The history of the international system is one of perpetual dynamism. For as long as international politics has been studied, it has been wrought with cross-cutting alliances, coalitions, estrangements and discord. Even before nation-states became the international standard, every kingdom or group or community where individuals existed, attempted to develop the capacity to influence the actions of the other groups in global politics. With the advent of borders, territorial sovereignty and international relations conducted between free and equal nation-states, the question of which State carries the most global influence has become an even more essential one. If a particular State or group of States carries the weight of global influence, it entails that they are the drivers of all the international economic, social and political processes that affect all other States. When the world is as interconnected and interdependent as it is today, the issue of which State is the most influential and most powerful has far-reaching effects on the international experiences of other States. The purpose of this article is to study the rise of multipolarity in international politics. In aid of this, it will first introduce the concept of polarity in international relations and explore its various manifestations, i.e., unipolarity, bipolarity and multipolarity. It will then analyse how the global trends of international affairs, in general, have moved between unipolarity, bipolarity and multipolarity today, though the process has not always been linear and there has not always been a uniform consensus on which State possesses the most influence. Finally, this article will also consider Jawaharlal Nehru’s role as one of the earliest forerunners of multipolarity in a then-deeply bipolar world to elucidate India’s ascendance as one of the major centres of global power in contemporary international relations.
The Concept of Polarity
In international relations, polarity concerns any of the different ways in which power is concentrated and distributed within the international system of States. On the basis of whether the international system is unipolar (one centre of powers), bipolar (two centres of power), or multipolar (many centres of power), one can understand the nature of the international system and its political, economic and social characteristics. The objective of comprehending international politics in this way, by focusing on the competing influence of States and the global distribution of power, has generally been to determine which constellation of authority would lead to a stable and peaceful world order. John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth have argued that unipolarity leads to stability, while Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer believe that bipolar systems are more stable. Karl Deutsch and J. David Singer have contended that the multipolar system is the most stable of all.
It is the opinion of most contemporary scholars that neither bipolarity nor unipolarity can ever be the permanent condition of international politics because it is in an environment of constantly changing alliances and perpetually evolving national capabilities accompanying revolutions in technology, transport and communications. The international system is too vibrant and too dynamic, there are too many ever-changing variables, and there are always powers that are rising and those that are receding. It is thus improbable that in this milieu, any power (or any two powers) would hold maximum influence for too long. Nevertheless, there are several historical incidences of multipolarity. In the early 17th century, there existed a multipolar European order that consisted of the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs German Protestant princes, France, Denmark, Sweden, England and the United Provinces. This system was washed away by the religious, territorial and dynastic conflicts over domestic politics and balance of power in the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), and was replaced by the Peace of Westphalia, which introduced the concept of sovereign nation-states. This system was confronted by the growth of the Napoleonic Empire, which was then defeated in 1815 and superseded by the Concert of Europe formed by the great powers-led Congress of Vienna. The Concert of Europe comprised of the Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain. It was, historically, an instance of a genuinely stable multipolarity as the system managed to achieve a temporary balance of power in Europe, maintain the territorial status quo, contain the rise of Spain and Italy, and protect the independence of Greece and Belgium. However, this system did not last and was replaced by the British great-power hegemony and Britain’s control over the economic and political futures of the rest of the world.
Britain’s relative unipolarity lasted from 1815 to 1939, according to the neorealist Robert Gilpin. Though the Concert of Europe was largely multipolar, after Napoleon’s defeat, there were signs that indicated that Britain would lead the Quadruple Alliance. The British Empire became the largest empire in history, and under Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) at its acme, ruled over about a quarter of the world’s territories and populations. The basis of Britain’s hegemony was two-pronged. It was based on its enormous and powerful navy, ensuring that, like the Dutch, British power was mainly seaborne and maritime. Their navy and predominance in the maritime sphere also gave them access to territories located in the rim of the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, that augmented their acquisition of several colonies around the world leading to unhindered profits and wealth-accumulation for several years.
Britain was also a forerunner in the Industrial Revolution, and thus already possessed the machinery and technology that would form the basis of the emerging era of capitalist expansionism, and that were never witnessed by the territories they colonised. Scholars disagree on when the end of Britain’s unipolarity may be located. Some argue that the independence of America in 1783 by the American Revolutionary War spelled the close of British hegemony, as even European observers like Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville became convinced that American ascendency was the future of world politics. Others point to the tumultuous history of the two World Wars that precluded the opportunity of any State to become too influential, especially because the classification of the nature of polarity also requires that international politics be relatively stable. In their opinions, it was the fall of the British colonies that terminated British unipolarity. As India and Africa became independent after hard-fought wars of independence, Britain lost what had been its primary source of income and prosperity over at least two hundred years. In any case, as the international community was gradually united in its acceptance of liberal values of freedom and equality, Britain’s gory history of colonisation no longer had the ideological support of the world.
