Russia’s leaders are promoting the concept of “multipolarity” in international relations. The idea is based on two premises – the decline of the United States and the emergence of new “poles” or centers of international power, among which Russia becomes a significant player. But how valid are these “multipolar” premises?
Conventional wisdom presupposes that the world has entered the era of “multipolarity” in which regional influence is allocated to a few selected powers. In reality, the future will be much more messy and unpredictable. There are at least three conceptual problems with the overall notion of “polarity.”
First, it assumes that a large country has substantial attractive influence to become a legitimate magnetic force vis-a-vis its neighbors. Instead, an ambitious government may simply cajole and pressure its neighbors to grudgingly recognize its temporary dominance, but this “pole” of power will generate little loyalty and remain unstable.
Second, the concept of “polarity” underestimates the interests and aspirations of smaller and medium sized countries by placing them within the confines of the ambitions of larger regional powers. It can thereby be used as a smokescreen and justification for neo-imperial dominance that places limitations on the national independence of numerous subordinated states, including Ukraine.
Third, “non-polarity” does not automatically mean international chaos as the multipolar theorists claim. The idea of “chaos” assumes that we will witness a life and death struggle for survival between and within competing states. Although this could be the case in some regions, such as parts of Africa, the self-appointed “polar” powers may themselves be the source of conflict either with each other or by following a policy of “divide and rule.”
In other regions, the absence of hegemony could actually encourage countries to cooperate in order to avoid both chaos and outside dominance. As a result, instead of ensuring stability and security the struggle for “multipolarity” can actually engender conflict, especially where two or more powers compete for predominant influence while smaller states resist their pressures.
More than likely, over the coming decade we will witness a mixed picture of “polarities.” The US will remain the single strongest power but not capable of acting unilaterally or deploying globally. Meanwhile, several “polar” aspirants will compete for regional influence with varying degrees of success in attracting neighbors into their orbit.
America’s predominant global role is declining and in order to be effective and influential in future the US must pursue mutual interests with larger and smaller partners in various regions. America’s impact on the global stage will ultimately depend on its economic revival, on the capabilities of the North Atlantic alliance, and its ability to forge cooperative relations with existing and emerging powers.
In seeking to more rapidly diminish American power, Russia’s leaders support the creation of a “counter-hegemonic bloc.” This is a modern version of an anti-American or anti-Western alliance that was pursued by the Soviet Union and ultimately failed. Moreover, such a strategy faces three core problems: it will stimulate new conflicts with the West, including the European Union; it is unlikely to lead to meaningful or durable cooperation between such diverse countries as China, India, and Russia; and it will be resisted by states and governments which either aspire to be part of the West, look to the West for protection, or admire the liberal model.
As the Russian case has demonstrated, expressions of opposition to the West are driven largely by political and intellectual leaders fearful of losing domestic power and international influence. However, no constructive ideology has emerged that can unite and mobilize diverse states that often possess contrary ambitions in overlapping regions.
The future will not be neatly “multipolar,” a concept that Moscow supports as it divides the world into regions where specific countries dominate and their influence is considered legitimate. Much more likely we will witness a continuing struggle for zones of influence by larger states together with resistance by smaller powers against subservience to assertive neighbors. In sum, any theory of international relations needs to account for a complex reality, and if it cannot explain that reality then it should be discarded and exposed as an ideological tool of foreign policy.