Will the geopolitical landscape of the twenty-first century be characterized by a unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar order?
The period of antiquity, in which the Roman Republic (later Empire) ruled as the Mediterranean world’s undisputed superpower offers a picture of a unipolar order. There were simply no viable imperial challengers to Roman rule; and no alternatives to the Rome-imposed law, which ran unbroken from the province of Lusitania in the west to Armenia in the east.
This was modified in the 3rd century A.D. with the rise of the aggressive, ambitious Sassanid (or Neo-Persian) Empire, which contested the Caesars’ supremacy across centuries of conflict. As the behemoths vied for control of the Middle East, smaller states caught up in the fray sought maneuverability and security. In short, they wished to survive by siding with the winner.
Like that struggle, the Cold War was a bipolar era. Two champions vied for international dominance, and smaller states were caught up in calculating who would emerge victorious. Much of America’s foreign policy was built in this mould for good reason; but now elements have changed sufficiently that a new paradigm is needed.
It is unlikely that a bipolar world order will emerge in the near future, for the simple reason that there are too many large powers currently in play. It is unlikely, for instance, that India, China, Iran or Russia will merge into a single, anti-American polity. On the other hand, a unipolar order is only likely to emerge following massive conflict, in which all other big states are decisively subdued. This leaves a multipolar world order as the most likely condition of future international politics.
Fortunately for planners, this is a condition which humanity is very familiar with. Unfortunately for them, the United States and the American experience are not, in their current state, well-suited to accommodate this system.
In his final speech as Vice President, Joe Biden lamented the “fracturing [of] the liberal international order” (“liberal” implying U.S.-designed). In Asia, he says, “China and Iran would clearly prefer a world in which… they have overwhelming sway in their regions.” Biden’s stunning identification of the self-evident notwithstanding, he continues, accurately stating that Vladimir Putin desires the "collapse of the international order."
What Biden fails to fully explain is the system — or rather, set of systems — these states would see supplant that liberal order. Failing complete global predominance, leaders in China, Iran and Russia would seek the creation of spheres of influence and a return to the great power dynamics of the 19th century, albeit on a Beijing-, Tehran-, or Moscow-centered axis. Like the great powers of mid-19th century Europe, these ambitious states recognize that their competitors are too powerful and too closely matched for any one of them to achieve preeminence. Instead, they would seek to expand indirect control over swathes of foreign territory.
Note that this does not imply overt warfare. Don’t expect China or Iran to launch an outright invasion of their weaker neighbors. Instead, police actions, forces stationed in chaotic regions for the alleged purpose of establishing ‘security,’ and the quiet creation of military bases on foreign soil will likely be the order of the day.
This is because the United States retains the edge in global affairs. Despite the endless military parades so beloved of despots, none of these countries are yet capable of matching American firepower. This is not lost on their regimes. So long as the U.S. remain absolutely committed to the rules-based international order it established, no spheres of influence will be parceled out, and no territory will be haggled over.
Yet we must not lose sight of the shrinking technological gulf between our country and its rivals. In 2014, the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) launched a voyage across the world’s oceans to announce China’s appearance on the high seas, emulating America’s 1907 Great White Fleet cruise. With one ex-Soviet aircraft carrier in operation, and two indigenous carriers likely under construction, the Chinese aren’t shy about their intentions to supplant the U.S. Navy.
On January 18th, Russia’s military conducted a test of its Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), successfully hitting a ground target in the Kamchatka Peninsula — on the other side of the country. The missile’s intended purpose is in line with much of modern Russia’s military doctrine: keeping enemies out, and preserving the regime.
There are further, more philosophic questions created for Americans here. Americans view themselves as exceptional; since the days of George Washington, our foreign policy has always maintained a key place for morality alongside, and ahead of, national interest. In the hypothetical world of the mid-21st century, the question stands: How can Americans adhere to universal principles and a rules-based order among nations, while recognizing the legitimacy of alien, illiberal systems in whole regions of the world? There are two clear answers to this dilemma: reestablish preeminence by force or persuasion, or adapt our national principles accordingly. This author suspects the true answer lies in a subtle combination of the two.
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