Era of Bipolarity
The Cold War (1947 – 1991) and Détente (1967 – 1979) as broadly been accepted as an era of bipolarity between the great powers of the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or the Soviet Union). The fundamental basis of bipolarity was an ideological contradiction between these two powers. In the aftermath of the two World Wars, the USA and the USSR disagreed on what would be the ideological basis of the new, post-World War international system. For the former, it was liberalism and commercialism, while for the latter, it was communism. This great power rivalry between two powers convinced of their vision of the world was complicated by the advent of nuclear power into the formula, that created almost-catastrophic conditions (exemplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962), and led to a global arms race and accumulation of frightening numbers of strategic and conventional weapons. There are two main approaches to viewing the bipolarity that arose during the Cold War. The traditionalist approach was generally heralded by American scholars then, while the Revisionist approach was heralded by Soviet scholars as well as other scholars from Continental Europe. For the traditionalists, after the Second World War, USSR’s policy was expansionist and aggressive. The Soviet Union did not fully acknowledge the US-led United Nations, and continued to expand Eastern Europe, Poland and Afghanistan through the mobilisation of its armies, contravening the American vision of the new world. To the Americans, the USSR and its gradually encompassing policy of international communism were against the ideals of a free world.
The Soviet Union’s assistance to Mao Tse-tung in the Chinese Civil War, to communist North Korea eroding the 38 degrees border with South Korea, to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Sukarno in Indonesia – all convinced the USA that a “red tide” was inundating Southeast Asia and East Asia, especially the newly-independent India and Pakistan (which the Americans were afraid would become communist, thus rejecting the American vision). The revisionist view locates the Cold War and the consequent bipolarity in the American policy of exceptionalism and needless fear-mongering. This was a view that was also used to challenge the USA’s policy of stockpiling both conventional and strategic nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War. This view articulated that though the USSR may have been an ideological competition to the USA’s vision of the world, it was absolutely not a military threat. The Soviet Union was weaker, and overstretched across its massive territory, and had suffered the great brunt of World War II, unlike the USA. Indeed, despite even Sputnik, the USSR simply did not possess the capability or the economic capacity to counter the USA’s production and accumulation of nuclear weapons and definitely was too moderate in its policies to be termed expansionism. In fact, this view locates the tendency of expansionism on the side of America which raised the spectre of a communist Asia to ensure that there would be no competition to their construction of an economic hegemony based on the principles of capitalist expansion in East and Southeast Asia. Indeed, these scholars view the Marshall Plan, the Yoshida Doctrine, the reconstruction plans in the Middle East, as well as the new open liberal free trade international order, as faces of American political expansionism.
USA and Unipolarity
This bipolarity, however, did not last long, and with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the USA lost its ideological opposition in international politics. Though nations in Southeast and East Asia like China and India were gradually becoming powerful, there was, for some years, a unipolar world again, with USA at its helm. As the only superpower, the USA possessed geographic, techno-military, economic and political superiority. To Samuel Huntington, Brooks and Wohlforth, after 1989, the USA became a “lonely superpower capable of imposing its will on other countries”. Geographically, America, unlike the European countries and Russia, is not landlocked by potential enemies. Indeed, though it has engaged in proxy-wars, its geographical isolation has ensured that there have been no attacks on the mainland. America is also intensely technologically advanced, which has led to the development of the most-advanced and vastly powerful military in the world. The technological innovations occurring continuously across the USA, in weapons technology and satellite communications have reinforced a revolution in military affairs that has allowed it to possess strong air, land and sea capabilities and to project its influence globally.
Its budgetary allocation for defence is the highest in the world, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) approximating that in 2011, the military spending of the USA accounted for more than 40% of the world total. In its formulation of the neoliberal economic system based on liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation, the USA also held economic primacy. Through its support of the Bretton Woods system, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund – the USA holds the reins of the global liberal economic order and has indeed influenced the domestic policies of other States by enforcing their compliance to the new international economic order in return for foreign aid though its policy of mandatory economic restructuring. Politically too, the USA has been extremely preponderant, especially due to its disproportionate influence in the United Nations that has allowed it to pursue its interests mostly unencumbered, acting as a global policeman. The democratic peace theory by Michael Doyle that contends that democratic States do not go to war with each other has been used as the justification for the USA to promote and support liberal democracies globally. It has thus, engaged in “scenario building” by militarily and financially supporting anti-communist and guerrilla movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, all in the name of international democracy and freedom. These credentials are generally suspect, and the international community’s faith in American motives began to waver at the beginning of the 2000s, which was exacerbated by the asymmetrical and low-intensity conflicts as well as frightening experiences of violence and terrorism occurring where the USA had intervened.
