Are we moving into a new multipolar world?

After 1945, global order shifted from multipolarity in which multiple states vied for regional hegemony, to bipolarity, when the Soviet Union and the US emerged as the overarching global powers, with the monopoly in global affairs economically, politically, and militarily. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the US has been seen as the unipolar hegemon, but this has been called into question recently due to the US’ apparent hubristic approach that has given room for competitors, the rise of China and the rise of other global powers.

One way in which the global order can be seen as now multipolar is due to the failings of the US, which as the ‘unipolar’ power, its failure creates a de facto multipolarity in global order. Since the US’ self-determined ‘new world order’ after the Cold War, it has exhibited hubris through multiple foreign policy failures which has lessened its standing globally. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ has been criticised as violating international law, due to US soldiers’ human rights abuses in Afghanistan and the little mandate the US had to invade Iraq, and its subsequent failure to create long-lasting peace in Iraq after the removal of Hussein. Similarly, Trump’s foreign policy has drawn criticism internationally – his recent trade war with China and obtrusive method to dealing with North Korea have been denounced as reckless, and his decision to officially declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel has been seen as short-sighted and likely to worsen the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, 128 countries backed a UN resolution to call Trump to retract his Jerusalem statement, even though Trump threatened to cut aid to countries that agreed to this. This shows the US’ lessening power over other states, as its hubris shown through foreign policy failings makes it seem like an ‘empty threat’. Neo-marxist thinker Chomsky has described the US as a ‘malign hegemon’, who seeks to control ‘strategic assets’ in regions rather than work for peace. Similarly, although not as a criticism, realist thinker Niall Ferguson has described the US as an ‘imperial force’, calling Iraq a ‘US colony’.

However, the fact that the US can and does get away with flaunting international law and convention shows that it is still a superpower, and thus the global order is not multipolar. In addition to this, the US has a disproportionate influence over global economic affairs due to its role in economic global governance institutions. The fact that Bush was never tried for decreeing that he would not follow the Geneva Convention regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan and that the US could invade Iraq on flimsy and swiftly disproved evidence shows that while the US may be criticised, it nonetheless has the ‘monopoly on violence’, as Chomsky put it, and is still the global hegemon. The US also has immense voting power in the IMF and the World Bank due to its large contributions to its budget, which it is able to do due to it still being the world’s largest economy. Realist theory would say that regardless of the US’ image, its ability to exert its military and economic power makes it unquestionably a superpower, as ethical considerations should not take place in global politics.

It is arguable that global order is not multipolar at the present but bipolar, due to the swift rise of China. As the second largest economy after the US, China is emerging as a competing superpower, and it is predicted by thinkers such as Rachman and Jacques that the world will shortly become a bipolar system again as during the Cold War. China’s economy is predicted to overtake the Eurozone in 2018, and 78% of it urban population by 2022 are predicted to be middle-class. This means that due to China’s large workforce and large middle class, it has both the comparative advantage over developed economies of being able to produce labour-intensive goods and a high consumption demand for capital-intensive goods, making it a desirable trading partner with mature economies. It has also asserted itself militarily recently, with 7 new naval bases being built in the South China Sea, waters which carry 1/3 of the world’s maritime traffic. Its rise is predicted by offensive realist thinker Mearsheimer as being inevitably conflict-provoking from the US, due to the structure of global order – and this seems likely with Trump’s recent tariffs on steel and aluminium, which he has exempted many countries from, but not China. This trade war follows the theory of the Thucydides trap, in which a ruling power is threatened by a rising one, and thus engages in conflict with the rising one. The fact that the US is evidently so threatened by China is indicative that China is becoming a bipolar power in global order.

However, China has many internal issues that could prevent it from effectively challenging the US’ supremacy. Its growth has slowed in recent years, with its workforce predicted to have fallen by 17% by 2050, due to its aging population coupled with the after-effects of the One-Child policy. There is also considerable civil unrest due to the police-state nature of China’s government, with civilian dissatisfaction over Xi Jin Ping’s recent removal of term limits and the heavy internet censorship in mainland China. There are high suicide rates among Chinese youth and inequality is deepening between the richest and poorest citizens, especially when contrasting urban versus rural populations. These problems follow liberal thinker Fukuyama’s theory that the world is now entering a ‘capitalist liberal democracy’, and that states can only succeed if they follow this style of governance. Due to China being a capitalist economy but a communist government, it can never properly threaten the US as the US has an ideological advantage, due to it being a liberal democracy.

Another way in which global order can be seen as entering a system of multipolarity is due to the rise of emerging global powers such as India, Russia and the EU, making global order appear more and more like a pre-WWI era, but with the effects of decolonisation, meaning more states can emerge as powers. India has the third-largest military by personnel strength, the fifth-largest defence budget and the seventh-largest economy, bypassing Canada. Trump has recently said that US-India relations have ‘never looked brighter’, and America is showing a vested interest in promoting India as a regional power to compete with China. Russia’s show of military strength has given it considerable influence over global affairs – due to Putin’s support of Assad, the Syria conflict is unable to be resolved. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and recent display of vertical nuclear proliferation also shows its prominence militarily. The EU has exhibited considerable soft power, especially regarding Germany, and has managed to present itself as a ‘rational’ and ‘compassionate’ US, through Germany’s acceptance of 1 million refugees.

However, while all these states have influence over global affairs, none have control over global affairs as the US does, meaning they are still ‘great powers’ and not ‘superpowers’. All of them have internal issues and divisions that means they are unable to effectively compete with the US and create a multipolar global order. While India has a considerable military and has risen economically, 270 million civilians still live in poverty, and it is in need of major investment in its infrastructure, estimated at around $1.3 trillion by India’s finance minister. It also has little say in intergovernmental institutions – it is not a member of the G7/8, and is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia’s show of military strength means little if it does not have a stable economy to sustain itself, which due to the sanctions imposed on it after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which stop Russia’s access to foreign markets and loans, it does not have. Russia’s refusal to retreat from the Ukraine even as its economy is severely dented shows Russia’s irrationality as a global actor, and means it is not a legitimate threat to US supremacy. The EU, while containing strong global powers such as Germany, due to its internal structure is also brought down by failing economies such as Italy and Greece. The EU’s Eurozone means that the EU is only ever as strong as its weakest states, and due to recent financial crises and expansion to include ex-Soviet bloc states, it is unlikely to have upward growth from all states any time soon. It is also affected by a recent move towards nationalism and populism, as shown by the UK’s exit from the EU, the Polish Government’s semi-removal of an independent judiciary and the rise of far-right political parties in Germany and France. Defensive realist Kenneth Waltz says that the EU has pessimistic prospects due to ‘structural problems and internal divisions’, and that its tying together of disparate economies with the Eurozone was a ‘fateful mistake’. Due to all these internal issues, none of these states are capable economically to compete with the US, and thus the world cannot be said to be multipolar.

In conclusion, global order is not multipolar, regardless of US failings and weakening of its reputation. The fact that the US still has economic, military and political supremacy, which it has enforced through economic global governance institutions, means it is structurally very difficult for rising states to compete with the US – and while China can be seen as a competing power, and thus world order can be seen as bipolar, its rise is nonetheless only predicted, and yet to be truly seen.

Ninon Lack

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