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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchIs the World Multipolar? Emma Ashford/ Evan Cooper Vs Jo Inge Bekkevold

Is the World Multipolar? Emma Ashford/ Evan Cooper Vs Jo Inge Bekkevold

Authors: Emma Ashford, Evan Cooper, and Jo Inge Bekkevold

Affiliation: Georgetown University, the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at Stimson Center, and the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy

Date/Place: September-October 2023/ USA

Type of Literature: Debate 

Word Count: 4060




Keywords: Multipolarity, Bipolarity, Limits of American Power, Chinese Power, Rising Middle Powers 



With the relative decline of American global power compared to its status after the end of the Cold War, coupled with ongoing global geopolitical changes in recent years, debate has once sparked regarding the pattern of the current/evolving international system, i.e., the nature of the distribution and concentration of material power among the major actors on the international stage. This brief presents two different perspectives. Jo Inge Bekkevold argues that the world we live in is a bipolar world, where there are only two powers with large economies, massive military capabilities, and global influence, each forming a pole – the United States and China. On the other hand, Emma Ashford and her colleague Evan Cooper argue that we are currently experiencing what international relations scholars call “unbalanced multipolarity.” They do not view multi-polarity as necessitating equally sized powers. Rather, it simply requires a major concentration of power in more than two states, a condition which is fulfilled by the current order given the presence of other powers besides the United States and China with significant strength and influence and that are actively contributing to shaping the geopolitics of the twenty-first century.


The Myth of Multipolarity:

Jo Inge Bekkevold commences his article by highlighting statements from certain high-ranking political and economic officials (such as Olaf Scholz, Putin, Macron, Josep Borrell, António Guterres, and others) who assert that the world has become or is on the verge of becoming multipolar. This is nothing more than a myth, according to the author. He contends that the notion of the emergence of power centers is a widely circulated but erroneous idea, and its adoption can lead to serious policy mistakes.


Polarity, Bekkevold argues, refers to the number of great powers existing in the international system. For the world to be multipolar, there must be three or more great powers. However, today, there are only two countries with significant economic, military power, and global influence, namely the United States and China. These two great powers represent half of the world’s total defense spending, and their combined GDP is roughly equivalent to the economies of the next 33 largest countries combined. Therefore, other powers appear distant from this level, and they will not be close to it in the near future. Additionally, the mere existence of rising middle powers with large populations and growing economies does not make the world multipolar.


The author then reviews the powers commonly nominated by multipolarists, emphasizing that their characteristics do not qualify any of these powers to be a pole. He discusses India, Japan, the European Union, Russia, and the rising middle powers in the Global South. For instance, India has a rapidly growing economy and is the third-largest defense spender globally. However, its military budget is only a quarter of China’s, and its maritime capabilities are small compared to its Chinese counterpart. While India may become a pole in the international system someday, it would be in the distant future. As for Japan, while it boasts the world’s third-largest economy, its GDP is less than a quarter of its Chinese counterpart. Regarding the European Union, often claimed as a third pole, its predicament lies in that it comprises nations with diverse national interests, making the union susceptible to fragmentation. This became evident through the stances and policies of its member states after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. Russia, despite its vast geography, comprehensive natural resources, extensive nuclear arsenal, and tangible influence beyond its borders, cannot be considered a third pole. This is due to its relatively small economy, which is even smaller than Italy’s, and its defense budget is a quarter that of China. Nevertheless, Russia can play a supportive role for China. 


As for the emerging middle powers in the global South (India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Saudi Arabia), their presence does not render the international system multipolar, as none of them possesses the economic power, military capability, or other forms of influence required to be a pole. These countries lack the capacity to rival the United States or China. The author argues that the BRICS grouping, seen by some as a new global pole, is merely a heterogeneous bloc of countries prone to easy collapse, far from becoming a cohesive bloc, whether in their vision of the international economic system or in their security policies. For instance, China and India, despite being part of BRICS, are adversaries, and China’s ascent pushes India closer to aligning with the United States.


The author then clarifies his perspective on why the argument for multipolarity is prevalent, and he points out that determining the pattern of polarity and the number of poles in the global system is a crucial matter. Misconceptions in this regard can obscure strategic thinking and lead to a misguided policy. It is an important issue for two reasons:


Firstly, countries face varying levels of constraints on their behaviors in unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar systems, requiring different strategies and policies. For example, Germany’s national security strategy released last June stated that the “international and security environment is becoming more multipolar and less stable.” Thus, multipolarity is perceived here as “less stable” than both unipolar and bipolar systems. In multipolar systems, great powers form alliances and coalitions to avoid the dominance of a single state over others, which can lead to continuous realignments and unexpected shifts if a major power changes its allegiance. In bipolarity, the two great powers essentially balance each other, with no doubt about the identity of the primary competitor.


Secondly, advocating for a multipolar world at a time when it is clearly a bipolar world may send misleading signals to friends and foes alike. For example, Macron repeatedly emphasized the importance of Europe becoming a third great power during an interview conducted with him during a flight while returning from a visit to China. Macron’s statement might be interpreted negatively in Washington, and the Chinese might misunderstand it as France and Europe’s readiness to support Beijing in the U.S.-China rivalry, which was certainly not his intended meaning.


