Some Western scenarios

Firstly, here are scenarios of two well-known IR-researchers, specialized in unipolarity theory

Nuno Monteiro (2014) is mulling and pondering the future of the US unipolarity and according to his guesswork:

  • for the first time in modern history, the global balance of military power became unipolar and its durability is an open question
  • grand strategy of the unipole is very important and according to Monteiro, in early 1990s, the US selected “defensive accommodation, which is recommended by Monteiro
  • unipolarity is durable because the US runs the international system extracting moderate benefits from its military preponderance; other major powers (like China and Russia) also benefit from this situation because they can rely on US forces to maintain the global status quo
  • Monteiro believes that the US does not prevent Russia and China to grow economically and therefore these countries will have little incentive to balance against the US
  • he estimates that the US would be the only state able to project military power offshore and engage in prolonged politico-military operations beyond its own region
  • finally, he states that: “I expect the current US preponderance in conventional military power remain largely unchanged for as far as the eye can see…”

As seen, Monteiro’s statements seem to be a bit gullible and shortsighted. The US chose the grand strategy of offensive containment since 2014 and turned the whole international playground as a battleground between great powers. Monteiro did not realize what RMA means in this context and how quickly the situation changed since 2014.

Birthe Hansen (2010) presents three scenarios for the development of the unipolarity and world order. 

  • The first is “Continuation of US hegemony” where the single superpower achieves hegemony generally or partially but it may act without consent. Here other major powers (China, Russia, India) will be able to benefit from the relative security of unipolarity (free-riding
  • The second is “Redistribution of strength”. a change within the system, whether resulting from exhaustion or exogenous developments, may in principle lead to a new uni-, bi-, tri-, or multipolarity.
  • The third is “Transformation into hierarchy”. This scenario is by far most radical, the superpower becomes so strong that it is able to achieve a global monopoly of power and the system is therefore transformed into a hierarchically organized system with fundamentally different dynamics.

As seen, Hansen is mentally so bound to the present US unipolarity that his scope is limited in finding new trajectories or perceiving new ways out.

The Western scientific literature regarding the changing strategic environment and emerging world order is extensive. According to Flockhart (2016), it may be roughly divided into three broad narratives, which can be labeled as a multipolar future, a multi-partner future and a multi-cultural future. All three narratives have in common that they focus primarily on the role and future prospect of the current liberal international order and they all anticipate a more diverse international system composed of new and emerging (great) powers.

However, they differ on important issues, especially on how order is produced and maintained which leads them to very different interpretations on the future prospects for the current liberal order and on the role to be played by the current leader of that order – the United States.

Multipolar future

The first narrative is probably the most commonly cited in the media and in politics and it is backed up by a substantial scholarly literature. It suggests a return to the kind of Waltzian balance of power politics that characterized the multipolar system of the 19th and early 20th centuries, however keeping in mind the “fine-tuning” balance of threat by Stephen Walt.

The narrative is rooted in the realist tradition, which emphasizes the pursuit of the national interest and material capabilities and which sees anarchy and the balance of power as the key ordering principles in an international system that is largely assumed to be moving from the present unipolarity towards multipolarity.

The narrative starts from the premise that as new powers rise and reach the critical level of effective power, the unipolar moment is over and will be replaced with a new polarity, standard assumption being the global multipolarity in which the relationship between the United States and China is likely to be by far the most important. The narrative emphasizes material capabilities, especially military and economic power, stressing that military power rests on economic strength, which leads to the persuasive argument that as rising powers increase their economic strength, they are likely to also increase their military power.

The key question is whether the US should balance against the rise of competing powers or if should take advantage of its beneficial geographic position and resource self-sufficiency and pursue a strategy based on offshore balancing. As known today, the US chose the offensive containment strategy since 2014 and the ramifications it brought with. However, this scenario will be highly likely, in principle, as the closest to the real-world development.

Multi-partner future

The second narrative accepts that the rise of new powers will affect the coming international order but it disputes that the rise of other powers will result in a return to traditional power politics. The narrative is most closely associated with liberal internationalism – in particular the form of liberal hegemony advocated prominently by G. John Ikenberry. Proponents of the multi-partner narrative stress that America remains an enduring power and it maintains that the United States share more interests with other powers than the multipolar narrative suggests.

Nevertheless, the multi-partner narrative argues in favour of balancing against China, because the US cannot withdraw from its global responsibilities and assuming the continuation of American leadership and active engagement. The multi-partner proponents acknowledge that the ordering principle in the coming international order cannot be liberal hegemony but shall increasingly be based on partnership diplomacy. In addition, this narrative emphasizes the importance of institutions, rules and multilateralism as essential for maintaining international order.

Proponents of the narrative argue that the US will remain the leader of the order for the foreseeable future, although will adapt its leadership to the new realities. The multi-partner narrative is certainly more optimistic than the multipolar narrative. It bases its optimism on the belief that the current liberal order is highly resilient, able to adapt and open and easy to be joined by new rising powers that wish to align with the current liberal order. As known today, the US chose the offensive containment strategy since 2014 and the ramifications it brought with. This scenario is now outdated.

Multi-cultural future

The third narrative is more diverse and multifaceted than the two previous ones and is difficult to pinpoint exactly because it sees the world with diverse regional sub-systems and which is at once globalized, diversified and localized. The proponents of the narrative are more sensitive to history and cultural specificities and view liberalism and liberal order as a product of social and economic conditions that were unique to Europe and to the ‘new world’ initially populated by peoples of primarily European descent.

The concert model assumes that the great powers will have a special responsibility in the management of international order, where the United States will continue to play a critical role albeit sharing its power and authority. The regional model assumes a greater role for new regionalism utilizing regional institutions such as the EU and ASEAN to manage international challenges such as climate change, humanitarian assistance, intervention and financial cooperation. As known today, the US chose the offensive containment strategy since 2014 and the ramifications it brought with. This scenario is now outdated.

New multi-order system

Flockhart proposes that there is coming a new system, which is fundamentally different from the three previous international systems. It is “multi-order” because the primary dynamics are likely to be within and between different orders, rather than between multiple sovereign states.

The emerging system appears to be a “second-order system” because its members are not individual states but collective entities comprising states. In a second-order system, relationships are likely to be inter-organizational, transnational or supranational in character, increasingly taking place within regional or order-specific secondary institutions (some of which may be supranational) or between non-state actors or in many different public–private partnerships.

New forms of relationships between orders are likely to emerge, such as between the EU and ASEAN, EU and African Union and the importance of international organizations across different orders. The coming system is more correctly characterized as multi-order rather than multipolar because of its second-order nature composed by clusters of states with differences across all component parts.

As known today, the US chose the offensive containment strategy since 2014 and the ramifications it brought with. The Covid-19 pandemic, which burst in early 2020 will further underline the significance of the national sovereign countries, leaving this scenario as illusory wishful thinking.