The end of the unipolar world?

February 26, 2007

Realists like Kenneth Waltz believe that unipolar system in the world usually would not last long because of two reasons: 1. over-expansion of the hegemonic power, and 2. that weaker states feel the need to strengthen themselves or find allies to bring international power distribution into balance. After the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the modern world has become a unipolar one with U.S. being the single dominant power. Its dominance covers not only military power but also economics and cultural aspects. In 1999, the US defense budget reached US$270.6 billion, 1.6 times the total military spending of Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and China. From 2000-05, the Clinton administration approved a total increase of US$112 billion for military expenditure. In 2005, US military spending reached at least US$320 billion, making up 35% of the world’s total. On top of this, U.S is the first country to develop and use nuclear weapons and the U.S. owns the world largest nuclear arsenal.

On the cultural side, the renowned U.S. political commentator Samuel P. Huntington said in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” that world conflicts after the Cold War would be clashes of civilizations, posing a serious threat to the United States. The U.S. should therefore make an effort to ensure the dominant position of American culture in the world.

On economy, apart from being an economic superpower as demonstrated by the huge influence that the U.S. fiscal policy can impose on the economic situation of other countries and internationally, the U.S. also owned a very unique and dominant role in the IMF and the World Bank

On the other than, Europe is now retreating from the stage of world politics and concentrates on its internal challenges (e.g. the expansion of the European Union). It is obvious that it won’t emerge to be a major force challenging the U.S.’s hegemonic status.

However, in our part of the world, power of China and Japan have been rising in the recent decades that they are now important players in the international arena that no one can ignore. Some others even think that Russia and Korea would add to the force emerging in East Asia. A lot of people thus believe that U.S.’s hegemonic power has been declining.

How far do you think the developments described above would upset the current unipolar nature of international politics? Can U.S. stop the emergence of the multipolar forces?

By OC Lin and Annie Ho


9 Responses to “The end of the unipolar world?”

  1. lmcinhk Says:

    I think a more interesting question is does the US want to stop the emergence of a stable multi-polar system? Daniel Drezner has an interesting piece in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs ( he argues that the Bush administration is not as blatantly unilateralist as it is often portrayed. He argues that “controversies over the war in Iraq and U.S. unilateralism have overshadowed a more pragmatic and multilateral component of the Bush administration’s grand strategy: its attempt to reconfigure U.S. foreign policy and international institutions in order to account for shifts in the global distribution of power and the emergence of states such as China and India.” I haven’t had a chance to read through the entire article yet, but its an interesting angle…. LMC

  2. Meryam Says:

    i am not sure about the bush administration, but i agree that the US in general may not want to prevent/deter a multipolar world system. in fact, there are those who would argue that US power has been declining for some time, and that the US is aware of this. furthermore, events post-9/11 probably lead the US to engage more in creating a stable multipolar system (ignoring the fact that some realists believe that a mulitpolar system is not stable).

    the emergence of countries such as china, india or even russia, as contending powers however, may cause some problems to the US, not because of a power struggle, but because their values, cultures and political systems are different.. in this way, the US may find it hard to understand or even predict how these countries may act ..

  3. wooi yee Says:

    I think the American led hegemony order will continue to survive for another 20 year in Asia. For the last half a decade, most countries in the region have been happily enjoying public goods (security) provided by the US. It is believed that the presence of the US in Asia has contributed to the stability and prosperity of the region.

    I really doubt that Japan & Korea who are currently under the US security umbrella will foolishly challenge the US. Only two looming giants in Asia – China & India – may post a threat to the American led hegemony. However, both countries are also suffering from extensive internal problems, such as dislocated population, corruption & unresolved territorial conflicts (Taiwan & Kashimr). Nevertheless, as China progresses, it will eventually claim its dominant role in Asia.

  4. O C Lin Says:

    I would say that the U.S. does not mind to adopt a multipower system as long as those holding the power are acceptable to the U.S.

    Going back to the possible development of the relationship between Japan and U.S. Yes, Japan is still enjoiying the security provided by the U.S. but this is not priceless. The occupation of the U.S. military over Japan’s land is something unacceptable to the country. I guess after having her own military power build up, Japan will distant herself from U.S.

  5. Ada Says:

    The Unipolar world has not come to an end yet, the US still has commanding leads in all elements of power, including military, economic, cultural, and technological. Although China is becoming stronger, there is no sign that it will have the capability to challenge the US soon.

    As for the two realist theories mentioned by the original posting, although the US military seems to be overstretched now, it may only be a temporary situation, and the US is still able to carry out military actions if necessary. Like you have mentioned, the US defense spending is equal to that of the next 15 nations combined, making it undisputedly the strongest military power.

    For the second theory, it is unlikely for second-tier states for form alliances against the US. First because forming alliances have costs, and also since the US is substantially stronger in all components of power, second-tier states more likely would bandwagon instead of forming alliances to challenge to the great power.

