Multipolarity versus a singular or bipolar world


Well-Known Member
May 23, 2007
Multipolarity and the World

I recently read an interesting article by Niall Ferguson called �A World Without Power� and have based some of my comments on both that article and the discussions we have here at Jane.

Alex de Tocqueville once said "Every nation is unique, but America is the most unique". I think this statement remains true today. Consider some of these statistics: The US is the third most populous nation in the world. The US economy creates and produces one third of the world's goods and services. California by itself is now the 6th largest or 7th and has long since passed France. Militarily the US is unmatched in the world with 12 armadas. Each battle group is centered around an aircraft carrier more than 33 football fields lone and 20 stories high. The US has reached unprecedented strength by conquering key technologies. An important component of US arms consist of a large number of precision-guided missiles and bombs that can, and have been, delivered from a "safe" distance. The US Special Operations groups are not only highly motivated, educated and trained but also equipped with the latest technology such as night-vision and GPS equipment, which can conduct round-the-clock operations in any climate or terrain. The US military communications systems consists of sophisticated, secure systems that cannot be penetrated by adversaries; and the US logistical capability - thanks to large transport aircraft, and 200-plus military bases worldwide, can quickly deploy large numbers of troops into far-flung battlefields. Finally, no one matches America's awe-inspiring arsenal of mass-destruction weapons, which the US refuses to dismantle.

By any measure in history the US is a hyperpower that is stronger economically and militarily than any other nation in the world. Whats more, it has achieved that status without a far flung empire, each time withdrawing to its own borders (in the recent century at least).

Other nations do not necessarily view the US as benign. France, for example, sees the EU, not as a cooperative unit, but as a desperate counter balance to US strength. China see's its ambitions on a regional basis, curtailed only by the distant US might. While the EU (under French influence) is not, nor desires to step into the role of world military power, it does seek economic and diplomatic parity in order to limit the US. It hopes to do so through both the EU and UN actions (as can be seen in France�s more recent negation of cooperation in regards to the US in the Middle East. Multipolarity is an important French byword, and also the byword for a number of US groups that believe we should put our faith into world wide treaties and organizations. In the view of these groups US strength, should not be unfettered because the US with such strength will only abuse its position. Arguments of US strengths and abuses aside, what would happen if "multi-polarity" were achieved? Have there been instances in history when no dominant power existed, and if so, what were the ramifications to the rest of the world?

Like Rome, and more so than even Rome imagined culturally and technologically the US has great influence in the world. With Hollywood, Disney comic strips, and even music (nine of the world 12 biggest media groups are located in the US and generally sell US products abroad). US movies dominate to such an extent some nations fearing loss or their own culture, are buttressing their cultural prerogatives with laws limiting US exposure to their country by requiring only a certain number of movies and music be local and not imported. Beyond entertainment the US alone makes up 50% of the worlds software market and almost half of the worlds internet traffic. The vast majority of the worlds IT companies and biotech companies are still found in the US.

Paul Kennedy, Yale University historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers stated "A group of 12 to 15 U.S. research universities have, through vast financing, moved into a new super-league of world universities that is leaving everyone else - the Sorbonne, Tokyo, Munich, Oxford, Cambridge - in the dust, especially in the experimental sciences..." he also states "The top places among the rankings of the world's biggest banks and largest companies are now back, to a large degree, in U.S. hands. And if one could reliably create indicators of cultural power - the English language, ...advertisements, youth culture, international student flows - the same lopsided picture would emerge."

How did the US achieve its position and who are the players?

