How would you define the polarity of the current international system?
Is it unipolar, multipolar or bipolar?
The processes and functions which dictate the international political system invariably tend to focus on who is the leading source of power and authority. As such, a continuing debate in international relations is how to effectively account for the polar nature of the modern international setting. Prior to 1991 offering comprehensive judgments on this question were unproblematic. The Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union personified all the essential requirements of a bipolar world. Thus, the two countries not only constituted the worlds only superpowers, they also assumed geometrically opposed ideological positions, and their struggle impacted to varying degrees on every country on the globe (Calvocoressi, 2001). Although as Calvocoressi (2001; p. 57) suggests, “The 1980s were the decade in which the superpowers ceased to be regarded as so far above all other states as to constitute a distinct species”, the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 presented somewhat of a problem for commentators of international relations as to how to effectively describe the new world order.
The purpose of this work is to investigate the present international system and offer accurate assessments as to its polar nature. It will be shown that the present global situation remains essentially that of the post 1991 period, namely that the superior presence of the United States constitutes what Little & Smith (2006; p. 99) argue to be “a structure in which one state’s capabilities are too great to be counterbalanced”. However, the history of the international system clearly shows the degree to which international circumstances change, albeit usually on a gradual basis (the Soviet Union being the obvious example that disproves the rule). As such, the rise of new powers on the global stage, most notably China and India brings into question the unipolar status of the international system. In addition, the continuing process of globalisation has raised a number of questions about whether a new system of a multipolar nature is emerging. Overall, it is fair to conclude that although the present system is indeed a unipolar one, it is doubtful as to whether this situation will last in the long term.
In pure power terms, the United States remains the most dominant country on the planet. With regards economics, although some indicators suggest that the European Union is largest coherent economic entity, the prevailing sentiment remains that the United States has the world’s largest economy. In relation to military power, once again there is an element of debate as to which variables one ascribes to the analysis. For example, total troop numbers do not necessarily constitute military effectiveness. However, there is consensus that in terms of the ability to effectively marshal and project military might, the United States remains the dominant global power. Indeed, the American defence budget is over twice that of its nearest rival, China, and the massive engagements undertaken by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq personify the ability to carry out large scale action in different theatres simultaneously (Mowle & Sacko, 2007).
As such, it is fair to conclude that on the basis of the normal indicators of global power, the United States ranks far enough ahead of any other country to constitute unipolar dominance. Now the continuing impact of globalisation on American economic might is given detailed expression below. However, in terms of the continuing propagation of American unipolar dominance it is worth noting an increasing trend which has been highlighted by academic authorities dedicated to the study of the globalisation phenomenon. Although economic globalisation has been a consistent feature of global developments for some time, in recent years the globalisation debate has centred increasingly on the growing presence of cultural globalisation. Moreover, when one attempts to accurately account for cultural globalisation it is certainly possible to see the degree to which American cultural hegemony is becoming more of reality as the decade’s progress. Thus, through what Tomlinson (2004; p. 303) terms a process of the “cultural imperialism”, American cultural tendencies have been directly transposed on the global stage as a result of globalisation and continuing American dominance of the global scene. Indeed, in recent years the Indian government has attempted to offset what it deems as the negative impact of Americanisation on traditional Indian norms, values and customs (Crane et al, 2002). Thus, although the globalisation process is invariably used to highlight the decreasing possibility of continuing unipolar American dominance, in terms of cultural globalisation it could be effectively argued that the opposite is indeed the case.
The issue of globalisation will be returned to later. However, even beyond the globalisation debate it is possible to see global trends which indicate continued American unipolar dominance to be unlikely. Firstly, it is widely accepted in economic discourse that within a relatively short period China will usurp the United States to become the world’s largest economy (Kegley, 2008). As such, it may be possible in certain respects to argue that the growth of China alone represents a threat to US global hegemony and thus poses the possibility of another bipolar situation. However, the increasing economic developments in the BRIC nations are argued to be a clear indication of how the balance of global economic power is “shifting away from a unipolar basis to that of multipolar” (Ikenberry, 2002). In conjunction with China, the members of BRIC are Brazil, Russia and India. Indeed, economic growth levels in these countries prior to the global recession were consistently higher than those of the United States (Ikenberry, 2002). Moreover, the natural resource potential of certain BRIC members constitutes a further possible threat to the present unipolar status of the international system. In this respect Russia and her vast reserves of oil and gas is the pertinent example.
