Multipolarity is an international system in which there are three or more power centres. This means that no one power can claim hegemonic influence over the others. As a result of the changing balance of economic and military global power, the consequences of globalisation and advances in military technology, it has been claimed that the contemporary world is increasingly multipolar.
Neo-realists argue that multipolarity is inherently unstable. As the number of actors increases, so does the number of possible conﬂicts. When there are multiple power centres (anarchical polarity), even a small increase in power has the potential to make states a great power. This creates higher levels of uncertainty, intensifying the security dilemma.
Liberals are more optimistic about a multipolar world. They argue that such a world order promotes multilateralism, with greater co-operation and integration – what is known as interdependent polarity. States realise the futility of competition and conﬂict because the potential gains are relatively small, whereas cooperation produces beneﬁts for all.
Changing Economic Power
After the end of the Cold War the USA was the world’s pre-eminent power but in the new millenium, its economic dominance is being challenged not only by China, but also by the rise of other emerging powers, such as Brazil, India, Russia and, the EU, which is now the largest single market in the world. China has become the world’s greatest neocolonial power, investing massively in Africa and South America — regions that were traditionally within the USA’s economic zone of influence. Is China a Super Power? The fact, too, that China controls so much of the USA’s debt. China has steadily accumulated U.S. Treasury securities over the last few decades. As of October 2021, China owns $1.065 trillion, or about 3.68%, of the $28.9 trillion U.S. national debt, which is more than any other foreign country except Japan. While the presumed pre-eminence of American-style free-market liberalism is increasingly being challenged by China's state-orientated capitalism, which weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than the USA. The establishment in 2015 of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a rival to the World Bank in influencing the developing world provides a further example of the way in which economic power is moving eastwards. The election of Donald Trump has demonstrated extraordinary class and racial divisions within the USA, which can be seen to contrast with the burgeoning nationalist self-confidence of Putin’s Russia, Recep Erdogan’s Turkey and Xi Jinping’s China.
Changing Cultural Power
For much of the last century the USA was characterised by a shared belief in the 'American Dream' The 2016 election of Donald Trump demonstrated class and racial divisions within the US as well as political polarisation which was also evident in the Biden election. These divisions could be seen to contrast with the popularity of Russia’s Putin and the nationalist self-confidence of Recep Erdoğan’s Turkey and Xi Jinping’s China. These populist and authoritarian regimes project an image of national self-confidence and unity. However, this is largely a product of strenuous efforts to manage information and media manipulation. Recent developments such as China's property debt crisis, Turkey's 70% inflation, and Russia's disastrous invasion of Ukraine have exposed serious weaknesses in these states.
Global news networks such as Al Jazeera and RT (formerly Russia Today) offer an alternative to Western media representations of the news. American culture is viewed critically in the internet and social media news sources. Germany and the UK have consistently provided an alternative source of cultural soft power. The image of the US as a beacon of liberal values has been undermined by coverage of human rights abuses, such as waterboarding, and the mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. President Trump even admitted that the US is no better than any other country in terms of human rights violations. This was very different from the traditional white house view that America was an example to the world. When President Biden was outspoken about promoting human rights and critical of China’s human rights record, China responded by criticising the US record on human rights and the treatment of black Americans. As seen with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at their 2020 meeting in Anchorage.
American foreign policy does not always match its rhetoric, given there is a balancing act between the values of human rights and reaching agreements, especially around climate change, which could necessitate working alongside other countries regardless of their human rights records.
When President Biden was outspoken about promoting human rights and critical of China’s human rights record, China responded by criticising the US record on human rights and the treatment of black Americans. As seen with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at their 2020 meeting in Anchorage.
The Challenge of China
China is investing heavily in long-range bombers, nuclear submarines and medium-range missiles in order to stake its claim as the pre-eminent power in the Pacific. President Obama’s tactical decision to 'pivot to Asia' was an acknowledgment that Asia was the location of world power. Also the US has sought to strengthen alliances in Asia in the face of China's growing military power. The ability to fight such a two-front war has traditionally been seen as defining hegemonic status. However, in 2021 at the G7 Summit in Cornwall Biden agreed a ‘New Atlantic Charter’ with the UK, which can be seen in part as a response to the threat from their autocratic rivals Russia and China. Under the AUKUS deal between the US, UK and Australia-Australia would obtain eight state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered submarines capable of stealthy, long-range missions. It also provides for sharing cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum, and unspecified undersea capabilities. This angered China and upset the French since they lost a deal to supply older submarines. Again this reflected the US response to China.