A New Multipolar World Order
Scholars maintain that, in general, international politics have been deeply multipolar since 2001, with the rise of different centers of national power possessing varying degrees of influence. The economic crisis experienced by the USA causing it to pull out from its international arrangements has provided a space for China’s global leadership and has ensured that it “presents the most promising all-round profile of a potential superpower” according to Barry Buzan in 2004. When the USA was economically devastated in 2008, China entered into massive trade investment agreements with Latin America and Africa, its burgeoning GDP as well as the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia have allowed it to access a large swathe of global influence. As it is expanding across Southeast, East and Central Asia, SIPRI calculated that “China has increased its military spending by 170% in real terms since 2002, and by more than 500% since 1995.” Its immense population, labour power, productive capacity and ‘consultative’ economic and political style of expansionism have placed powerfully in the global superpower club. The United Arab Emirates is another contender and has, after the Arab Spring and the rise of Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and commander of the UAE’s armed forces) become a powerful player in the Middle East capable of shaping international economics and politics. While its approaches to combatting the threats of extremism and terrorism are not formally condoned globally, it has undertaken large-scale coordinated military endeavors in the Gaza strip, Iraq, Syria and Egypt that have secured it international praise and American-Israeli alliance partnerships. Its economy is projected to grow 2.5% in 2021 in both oil and non-oil GDP, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and is expected to fully recover by 2022. Russia, which enjoys preponderance over the production and export of oil and gas in its own massive territorial expanse, as well as in the States of Central Asia like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, is also another potential centre of global power. Its military expenditure has increased 16% in 2011 since 2008 and has had the highest upsurge in military expenditure in Eastern Europe between 1998 and 2007. Its control over the prices and pipelines of gas through Europe allows it to autonomously exploit the natural resources and progress economically, which has thrust it to the helm of international relations again. Indeed, the partnership between Russia and China on the One Belt One Road Initiative across Siberia and Central Asia has an undeniable potential to relocate the focus of global politics to these two powers.
India in Contemporary International Relations
Analysts worldwide project India to become a superpower in the 21st century and maintain a 7% annual growth rate ahead of China in 2024. Its democratic institutions, demographic dividend of a youthful population, and the impetus given to entrepreneurship and resource optimisation, have put the nation assuredly on the map as one of the emerging economic poles of the world. India’s tryst with multipolarism is not new, and indeed, it was the efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon that ensured that even when India was newly independent, it could halt the developing unipolarity in the world. India was essential in bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War by helping negotiate the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 through its efforts in the UN General Assembly and the establishment of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission of which it was the Chair, and which would deliberate the fate of 20,000 prisoners of war. Similarly, in the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, India intervened to support Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalise the canal while also balancing against the belligerent British, French, and American perspectives. It was pivotal in the passing of the UNSC Resolution ‘Uniting For Peace’ that called for full compliance with a ceasefire through the ‘Nehru-Eisenhower’ formula. Indeed, it was Nehru’s belief that regional progress and security could be secured through non-alignment to the Soviet and American blocs, and through building collaborations with the newly-decolonized nations across Asia, Europe and Africa like Yugoslavia, Egypt and Indonesia. It was these efforts at internationalism and Asianism that aimed at creating a space (or a pole) in international affairs which would be led by China and India, and would, through balancing against the influences of the two Cold War blocs, represent the interests of the global south as well as protect the international system against total bipolarity. The first and second Asian Relations Conferences were held in New Delhi in 1947 and 1949 respectively, and the Bandung Conference of 1955 were major steps in this process of developing Asian solidarity and in the launching of the Non-Aligned Movement that complicated Cold War bipolarity.
It is because of Nehru’s (and his advisors’) efforts that India still does not conform to any specific international bloc led by hegemons, and instead, when it does get into alliance-partnerships, it does so with nations on the basis of equality and cooperation, like in case of BRICS, the ASEAN or the SAARC. India’s membership and often leadership in all these organizations of regional cooperation have allowed it to become a nerve of economic and political power in Asia, and their ideological predecessors may well be found in the Nehruvian non-alignment. At all points throughout history, whenever international forces have pushed towards the concentration of power in one source, States like India, Brazil, China, South Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, or Malaysia have presented challenges to overarching unipolarity or bipolarity. It is because of these countries that no analysis of international politics at any point may be termed monolithically bipolar or unipolar. The global south is the standard-bearer of multipolarity, and its dynamic and rapidly-prosperous States are becoming increasingly capable of challenging the superpowers of international relations.
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