The end of the Cold War saw a rise of a unipolar system with the United States as the dominant world power with the greatest share of material wealth in the anarchic international system. This era saw unprecedented stability in a way that major powers refrained from engaging in military conflicts and wars. Offensive realist scholar John Mearsheimer 2019 predicted that a multi-polar world is emerging. The last time a multi-polar system existed was in the twentieth century; the explosive politics, so these multi-poles resulted in WWI and WWII, while the seventeenth century multi-polarity resulted in thirty years of war. The rare stable period of multi-polarity was in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when European powers established the Concert of Europe in order to maintain relative peace and balance of power.
For scholars, the trade and tech war between Beijing and Washington confirmed the thesis that the international world order is transitioning from a unipolar world. The fashion with which China challenged the US in the last five years, both in terms of a trade war as well as geostrategic areas of concern such as the Indo Pacific would have been unbelievable ten years ago. China’s policies, actions, and politics, along with an increasingly public adversarial stance vis- a -vis US, cements the large reservoir of work done by IR scholars, which stresses that a dominant power cannot sustain itself for an indefinite period of time. Eventually, a new power will emerge, challenge the status quo and attempt to establish its own dominance.
Understanding the matter better
One thing has become certain in the last few years the unipolar world is finally coming to an end. But these assumptions were based mostly on the scholars as well as the diplomatic circle and the echelons of high politics. Neither was it clear whether the new system would be bipolar or multi-polar. In theory, Russia, India, the EU the US, and China have been regarded as multiple poles in case the international order takes the form of a multi-polarity. However, the EU could not be considered as such since it has a habit of following the United States’ lead while India, in the last two decades, allied itself more and more with Washington’s strategic interests, derailing the argument in favor of a multi-polar system.
Among international scholars as well, opinion on the status of reconfigured system was diverse and divided, though the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conduct of major regional powers as well as key US allies confirms that the emerging system is multi-polar with a number of poles emerging and competing for interests, sometimes even overlapping. Russia took a calculated risk to invade Ukraine, US and NATO have been unable to militarily respond through the provision of arms to Ukrainians, and economic sanctions must have been anticipated by the Russians. Invasion of a European aspiring to join NATO by a regional adversary of the US and its inability to prevent this from happening shows that the US no longer reserves the power to deter actors.
This cements Russia’s position as a pole in the emerging multi-polarity. The US called on China to play a role in restraining Russia and urged it to condemn the Russian actions. China’s blunt refusal on both accounts is not surprising though what did surprise many was Beijingpublicly blaming the US for the entire Ukraine ordeal. The real surprise for the US and indication of multi-polarity came with the reaction of key US allies, India and the Arab Gulf. India for years has been regarded as a regional counterforce to China in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington expected t a key strategic partner to at least condemn the Russian aggression. India abstained from voting on both the UN Security Council Resolution as well as the UN General Assembly Resolution against Moscow.
This is also partly because of the receding unipolarity
China’s geopolitical and geostrategic assertiveness, while being a symptom of its revisionist power, is also a cause of major concerns for its neighbors like India, Japan, and South Korea. New Delhi is aware that the US is no longer able to contain Beijing; hence the country is protecting its alliances with the likes of Russia. Being a major arms exporter to the Indian military, it would be beyond absurd for Indian leadership to heed to US interests at the cost of its own.
Middle Eastern US allies Saudi Arabia and UAE have also refused to condemn Russia. The response from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is perhaps the most shocking for the United States as the country for decades acted as the guarantors for Gulf states as well as Gulf ruling monarchies. This increasingly independent foreign policy of the Gulf States shows that perception regarding the decline of US powers has now moved beyond ideas to actual drivers of policymaking. UAE and Saudi Arabia would probably emerge as another pole but are concerned primarily with their competition with Iran.
Realist scholars for quite some time have been predicting an end to American-led unipolarity. In a research paper titled “Structural Realism after Cold War,” published in the year 2000, Kenneth N. Waltz argues that the end of unipolarity is inevitable. Reasons for this foregone conclusion include unchecked powers and conduct of the sole superpower in the absence of a counterweight or a balancing power, taking up too many tasks outside the country’s border that in the long term affect the dominant power and a simmering and slow distrust of smaller powers regarding the sole unchecked superpower. In the same paper, Waltz predicted that the eastward expansion of NATO would end up antagonizing Russia ultimately drawing the battle lines between Russia and Europe once again.
The presence of American troops in East Asia is also an attempt to prevent a new balance of power from emerging in Asia by keeping China in check. The constant US lecturing and pressuring of the Chinese leadership to adhere to democratic ideals in Waltz’s opinion, would not only alienate China but also push Beijing and Moscow much closer to each other. An unbalanced power provokes fears in the smaller states, which then attempt to strengthen their position in the international system. The status of the US as an unbalanced superpower and the perceived threats to both China and Russia in fact forced both to unite against Washington despite their contentious bilateral relationship.
The US after the Cold War acted with complete impunity exactly as various realist scholars predicted. Disregards for other strategically important states, regime changes, selective adherence to the United Nations, violation of international law and unwarranted military interventions in countries are just some of the prominent US policies. The assessments that revisionist power or powers would emerge and unipolarity would fade in favor of bi or multi-polarity are apparently also coming true. Waltz said “The American aspiration to freeze historical development by working to keep the world unipolar is doomed…….In the Cold War, the United States won a telling victory. Victory in war, however, often brings lasting enmities.
Magnanimity in victory is rare
Winners of wars, facing few impediments to the exercise of their wills, often act in ways that create future enemies”. As mentioned in the beginning, multi-polarity historically has proven to be unstable. The question remains on what kind of multi-polarity will exist in the twenty-first century. Will it resemble the multi-polarity of the twentieth century or would it resemble the multi-polarity of the Concert of Europe?
One aspect that will be assuredly different in this multi-polarity is the relative increase in power of the Middle Tier countries like Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and North Korea. Though the prospect is scary as it further increases the instability of the emerging multi-polar system. The balance of power is undoubtedly shifting amidst the Russia Ukraine conflict and the world is rapidly transitioning to a multi-polar world.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.