Polarity and world order

Polarity transformation and world order

Based on the political, economic and military development and international events during the 2010s, it is well-founded to state:

Polarity of international system has transformed in 2015-2016 into new position and the previous balance of power has changed essentially.

Two key drivers seem to be behind this fundamental transformation:

Key driver 1:

China-Russia military cooperation, supported by deep economic and political partnership, is a progressing, extensive and tendentious formation, resembling an entente, with the purpose to act as a real peer competitor to the unipole

Key driver 2:

Position of the US as a great power has been declining during last ten years (2010-19) with an accelerating velocity, due to

  • intensifying hard balancing (inter alia China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Cuba, India) worldwide
  • Grand Strategy of the US has been unsuitable in maintaining the unipole position during the unipolarity era, in 2010-19

As the result of this transformation process:

Polarity of international system has transformed, in 2017, from the unipolarity into twinpolarity in years 2015-2016, which was the transition period.

According to IR-theory, the number of great powers determines the structure and polarity of the international system. Clearly, military capabilities are important in defining the polarity of the system. States with little relative military power cannot be poles. As examined earlier in the section (“Key drivers of military capabilities“) the combined China-Russia military capacity and capability have reached the parity with the US, even partly surpassed it.

While the unipolarity being the prevailing paradigm, there have emerged two other great powers (China and Russia), who separately are not powerful enough to balance the unipole but the one is economically sufficiently strong (China) and the other one is militarily and politically strong and assertive enough (Russia). These two states have organized a coherent strategic partnership, especially in the military sector, in order to be able together to balance the unipole (the US). Now this paradigm of the system can be called as a twinpolarity ( see “Issue of polarity“).

Large empirical evidence material, used in this study, indicates in convincing way that the years 2014-2016 form a transition period or watershed when the polarity turned from the previous unipolarity into a new position – a twinpolarity.

The China-Russia military cooperation, supported by deep economic and political strategic partnership has been a progressing, extensive and tendentious formation with the purpose to act as a real peer competitor to the US unipole.

Joint development in top military technologies like ASAT, EW, hypersonics and other strategic areas as well as air defense and early warning radar system mean that even nuclear weapons and their use, both defensive and offensive, are at least partly in the cooperative decision processes. This kind of “military union” forms a real peer competitor position to the US unipole position and certifies that the present polarity can be called a twinpolarity.

There is a widespread view in Russia and also in Western world that the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and many events thereafter have transformed the international system and the prevailing world order.

According to Chinese-Russian interpretation,

  • the US unipolar position was deeply undermined by Washington’s actual defeat in the Iraqi and Afghan wars and by the global financial and economic crisis of 2008.
  • the US unipolarity ended with an increasingly intensive military-political rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region and
  • the tough confrontation between the US and Russia over the Ukrainian crisis and a bit later in Syria, during 2015-2016.

In Cold War days, the geopolitical conflict took place amid the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism. Now, the ideological schism has again come to the fore—this time between spiritual values of Russian conservatism and Chinese Confucian traditions vs. Western democracy and liberalism.

History has taught that transition from one world order to another has been always driven by the accumulation of new technologies or with major wars and revolutions usually acting as a catalyst. Today, a critical mass of new technologies has been accumulated but new cycles of wars and revolutions may prove deadly not only for individual countries but for overall humanity.

In the theoretical framework, Monteiro’s book (2014) is a key theoretical reference.

According to Monteiro, great powers must fulfill a military power-projection requirement:

Specifically, a great power must possess the ability to engage unaided in sustained politico-military operations in at least one other relevant region of the globe beyond its own on the level similar to the most powerful state in the system.

Monteiro states that

  • in the unipolarity the sole great power faces no other state capable of opposing its preferences in regions beyond their own
  • but as soon as such a competitor emerges, unipolarity has ended.

This statement is a crucial confirming point, when evaluating empirical evidences.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in autumn 2015, which was the first time since the end of the Cold War than Russia (or someone else than the US & NATO) projected military power successfully far outside its borders unaided for a long period of time. In years 2018-2019, China has slowly but assertively increased the charging, both economic and military, in the region (Syria, Iraq and Iran) thus pursuing its own aims and supporting Russia’s performance.

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

1. “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.”

2. “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.”

