Bipolarity is a system of world order where two great powers dominate international relations. A bi-polar world emerged after 1945 when two disproportionately powerful powers developed. The USA and then the USSR had developed formidable military power, specifically atomic power and their ability to influence world events stemmed, in part, because of their willingness to utilise it to coerce global events in their favour. A bipolar world order differs from a multi-polar world, this type of world order existed prior to 1945 where a number of Great Powers vied for international supremacy. Bipolarity is seen, especially by neo-realist theorists, as a recipe for stability.
The first and arguably most important implication of a bipolar world is that the two powers balance against one another. This balance of power was seen during the Cold War, where the United States and USSR engaged in an arms race, both sides limited the military strength of the other by amassing nuclear and conventional weaponry. This led to what John Lewis Gaddis called ‘The Long Peace’ and a world system which was relatively stable. The world wars of the past half century, caused by multiple powers all jostling for status and dominance, created instability and erupted into industrial conflict in 1914 and again in 1939. Bipolarity, however, limited the world to two inordinate powers that monopolised ‘great power’ status. These powers, as long as they were balanced, created an equilibrium in international relations. And as long as they remained ‘rational’, which realists believe all powers are capable of, they would prioritise security. This was seen in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis where cool heads on both sides sought a diplomatic way out. Liberals argue there is nothing ‘structural’ about bipolar stability. The Cold War could, in other words, could easily have become a ‘hot war’. It is also worth noting, unlike a multi-polar world, shifts in the distribution of power by the movement of allies such as when Yugoslavia left the Soviet sphere, did not alter the balance of power.
The second implication of bipolarity is that although it creates stability and equilibrium, the lack of international competition leads to the superpowers acting as ‘imperial powers’ as they try to maintain control within their respective spheres. Bi-polarity leads to ‘spheres of control’ as witnessed in the Cold War. Both sides sought to maintain a grip over Western and Eastern Europe; in Western Europe the Americans established NATO (1949) and the Soviets established the Warsaw Pact (1955). They also acted as imperial powers in other parts of the world, often by using coercive means usually associated with empires. For example in 1953 the USA used covert CIA activity to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian president. Musaddeq had embarked upon a plan of nationalising the oil industry, this disturbed the Americans who interpreted it as an attempt to open up Iran and the Persian Gulf to the Soviets. They replaced the president with the Shah of Iran, a reviled dictator. Such undemocratic means was legitimised by the CIA, seeing it as a ‘greater good’ in its attempt to contain the Russians. The same was done in Guatemala in 1954, where Arbenz was replaced by the ruthless American backed Armos. Armos, armed by the USA, killed 100,000 people by death squads. Liberals argue American ideology was compromised and it lost moral credibility. When Germany attempted to unilaterally make peace with the Soviets in the 70’s, the Americans saw it as an affront to their power. The Soviets also acted as an imperial guardian, it invaded Prague in 1968 when an uprising threatened to destabilise the Communist government, part of the Warsaw Pact, and Hungary in 1956.
A final implication of bipolarity is that although there were no direct confrontations between the two powers, there were a series of ‘proxy wars’. Proxy wars are conflicts using third parties or agents. Nearly 100,000 American lives alone were lost in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. In both wars the USA funded armies that fought Soviet and Chinese funded soldiers. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, fighting the mujahidin who were trained by Pakistan and funded by America. Brzezinski, Carter’s Secretary of State, proclaimed, ‘it’s their blood but our aims’. These proxy wars had a destabilizing effect upon the ‘third world’. For example, US support for Israel and Soviet support for Egypt in 1973 led to a major confrontation between the two sides, who felt more self assured with the backing of the superpowers. Proxy wars make the world a less safer place. But, it is argued, direct confrontation between the two powers is minimised.