In conclusion, Bekkevold believes that a multipolar system may be less polarized than a world with two opposing great powers, but this does not necessarily lead to a better world. A multipolar world could enhance regionalization. Therefore, he advises countries to seek more effective strategies and better platforms for dialogue within the existing bipolar system, rather than simply hoping for a multipolar world and wasting their energy on a system that does not exist. According to the author, we will live in a bipolar world in the foreseeable future, and as such it is essential for countries to adopt strategies and policies designed for this reality.


Unbalanced Multipolarity: 

In contrast to Bekkevold, Emma Ashford and Evan Cooper argue that the current international system is neither strictly bipolar nor absolutely multipolar. Instead, they characterize it as being what scholars of international relations term “unbalanced multipolarity.” In their view, a multipolar system does not necessitate the existence of three equally sized powers, it merely requires a major concentration of power in more than two states. There is a common misconception that multipolar systems require the existence of multiple roughly equal powers. However, in reality, multipolar systems are typically unbalanced, featuring two major powers or three, with several middle powers competing for position. Ashford and Cooper argue that the United States no longer possesses the same level of military and economic power it had during the early decades of the Cold War. Similarly, China today does not match the Soviet Union at its peak, while middle powers now wield more significant influence than they did in the past. Therefore, the current international system can best be characterized by “unbalanced multipolarity.”


Defining concepts is a crucial matter. For example, the containment strategy against China adopted by the Biden administration may be viable in a bipolar world, where Washington and its allies control the lion’s share of economic and military powers. However, in a more multipolar world, the United States faces the risk of becoming isolated from the middle powers it needs. Therefore, Biden’s strategy -which tends to envision competition between the United States and China- is deeply inappropriate given the emerging realities in global politics.


The authors contend that despite the ease of describing polarity, measuring it is challenging. Some employ military or economic criteria to argue that a particular state is rising or declining. For instance, Bekkevold uses current military and economic criteria to argue that the United States and China are far superior in their capabilities to all other nations, making the comparison meaningless. Wohlforth and Brooks similarly use military spending and technology criteria to argue that the world is still unipolar. Ashford and Cooper consider dozens of different power metrics over time. In general, these metrics certainly show that the United States or China outpace the rest of the competitors, but they also reveal that economic and military power is accumulating in other areas among capable and dynamic middle powers. This dynamic is expected to shape the international environment in the coming decades. These middle powers have become more influential today, as evidenced by Germany and India’s roles in the Ukrainian war, or Turkey’s role in the recent Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, where Turkish military support tipped the balance in favor of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.


The authors then emphasize the importance of a correct understanding of the existing international system’s pattern, as grasping the issue of polarity is the foundation of sound strategy, and any misperception can lead to disasters in the strategies and policies pursued. For example, the Biden administration follows what can be described as a bloc-based strategy, partially driven by its concerns related to multipolarity and assuming that the world it operates in is closer to bipolarity. It hopes to shift the balance of global power by creating a coalition against China, emphasizing the embodiment of military and technological cooperation among allies across Europe and Asia, and attempting to build a global bloc of democracies, or at least a bloc of “like-minded” countries, oriented against “authoritarian revisionists.” This approach suggests that the bloc should undermine China’s access to major global markets and restrict the transfer of advanced technology to it. In short, under Biden’s leadership, the United States plans to return to the playbook followed during the Cold War, attempting to contain the rise of China, with the hope that strengthening alliances and partners will compensate the decline in U.S. power.


Such an approach, according to the authors, is fraught with risks in a multipolar world, as the United States may risk creating weak partnerships built on low-level shared interests with countries it rallies to oppose China. This became evident in practical terms during the war in Ukraine. There are countries, like India, that are willing to work with the United States against China but were less committed to supporting the American stance in Ukraine. It is also unlikely that a broad coalition of diverse middle powers with different interests would coalesce into a cohesive global bloc, regardless of what Washington desires. Moreover, a “with us or against us” approach carries the risk of the United States being exploited by its partners, who might benefit from free-riding the alliance, as is currently happening in NATO. Also, the bipolar mindset and bloc building contribute to reinforcing the misguided assumption that any gain for China will necessarily be a loss for the United States. The authors argue that the diminishing relative power of the United States will prevent American administrations from imposing their will in every region of the world, particularly simultaneously. Continually emphasizing the United States as the “indispensable nation” is likely to lead to failure and exhausting overreach.


In the end, the authors provide recommendations aimed at helping Washington navigate effectively in a multipolar world. The United States should not withdraw from the global stage, instead, it should leverage the multipolar world to its advantage. Such a strategy involves three central elements:


Firstly, the United States should leverage the strength of its allies rather than suppress it. The Biden administration should concentrate on burden-sharing and encourage allies to play a larger role in their own defense, thereby transforming their economic power into military strength that reinforces U.S. objectives.


Secondly, the Biden administration should be more open to engaging in mutually beneficial trade agreements, rather than drifting towards protectionist trade measures.


Thirdly, major coalitions are unlikely to be effective in a multipolar world, so the Biden administration should focus instead on bilateral and smaller agreements that emphasize common interests.


Multipolarity does not render the United States powerless. In fact, it can serve as a boon for American policymakers. By focusing on leveraging multipolarity to its advantage, the Biden administration can enhance the country’s security and maintain a global American role. Washington should not fear multipolarity, instead it should embrace it. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



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