The collapse of the Soviet Union began nearly two decades of American unipolarity. During that time, U.S. leadership pursued a strategy of what international relations scholars call liberal hegemony. Steering the world’s sole superpower (thus “unipolarity”) American policymakers took the opportunity to build new international institutions and transform old ones in the name of liberalism and democracy.
But by pursuing financialized global economic interdependence and interventionism on behalf of liberal democracy, the U.S. prioritized an idealized vision of world stability over the economic welfare of its own citizens, the lives of the citizens of countries it has chosen to invade, and, increasingly clear, the security of the very international order it claimed to protect. Liberal hegemony was unable even to maintain American primacy, assisting China in becoming a strategic rival and producing instability elsewhere. The unipolar moment appears to be passing. Though America remains the preponderant power globally, China’s rise and other factors seem to signal the return of a multipolar world, perhaps in the form of what theorist Aris Roussinos calls “civilization-states.”
Nothing I’ve said thus far is likely to be controversial to readers of TAC, and arguments assuming a return to multipolarity and great power conflict are increasingly commonplace. But if we draw a distinction between unipolarity and hegemony, the present situation becomes both clearer and more complex. On the one hand, if, alongside the rise of China and decades of foreign policy failures, we also consider an antagonistic Russia outraged by unwarranted NATO expansion, an E.U. increasingly skeptical of U.S. interventionism, and a nationalist nuclear India wary of Chinese ascendancy, then it is obvious that the U.S. is no longer free to act unilaterally without counterweight or external consequence. We are no longer a unipole.
But on the other hand, if we consider that the U.S. dollar remains the global reserve currency, and if we reflect on the fact that the managerial and financial elite who dominate the American administrative state and cultural and economic institutions are the same class of liberal internationalists that dominate major global institutions, then it is equally obvious that we remain to a degree the world hegemon. The U.S. remains the capital of something called the liberal world order. Geopolitics, and our Romanesque extended republic, exist in an ambiguous liminal space right now, the opportunity for total dominance squandered, but strength not yet totally diminished.
Acknowledging the U.S.’s continued position as hegemon, there may be a temptation to describe the developing system as bipolar, with China as the only rival worth mentioning—especially as COVID-19 continues to bring anti-CCP sentiment to the forefront of American politics. The integration of China into the global market produced a rival to the U.S., particularly as assessed by the GNP/GDP measure of potential military might that theorists such as George Kennan advocated for. But while China’s GNP/GDP could very well surpass the U.S.’s soon enough, until efforts to dominate international institutions and displace the dollar succeed, it is hard to see how China could either bump the U.S. from our diminished hegemonic position or fully distinguish itself from other significant powers.
China’s regional rivals, such as nuclear India or near-nuclear Japan, will work to balance against its expansion with or without a robust U.S. presence in East Asia. Moreover, while direct confrontation of China risks nuclear war, as the rising power, China currently has to make the first move, to the deterrence advantage of us or any other regional nuclear powers. Nuclear states such as Russia and wealthy near-nuclear states such as Japan make the distinction between a polar power and regional major power more ambiguous. Even as a kind of hegemon we are not China’s only rival, which should make us reconsider whether it is really ours.
An even more basic way to assess the global situation than GDP (or nuclear programs)—though attenuated by advances in naval, air, and information power—is demography and territory. The United States is a massive country spanning a continent protected by two oceans; for sheer size we have only a few rivals. Considering populations of course reiterates the importance of China in global politics going forward, but also adds a point to taking India more seriously. Traditionally, however, the true danger to U.S. hegemony has been a Eurasian hegemon dominating the heartland of both continents. A quick reflection on the last century will remind you that traditional candidates for this, of course, have been Russian or German-speaking regimes, but with a longer view Turkish or Persian aren’t out of the question. The threat of Russia gets too much attention as it is, but Americans would benefit from remembering history and learning to think of Europe as something that can, has, and will exist apart from American-led NATO domination, and the Middle East as an ancient home to empires.
An emphasis on population and territory—especially paired with a reasonable expectation that the current pause in nuclear proliferation will likely deteriorate along with liberal internationalism—makes the possibility of reentering a period of genuine multipolarity more plausible. That it is possible to rank the significant powers surely doesn’t mean only the top two matter. What makes all this additionally complicated and dynamic is the, possibly-related, combination of global demographic collapse and climate change. As the world has fewer babies the comparative productivity advantages of the already large nations will grow, and a use-it-or-lose-it, last chance window to field significant military force will also become more apparent to any ambitious powers. Add this to the relative advantage the large countries and regions of the northern hemisphere will have in adapting to changing climatic conditions, multiplied by the politics of mass migration, and we have an equation for something that looks like the historically normal multipolar world.
While the United States still possesses the vast preponderance of power and influence within the various pieces of the international order, we can no longer call it a single coherent order. Unipolarity is dead, and it seems probable that a meaningful multipolarity will soon replace what is still hegemony; our strategy must reflect this reality. Liberal internationalism sought to build with American might a network of institutions that would preserve world peace and prosperity through interconnectedness and a commitment to ideological liberalism. This network still exists as an international order, but it is no longer a singular liberal structure led by America. Instead, it is the field in which a still-U.S.-dominated world of bounded regional orders increasingly behave according to balance-of-power dynamics. Despite all its good intentions, the old order failed to preserve the conditions necessary for its perpetuation, let alone peace.
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