    Considering the Unipolar situation will continue for quite some time, the US most likely will not actively react to another emerging power, because the next strong power cannot post immediate challenge or competition to the US. As for the “rise of China”, the US has not shown much hostility. Making China a “Stakeholder”, as the former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick calls it, conforms to the overall US interest.

  6. I agree with Ada’s point that among second-tier states, bandwagon with the U.S. is more likely than direct challenge against U.S. hegemon by forming alliance. This is not to say the second-tier states really welcome the U.S. leadership. It is just more cost-effective for them to join with U.S. with the hope to shape its policies and thus, to generate the largest benefits from the bandwagon. U.S. is still in a preponderant position in terms of its unchallengeable military and economic power.

    China and India are the cases in point. In my impression, they seldom challenge U.S. leadership and policies provided that U.S. does not intervene their internal affairs.

    For me, the question asking whether the U.S. wants to stop the emergence of a stable multi-polar system is more difficult. The problem is that the meaning of the term “multi-polar system” seems unclear. Does it refer to a system with a super world power and a few different regional powers? Or does it refer to a system with different great powers “sharing” and “controlling” the world?

    In the medium terms, the former system is more likely and I find no point for the U.S. to stop such kind of multi-polar system. China is for sure rising to be the regional power in East Asia. But very often, it has to seek for U.S. help to maintain the regional stability. Taking the Six-Party Talks as example, the key to the latest “successful progress” is U.S.’s willingness to negotiate with North Korea and finally allows assistance (e.g. fuel aids) to North Korea. China is only a facilitator of the Talks. U.S. remains the most influential power.

    If multi-polar system refers to one with a few great powers “controlling” the world, this would need a dramatic decline of U.S.’s political and economic capabilities as well as the rise of many states (or long-lasting alliances) to compete with U.S. at the same time. With reference to the facts mentioned by O.C. and Annie, this would be quite impossible in the medium terms.

    On top of this, (and also in line with the original post,) we can probably try to talk about the multi-polar system in different terms. In the future, the most influential political “poles” may be U.S., China, India, Iran, Brazil, and “Europe”. The most influential economic “poles” may be some transnational companies like Microsoft and Nike. The cultural “poles” may be some dominant civilizations like Christianity and Islamism (but the civilizations are not necessarily bound to spatial regions as what Huntington suggests.)… That is to say, the poles can be overlapping with one another but this is not necessarily so. [Frankie]

  7. helenszeto Says:

    We can say that the unipolar structure is still here but not that “absolute” as in the 70s. U.S. as the hegemony is still dominating in economic, technology and military arenas. One point note-worthy is that the hegemony as the world leader still has to get along with others and maintaining certain level of soft power to keep its status as the hegemony. US became the spotlight since WWII was due to its leadership role and deeds done for world recovery, and most of all, it was the most (and the only) powerful country at that time. That was the time when the US had the most absolute hegemony power while every other country were so vulnerable. By as time flies, as the other countries grew strong, US’s hegemonic power became relatively weak. Today, the crucial key for the US to keep its hegemony status is its absolute strength in technology and military power. This is why we can see it is by all means blocking exports of advanced military technologies to other countries, especially its close competitor China. Agree that, though weakening, US hegemony will still sustain for 20 year or so. One, the existing power and resources it has is still useful for other countries to take advantage of. Two, the rising powers would not risk challenging US primacy in overt manner in this premature stage of time. They still need more time on hedging and building strength. I can say that what the whole Asia care most now is Business, Business and Business. Coz trade brings regional stability, economic growth, and ultimately resources for building national strength further. That is, the peace for now is still a result of realists’ calculations. In today’s game of relative power, the question for US would be how it can grow faster, or at least as fast as others to maintain its hegemonic status. [Helen]

  8. jessicabellas Says:

    I have read the essay by Daniel Drezner as suggested by the first commenter ( and I would like to comment on this essay. I was intrigued by any writer who ‘argues that the Bush administration is not as blatantly unilateralist as it is often portrayed’ (in the words of the first commenter). After I read the article, I found some points in this essay that I agreed with but I also found many points that I disagreed with as well. I was surprised that I had anything in common with a realist. In fact, I did not even realize that this writer was in the ‘realist’ camp until the writer stated, “Power is a zero sum game, and so any attempt to boost the standing of China, India, and other rising states within international organizations will cost other countries some of their influence in these forums.”

    First, I wholeheartedly agree that the United States’ “unilateralist impulses, on vivid display in the Iraq war, have become a lightning rod for criticism of U.S. foreign policy.” I also laughed out when Drezner criticized the “rhetorical excesses” of former UN Ambassador John Bolton and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield.

