Who, if anyone, rules the world? Answering a question like that requires grappling with both the character of international order and the global distribution of power—facets of political life that are related but should not be conflated.
Taken together, these two datasets give a more granular sense of what may be going on: America has not necessarily lost control over the instruments of global power that it has long possessed, but the control and influence afforded by its power resources is delivering diminishing returns.
Put differently, the international architecture that enacts a US-centered hegemonic order continues to be staffed by a cadre that likely supports traditional US power-hoarding interests. But the world is also becoming multipolar (or “multiplex”) in important ways. And neither of these trends is necessarily a good thing.
What’s At Stake in Changing Patterns of Order
The liberal hegemonic ordering of world politics—which was never as total as it sounds—was always underwritten by American primacy. Multilateral institutions and intergovernmental organizations may have been the ligatures of global order, but the politics expressed through them were reliably downstream of America’s preferences. No US capacity to dominate, no hegemonic order.
That matters for policymakers because America’s primacy-inflected strategy toward the world is likely unsustainable if either the distribution of global power is becoming more diffuse (post-unipolar) or international order is becoming more pluralistic (post-hegemonic).
The relation between power and order also matters for progressives and anti-imperialists of varied hues. Accurately understanding how power in the world is already structured is a prerequisite to changing it. In both radical circles and the New Social Movements that surged starting in the 1980s, the core conceit of much leftist analysis has been that the United States functions as a global hegemon.
Whether we want to uphold the world as it is or fundamentally alter it, power-political terrain affects what kinds of strategies make sense or are possible. We therefore need to understand the extent to which American hegemony is our object of concern (whether to preserve it or target it), or whether the world has moved beyond it.
That means that, at a minimum, we need to be able to make the crude distinction between a unipolar or multipolar system, but we also need to be able to think beyond that, about structures of power that do not map neatly onto a genealogically realist typology.
The Power in International Order
As a starting point, it’s worth noting that in raw military terms, power has been diffusing for more than a decade. Some of that owes to technological change (e.g., precision-guided munitions) and the military concepts built around it (e.g., anti-access/area denial). Some of it owes to the geography of the balance of military power, which puts the US in a very disadvantageous position in the places it claims to care about most. Some of it owes to America’s forever wars and the financialization of the US defense industry, which has left the Pentagon paying too much for too little and incentivizing military planners to think their way into otherwise avoidable conflicts abroad.
But you don’t have to embrace realist currency (the capacity for militarized violence) to think that the world is no longer unipolar. Everyone from the National Intelligence Council to prominent IR scholars to the head of the European Central Bank and the president of France—to say nothing of views from the global South—see the world as rapidly multipolarizing.
As the world becomes more multipolar, the expectation is that states will bandwagon with the United States less often, buck US preferences more frequently, and increasingly act in ways that Washington will struggle to inhibit. When people and institutions claim the world is multipolar—or becoming more so—they are often pointing to evidence of American de-centering, making US preferences an increasingly poor predictor of world currents.
A dilution of American power in these ways is not inherently good or bad.
It’s true that revisionist actors often promote a rhetoric of multipolarity as part of wish-casting for a world where they do not face opposition from the United States. But US power hasn’t exactly been wielded in peaceful ways under unipolarity. And democratic struggles the world over call forth a multipolar world too, not for reasons of nationalist self-aggrandizement per se but rather because “diluting or kneecapping imperial power [even of the US] is a step on the road to liberation and/or class war.”
But multipolarity can take many political forms and it matters a great deal who benefits politically from a terrain of diffuse (rather than concentrated) power.
An ethnonationalist multipolarity would be indistinguishable from “great-power” multipolarity. It would be order as imperialistic politics, pure and simple.
Corporate multipolarity, effectively a neoliberal political order, might be hard to distinguish from liberal hegemonic ordering since the 1970s. States and multilateral institutions could still be in charge, but they exist foremost in service of the interests of capital.
And a liberatory multipolarity would be one in which states do not divert societal resources toward war optimization, national economies are not kept in dependency traps, and civil societies could access international means to contest the control of despotic regimes. Such a progressive global order has never really existed, but could.
So we can imagine an ethnonationalist multipolarity, a corporate multipolarity, and a democratic or liberatory multipolarity, each of which would involve diffuse power distributions while implying distinct kinds of political order. We might also expect pathways to war (and the likelihood of it) to vary in each version of multipolarity.
Multiplexity with Hegemonic Bones
So even if we can see the world is multipolar/multipolarizing, we need to know more. This is where turning to data can be useful.
