Uni-, multi-, or nonpolar? It depends on where you ask

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Is the world unipolar, multipolar, or nonpolar? It depends whom you ask. But apparently, it may depend even more on where you ask, for national perspectives determine more than anything the lens through which analysts of international relations view and interpret the world.

Many Europeans, for example, tend to believe the world is multipolar, which implies the faint hope that Europe is, in fact, one of the poles. This changes considerably outside of Europe, where the EU is largely seen as an economic block, but not as a serious actor with one voice. Despite a an apparent genetic predisposition for eternal optimism, American analysts of international relations traditionally see the United States in decline, identifying the next best player as the rising pole.  During the Cold War, it was the Soviet Union, in the 1980s it was Japan, and now, of course, China, where,  interestingly enough, many people still regard the world as unipolar and under US rule (a notion that is largely passé in the US). This may be tactics. Describing the world as unipolar, and America as the hegemon, frees China of the evermore pressing question of how China plans to run the show once it is the largest economy in the world - a moment that will arrive, depending on the forecast, between 2025 and 2040.

By that time, however, other players such as India and Brazil plan on playing in the first league (and they are quite likely to do so), so analystst from these two rising powers located on the fringes of the 'Greater West' usually describe the world as moving into a multipolar era, regarding themselves as a pole. Brazil's foreign minister Celso Armorim prefers to identify South America or Latin America as one of the poles of this new multipolarity, but the only half-serious talk to regional integration cannot hide his country's fledgling power ambitions. Yes, the region is important, but Brazil prefers to have the permanent seat on the UN Security Council for itself, and rather not share it Argentina on a rotating principle.

India is more direct, and, as a European diplomat who prefers to remain anonymous recently muttered, as cocky as a future global power could be. India can afford to be patient because it believes to have time on its side. Decades of isolation did little to change its mind and give up its nuclear ambitions. In 2006, when President Bush unilaterally recognized India as a nuclear power, India's confidence got a boost. Why would America, the world's leading power honor a pariah that, located in one of the most dangerous regions of the planet, refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), if it did not exepct India to emerge as a major pole in the near future? Indian thinkers seem less excited about the tectonic power shifts than people elsewhere, because they interpret India's rise as it's rightful and inevitable return to power after a brief interlude of Western domination (similar to China).

Last and least, Russia's thinkers regard Russia as a pole, yet they largely admit that Russia fails to articulate any vision of how the world should be organized outside of what it claims to be its dominion. While the definition of what constitutes a pole remains controversial, virtually all analysts agree that only those powers constitute poles that have significant influence outside of its borders. From this perspective, China is already a pole, and India and Brazil are soon-to-be poles.  Brazil's stance on the squabble about Iran's nuclear ambition is sophisticated indeed, if not brilliant. But that still does not amount to a vision of how the world should be run. In a similar fashion, Indian government officials keep things at the general level. Its reluctance to promote democracy and its devout adherence to Westphalian principles  give a vague idea of how a world led by the likes of India. In a similar fashion, Chinese officials often have surprisingly little to say about how Beijing hopes to run the planet- but then, China sees little need to unnecessarily cause alarm. China's time will come, and rather than making big statements, Chinese officials prefer to lean back and watch a America becomes ever more nervous.

The relatively recent idea that the world is increasingly non-polar, justified, among other issues, by the rise of non-state actors (such as the Taliban, the Gates Foundation, Google,  CNN, etc.), subnational actors (e.g. California or São Paulo)  has gained quite some backing in Western circles. It is true that the rise of non-state actors is important, but it is not entirely new. The East India Company, Rockefeller's Standard Oil and religious outfits of all kinds are examples of powerful non-state actors that have existed in the past. The Taliban may be a non-state actor, but once NATO leaves Afghanistan, it is likely to turn into a state actor. Non-polarity sounds interesting, but it is unlikely to become the accepted norms in India and China, where analysts largely think in terms of state power.

Is there a chance for consensus? For Americans, the unipolar moment is a thing of the past. Others aren't so sure yet. Despite the non-polar fad, thinkers may increasingly disaggregate dimensions of power, distinguishing between military unipolarity (the US military is almost as powerful as all the others combined) and ecnonomic multipolarity- a description that is likely to best capture reality for the decades to come.

Read also:

Why we are underestimating today’s global order

BRIC nations set to take bigger global role

West and the rest

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