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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchAssumption Testing: Multipolarity is More Dangerous than Bipolarity for the United States

Assumption Testing: Multipolarity is More Dangerous than Bipolarity for the United States

Authors: Emma Ashford and Evan Cooper

Affiliations:  Reimagining US Grand Strategy and Research Associate, Reimagining US Grand Strategy

Organization/Publisher: Stimson Center

Date/Place: October 2, 2023/ US

Type of Literature: Policy Paper

Word Count: 9728


Keywords: Multipolarity, Unbalanced Multipolarity, US Global Strategy, Bipolarity, Unipolarity


A great deal of contemporary geopolitical discourse revolves around whether the evolving global system is transitioning into a multipolar, bipolar, or unipolar structure, and the potential implications of each system on the risk of conflicts, especially involving major powers. Scholarly analysis suggests an emerging state of “unbalanced multipolarity.” This term denotes a noteworthy shift in power dynamics, with a discernible movement away from traditional superpowers towards the ascendance of several capable middle powers. This evolution redefines the landscape of global influence and complicates traditional power structures.

For U.S. policymakers, navigating this multifaceted landscape demands a nuanced understanding. Academic literature indicates that periods characterized by multipolarity often witness increased conflicts. However, crucially, these conflicts tend to manifest as internal strife and small-scale clashes rather than all-out confrontations between major powers. This distinction implies a reduced risk of significant power conflicts, especially considering the precariousness of the current nuclear era, a scenario that might align more favorably with U.S. national interests.

Delving deeper into the current U.S. strategy within this shifting paradigm, the authors critically evaluate the Biden administration’s approach. The authors hold reservations regarding the administration’s heavy reliance on potentially flawed assumptions about bipolarity, particularly concerning its attempts to form extensive coalitions against rising powers, notably China. The authors question the feasibility of such a strategy in a rapidly emerging multipolar world due to its inherent complexity and the dynamic nature of power diffusion.

The authors suggest a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy to embrace multipolarity. This approach involves fostering diverse trade agreements, encouraging allied nations to assume greater defense responsibilities, and sidestepping strategies that might exacerbate conflict risks within a more multipolar framework. The proposed strategy aims to balance U.S. interests within a nuanced and evolving global environment.

Examining Assumptions: Understanding Global Power Dynamics:

At the heart of global politics lies a fundamental debate about whether the world is trending towards multipolarity and whether this poses a greater risk to U.S. interests compared to bipolarity or unipolarity. These assumptions are pivotal in shaping U.S. foreign policy decisions.

Polarity, a cornerstone in assessing international system stability, captures the attention of scholars. However, determining stability within systems characterized by multiple powerful forces presents inherent challenges. The historical precedents for a single dominant power are limited, complicating the understanding of stability within multipolar contexts.

The distribution of power stems from various factors, including societal virtues, human capital, and demographic dominance. Scholars often rely on economic indicators like GNI or GDP to assess power dynamics, assuming that economic strength translates into military might. Yet, this perspective overlooks crucial nuances—such as a nation’s priorities between military and civilian needs. A comprehensive understanding necessitates evaluating a spectrum of elements rather than solely focusing on military expenditures.

Debates persist regarding the potential structures of the global system—presenting diverse viewpoints that encompass bipolar, multipolar, and resilient unipolar perspectives. Single-metric analyses often result in biased conclusions, leading the authors to argue for a multidimensional approach involving economic, demographic, and military factors to comprehend the relative power of nations, including the United States and China.

Assessing Risk: Power Structures and Conflict Dynamics:

While some scholars assert that bipolarity fosters stability, citing historical instances like the Cold War, others advocate that multipolarity might entail lesser risks. This view draws parallels to peaceful periods like the Congress of Vienna. Discrepancies emerge in defining “stability” and in how different systems influence the nature of conflicts. While certain systems may deter major conflicts, they might concurrently spur different forms of wars, such as a surge in civil conflicts despite a decrease in interstate confrontations.

States’ responses to diverse power structures play a pivotal role, significantly influencing alliances, balancing behaviors, and wartime coalitions. Additionally, the historical context of the Cold War, especially the advent of nuclear weapons, complicates comparisons to other periods in history, potentially altering the stability of power structures.