A strong reason for the existence of this state in international affairs has been competition. America has generally been an isolationist nation but has continuously been drawn and often reluctantly into over seas conflicts. While the US has sought our own manifest destiny on the US continent itself, it has generally disdained foreign intrigues with Europe. The US as a nation took to heart Washington's advice of avoiding foreign entanglements, and even built into the myth of America the Monroe Doctrine, a small paper, written by a weak fledgling nation, that helped assure some isolation and expressed the lack comfort the US has had with its our Euro cousins. In a sense the US felt justified when Napoleon expanded our territory (through the Louisiana Purchase) and ravaged Europe twice. The Spanish American War extended our influence further. Theodore Roosevelt wanted us to stretch our military muscle, we did, without war. When Europe entered into its war of colonization and dominance it fell upon the US, siding with the English speaking nations, to end the war. We suddenly found ourselves a world power. After WWI the US again returned to the pre Rooseveltian isolationsim. So profound was the desire of isolationism that economically the United States preferred magnifying the depression over international trade (perhaps as an unintended casualty). The US remained isolated, slowly being pulled away from that isolation through unfolding world events. Pearl Harbor shattered the last semblance or imagery of isolation and America became a full fledged member of the international community once again, more than that, it became the arbiter of international affairs. Using its wealth America created NATO, it pushed through the Marshall Plan, and it fought the imminent threat of communism on three continents. The collapse of the Soviet Union created the perfect opportunity for the US to retreat into isolationism again. Surprisingly this time it didn't. The US chose instead to remain engaged.

In response, Europe, through French influence has raised its voice and diplomatic stance in opposition to the US. China, presently, is also growing rapidly with its economic and military power, sending its first man into space, being only the third country to do so.

Who are the new US rivals?

The obvious answer of course is China. Presently its economy is growing at a phenomenal rate. Consuming 25% of the words steel market, with an unquenchable need for additional energy it is also fast becoming one of the three largest importers of energy in the world (US being 1st and the EU being 2nd) driving up oil prices to 40+ dollars a gallon. China's army remains large and its technology (purchased, borrowed or stolen from elsewhere) is now being developed and strengthened. It is predicted that if the present rates of the US and China are maintained for the next few decades that China will surpass the US GDP. China, unlike the US retains a strong population, at least for the short term (its birth rates are dropping rapidly due to strict domestic policies).

A relatively unknown but rapidly developing power is also India. Its growth rate is such that its GDP would surpass both China and the US at present rates.

We can see that the rivalries continue and should the US falter there is no small number of applicants that could qualify for future dominance or hegemony.

US weaknesses

According to Niall Ferguson, Herzog professor of history in New York University, the US suffers from three critical weaknesses. The first is the US dependence of foreign capital to fund excessive public and private expenditures. A country that becomes overly dependent on funding from abroad soon loses its financial independence. The second key weakness is troop levels. The US, as a net importer of people, has chosen not to exist or expand through colonization (as England and France had done historically). America�s relatively small volunteer army (relative to population size) may not be able to handle multiple regional conflicts if they occur at once (see the forum in AI-Jane titled "What might happen or there is no such thing as a hyperpower"). The third weakness is the relatively short term stances the US takes. While it is true that US troops have remained in Germany, Japan and Korea for more than 50 years, these are exceptions. We did not stay long in the Philippines, Domincan Republic, Haiti, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and other countries. In fact we could not remain in those countries without expending a great deal more GDP in order to fund those costs. Our democracy also makes for a more short term view of strategic and political landscape. It is difficult for any political party to maintain cohesive long term international strategies, the mood of the electorate changes too rapidly. One could argue that the Cold War reflected this through the vacillation of both parties when they came into power, at least up to the point of the Reagan presidency.
Weaknesses of the EU

Professor Niall Ferguson also sees a number of weaknesses in Europe. France�s dream of making the EU a counterweight to the US hyperpower will continue to slumber. The EU's growth will counteract such a view in the end. Fertility rates are dropping rapidly (see AI-Janes forum discussion on �Zero Population? Worse than "The Day After Tomorrow?" at "Germany will lose the equivalent of the current population of East Germany in the next 50 years. Russia is contracting by 750,000 per year. Japan's population will peak in 2005 then fall by 1/3 over the next 50 years. The decline is the equivalent of that experienced by medieval Europe during the plague years (according to demographer Hideo Ibe). " Western European societies in less than 50 years will have a median age in the upper 40's. The only real remedy is opening their borders in a similar manner to US immigration policy, but such large immigration will have drastic (though not unquestionably bad) changes on the society. Problems would include a lack of assimilation creating a less cohesive westernized society. Such immigration in Europe will also create the difficult possibility or choice of "Americanizing" their economy as opposed to becoming the largest economically fortified retirement community in the history of the world.