Social Sources of Hegemonic Architecture
Security in Context’s (SiC’s) new dataset tags the leader attributes of some 200 international organizations since roughly the onset of the unipolar moment (the past 25 years). Their IO database tracks the nationality, gender, educational level, educational pedigree and more of the heads and boards of multilateral institutions, prominent global NGOs, and transnational organizations.
SiC’s data indicates the United States (as well as a handful of global North countries) remains firmly in control of the traditional ligatures of global order—the world’s financial, trade, and political architecture. American citizens are massively overrepresented in the leadership of multilateral institutions. Such organizations were, unsurprisingly, run by graduates from a handful of the world’s elite schools. And those schools are located disproportionately in the United States. It matters who leads international organizations and the cadre that has been leading it for the past 25 years has not changed much.
All of this echoes social-network research by Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn and Naná de Graaff in 2016, which showed that overlapping elite networks connecting high finance to the defense industry and governmental positions produced most of the people who played a key role in the making of US grand strategy over time.
It’s not an accident that US foreign policy served foremost the interests of capital—it was a function of who was doing foreign policy and their backgrounds. Elite social sites (Washington think tanks, Wall Street firms, Ivy League schools) are also sites of aristocratic and managerial-class reproduction.
This kind of snapshot suggests the same types of people from the same types of places continue to run the formal institutions of global order. You could interpret that as a conclusion that liberal hegemony remains intact because American placement in liberal hegemony’s key institutional sites remains intact.
A G-Plus Order?
But that’s where the other dataset—from Acharya, Estevadeordal, and Goodman—has much more to add.
Their dataset searched for patterns across 33,104 treaties between 1945 2017. Consistent with the SiC dataset, they find that “the United States remain a central actor in global treaty-based cooperation.” Sounds superficially liberal hegemonic.
What they add though, comes from the concept of “interaction capacity.”
Drawing on Buzan and Little, they describe interaction capacity as the ability to engage in cooperative exchanges. Treaties tend to increase the interaction capacity of actors, and higher interaction capacity empowers agents to pursue their interests and shape global patterns without having large militaries or reifying American hegemony.
This quite valuably shifts our focus from material attributes (militaries, weapons systems, GDP) to exchanges of various types.
Armed with this interaction-capacity concept, their dataset shows that patterns of cooperation are increasingly multi-centered and pluralistic. Different issue areas (environment, finance, security, governance, etc) evince different leading actors and different clusters of actors working together. Over time, the traditional “great” powers represent a declining share of treaty-making.
The authors call this overall trend—of a diffusion of cooperation—a sign of “multiplexity” rather than multipolarity.
Acharya pioneered the term “multiplex” a few years ago in an excellent, slim book. You could argue the term has more analytical utility than multipolarity, and it has the virtue of dispensing with a vocabulary that has a realist vintage.
But multiplexity is conceptually thin—which has pros and cons. It totalizes the world as more complex and de-centered; sensible enough. But it conflates the various kinds of multipolarity (or diffuse power arrangements) that are possible. Multiplexity is a useful way to explicitly denote that we’re talking about a multiplicity of actors rather than just great powers, but multiplexity avoids specifying who benefits from diffusions of power, and more importantly, who is exploited by them.
We need look no further than the just-signed treaty between Australia and Tuvalu to see what I mean. Strictly speaking, it’s a situation that would be coded as representing some kind of post-hegemonic, high-interaction capacity agreement. In actuality though, the treaty codifies a dependency relationship that is being converted into sphere-of-influence geopolitics, spearheaded by a sub-imperial power.
Multiplexity is a fine framework, but it doesn’t necessarily get us closer to distinguishing the various forms of order that might be attached to a multipolar distribution of power.
Be Careful What You Wish For
From these two datasets it looks like the architecture of liberal hegemonic order remains in place but perhaps is becoming less relevant to what happens in the world. The United States is still quite powerful by any measure, but there are alternatives to the US provision of public or private goods depending on the issue and geography in play. And, given who leads international organizations, we should not expect the institutions that have long embodied liberal internationalism to reform themselves anytime soon.
But given both military trends and the multiplex diffusion of cooperation happening across time and issue areas, thinking about the world as if it were a liberal hegemonic order offers declining analytical purchase.
The troubling thing for lovers of democracy or peace is that neither dataset gives us reason to believe that a liberatory multipolarity is on the horizon. Instead, we seem to inhabit a world where the only alternative to a neoliberal political-economic order (attached to corporate multipolarity) is just rapacious great-power ordering (attached to ethnonationalist multipolarity).
*Disclaimer: I have an affiliation with Security in Context and probably wouldn’t have known about their dataset (which is publicly accessible) had I not been affiliated with them.
Cross-posted at Security in Context.