    Drezner also pointed out that the Bush Administration is ‘trying to strengthen its bilateral relationships with China and India.’ Drezner highlights that Bush has made efforts to collaborate with China on issues ranging from North Korea, Darfur, reigniting the Doha Development Agenda, prevention of global pandemics and consulting with the International Energy Agency. I thought that Drezner made a good point here as I had not previously considered all of these examples of collaboration.

    Drezner also explains that the Bush Administration is moving state department officials and military away from places like Germany and South Korea to countries that are emerging powers, such as India and China. Honestly, I did not realize that this was happening so I thought that this was a good point as well.

    However, there are many points on which I disagree with Drezner as well.

    On Page 3 of the essay, Drezner asserts that Bush can choose to ignore ‘multilateral institutions that fail to live up to their own stated standards.’ I not only strongly disagree with claim but I find it intellectually offensive. How is this international cooperation if Bush and the US can choose which laws, multilateral norms and international organizations are “worthy” of his support while the rest of the world is supposed to follow all of the rules whether they like it or not? It is this kind of arrogance that fuels anti-American sentiment, even for a US citizen such as myself. Frankly, the Internal Revenue Service in the United States does not meet Jessica’s “stated standards” so does this mean that I do not have to file a tax return because the IRS is not in line with my worldview? I don’t think so.

    Furthermore, Drezner states, “U.S. trade negotiators have been clamoring for greater participation from China in hope that Beijing will moderate the views of more militant developing countries.” To me, Drezner is saying that we should invite these emerging powers at the table only to advance the interests of the US. Does Drezner think that the Chinese will not see that the US is only trying to use their emerging power to the advance US interests? Perhaps this type of pervasive arrogant attitude displayed by both Drezner and the Bush Administration is why the US seems unable to convince China to do much about issues adversely impacting the US, such as the US-China trade deficit.

    The most troublesome omission by Drezner was the US’s refusal to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol. It seems odd that he left the Kyoto Protocol out of the discussion, particularly he states that the Bush administration has ‘moved toward greater cooperation with emerging powers on other issues as well, especially energy, the environment and nuclear proliferation.’ When I talk to my non-American friends, almost all of them point to Bush’s refusal to sign it as evidence that the Bush Administration has zero interest in global environmental problems and this further fuels anti-American sentiment.

    In summary, whereas Drezner pointed out some areas in which Bush is making efforts to include emerging powers to the table, I still believe that Bush is only doing so for his self-interest and not to build a “new new world order.” [Jessica]

  9. jessicabellas Says:

    I have appreciated the posts of all of my colleagues and it seems that everyone on this post agrees that China is on its way up and China is an emerging power. It seems like we all agree on this point so there is no point to elaborate further. However, I must say that I am rather surprised that folks think that the “American led hegemony order will continue to survive for another 20 years in Asia” or that the “unipolar situation will last a long time.” As an American, I do not see it this way at all.

    First, I often compare the United States and the Roman Empire. Although there is some debate as to why the Roman Empire fell, I think that most people would agree that the Romans became complacent, ignorant of the rest of the world and blindly loyal to their leaders. I think that there can be strong parallels drawn between the current state of the US and the Fall of the Roman Empire and I fear for the future of my country, the United States. As someone who recently left the US after 34 years of living there, I have to say that Americans are extremely complacent, isolated and intellectually lazy. The sense of entitlement in the US is simply out of control. People really think that they are entitled to a certain standard of living simply because they are American born. There is no realization that there is a world outside of the United States, much less a global economy. Also, did you know that only 20 percent of Americans even possess a US passport? Of these few people who even have a US passport, less than half of those have been outside of North America. Americans have no idea what is going on outside of their country and the inwardly focused American media, which considers the death of a C-list actress like Anna Nicole Smith to be front page news for weeks, is no help either. They would sooner spend weeks thinking about who is the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby rather than contemplate how the US-China trade deficit means for their future or their children’s future and what the US should be doing about it.

    Furthermore, Bush has used nothing but the intense fear created by 9/11 to manipulate the American public. The American public really believed at one point that we went to war to free the Iraqis and to get Osama bin Laden. They were too blinded by fear to think about war in Iraq rationally and they were too ignorant about the rest of the world to realize that Sadaam would have been one the last people to help Osama. Bush convinced the American public that the people being held prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are “terrorists” and that they are undeserving of the legal system guaranteed by the US Constitution. Bush is using fear to convince people that they trust him to protect them from the “big bad world” outside of the United States, a world which most Americans know nothing about.

    If history is any indicator of the future, I believe that the Fall of the Roman Empire is an excellent predictor of the Fall of the United States. As a proud American, it makes me incredibly sad to say it but I believe it is true.

    In summary, everyone agreed that China is on its way up on the graph. I strongly contend that the US is on its way down on the graph and it is only a matter of time before these two lines cross on the graph, which will indicate the end of the unipolar world. [Jessica]

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