China's economic crisis

China presently suffers from a dichotomy that is presently being assuaged by its growth. It has opened up its economic sluice gates but maintains rigid control over key economic and civil sectors. Economists generally agree such control creates broad inefficiencies in the economy. These inefficiencies, while the economy continues to rapidly expand, are easily overlooked, however there will come a time when the growth rate will slow (it is inevitable), and at that time such inefficiencies will be strongly magnified. There is simply an incompatibility between property rights of the free market and a monopoly of power (which is presently held by the communist party in China). Regulatory institutions in China generally follow the power of party rather than the rule of law. Creating long term uncertainty during tighter economic periods. The Chinese economy is also heavily dependent on exports as its domestic market falls further and further behind. As discussed in AI-Janes discussion of �The Coming Implosion of the Chinese Economy?� the lack of transparency in the regulatory agencies is making many bond investors nervous and can easily be reflected in other Chinese investment markets. No one is sure of the full extent of those weaknesses since China doesn't have a transparent system of laws and regulations open for inspection.

Per Dr. Ferguson, banks that purchase Chinese debt in Asia to establish themselves should learn from history that such a strategy was used a century ago during the "Open Door Policy" when US and Euro firms ran into China, only to see the investments disappear in the turmoil and civil war that ran rampant through China. China�s growth then, was as it is now, rapid and seemingly invincible. Just remember when you invest, you can't repatriate factories in China and your investment will be sunk should any problem arise.

India's economic growth looks powerful, however its greatest weakness tends to be its diversity. The Indian nation has roughly 50 languages domestically, in many rural areas, only the local language is spoken. In order to forge a strong long term economically viable nation, a single language is crucial. Contracts must have equally understood concepts in their use of words for all parties involved. Translations often create misconceptions that lead to additional inefficiencies in the market. There must also exist a certain amount of cultural loyalty that allows for cooperation between regions with mutual benefits and expectations. You won't find such loyalty between Sikh businesses in one area and Hindi businesses in a separate area. Such differences have definite long term impacts on the synergy of an economy. Even now India's growth is limited to certain specific areas and not an overall wide area of sustainable long term growth. This may change, but as India's population reduces, its interaction within the nation may also be reduced creating smaller more isolated areas where the interchange of cultures or common bonds of a nation become even more difficult.

Fragmentation of the Muslim World

Islam as a united front has been a myth since the 7th century. As soon as Mohammed was interred, the various Muslim factions broke out into various groups vying for succession (see discussion in AI-Jane forum titled "Some Observations about Muslim History"). Ever since that nascent period of Islam one will find a series of religious and political fiefdoms that controlled different parts of the Islamic world. Without a unified front the Muslims, while at times more sophisticated culturally, generally reflected the disunity of the Christian world similar to the medieval period of Europe. This disunity still exists today. One can see it in the strife between Iran and Iraq in the past, the desire to join the west, as Turkey does, and the desire to fight the west as many factions within the Arabic Islamic world desire. Niall Ferguson also points out the lack of a monolithic Islamic community in his observations of young Muslims in England who prefer assimilation to the jihadist Islamic Bolshevism of renegades like Usama bin Laden. Generally the fragmentation, regardless of Saddam Husseins dreams of pan Arabiac power, or those of wannabe caliphate Usama bin Laden. In short it has never been possible for a single group or individual to forge a single entity in the Arabic region, much less world wide in such diverse cultures as Indonesia and Morocco. While the present acts of Whabbists may damage the US and western powers, their ability to hold and develop a power base is almost nonexistent when the question of government and expansion is applied.

