International relations experts describe the Cold War as bipolar, with the world largely divided between the US and the Soviet Union. Other countries were either aligned with one of the superpowers or with the small non-aligned movement. The Soviet Union’s collapse ushered in an era of unipolarity, with the US as the only superpower.
In recent years, many global affairs professionals have assumed that the world is shifting toward a multipolar period, characterized by multiple global and regional powers, significant roles played by non-state actors, and a diffusion of economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to a broader number of countries around the world. The US intelligence community (in publicly available documents), consulting firms, think tanks, participants in the World Economic Forum, members of academia, and now Xi have referred to the shift to a multipolar world.
I have also long assumed that the world is shifting to a multipolar system, but recent global developments have led me to question this assumption. Now I wonder whether the world is moving toward a new bipolar system.
There are good arguments to suggest that a multipolar system is emerging, largely based on economic trends. Economic prosperity and power is spreading around the world, with the fastest economic growth happening outside of Western countries. The global middle class is growing, and most of that growth is outside the traditional Western power centers. Research at the Brookings Institution finds that “almost nine in 10 of the next billion middle-class consumers will be Asian,” spread throughout China, India and other Asian countries. Some Europeans have promoted the idea that a unified, enhanced EU would increase Europe’s overall power in a multipolar world; indeed, a united EU, including the UK, has a level of gross domestic product that is close to the US’ and exceeds China’s.
Other arguments in support of a multipolar system reflect demographic shifts and other modern global trends. The traditionally powerful states of the West are aging, while young demographics and global population growth are focused in the Global South. The world’s biggest cities are increasingly located in Africa and Asia. Trends in technology and economics are eroding borders and state sovereignty. Non-state actors — ranging from terrorist groups to multinational corporations — are increasingly important players on the global stage. For a while, it appeared that the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) would all gain in relative global power and influence.
However, a close look at these ideas and recent developments suggests that the global system might be shifting to a bipolar system based around Washington and Beijing. If one excludes the EU as a unified entity, then the US and Chinese economies are far larger than any other in the world. Europe, while possessing the economic power to be a major world leader, is divided over Brexit, immigration, the extent of EU powers and other issues. The other BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia and India — are far behind and have yet not gained the type of influence expected in a multipolar world. The US dollar remains the most critical currency in the world, with no serious challenger. The power of the US economy and dollar is clear in the effects of US sanctions on Iran and the failure of other countries to circumvent those sanctions.
In terms of hard power, the US and China are again far ahead of the rest of the world. They each spend far more on their militaries than any other country. European leaders have chafed at Trump administration attitudes and actions — ranging from G-7 summit tensions to the Iran nuclear deal — but have proven ineffective at taking practical action to defend European interests. Russia has shown that it can play a very effective disruptive role in world affairs through its use of information warfare and strategic use of military power, but its economy remains small relative to other world powers, and its population is also relatively small and shrinking.
In the fundamental measurements of hard power, China and the US are in their own league internationally. However, if the future is characterized by a US-China bipolar system, it would be different from the Cold War era. Unlike the US and the Soviet Union, the US and Chinese economies are deeply interlinked. China is a very different country from the Soviet Union. New technologies, demographics, economics and ideas shape today’s world differently than in the past. Perhaps there will be a form of a multipolar system characterized by some diffusion of economic power mixed with forms of US and Chinese leadership.
The future of the global system — and whether it is multipolar or bipolar — has critical implications for economics, politics, geopolitical alignments, the rules and norms of the global system and more. While it may not be clear that the world is moving toward a bipolar system, a multipolar system should no longer be assumed.