Unipolar, Bipolar or Multipolar?

The Ukraine War is accelerating international Bipolarity, if not Multipolarity despite initial Atlantic unity. America— or more precisely, a cartel composed largely of G-7 states—no longer exercises global hegemony that it did just two or three decades ago. Other states are now more willing and able to shape new order in line with their preferences. A shift away from unipolarity toward multipolarity or bipolarity is clearly visible. The end of cold war gave rise to US unipolarity. But things are changing very fast. There are now more poles of power—US, China, European Union and Russia are vying to establish their own mutually exclusive orders. No doubt China’s abnormal rise is real, making the world less Unipolar today. But many think the decline of America is ‘oversold’. Notwithstanding their humiliating defeat in Afghanistan it is not yet a ‘paper tiger’. America continues to surpass all other nations, including China and Russia, in military and economic metrics, in part because of its centuries-long exploitation of people of colour domestically and abroad.

Bipolarity describes a condition with first-tier great powers as it was during the cold war. International politics is multipolar when there are three or more great powers. For a great power both economic and military might matter.

Whether western big powers like it or not China is much closer to economic parity with the United States than military parity. And in today’s neo-colonial set-up economic power is more important in exercising authority globally. In the ultimate analysis money talks subtly or loudly, depending on the situation. Dollar mattered in two world wars and it matters in the on-going war in Ukraine. If Kyiv is still in a position of offensive it is because of American dollars.

For one thing China is emerging as a contender in multi-polar world but it will be quite some time before it could overtake the US economy. US advantages in technology and strong world-wide network of alliances reinforce its military advantages, for now. The world is transforming from unipolarity to a loose bipolarity at the moment but the situation is not yet comparable to cold war stage. In truth the future is more likely to be multipolar than bipolar.

America is rapidly losing both the will and the capacity to play the unchallenged hegemonic role. Even in its traditional backyard—Latin America—it is being challenged frequently by left-wing parliamentary political tendencies. With the Ukraine war escalating further Russia is getting weak with every passing day while China stands to gain enormously despite its limited covert support to Moscow’s war exercise. Russia is exhausting its economic and military resources very quickly. Ukraine is a proxy; in reality Russia is now essentially at war with America and NATO. China remains unaffected. Beijing is unlikely to jeopardise its trade relations with the West and America by supporting Russia beyond tokenism; their ‘unlimited friendship’ has its limits. If anything the Chinese ‘communists’ are nationalist to the core, they understand only their national interests even when proletarian internationalism was a buzz word in international communist movement. In the yester years they betrayed a number of communist parties in Asia and elsewhere saying goodbye to communist internationalism. And today capitalist China has no obligation to show even semblance of internationalism. China is still a very long way from being a unipole. It can at best be a member of multipolar world equally dominated by Russia and some other emerging regional economies. In today’s globalised economy it is becoming increasingly difficult for any state to accumulate the relative advantage needed for superpower status. Maybe, the world order will soon have no superpower; it will be a mixed scenario of some great powers and a host of regional powers. This reality is being further strengthened by the possession of nuclear weapons by some poor countries.

The era of global unipolarity where the United States is unrivalled and unchallenged across different policy domains is virtually over. Afghanistan and Iraq wars were the beginning of the end. China is clearly filling the void.

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Vol 55, No. 50, Jun 11 - 17, 2023