Historical periods of apolarity

It is possible, given the weaknesses of the potential rivals and present combatants with the US, to imagine a period when no polarity exists, or in other words a multipolarity where no group can achieve dominance. Should these many weaknesses come the fore in a close proximity of time, the question then becomes what are the potential scenarios for such a world where no polarity exists? This scenario almost came to pass after World War I when the US walked away from the League of Nations, ensuring that organizations classification as a weak and powerless body. The US also returned to its isolationist sentiments by reducing its overall exposure to the political world. The power vacuum established by the fall of the Hapsburgs (Austro Hungarian empire), the Hohenzollerns (Kaiser Wilhelm empire of Germany) The Romanovs (Russia) and Ottoman empire, was short lived with the Ottoman empire being dismantled to fuel the recovery of western nations after WWI. During this period the Bolshevists rebuilt Russia in the form of the USSR and Germany developed its own plans of revenge and return to empire under a rebuilt and changed nation. Ferguson says we must go back much further than WWI to find a multipolar world. A period of time in which no dominant power existed and little interaction between nations was the norm. It is the dream of the extreme left in which neocons have met with abject failure and globalism has retreated to a distant memory. Such an era did exist, sometime around the ninth and tenth century. Europe, with the last remnants of the Roman empire in the west collapsing, was divided between small kingdoms and the Church. The Islamic nations were also torn by both sectarian and religious divisions. "By 900 the Abbasid caliphate initially established by Abu al-Abbas in 750 had passed its peak and it was in steep decline. China, an imperial power was in a dip between the T'ang and Sung dynasties, neither had serious aspirations of territorial expansion " (from Niall Ferguson "A World Without Power"). Older weak empires allowed a vacuum in which smaller groups could have a devastating impact on other nations. Vikings ravaged the European west, the Seljuks (who were both the forerunner to the Ottoman empire and one of the reasons for the later crusades, began carving parts of the failing Byzantium empire. The Abbysaid Caliphate lost control of Asia Minor. On a more localized level villagers were born, lived and died in the same village, while never seeing anything beyond the valley in which they lived. Their contact with the outside world consisted mainly of marauders attacking while the rule of international law or the proscribed international agreements ceased to exist. No strong secular systems existed, religious interpretation was by local clergy on an almost tribal shamanistic basis. In the Islamic world it was the ulema (revivalist clerics) that projected local power and decision making. The world in this period was focused on the downward spiral of political and economic fragmentation.

Apolarity today

One of the saving graces of apolarity during the medieval period was technology, or rather, the lack of it. The damage, while devastating, was usually centered upon small village raids, and additional isolated instances of pillage upon monasteries or castles. Superstitions often kept people from traveling too far from hearth and home, thus ensuring localized and not regional attacks by bandits. Marauding groups tended toward the softer targets and in a way helped develop a stronger civilization as these isolated groups began again forming alliances (those first and tentative steps towards globalization?) in order to combat them (them being the Vikings, Scotti, Rus, and so on). Communication was limited and small city states like Venice were not as quick to share their technology or develop alliances with those less fortunate groups. Information flow, including trade rights were kept secret. Could the same happen today?

No, there are simply too many changes, global changes, that have come about. Technology today includes the potential viral warfare as well as possible nuclear warfare. Isolationist camps will simply not be under the protection of distance or anonymity. Groups that may acquire nuclear weapons would be able to hold cities hostage while pillaging in local areas, viral plagues could run rampant and even spread more vociferously than the Black Plague of Europe and Asia. Viral or bacterial technology is no longer considered difficult to obtain or develop (you can get your bubonic plague over the mail system now just by ordering it from the CDC). Even non strategic or conventional weapons technology is capable of a massive destruction that a local populace will find difficult to counter. This could very well be the outcome of multipolarity or a world in which no superpowers exist. Colin Powell once commented that the effective cost or burdens that the US bears is not simply measured in the amount of money it donates to various world organizations. Rather it is also reflected in the peace and stability that the US promotes through its actions. Europe's desire to "reduce" the US is both short sighted and dangerous from a historical perspective, the US which doesn't act as an empire (in the sense of colonial expansion and direct dominance of conquered peoples). If for some reason the US were reduced, then the question would be where China would go? What happens to regional dominance in the area of the Pacific? Russia remains a large force of nature in Eastern Europe, is Europe ready to counter Russia's desire to regain its former borders or colonies? Eventually Germany, the most populous nation in Europe and economically the strongest, will shake of the mantle of being the Germany of WWII, will Europe then also be able to maintain the alliance as Germany begins to find its collective feet.

What would the effect of multipolarity on situations in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion? Kosovo? Bosnia? Sudan? How would the US as a multipolar country have handled Usama bin Ladin and his support from the Taliban? These are all important questions relative to the present. When groups seek the goal of multipolarity are they judging it with the consequences of such actions in mind with the present or with an idealism towards a world that can no longer exist in this reality?

It is something we should all ask ourselves regardless of the political leaning we have today.