Special features of unipolarity

Unipolarity is defined as an international system with only one great power in existence.

This great power has a qualitative edge relative to the other states based on the aggregate score on the size of territory, population, economy, military, resource endowment, political stability and political competence.

However, unipolarity is not merely about pinpointing the strongest power in the system. Dealing with a unipolar system requires the identification of anarchy as the organizing principle and the existence of like units in terms of functional similarity. The term unipolarity is thus reserved for the international system. (Hansen, 2011)

Monteiro’s (2014) theory of unipolarity is based on the structural realism with four key assumptions:

1. sovereign states are the key actors in the international, anarchic system,

2. states aim first and foremost at their survival and security,

3. after their own survival, states care most about wealth,

4. states are rational.

According to Monteiro the durability of unipolarity depends on two variables – one systemic and one strategic. The two key issues are the expected costs of a war between the unipole and a rising challenger as well as the strategy of the unipole regarding the economic growth of other major powers.

Military capabilities are important in defining the polarity of the international system. States with little military power cannot be poles. The distribution of military power is a key component of understanding of unipolarity. In a unipolar system, security relations between the unipole and other major powers are essentially anarchic. Unipolarity is an interstate system.

The American primacy is particularly marked in the military realm.The command of commons (Barry R. Posen, 2003) means that the US military maintains nearly 1000 facilities scattered over more than 140 countries worldwide, where more than 200.000 US military service personnel are stationed. In the nuclear world, the power preponderance of the US is potentially durable but likely to produce frequent conflicts and depends on the strategy of the unipole.

Monteiro presents three key arguments of the unipole’s behavior vs. other major powers:

First argument: If the unipole accommodates the continuing growth of rising economic powers, it gives them fewer incentives to militarize. The unipole must eschew economic policies that might jeopardize the development of other important states. It must also refrain from attempting to extend its military dominance in their region, because this might threaten their long-term economic viability. If, instead, the unipole implements a strategy that threaten to contain the economic growth of rising powers, then these other states have greater incentives to invest in additional military capabilities.

Second argument: Unipolar world is not peaceful but generates conditions propitious for significant conflicts, generating abundant opportunities for wars between the unipole and recalcitrant minor powers as well as for asymmetric and peripheral conflicts.

Third argument: The optimal grand strategy is “defensive accommodation”, which combines a military strategy aimed at maintaining the international status quo (Monteiro’s defensive dominance) with an economic strategy that makes room for accommodating the interests of rising major powers.

Militarily, defensive dominance requires the unipole’s regular involvement in conflicts aimed at maintaining status quo. This strategy has led and will lead the US to wage wars frequently. On the other hand, if the unipole selects the strategy of “offensive dominance”, it likely entails even greater US involvement in wars. The international scene, since 1990, has seen increasing number of conflicts and wars with US involvement. The absence of a global balance of power between two or more states, make room for unstable relations of great powers.

In the post-Cold War era, the most prevalent argument about the unipolarity has been its durability.

Charles Krauthammer (1991) wrote of a “unipolar moment” and the realists like Waltz argued that other great powers would soon emerge reestablishing the global balance of power. This presumption prevailed nearly the whole 1990s.The prominent role of the balance of power as a key concept in IR theory led scholars to expect the absence of a systemic balance of power to last only briefly until other great powers reemerged.

Around the turn of twenty-first century, both academic and political debate began to redesign the theoretical premises, based on the influential article by William Wohlforth: “The Stability of a Unipolar World” (International Security 1999). The debate is still going and no argument has reached a consensus.

Monteiro’s theory of unipolarity is mainly based on Waltz’s neorealism

However, he superimposes some new layers on that, especially his constructs of nuclear weapons and the absence of a systemic balance of power. Monteiro’s main arguments here are:

  • “Nuclear states will balance against a state with preponderance of conventional power only if their long-term viability is threatened – and this will happen only if the preponderant power tries to constrain their economic growth or increase its control over their region. Otherwise, nuclear states will have little incentive to balance against a unipole”.
  • “When a systemic balance of power is absent, recalcitrant states threatened by the preponderant military power have an incentive to try to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter these threats. The preponderant power, for its part, has an incentive to prevent these states from nuclearizing”.
  • “As long as the unipole maintains an economic order that makes room for the growth of other major powers, other nuclear states should be willing to accommodate its conventional-power preponderance and indeed benefit from the unipole’s role as a global guarantor of the military status quo.”
  • “If the unipole takes actions that contain the economic growth of potential peer-competitor, then the latter will have an incentive to continue balancing, ultimately leading to the end of a unipolar world.”

As seen, these Monteiro’s arguments are very relevant and important when comparing with the present international situations of US-Russia-China-North Korea-Iran, which all will be examined in details later on this website.

Hansen argues that the concept of a world order is particularly important to a unipolar system. The current unipolar world order is therefore understood as comprising the US unipolar position plus the US political project. The political project is understood as the main and basic policies of the superpower on adherence to liberal democracy and the free market. The unipolar world order thus describes the combination of the political project pushed by the single superpower and its superior position to promote it.