To Fear or Love Multipolarity?

13 August 2022, 1730 EDT

The global distribution of material power changes from time to time. It’s something that happens, not something we should spend any amount of time pursuing or avoiding. I say this as someone who thinks the United States has done questionable good and much unquestionable harm with its former status as a unipolar power, so this is not a proxy argument about US foreign policy.  

You might be wondering who wants multipolarity, and the answer is lots of folks. 

Most versions of the coalition favoring foreign policy restraint implicitly seek a multipolar world. China has also long routinely called for a multipolar world as part of its soft-power pitch to the global South. And in parts of the left ecosystem of twitterpodcasts, and newsletters, the assumption that multipolarity is desirable has achieved the status of meme-level truth. 

Foreign policy restrainers don’t advocate for multipolarity explicitly, and I’m not going to attempt to deconstruct China’s rhetoric on this, but the reasoning of the left-multipolarists goes something like this.  

Empires represent illegitimate concentrations of power that’s used to dominate others. The world we seek is genuinely post-imperial, so diluting or kneecapping imperial power is a step on the road to liberation and/or class war. And the United States is the only global-scale empire today—we have been living in the “unipolar moment” since the end of the Cold War. Therefore, transitioning out of unipolar empire necessarily entails transitioning into a different distribution of power—multipolarity being preferable to a bipolar clash of empires. 

This math doesn’t add up, even putting aside whether it’s correct to label the United States an empire (it has some imperial relations, but the ordering construct it perpetuates is more hegemonic than imperial). 

First, the world was multipolar for most of the “age of empire” and it sucked for anyone seeking peace or democracy because, well, it was the age of empire. The historical fact that empires were the dominant mode of global ordering under conditions of multipolarity should give anyone who values peace and democracy pause about lobbying on multipolarity’s behalf.  

Second, the regime governing China is reactionary, and its political project is antagonistic to anti-imperialism—the Communist Party of China is an imperial power, even if we’re using the left’s standards for what empire is. If an actually existing empire seeks multipolarity, well shouldn’t that make you consider why?

Third, much of what international relations theory tells us about multipolarity casts it in a negative light. It’s widely (though not entirelythought to be a combustible configuration of power. Not only is it a condition that favors more fluid and less reliable alliances; it supposedly also makes for nervous neighbors, sustaining too many potential conflict dyads across which mistrust and relative-gains thinking leads to arms-racing. It’s hard to see how a system more prone to great-power war is beneficial to the cause of peace and democracy. 

You might read the negative implications of multipolarity as amounting to a preference against multipolarity. But that too would be the wrong way to view it. The global distribution of power is an objective condition—it doesn’t harbor any prejudice for or against particular forms of governance or hierarchy…which is why it’s totally compatible with imperial structures. 

The distribution of power matters only insofar as we have theories that can make claims about its effects on [choose your outcome of concern—war, alliance durability, national liberation struggles, whatever]. 

The negative implications of multipolarity owe to the neorealist assumption that the international system is anarchical. Yet there’s a vast literature on hierarchy and international order (to which I’ve contributed!) that challenges the centrality of anarchy as the anchoring concept for how we make sense of world politics (the Whisky & IR Theory podcast has a rich episode about “New Hierarchy Studies” that talks about this). 

If we’re to take the hierarchy literature even a little bit seriously, then anarchy is not all it’s cracked up to be. Puncturing the assumption that links multipolarity to war proneness and brittle alliances opens the possibility—even likelihood—that multipolarity is not as dangerous as we think. You can explain World War I, for example, as empires consuming themselves rather than viewing it as the byproduct of war-inducing structural and psychological phenomena that multipolarity supposedly unleashed.  

And so we should be sensitive to the incentives and tendencies multipolarity introduces, if any, but the structure itself is not something we should be strategizing to realize or avoid.

I should say that the desirability of multipolarity is contested within the left, and there is a version of the left-multipolarity preference that, while uncommon, makes more sense than what I laid out above. Aziz Rana, who has emerged as one of the heavyweight intellectuals of leftist foreign policy thought, has a new interview out in Jacobin doubling down on the desirability of multipolarity. 

What makes Rana’s aspirational multipolarity unique, however, is that it is not shorn of political prerequisites. He recognizes that the global distribution of power is compatible with many forms of political order, and laments that “the version of multipolarism that’s emerging right now is not that emancipatory one.”  

For Rana, the world we should want to live in, the one worth building toward, is not necessarily one that involves extreme concentrations of global power. To that extent, you could say multipolarity is a feature of the utopia toward which we ought to strive. But two caveats.

The first is that just because a diffusion of power describes an aspect of the world we seek does not mean we can reach that world by sequencing multipolarity before other power-political and institutional changes. It’s not “Step 1: end unipolarity. Step 2: […]. Step 3: global social democracy.” Checking a superpower’s power does not necessarily move you any closer to a better world—especially if that power is being used for social democratic or peaceful purposes (at this point I don’t think it is, but that could change). Also, in my estimation, the unipolar moment crested more than a decade ago.

The second caveat is that one-world governance entails an extreme concentration of power that’s encased in a political arrangement that tames and subordinates it to the common good. Some, but not all, leftists, progressives, peace intellectuals, and even pragmatists do strive for genuine global governance. So you can have a vision for global peace and justice without multipolarity. 

This, then, leads to the crucial unanswered question: Given our current historical conjuncture, how does a multipolar distribution of power strengthen the hand of the working class, indigenous communities, left-aligned political parties, or those who would make peace among nations regardless of their political project? I’m open to good arguments in this regard, but am still waiting for one.