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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchMultipolar or Multiplex? Interaction Capacity, Global Cooperation and World Order

Multipolar or Multiplex? Interaction Capacity, Global Cooperation and World Order

Authors: Amitav Acharya, Antoni Estevadeordal and Louis W. Goodman

Affiliation: American University School of International Service (SIS)

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: November 6, 2023/US

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 12132



Keywords: USA, Liberalism Hegemonic Order, Multipolarity, Multiplexity, World Order, Interaction Capacity



This article is an attempt to prove a rising trend towards a multiplex world order, as opposed to polarity and a Liberal Hegemonic Order (LHO). To that end, the article takes an empirical approach to measure interaction capacity beyond the material factors (military and economic). This is done through quantifying the aspect of treaty-making for world states. By analyzing a dataset comprising 33,104 treaties signed between 1945 and 2017, the article’s main finding is that the US still maintains dominance in absolute terms. Nonetheless, its dominance is declining in relative terms as part of a larger shift towards a multiplex system that has four main defining features: 1. Interaction of states beyond material factors; 2. Global interdependence becoming increasingly multi-issue, 3. World leadership that is issue-specific and; 4. Global governance becoming a ‘variable geometry of levels’ with both regional and global dimensions.

The article is composed of six sections. The first section lays the foundation for the key terms and methodological choices adopted by the article, while the second details the incorporated methodology. The third and fourth sections shed light on different aspects of the global network of treaties, as guided by the article’s main statement. The article then turns attention to new global developments that accelerate the supposed shift to multiplexity, and finally the article provides conclusions and policy recommendations in light of its findings.

In its first and foundational section, the article starts by establishing three outlooks to world order: Polarity (unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar), LHO, and interaction capacity, outlining how the last can provide a more accurate perception of today’s world order. First, while polarity is useful to understand how a world with one superpower is different from one with two, it fails to track changes between systems, and more importantly is limited to material factors, dismissing social and ideational ones. Moreover, polarity is outdated in the sense that it does not take into consideration the post-colonial realities of today’s world. That is to say, the article argues, if we were to establish a multipolar system today, it would be closer to a multiplex system. On the other hand, the LHO is centered around US global dominance, therefore it focuses both on US-West relations (North-North), and on the salience of liberal democracy and market capitalism. Both outlooks fail to take into account the rise of non-state actors. 

Multiplexity, as originally coined by Acharya, refers to a system whose defining feature is the absence of global hegemony by a single nation, without wholly dismissing power inequalities and hierarchies. Consequentially, such a world order would have a plurality of consequential actors that are not limited to state actors, but also the various non-state actors. This system would also have a more pluralizing global governance architecture, more interdependence, and more cultural, ideological and political diversity.

To prove this shift to multiplexity, the articles focus on interaction capacity, which is broadly the physical and organizational capability of a system to move ideas, goods, people, and money, with treaty-making being a significant aspect of interaction capacity. 

The article, then, justifies its choice of specifically focusing on treaty-making. For one, international treaties are the most immediate and strongest manifestation of will under international law. Second, treaties offer a quantitative mean to measure the world order, as opposed to previous analyses that were limited by their qualitative and deductive approaches. This is because the UN requires all states to submit copies of any treaties signed in its depository to eliminate the practice of secret treaty-making. Third, treaties constitute a normative way for cooperation. Finally, treaties underwrite many of the institutions, rules, and structures that are essential to international order.

What follows is an analysis of the dataset to prove the existence of multiplexity and its four main aspects mentioned above.

As mentioned earlier, the article draws upon a dataset comprising 33,104 treaties signed between 1945 and 2017, which is further divided into 15-year time intervals. Those treaties are categorized into six issue areas: 1. Natural resources and environment; 2. Economic cooperation and integration; 3. Human and social development; 4. Governance institutions; 5. Peace and security; and 6. Connectivity. Those treaties shape four network indicators introduced by the article: 1. Unilateral interaction capacity stock (how many treaties a state has signed); 2. Bilateral interaction capacity intensity (the relationship between two countries through treaty-making); 3. Centrality; and 4. Clusters and communities. 

Analyzing the network of treaty-making brings up a number of findings. For one, the number of treaties signed have increased sixfold between 1945 and 2017. More tellingly, the rate of treaty-making has been steadily increasing, culminating in post-1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the intensification of globalization, but staggered in the period 2006-17 in the wake of the financial crisis. Consistent with a multiplex character, the article finds that, while the US has the highest number of treaties overall, its relative primacy is declining. For instance, Germany signed more treaties than the US between 1991 and 2017. The US’s partners are also becoming more diverse. Meanwhile, ASEAN and BRIC countries began signing more treaties following the end of the World War II. From a functional perspective, economic cooperation and integration have been the dominant medium of treaty cooperation, while human and social development rose to second place by 1990. Conversely, natural resources and environments have the smallest number of treaties signed. This also highlights another finding consistent with a multiplex world order; that is a world with issue-specific leaders, where the US’s principal partners in each of those functions are different. For instance, the US’s main partners in economics are Germany, China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Korea, while France, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and Argentina are the US’s main partners in human and social development-related issues. Another interesting finding is that the UK has been increasingly less connected with Europe and more engaged with the US on the measure of treaty-making over time. Moreover, Asian economies are increasingly rising in prominence over time.  

Another aspect of treaty-making the article focuses on is clusters. The article identifies four main clusters that stabilized by 2005: 1. A North American Cluster; 2. A European cluster; 3. A Russo-northern Europe cluster and; 4. An Ibero-American cluster. The article sees the crystallization of those coherent clusters as proof that multiplexity is not simply an after-effect of the end of the Cold War, given the lack of empirical evidence signaling a return of great-power mercenarism. Other findings of the network analysis is the rise of regionalism, and the prominence of certain states in certain issue areas, some of whom are not traditional LHO leaders.

Then, the article underscores certain developments suggesting that multiplexity will persist. For one, the decline of trust in the US as a global leader. Similarly, China’s GDP overtook the US in terms of PPP, while developing countries enjoyed a larger share of world GDP jumping from 34.6% in 2010 to 42.1% in 2021. This trajectory is expected to continue by 2040. Another development is the rise of regionalism that is replacing the WTO, in the form of bodies such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Meanwhile, the US’s attempts to counteract those attempts by establishing alliances of its own are facing a climate of uncertainty due to its inconsistent foreign policy in recent years and doubts over its commitment to global cooperation.

Based on these findings, the article provides a number of recommendations to policy makers: First, policymakers need to strike a balance between declaring the death of the LHO, as the US is still dominant, and insisting that the LHO will not change, with the truth being somewhere in between. Secondly, given that the LHO will survive but will not be hegemonic, the case for reforming the existing architecture of global institutions to make it more democratic and responsive to the aspirations of newly emerging actors gains further impetus. Thirdly, policymakers should focus on long-term developments instead of pessimism-inducing short-term ones such as the Ukraine war and the pandemic, because “[treaties] create a certain ‘stickiness’ in cooperative arrangements that cannot be completely or substantially broken or reversed by a pandemic, an inter-European war or renewed great power competition.” Especially after the effects of those developments wear off, the article argues, “there is unlikely to be a return to the US-led LHO. More likely, the LHO would be supplanted by an increasingly multiplex world that, arguably, could be more inclusive and pluralistic. This is a cause for some cautious optimism.”


By: Hamza Ghadban, CIGA Research Intern



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