3. “If the unipole implements a military strategy that either disengages from or tries to revise the status quo, or an economic strategy that attempts to contain rising powers’ economic growth, it gives the latter greater incentives to invest in additional military capabilities and put up a military challenge to the unipole. In other word, any strategy other than defensive accommodation will involve a competition cost.”

4. “In the military dimension, the unipole shall implement a strategy of defensive dominance in near regions by major powers maintaining the existing regional status quo.”

5. “Attempts by the preponderant power to contain the economic growth of major powers are likely to lead the latter to invest more of the current economic capacity in military capabilities. Therefore, economic containment of a major power is likely to undermine of the durability of a unipolar world. Putting differently, it is likely to fail before it has a chance to succeed.”

6. “If foreign policy makers in the US fail to understand the structural circumstances in which their policies are contextualized, we should not be surprised that they often implement policies that turn out to have severe unintended consequences”.

The US foreign policy has been very aggressive towards its “new” great power competitors since 2014 when the overall threat perceptions changed in the US national security strategy, from terrorism to great power competition. Key features and tools in the US policy have been tough containment regarding Russia and China, numerous and systematic sanctions and other large-scale punitive measures as well as threatening of the use or a real use of military power against competitors and adversaries worldwide, even against allies.

Grand strategy of the US unipole

When the unipolarity prevails in the world, the grand strategy of the unipole is the most important variable conditioning both the prospects for peace and the durability of a unipolar system. The grand strategy is also significant factor mediating between the structure of international system and on the other hand conflict-producing and competition-inducing mechanisms.

The grand strategy covers both military and economic issues. Monteiro defined three broad military strategies and their sub-categories as well as two broad economic strategies:

  • military strategies: offensive dominance, defensive dominance, disengagement
  • economic strategy: accommodation, containment

Monteiro’s recommendation of the Grand Strategy for the US is “defensive accommodation”.

This strategy 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. According to neorealism, the states are assumed to be rational and this recommendation is also based on the rationality assumption.

The US foreign policy 1990-2010 seems to be according to Monteiro’s framework but since then the situation has changed dramatically, when

the US selected an opposite strategy of “offensive containment” creating a continuum of crisis and accelerating amount of great power conflicts.

John Mearsheimer’s statements

The disappearance of the constraints imposed by Cold War bipolarity misled the United States of trying to reshape the world to conform to America’s domestic political creed of liberalism. According to John Mearsheimer’s latest book (2018):

The situation of liberal hegemony is most likely to arise in a unipolar world, where the single great power does not have to worry about being attacked by another great power since there is none. Then the liberal sole pole will almost always abandon realism and adopt a liberal foreign policy. Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to maintain.

This has led the United States to adopt a political strategy of liberal hegemony, “in which the US aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions.”

Mearsheimer predicted that “liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals, and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs.” The chief barrier to the realization of the dream of a global society of liberal democracies is nationalism.” Consequently, “nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism.” In recognition of this fact, Mearsheimer argues, the US should abandon its post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony in favor of a less interventionist strategy of “restraint.”

The US position declining

Position of the US as a great power has been declining during last ten years (2010-19) with an accelerating velocity, due to the unsuitable grand strategy and on the other hand, intensifying hard balancing (inter alia China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Cuba, India) worldwide. In this context, there are particular reasons to emphasize these three cases: Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

Iran, with remarkable oil reserves, is in the framework of Chinese BRI, the most important traffic and trade hub in the Middle East and one of China’s key regional energy partners as well as Russia’s important regional military partner but on the other hand, the key adversary of the US in the Middle East theater. In addition, Iran’s desire to nuclear arms is no secret but a central part of the great power game. The direct collision case is ready for the great power triangle game in the region.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the fact, which cannot be changed any more with any measures, except with the US direct nuclear strike. As Monteiro emphasizes in his statements, the recalcitrant states try to get nuclear weapon to balance the unipole’s threat but he does not believe that any minor power like NK could be able to balance externally against the unipole.

Monteiro was wrong, NK has been challenging very hard the US power during last few years. It seems highly likely that NK and Iran may have extensive cooperation in developing nuclear capability behind the scenes and in some way or other both China and Russia may have involved in this process.

