Regarding Unipolarity and Multipolarity
Regarding Unipolarity and Multipolarity
Since the Cold War ended, Arab insults in particular, as well as non-Arab ones, have been hurled at the world’s unipolarity, that is, the fact that the US leads the world alone. China’s economic rise and Russia’s military rise, which was put on display in Georgie, Syria, and during two wars in Ukraine, provided those who despise this unipolar leadership with opportunities and gave them some hope of overcoming it.
Indeed, rejecting unipolarity is sound and fair in principle. Multipolarity can, at the very least, limit the intransigence, selfishness and arbitrariness of any one of the poles. The United States itself did something of the sort when it took the step of competing with the traditional European powers, the British and French, supporting decolonization and breaking this unilateral domination. France had been defeated in the fifties in Vietnam, and it joined Britain in its defeat in Egypt; the two defeats, one Asian and one Egyptian, announced a major shift in the international balance of power. This shift was preceded by India’s independence from Britain in 1947, and it was later crowned with Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. At the time, the Soviet Union, post-Stalin, was expanding beyond the eastern bloc that had emerged as a result of the Second World War. Thus, the world entered a phase of bipolarity, which went on until the end of the Cold War.
Here, the intention is not to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the Cold War or balance them against each other. Two points on the matter suffice here: the US and USSR’s inheritance of Europe’s dominance was not the result of a plot in as much as it was the result of Europe’s declining place in the world coinciding with the rise of the two inheriting powers, just as the Ottoman Empire’s collapse had previously led to the establishment of the mandates in the Arab Levant.
As for the second matter, it is difficult to attribute the desire for any established international architecture to a specific political, ideological or geographic identity. Countries developing this ambition are almost in the nature of things, even for those lacking its simplest requisites.
The bipolar world order also generated some enthusiasm for breaking it or expanding it through the formation of a third bloc. For example, in the fifties, we witnessed the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (India, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Indonesia...) trying to give “Third World'' countries a voice that had been described as independent, though they generally leaned closer to Moscow than to Washington. As for the sixties, it saw the Sino-Soviet conflict, which spurred the start of China’s attempt to form and lead a bloc of its own. However, the latter nonetheless remained closer to Washington than to Moscow when it came to major issues.
Just as China had broken communist unity, France broke NATO’s unity, with Charles de Gaulle and his “politics of grandeur” not shying away from sharing his view of Europe as a third bloc led by France, standing between the United States and the Soviet Union, or his rejection the idea of French national security being NATO’s responsibility. With the Iranian revolution of 1979, the slogan “neither Eastern nor Western” was raised by those seeking independence from the “satanic” blocs.
Decades before China came to play its current role, we also had bets on economic strength paving the way for a third bloc’s emergence. Thus, Houari Boumediene-led Algeria supported the rise of a “Global South” facing the industrialized “Global North” in the seventies. At the beginning of this century, we saw the emerging economies’ project, BRICS, which had been composed of Russia, China, India, and Brazil before South Africa later joined.
Looking back on this history and the events shaping our world today, we notice the following: the desire to form new blocs to break unipolarity or bipolarity doesn’t suffice. What does suffice is three elements coming together in the same country: economic strength, political-military strength, and an appealing model, which our experiences and people’s choices tell us is democracy.
China is on its way to becoming a global pole, but it has not yet become one because of the weakness of its model and, to an extent, its political and military weaknesses. Russia lost its status as a pole with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it may currently be under the illusion of having a second go at it.
However, while the Chinese attempt is based on the economy alone, Russia’s economic weakness, as well as the lack of appeal of its model, have led to its failure. Russia’s coarse and aggressive military actions are the fruits of that failure. Post-Gaullist France rejoined Western ranks, though its tendency to appear different has continued to be at the heart of its foreign policy since. The attempt at creating a non-aligned bloc came to nothing: weak on almost every front, their political models were particularly weak- India alone among the countries that led the Non-Aligned Movement had been a democracy. The other attempts based on the economy, which were intertwined politically (and economically) with Western countries, and internally fragmented, have not yielded results worth mentioning.
Once we put our wishes and desires aside, it becomes clear the United States is the only power in the world that has the requisites needed to lead it. It is extremely legitimate to prefer multipolarity, American, European, Japanese, Australian, or American, Russian, Chinese in the event that Russia and China become democracies, which is not on the cards.
The small problem, from the vantage point of what we are undergoing today, is that the world is in a unipolar era. The big problem is that this power, the US, has neglected many of its responsibilities as a unipolar power.