However, as suggested above, the prevailing issue which invariably arises in the debate regarding the changing international system is globalisation. Although the discussion above on cultural globalisation seems to suggest that American global hegemony is actually being propagated by recent global developments, beyond this narrow variable of analysis the story is quite different. Above all, the process of economic globalisation over recent decades has fundamentally altered the nature of power in the modern world. What was initially referred to as inter-reliance in the 1970s has now come to mean a world of inherently connected economic processes based in some measure on what Baylis & Smith (2001; p. 14) term as “deterritorialisation”. In this regard, the United States has been affected to the same degree as any other country. Indeed, in certain respects it could be argued that globalisation has negatively impacted more on leading economic nations like the United States more than others. In particular, the opening up of labour markets on a global stage has caused a variety of problems for the American manufacturing sector. Moreover, as trends towards global diversification show little sign of slowing down, it is increasingly likely that this pressure on American economic processes will continue unabated (Baylis & Smith, 2001).
In addition, the continuing process of globalisation has resulted in a number of other concerns and issues which inevitably impact upon the continued propagation of American unipolar dominance. Foremost among these is the question of how to effectively regulate global processes in an age where the power of the traditional nation state is gradually yet persistently ebbing away. Thus, given that the nation state as a sovereign political entity is now only able to exert limited control over the processes and functions which impact on its geographical territory, many argue there is an increasing need to ensure that effective political control is placed on such processes and functions. The proponents of “cosmopolitan democracy” therefore argue that there is now an urgent need to establish a system of global democratic governance building on the existing structures of the United Nations (Held, 1995; p. 4). Foremost among such thinkers is the academic David Held (1995), who argues that globalisation will eventually render conceptions of unipolar and bipolar dominance redundant. Thus, the interrelated structures brought about by globalisation, along with the increasing need to hold global forces to democratic political account means that cosmopolitan democracy will usher in a new era based on multipolar functions. Naturally, some countries will continue to exert greater power than others in this new global settlement, however, the very structural nature and necessities of cosmopolitan governance precludes the possibility of a continued unipolar dominance by the United States or indeed anyone else. Thus, the American model of capitalist development which has brought about the insatiable march of globalisation may eventually be the undoing of American global dominance itself (Held, 1995).
In conclusion, the various discussions above have highlighted and examined the essential debates currently taking place in academic discourse surrounding developments in the international system. Above all, what is clear is that the international system is changing. Whether one uses the emergence of BRIC nations or increasing globalisation as the subject of analysis, it is nevertheless clearly evident that the international system is likely to continue to alter and progress as it has always done. Given this, it is increasingly likely that assumptions asserting the reduced likelihood of American unipolar dominance in the future will increase in propagation and validity. However, a note of caution must be undertaken. In every variable indicator the United States continues to enjoy an overarching dominance over the rest of the world. The fact that history and modern developments tell us this dominance will inevitably end does little to alter the fact that the present international political system personifies all the characteristics required in order to be assigned the term unipolar.
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Calvocoressi, P (2001) World Politics: 1945-2000 (8th ed). London: Pearson.
Crane, D; Kawashima, N & Kawasaki, K (2002) Global Culture: media, arts, policy and globalisation, London: Routledge.
Held, D (1995) Democracy and the Global Order: from the modern state to cosmopolitan governance. New York: Stanford University Press.
Ikenberrry, G.J (2002) America Unrivalled: the future of the balance of power. New York: Cornell University Press.
Kegley, C.W (2008) World Politics: trend and transformation. London: Cengage.
Little, R & Smith, M (2006) Perspectives on World Politics. London: Routledge.
Mowle, T.S & Sacko, D.H (2007) The Unipolar World: an unbalanced future. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tomlinson, J (2004) ‘Cultural Imperialism’ in Boil, J & Lechner, F.J (2004) The Globalisation Reader (2nd ed). London: Blackwell, pp. 303-311.