Two stories about the Middle East ? Israel?s latest settlement plans and Iran?s nuclear programme ? shed more light on the world?s power structure than the pages of a thousand history books.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignores US demands, says Israel has the right to build in Jerusalem, and shows no willingness to change his policy. The US reaction: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks to dispel rising tension, reaffirms the deep US commitment to Israel's security - but is shown to be powerless. Israel continues as before.

An altogether different Middle Eastern leader, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad ignores US demands, says his country has the right to build a nuclear programme, and shows no willingness to change his policy. The US reaction: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls Iran a "menace", threatens "real consequences" for Tehran's actions - but is shown to be powerless. Iran continues as before.

In these two stories about US Middle East policy there is more insight into the shape of the modern world than can be found in thousands of books. Everyone agrees that power in the world is shifting from the liberal democracies of the West to the often illiberal capitalists of the East and South.

But how fast and with what effects have often been unclear. Some hope that the world will become multipolar, with the US, China and possibly Brazil and India on a par with each other. Others imagine that one pole, the US, will be completely replaced another, with China as the most often assumed to be the next superpower. The Italian scholar Giovanni Grevi suggests that a new kind of arrangement will come into view: an interpolar world, which he defines as "multipolarity in the age of interdependence." In other words, it is not enough to look at the redistribution of power: the effects of globalisation have to be factored in too.

But while Grevi may have coined the right phrase to describe the world, the two stories about US Middle East policy show that he may have imbued it with the wrong kind of meaning. For in the US impotence vis-à-vis friend and foe alike, it is clear that a different type of interpolar world is emerging. It is an order that exists between the end of the American Century, which lasted roughly from the First World War, and the beginning of Pax China, which has yet to begin.

It may in the end turn into a world without poles, a "non-polar" world as Richard N Haas called it. But it has not yet reached this stage - and may never do so. Rather, the world is going through a transitional period, characterised by a number of dynamics. 

It is a world, where the basic parameter of conducts are still set by the US or the system is has forged - whether on the Law of the Sea, the UN Charter or the Bretton Woods institutions -- but in each region there are local and regional powers that that can limit the actions of the superpower.  They do not unite or offer an alternative world order but they substantially restrict the ability of the superpower to advance its own agenda. 

Crises tend to be created by states that act in their short-term interests, but produce negative externalities for others - or act against their own long-term interests. Take the case of Israel. It is clearly in Benjamin Netanyahu's interest to follow the policies of all Israeli governments since 1967, when the Jewish state won a war with its Arab neighbours and seized east Jerusalem, which it later annexed: to continue the settlement programme. Not to do so would probably bring down his coalition.

Unfortunately, Israel's short-term interests go against both the short and long-term interests of the United States. As General David Petraeus, Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), is said to have argued: Israel's actions wreck US credibility in the Middle East and inflame anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. Its policies may also go against Israel's long-term interests by radicalising the hitherto relatively quiescent Palestinian population of east Jerusalem.

But the only way Israel's calculation will change is if external actors, like the US, alter the incentives for action - or the disincentives for staying the course. Telling the Israeli government that it suffers from a form of false consciousness, as Hillary Clinton did at her speech to US lobbying group AIPAC, will not work. Focusing on incentives is what George Bush Snr did in the run-up to the 1992 peace conference in Madrid when he used then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to pressure for change.

Yet it is exactly this kind of power that is seeping away from the US and is not being accumulated elsewhere. China may be on the rise, but it is unclear whether it will take on the kind of hegemonic power that the US once did. In the meantime, it is content to block the US.

More fundamentally, it is not clear that China sees itself as that kind of power. It is a regional hegemon-in-the-making with an uneven but global reach. It is an exceptionalist power, but not a universalist one: China wants other countries to take on its characteristics and values only in so far as this advances Beijing's own aims.

So while China is challenging the collective dominance of the United States and Europe, the cases of Israel and Iran show that the world is not becoming "multi-polar". It may over time become "non-polar", dominated not by one or two or even several powers, but influenced by many state and non-state actors exercising various kinds of power. But it has not yet reached such a disorganised and dystopian state.

Yet the world is clearly moving away from one kind of regime and towards another, ill-defined one. In this period, US power will decrease, its ability to influence other actors - friends and foes alike - will decrease. But the influence of China has yet to manifest itself and may never do so in the same way as US power. The world is now going through an inter-polar moment.



Read more on:

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.