May 2022 The 'Quad Summit' -Leaders of the Quad grouping of countries - the United States, India, Australia, and Japan - agreed that what is happening to Ukraine should not be allowed to happen in the Indo-Pacific.
Failures in Afghanistan and Iraq also demonstrate that there are severe limitations on what the US is militarily able to achieve. President Obama’s unwillingness to provide either a diplomatic or military lead during the Arab Spring, as well as his failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war, has enabled both Russia and Turkey to take the initiative in developing the peace process. Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy and the US’s continued withdrawal from the global arena have suggested less military focus overseas. Russia has also been emboldened by its success in regaining Crimea from Ukraine and so is now flexing its military muscles outside its ‘near abroad’ in Syria and Georgia for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
The growing significance of cyber technology has also changed the traditional understanding of what constitutes hard power. The acquisition of skilled hackers and cyber-technology is relatively cheap- as is demonstrated by Russia, China and North Korea and could make the US’s hegemonic status as the world’s most powerful nuclear state redundant. This is in part a further reason for the ‘New Atlantic Charter’ and one of the areas the Western alliance wants to focus on. This is because a cyber-attack could enable a relatively weak state to bring a significantly more powerful one to its knees.In 2020, a major cyberattack suspected to have been committed by a group backed by the Russian government penetrated thousands of organizations globally including multiple parts of the United States federal government, leading to a series of data breaches. The cyberattack and data breach were reported to be among the worst cyber-espionage incidents ever suffered by the U.S., due to the sensitivity and high profile of the targets and the long duration (eight to nine months) in which the hackers had access. Within days of its discovery, at least 200 organizations around the world had been reported to be affected by the attack, and some of these may also have suffered data breaches. Affected organizations worldwide included NATO, the U.K. government, the European Parliament, Microsoft and others
Therefore, as the US progressively finds its military, economic, diplomatic and cultural influence challenged by emerging powers, it is likely that the world will become increasingly multipolar. This dispersal of power to the BRICS, MINT and regional power blocs, such as the EU, will prove difficult to reverse, while on the UN Security Council, the US increasingly finds itself confronted by a more assertive Russia and China.
Some have also suggested that globalisation has more widely dispersed power to non-state actors, such as global pressure groups, powerful multinational corporations and NGOs. This means that as the centrality of the state in global relations is challenged, so this will make it progressively harder for one state to dominate the rest of the global community. Joseph Nye in his book, The Paradox of American Power. As Nye explains, “power today is distributed among countries in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game.” One dimension is military power, where the United States enjoys an unrivaled advantage, and the power distribution is therefore unipolar. The second dimension is economic, where power among the United States, Europe, and Japan is distributed more equally. The third dimension is transnational relations, where power is widely dispersed and essentially beyond government control. This is the realm of nonstate actors—from multinational companies and money managers to terrorist organizations and crime syndicates to nongovernmental organizations and the international media. “Those who recommend a hegemonic [or power-based] American foreign policy,” Nye concludes, “are relying on woefully inadequate analysis. When you are in a three-dimensional game, you will lose if you focus on the interstate military board and fail to notice the other boards and the vertical connections among them.”
Do Russia or China pose a significant challenge to US hegemony?
There is certainly a challenge to US power from both Russia and China. Russia has been involved in various conflicts including Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, which have strained US relations. It has also had protracted disputes with the UK over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018. There was also alleged interference from Russia in the 2016 US presidential elections. The US and Russia imposed mutual sanctions in after Russia annexed Crimea. In 2022 the US imposed the toughest sanction ever imposed on any state after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, China is the US’s biggest economic rival. The US has taken much more economic interest in Asia recently, which can be seen from Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ (e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2011). Arguably this was an attempt to temper China’s increasing influence in the area. The US has also experienced tension with China over what it sees as unfair trading of raw materials, and raised these issues in the WTO. Obama’s presidency marked more cooperation with China (e.g. over the environment), while Trump was more antagonistic, entering into a trade war with China. China also poses a threat in terms of its military expansion into the South China Sea. China uses the South China Sea for patrolling its nuclear ballistic missile submarine which is a nuclear deterrent against the US, and for a buffer zone in the event of a US attack. The Sea is also significant to China in terms of maritime trading routes, natural resources and food security (as it is a significant fishing ground), which has encouraged China to claim sovereignty of much of the area. Both China and the US have accused each other of acting in an antagonistic way in this region.
