization. In fact, it threw in China for good measure. SIOP 62 called for a massive preemptive strike on the Sino-Soviet bloc that would immediately kill 600 million people and turn both nations into “smoking, radioactive ruins.”

It was later discovered by climate researchers in the 1980s that the detonation of enough thermonuclear warheads to yield 3,000 megatons, as planned in SIOP 62, would very likely precipitate a nuclear winter. Temperatures would drop 30-40 degrees at all the globe’s major food producing regions with the result that almost no grains would grow on the planet for many years. The resulting famine would kill off the vast bulk of the world’s human population in a global holocaust. Human civilization for all practical purposes would end in a spectacular orgy of hunger, chaos and cannibalism.

As Shelling has observed, thermonuclear weapons had turned geopolitical competition into a competition in risk-taking. Instead of military skirmishes that now posed an intolerable risk of general war, great power confrontations turned into diplomatic crises. The major nuclear crises of the Cold War occurred before the Soviets achieved a second-strike capability in the mid-1960s. Put another way, the unipole had a splendid first-strike capability for the first 20 years of the so-called bipolar era. In each of these crises the United States brought its nuclear superiority to bear. Once Kennedy had called Khrushchev’s bluff, the latter simply abandoned Soviet hopes on the German question for the time being. The erection of the Berlin Wall signaled that the Soviets had acquiesced to both the partition of Germany and the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the Bundeswehr.

Kennedy may have inadvertently threatened omnicide, but what mattered was that both Khrushchev and Kennedy believed the first-strike threat. While Kennedy mobilized his strategic forces and put Nato forces on high alert, Khrushchev, General Burnical recalled, “never alerted a bomber or changed his own military posture one bit. We had a gun at his head and he didn’t move a muscle.” (Quoted in Trachtenberg, “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”) Nitze talked about the experience in Foreign Affairs in 1976:

…the feared intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “gap” of the 1960 presidential campaign never in fact became reality, but on the contrary the United States re-established a clearly superior nuclear capability by 1961-62. This was the situation at the time of the only true nuclear confrontation of the postwar period, the Cuban missile crisis of the fall of 1962.

[This is] the reading the Soviet leaders gave to the Cuban missile crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Berlin crisis. In the latter case, Khrushchev had briefly sought to exploit the first Soviet rocket firings of 1957—by a series of threats to Berlin beginning in late 1958—but then found that the West stood firm and that the United States quickly moved to reestablish its strategic superiority beyond doubt. And in the Cuban missile case, the very introduction of the missiles into Cuba in the fall of 1962 must have reflected a desire to redress the balance by quick and drastic action, while the actual outcome of the crisis seemed to the Soviet leaders to spell out that nuclear superiority in a crunch would be an important factor in determining who prevailed.

Harking back to the Soviet penchant for actually visualizing what would happen in the event of nuclear war, it seems highly likely that the Soviet leaders, in those hectic October days of 1962, did something that U.S. leaders, as I know from my participation, did only in more general terms-that is, ask their military just how a nuclear exchange would come out. They must have been told that the United States would be able to achieve what they construed as victory, that the U.S. nuclear posture was such as to be able to destroy a major portion of Soviet striking power and still itself survive in a greatly superior condition for further strikes if needed. And they must have concluded that such a superior capability provided a unique and vital tool for pressure in a confrontation situation.

Trachtenberg notes that the Berlin crisis of 1948 was the result of Soviet opposition to the reconstitution of a German state that would be allied to the West; the Berlin crisis of 1958-1961 was the result of Soviet opposition to the introduction of tactical nuclear missiles into the Bundeswehr; but there was dog that did not bark. The reconstitution of the German army and its incorporation into the Western military alliance in the early-1950s did not lead to Soviet ultimatums. Instead Stalin issued the 10 March 1952 Note with its offer of German unification on largely Western terms. Paul R. Willging’s superb doctoral dissertation “Soviet Foreign Policy in the German Question: 1950-1955,” made a compelling argument that the Soviets were indeed willing to accept any and all terms as long as the unified German state would be neutral. Why?

By 1952, the Strategic Air Command had became a war-winning first-strike weapon. The United States’ air-atomic monopoly was no longer just one factor in the balance of global power. It had become the factor. What Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” doctrine meant in operational terms were war plans drawn by the SAC for a massive preemptive first-strike. Incontestable US nuclear superiority was the context of Stalin’s conciliatory offers.  In general, the postwar German question was settled on favorable terms above all because of US nuclear superiority.

We have seen that the revolution in strategic affairs wrought by nuclear weapons meant that forces-in-being that could be expended on the first day or month of a general war instead of the economic-industrial capability to fight a long, drawn-out war of attrition was what really came to matter in great power confrontations. This calls into question the validity of the near-unipolar frame that we defined above in terms of economic preeminence. But there is yet another reason to be skeptical of the near-unipolar frame.

As Wohlforth explains in The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War, the Soviet empire did not simply collapse in the late-1980s; instead, the Soviet leadership capitulated with eyes wide open. What Gorbachev and his advisors were really after was the dream of a greater Rapallo—the Soviet-German treaty of 1922 that fostered military and economic cooperation between the two powers. Third World clients were abandoned outright; Eastern European satellites were let go one by one in 1989; even the “crazy arms race” with America was given up in the hope of reducing tensions with the West. Their only demand was to be welcomed by Germany into Europe. They hoped that with genuine friendship and close ties between the Soviet Union and a unified Germany, the United States could be sidelined. The German question was the only question that the Soviets truly cared about.

The central importance of the German question, of Russo-German relations in geopolitical history, and of forces-in-being in the global balance of strategic power as it came to weigh on international politics suggests that the near-unipolar frame must be thought of as a point of departure instead of the point of arrival.

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