In conclusion, while historical events and theoretical frameworks offer divergent perspectives, achieving a definitive consensus remains challenging. Some risks might be elevated under multipolarity, such as minor conflicts, while others might heighten under bipolarity, for instance, arms races. However, considering the potential to mitigate major conflicts, multipolarity appears to align better with U.S. interests.

Navigating Unbalanced Multipolarity: Reconsidering U.S. Strategy:

The evolving global power dynamics demand a thorough reevaluation of America’s global strategy. The Biden administration’s strategy revolves around forming alliances against China but risks sidelining the capabilities of influential middle powers. Containment strategies against China will be difficult given its integration into the global economy, which presents a stark contrast to the Soviet Union’s isolation during the Cold War. Furthermore, coercing nations to pick sides within a multipolar order might yield limited outcomes, as countries often engage selectively based on their individual interests. The current strategy, seemingly fixated on addressing a bipolar rivalry with China, might not be suitable for the evolving multipolar reality.

This paper criticizes the Biden administration’s strategy of creating an economic bloc to isolate critical supply chains from China. They highlight the limited success of this approach due to various countries, including European nations like the Netherlands, being cautious and unwilling to completely align with U.S. export measures targeting China. The authors point out that even countries with strong alliances with the U.S. recognize the economic benefits of trading with China, making it challenging to form a unified bloc against China.

Furthermore, the paper’s critique extends to the costly nature of this strategy, which incentivizes free-riding among allies. Despite the U.S. willingness to increase defense spending to counter China, many allies, like Japan, face limitations in significantly boosting their defense capabilities. The authors argue that as the U.S. attempts to expand partnerships to counter China’s military prowess, the issue of free-riding is likely to persist both in Asia and Europe.

The main criticism lies in the administration’s pursuit of a bipolar strategy (fostering alliances against China and Russia) in a world that is increasingly multipolar. The authors argue that most U.S. partners are open to cooperating with China and are resistant to U.S. pressure when the benefits of engagement with China outweigh compliance with American demands. The authors suggest that the administration’s hope to build a strong coalition against China and Russia might be a risky gamble, especially in an evolving multipolar world where such alliances might not hold.

Embracing Multipolarity: A Strategic Shift for U.S. Interests:

Advocating for a novel U.S. strategy, the authors propose the US embraces multipolarity to mitigate the risk of major conflicts while adeptly managing smaller-scale ones. This strategic shift suggests fostering burden-sharing among allies, promoting economic openness through trade agreements, and maintaining adaptable partnerships.

The objective is to secure U.S. interests while establishing economic ties and robust security alliances within an evolving global scenario.

To conclude, comprehending the dynamic changes in the global landscape is imperative for U.S. policymakers. Contrary to conventional assumptions, embracing multipolarity might serve U.S. interests better than rigidly adhering to a bipolar rivalry. A nuanced foreign policy approach, emphasizing alliances and economic collaborations, holds the key to navigating the complexities of an evolving global order.


The authors argue that the world is shifting toward an “unbalanced multipolarity,” and that this change might not necessarily pose a greater risk to the United States compared to a bipolar world. They believe that although multipolarity could add complexity to global affairs, it might not automatically lead to major conflicts, especially big wars between powerful nations, which could actually benefit U.S. interests.

The consequences of the authors’ argument for embracing multipolarity are twofold. Firstly, they criticize the Biden administration’s push for a bipolar strategy, suggesting it could result in negative outcomes such as allies taking advantage, erecting economic barriers, and increasing the chance of a major war among powerful countries. Secondly, the authors suggest that the U.S. should adapt to the shift towards multipolarity. They propose enhancing military capabilities among allies, promoting open economic relations, and forming flexible partnerships with various states instead of strict alliances. This approach might create a more interconnected and sustainable security framework for the U.S., leveraging economic ties and maintaining strength in vital areas amidst the changing dynamics of multipolarity.

In essence, the authors advocate for the U.S. to embrace and adapt to multipolarity rather than focusing on a bipolar strategy. However, the effectiveness of this shift depends on how well the U.S. adjusts and engages with the evolving global power landscape.

By: Dilara Özdemir, CIGA Research Assistant



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