The US position as ‘leader of the free world’ has been a big part of the US’s soft power and played a part in its hegemonic status over time. Obama promoted the idea of the US being a leading liberal democracy that advocated for human rights, but Trump’s election saw a shift in attitude that resulted in significant threats to international human rights. For example, in 2018 the Trump administration received widespread national and international criticism for separating children from their parents at the Mexican border as part of US immigration policy. As a result of Trump’s different approach to human rights, arguably China and Russia saw an opportunity to pull back from human rights agendas in the UN. Under Joe Biden the US has hardened its stance on Taiwan while seeking to improve trade relations with China.
What are the implications of multipolarity for global stability?
A multipolar system is likely to have five or six centres of power, which are not grouped into tight alliances. Each state therefore follows its own perceived best interests and so the distribution of power continually shifts between them.
Realists like John Mearsheimer argue that multipolarity represents the most unstable distribution of global power. This is because the system is much more fluid than bipolarity and unipolarity, since there is a constantly shifting balance of power as a number of relatively evenly matched states seek to maximise their influence at the expense of others. This creates fear and uncertainty among the states involved and, since there are so many players, the risk of possible conflicts is increased. Mearsheimer argues that regional conflicts are examples of why we might miss the ‘stability’ of the Cold War era. In the absence of two superpowers competing, we are more likely to see multiple smaller-scale regional conflicts, ultimately creating a more volatile and unpredictable international system. His example centred on Europe but the same could be said to be true of India and Pakistan or Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to this theory, in a bipolar world two evenly matched superpowers will not want to risk open conflict and, when politics is unipolar, the global hegemon can deter the aggressive impulses of lesser powers. However, a multipolar world encourages risk-taking by states, so undermining the potential for a long-lasting balance of power. It could be argued that the Second World War broke out because global politics had become multipolar in the 1930s and so the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) were prepared to take the risk of rebalancing global relations in their favour. Should the US become just one among a number of relatively equal states, then the great power rivalries of the mid-twentieth century could well be replayed in the twenty-first century
However, liberals are more optimistic about the consequences of multipolarity for global peace and stability. They argue that in the absence of a global hegemon or a superpower rivalry, states are more likely to cooperate in multilateral organs of global governance. The existence of more evenly matched states therefore provides greater opportunities for cooperation than either bipolarity or unipolarity. Therefore, it could be argued that the relative security of a multipolar world depends upon whether the leading players are prepared to work through international agencies of government, or whether they prefer to compete within alliance structures. The latter is, of course, much more dangerous for peace than the former, and characterised the period of the two world wars. Liberals therefore argue that for multipolarity to provide peace, nation-states must set aside state egoism and be prepared to cooperate through organisations such as the G7, G20, UN and WTO.
Is a multipolar world order more peaceful?
Classical realists such as E.H. Carr (2016) argue that multipolar systems are relatively stable because the great powers are able to enhance their status via alliances and petty wars that in no way directly challenge other states. In contrast, neorealists claim that there is less chance of miscalculation under a bipolar system. To substantiate their argument, a distinction can be made between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ balancing. Under the former, states enhance their own capabilities. External balancing however occurs when they enter into an alliance to check the power of more powerful states. As there is only internal balancing in a bipolar system, there is less chance of a miscalculation. War between the superpowers is therefore avoided. In contrast, the great powers within a multipolar system might misjudge the intentions of others and engage in external balancing that eventually leads to warfare. The academic Joseph Nye further alludes to the changing nature of power with his argument that global politics increasingly resembles a three-dimensional game of chess. In the military arena, power is concentrated into the hands of the United States. Economic power however is distributed in a multipolar manner whilst transnational issues such as climate change require a multitude of actors. I, therefore,e makes little sense to view the world solely through realist prism as this would exaggerate the potential for conflict. Equally, the liberal perspective is flawed in its prediction of cooperation on the basis of mutual dependence. Viewed from a three-dimensional basis, states adopt a smart strategy to deal with different distributions of power in different domains. Nye’s argument (2011, 213) that ‘the world is neither unipolar, multipolar nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time’ remains a salient and perceptive conclusion as to the consequences of polarity within the world order