The capacity to hold power is particularly challenging and fraught with perils. Ultimately, history revealed how many governments rose to prominence through peace and conflict, especially in Europe. The article “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War” by John J. Mearsheimer outlines how most countries share bipolar and multipolar power systems. Mearsheimer believes that the end of the Cold War is likely to be a regrettable event for the globe. Many people will someday lament the Cold War’s demise, even if they do not want it back. As can be observed in Europe today, it is perceived as a multipolar system, putting it in a precarious conflict situation.
Mearsheimer argues that international relations have evolved after the Cold War. In the medium term, it is possible that violence will not worsen due to the end of the Cold War. However, there will be far more aggression in the long term, given that the division and nature of military strength between nations are the core drivers of both war and peace in the world (Mearsheimer). Since 1945, three influences have contributed to the preservation of peace in Europe. These include the continent’s bipolar disposition of military influence, the almost comparable military might of the polar nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the ceremonially lamented reality that these heavyweights possess a sizable nuclear stockpile (Mearsheimer). Accordingly, Mearsheimer suggests that Europe will reintroduce the multipolar power division that the Peace of Westphalia established, despite being abandoned in the Cold War when a bipolar system was established.
The bipolar system appeared to be more stable following the alliances formed between superpowers and lesser states, which ensured collaboration in the event of an assault. Indeed, this form is comparable to the concept of power balance. Perhaps this explains why Mearsheimer asserts that bipolarity is harmonious, believing that the U.S. and the Soviet Union and, with these assurances, their small powers formed a compromise. In other words, both sides were equally strong and incapable of dominating the other and thus appeared to be an eternal era during which no conflict happened de facto, the desired outcome (Mearsheimer). Conversely, it is quite challenging to establish such circumstances under multipolarity whereby each country pursues its priorities with no regard for global power equilibrium.
After World War II, the multipolar system, defined by the quest for power equilibrium amongst major powers so that none was sufficiently powerful to prevail over rivals, evolved into bipolarity. The bipolar system was ruled by two opposing major powers with significant military, economic, and social dominance over their supporters. This almost equivalent power distribution between the U.S. and the USSR led to a world order without periphery and two distinct power spheres (Mearsheimer). Consequently, peace prevailed for over four decades, ensuring harmony between the two superpowers and limiting hostilities around the entire globe. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, the United States stood as the sole superpower in the new unipolar world order.
In a unipolar structure, a state’s influence is not balanced and regulated by the other nations; this discrepancy allows the global system’s superpower to dominate and influence the entire globe. Since the late 1980s, the United States has been regarded as the globe’s economically, militarily, and technologically pioneering nation (Mearsheimer). That is, a solitary powerhouse capable of waging war on other nations with no approval of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, acting beyond international law.
The decline of Unipolarism and Rise of Multipolarism
Certain factors have contributed to and sustained this uneven predominance. For several years, the United States geographic location guaranteed its security: whereas other governments – such as Russia, China, and Europe – are land sovereigns encircled by prospective adversaries, the U.S. is secluded and too far removed from potential adversaries. Subsequently, no nation has attempted an assault on American territory in the past 70 years. An unmatched military might bolster this geographic stability. According to Key, the United States topped the list of nations with the largest military expenditure in 2020, devoting $778 billion to defense. This accounted for 39% of global military expenditure that period (Key). The U.S. military prowess ensures it has a powerful air force and sea and enables it to deploy its force internationally, allowing it to strike a target anywhere and anytime.
Other nations are certainly prepared to take the position of the U.S. on a local level and may strive for great power status in the foreseeable future. For instance, China has pledged to increase its defense spending by 7.1%, translating to $230.16 billion this year (Cheng). Additionally, it is accumulating a portion of the American financial debt and may surpass the U.S. commercially in the coming years. India has been one of the world’s fastest developing countries since 2002, with projections that its growth rate will make the top three in the coming decades (Siddiqui 17). India’s continuous population increase will bolster and enhance the country’s gradual but inevitable economic progress.
Likewise, increased population and a developing economy will help support and promote Brazil’s ascent, a nation that might play a crucial responsibility in the Latin American area in the future. Furthermore, new scenarios may influence future power allocation and play a role in the emergence of new major powers: global warming, for instance, may enable a geographic actor like Russia to utilize natural raw materials on Siberian soil, thereby gaining new power abilities capable of challenging U.S. supremacy. Returning to a multipolar universe marked by great power competition is thus more than a fantasy or a theoretical theory advocated by international relations scholars (Mearsheimer 131). It appears as a plausible and tangible scenario and a reasonable conclusion for the years ahead. This transition from unipolarity to multipolarity may affect the future global order’s balance.