Venezuela is an interesting geopolitical case, with world’s largest oil reserves near to the US, whose own shale oil production may fall down in the early 2020s. Russia and now also China have sent over 1000 military troops as “advisors and trainers” in the country in 2019. Venezuela has so far managed to cope with all regime change operations organized by the US and thus fiercely challenged the unipole. Sino-Russian extensive support as the backbone may explain the defiant behavior of Venezuela’s president Maduro.  However, the direct great power collision is also possible here in the near future.

Chinese, Russian and American discourses on world order

Theoretical approach

Waltz’s balance-of-power and Walt’s balance of threat theory and alliance – deterrence formations are quite easily seen in the China-USSR-the US triangle during the Cold War as well as during the thaw era in the 1970s.

In the post-Cold War era, neorealism explains quite well the cooperation development between China and Russia reacting and counter-balancing the growing common threat from the US. The process first time culminated in the April 1996 announcement that the two countries had established a “cooperative strategic partnership,” a shared concern about the way the US was wielding its unprecedented power encouraged China and Russia to move closer together.

Sino-Russian approach

This partnership policy was China’s attempt to promote the multipolar order, strengthen bilateral ties between China and other major states worldwide and balance the unipolar position of the US as well as to lower possible fears of China’s growing power and dominance. The international political development since the mid-1990s seems to beconsistent with the expectations of structural realism.

In Chinese academic debate on the post-Cold War period, its characteristics and continuity, the name used for this period is “transition period” (not unipolar period). Likewise, there has been large argumentation on terms like poles, pluralization, multipolarization, large nations and powers. Chinese pondering sees that transition period always has an ending time constituting itself in a new structure different from that of the Cold War period.

Sino-Russian arising discourse in multipolarity became globally public in April 1997, when the parties signed the “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order” and sent it to the United Nations. In the Russian academic and political debate, based on neorealism, polarity and the anarchic world, the postulation is that the only reliable guarantor is power and might in international relations.

Based on neorealism, Russian scholars criticize liberalism that the world is too complex and non-linear to be squeezed into a single idealistic liberal matrix. It seems that for Russians and Americans polarity and world order itself mean fundamentally different things. Russians see multipolarity as important in itself and a marker of equality and fairness. For Americans, it is of secondary importance. The number of poles is not so important in a US-centric world. What is important is the existence of this liberal order. But the problem is that both points of view are increasingly divorced from reality. The world is changing, and this calls for new doctrinal reflections.

Western approach

The Western liberal political theory has emerged as a powerful politico-philosophical doctrine that poses one solution to the problem of anarchy. The liberal theory of the world order is a critical component of the US foreign policy doctrine. Despite the influence of neorealism, the US doctrine features all the key tenets of the liberal theory such as democracy, free trade and international institutions. Implicit in all this, however, is the idea that the US itself should play the leading role. Symptomatically, the American liberal view of the world lacks the concept of poles. In a liberal world order, there simply cannot be such a useless thing as poles.

New parameters

The world and its technological environment have changed significantly over the last two decades. The advances in the information technology (IT) constitute today a critical factor in international relations. Social media and the Internet have made the whole world more transparent and easily reachable. The Internet has turned into a potent force for group polarization and “tribalization”.In other words, the new information environment has opened up new horizons for political mobilization, confrontation, ideological indoctrination, stigmatization of “the other” and populism of every stripe.

The digital age has given rise to a qualitatively different kind of anarchy in international relations. In the Cold War logic, threat and security dilemma were linked to military force, the threat of its use and ideological rivalry. Today, those military capabilities are still in place and a new revolution in military affairs is in progress, including the cyber sphere.

Another important characteristic is the non-linear nature of modern international relations. Normally, it is interpreted as something uncertain and barely predictable. However, this superficial interpretation overlooks some really important properties.

In the strict sense of the word, non-linearity implies non-proportionality in cause-and-effect interdependencies. There are numerous examples where minor efforts led to considerable results and vice versa: considerable efforts yielded paltry or even negative results. The essential meaning of non-linearity is that the same effort can produce fundamentally different results at different times. Thus, effort and resource constraints are the two crucial parameters that engender non-linearity.

Yet another crucial characteristic of non-linearity is that one and the same process can have fundamentally different dynamics, such as stable onward development or stable degradation. This theoretic conclusion is of extreme importance. It is not so important how we see the world order — as a rules-based liberal world, multipolarity or pluralistic unipolarity. The important thing is that one and the same order can have totally different parameters under different dynamic regimes and therefore lead to fundamentally different outcomes than those originally intended.