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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Myth of Multipolarity: American Power’s Staying Power

The Myth of Multipolarity: American Power’s Staying Power

Authors: Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth

Affiliation: Dartmouth College (USA)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: April 18, 2023/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article  

Word Count: 5685

Link:  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/china-multipolarity-myth 

 

Keywords: International System Structure, Multipolarity, Partial Unipolarity, Total Unipolarity, Rising Revisionist Powers, The Limits of American Global Hegemony

Brief:

The article presents a critical analysis of prevailing narratives claiming that the era of “unipolarity” has come to an end with the decline of US global power, contrasting it with the rise of major revisionist powers like China and Russia. These narratives argue that the international system is either entering or has already entered a new era characterized by multipolarity or bipolarity.

 

This viewpoint is challenged by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, recognized as leading contemporary scholars in the field of security studies and IR theory. They argue that despite the shocks and crises the United States has experienced over the past two decades, it still possesses extraordinary power compared to other nations. The power gap remains significantly in favor of the US over other great powers. This dominance is primarily attributed to US military capabilities, technological prowess, economic weight, and unique geographical advantages, undermining the claims advocating for a shift towards a multipolar or bipolar international system. The authors acknowledge the decline of American power since the “unipolar moment” following the Soviet Union’s fall, but they assert that this does not necessarily make the current system structure multipolar or bipolar. Therefore, they propose the concept of “partial unipolarity” as a better representation of the current international system (after the end the “total unipolarity” era when the United States reached the peak of its power in 1989), as opposed to the misguided notion of “multipolarity” that is prevalent.

 

The article is divided into five parts. In the first part, the arguments put forth by proponents of contemporary multipolarity are refuted, highlighting the erroneous equating of power with influence. The authors emphasize the United States’ inability to stabilize situations in Afghanistan and Iraq or resolve various global problems, indicating that the definition of power in multipolarity focuses on measurable elements such as military capabilities, economic weight, and the number of parties possessing such power. For a system to be considered multipolar, it is imperative that three or more countries share similar strength at the pinnacle. While the US and China represent two parties meeting these criteria, the absence of a third country matching their power undermines the claim of current multipolarity. Based on traditional criteria of power, no other state is expected to come close to the United States or China in the coming decades. Technological replication, particularly in the military sphere, poses significant challenges in narrowing the power gap between these countries and the United States. Unlike the pre-1945 era of multipolarity, characterized by shifting alliances among closely matched great powers, today’s alliances predominantly connect smaller states to the US. The expansion of this alliance system is a testament to the United States’ continued possession of most material power.

 

The second part of the article challenges the notion that the world is entering or moving towards a bipolar era with the United States and China as its two poles. The authors argue that indicators such as GDP and military expenditure do not provide a reasonable and accurate justification for this claim. They point out the limitations and exaggeration in Chinese GDP measurements, highlighting the challenges in obtaining reliable data due to restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. Instead, the authors rely on reliable indicators that demonstrate the global dominance of American companies in terms of global profit shares, including the high-tech sector. These indicators showcase American companies holding a 53% share of profits in high-tech industries worldwide, while the combined profit share of all other countries with a high-tech sector is less than 10%.

In the military domain, despite China’s rapid modernization efforts, most analysts do not consider it a global peer competitor to the United States. The authors argue that the US maintains comprehensive capabilities, referred to as “Command of the Commons” by Barry Posen, allowing it to maintain control over air, open seas, and space, thus establishing itself as a true global military power. China remains a regional military power and would require several decades to narrow the existing gap with the United States in terms of quantity and quality. The authors also refute comparisons between the advantages the Soviet Union possessed during the Cold War and those of China today. They highlight the geographical advantage the Soviets had by establishing a military presence in Europe and their commitment to directing the economy toward military production. In contrast, China has not invaded key regions crucial to global balance, lacks the same level of commitment to prioritizing the military over the economy, and faces challenges in matching the complexity of modern weaponry.

 

The third part proposes the concept of “partial unipolarity” as the most suitable description of the current international system, emphasizing that the unique global leadership enjoyed by the United States immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, during the “total unipolar” era, has evolved. However, the current power gap, the largest ever observed, remains significant and will take a substantial amount of time to bridge. While China has made efforts to reduce the economic gap, it has made limited progress in terms of military capability and technology. As a result, the distribution of power aligns more closely with unipolarity than with bipolarity or multipolarity.

The relative decline of American power has allowed rising powers to test their revisionist capabilities within the international system. This is evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and China’s regional actions, such as the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. However, the authors argue that these efforts are constrained. China’s revisionist ambitions, for instance, are limited to the first island chain, and its ability to challenge the US military’s control of the open seas, airspace, and space would require decades of development. The authors emphasize that the partnership between China and Russia poses challenges but does not promise a systemic transformation of power. The power gap between China and Russia and the United States prevents them from forming a counterbalancing alliance comparable to the US’s superpower status and the density of its alliances.

 

The fourth part discusses the limitations of Russia and China’s revisionism, identifying numerous obstacles preventing them from bringing about a transformation in the global power distribution or changing the structure of the existing international system, despite the potential for triggering a nuclear war. The authors reject comparisons between China’s revisionism and Germany’s actions in the 1930s, noting the differences in advantages and circumstances between the two powers and eras. Germany’s ability to rapidly invade Eurasia was facilitated by advantages that no longer exist today. China lacks a similar opportunity due to Taiwan’s relatively small GDP and geographical separation. The revisionist powers are confined to regional balances, while the United States can respond on a global level. The authors also highlight how the current international standards established by the US and its allies after World War II act as a hindrance to revisionist powers, as demonstrated by the resistance Russia faced during its invasion of Ukraine.

 

The final part provides recommendations for Washington and its European and Asian allies, emphasizing the importance of maintaining and strengthening alliances. The authors highlight the role of alliances in building a liberal international order that promotes cooperation, trade, and stability while safeguarding common interests. They call on US allies to take greater responsibility for their own defense by increasing defense spending strategically. The authors commend Taiwan’s efforts to prioritize its defensive strategy in securing the island. On the economic front, the United States is encouraged to pursue genuine trade deals that reduce barriers and consider the interests of its partners in Asia and Europe. Lastly, the authors caution against the use of military force to change the status quo and urge the US to focus on preventing China and Russia from altering the balance of power in Asia and Europe, drawing lessons from past invasions.

 

In conclusion, the authors emphasize that in the era of “partial unipolarity,” the world retains many features of the “total unipolarity” era but in a modified form. The United States still maintains control and “command of the commons,” possesses a unique ability to project military power globally, retains extensive economic influence, and exercises leadership among allies to enhance cooperation. While facing constraints different from those immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the extent of power the US still possesses today is obscured by the “myth of multipolarity.”



By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow

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