History has proven that multipolarity is inherently more volatile and prone to conflict than unipolarity or bipolarity. For instance, Europe’s contemporary history has been marked by many cases of multipolarity. Multipolar international arrangements created instability throughout the twentieth century, resulting in two global conflicts in less than 50 years. The early twentieth century’s power liquidity and alliance structure were destroyed in 1914 with the murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ullman 2). This tragedy precipitated the outbreak of World War I, a worldwide war that claimed millions of lives in less than five years. After a few years after the war, the multipolar world evolved with a new system of coalitions, and the multilateral League of Nations could not contain Hitler’s totalitarian objectives.
The German conquest of Poland in 1939 triggered World War II, the bloodiest battle in history, resulting in millions of fatalities and the Holocaust. Although the universe has never been multipolar since World War II, these chronicles show how multipolarity frequently generated an unsteady and unpredictable universe, marked by switching coalitions and the desire of rising nations to transform the balance of control and establish a new order. These historical aspects of multipolarity will probably differentiate the present multipolar globe in spite of its tremendous economic connectivity and institutionalization. History has also revealed how the impacts on a stable global economy and international organizations have been occasionally exaggerated.
Without a doubt, World War I crushed this extraordinary level of connectivity. Additionally, the League of Nations’ existence did not avert World War II, and the United Nations’ multilateral corporation has not always been capable of establishing peace and security. Similarly, participation in the European Union did not inhibit European nations from adopting divergent positions and antithetical behaviors in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Hill et al. 43). Thus, switching from a well-established power hierarchy to great power contenders will lead to a highly unstable global order.
Within this context, Russia’s emergence as a nation that exports enormous amounts of gas and oil, regulates the European power supply, and has increased military spending significantly over the previous decade might constitute another source of destabilization for the future global order. Russia has adopted a more aggressive foreign policy and started a military transformation program backed by a significantly expanding military budget in recent decades (Wezeman). Furthermore, the regulation of European gas costs and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Western and Central have already caused friction between the West and Russia. The ability to utilize and produce a considerable quantity, the expansion of its military force, and disagreements with the U.S. on specific foreign policy matters, including Iran’s nuclear scheme or the profile of Kosovo, suggest that a revived Russia could discredit the solidity of the future multipolar system (Zala 23). Thus, a restoration to multipolarity implies increased instability among big nations, supporting Mearsheimer’s argument.
However, competition between major powers would not be the main cause of unrest in a prospective multipolar world. The present distribution of authority enables major countries and medium, minor, and non-state players to possess military forces capable of endangering global security. The existence of nuclear weapons adds another layer of worry, implying that the future world may include the possible instability associated with multipolarity and vast power competition and the hazards associated with nuclear proliferation. Thus, the prospective multipolar world may be more unsteady than any other historical multipolar phase. For the first era in history, the globe may become multipolar and nuclear.
Conclusively, the case of the United States and Russia proves that a bipolar system provides an equal distribution of military might and nuclear warheads and acts as a mechanism for the preservation of long-lasting peace. Technology advancements in terms of improved war strategies led to restraint between nations as a consequence of the potential for losses, as opposed to more violent outcomes. Accordingly, a technology designed to encourage violations became a weapon for preventing conflicts and re-establishing a peaceful atmosphere. However, a multipolar system would entail increased volatility among powerful countries. Superpower competition, however, may not be the primary cause of potential destabilization in the emerging multipolar system. The present power distribution permits big, medium, and minor powers and non-state entities to develop a military capacity that might jeopardize international stability.
Cheng, Evelyn. “China Will Raise Defense Spending by 7.1% in 2022, Faster than Last Year.” CNBC, 2022, Web.
Hill, Christopher, Michael Smith, and Sophie Vanhoonacker. International relations and the European Union. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Key, Briony et al. “Ranking: Military Spending by Country 2020,” Statista, Web.
Mearsheimer, John J. “Back to the future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War.” National and International Security. Routledge, 2018, pp: 107-158.
Mearsheimer, John. “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War – 90.08.” Theatlantic.com, 1990, Web.
Siddiqui, Kalim. “Will The Growth of the Brics Cause A Shift in the Global Balance of Economic Power in the 21st Century?” International Journal of Political Economy, vol. 45, no. 4, 2016, pp: 315-338.
Ullman, Harlan K. “A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.” Naval War College Review, vol. 71, no. 2, 2018, pp: 167-168.
Wezeman, Siemon. “Russia’s Military Spending: Frequently Asked Questions.” Sipri.org, 2020, Web.
Zala, Benjamin. National Perspectives on a Multipolar Order: Interrogating the Global Power Transition. Manchester University Press, 2021.