Published on February 5th, 20133
A Unipolar World: Systems and Wars in Three Different Military Eras
By Eirik B. Lundestad and Tor G. Jakobsen
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, the first of a series of events bringing the period known as the Cold War to an end. From a state of military multipolarity (1815-1945), the world had progressed to one of bipolarity (1945-1989), to the current situation of unipolarity. It is difficult to see whether or not the world has become more secure following the end of the Cold War.
In 1979, Kenneth Waltz presented his hypothesis stating that the world is more stable if dominated by fewer numbers of great powers. His argument was that alliances become more diffuse in a multipolar world than in a bipolar world. In the multipolar era of world history six states competed for influence and the distribution of power was changing constantly. The Cold War period was stable because domination was shared between two superpowers. Much has changed during the years since Waltz presented his hypothesis.
A Period of Multipolarity (1815–1945)
A system of multipolarity increases rivalry in world politics, the reason being that many states of similar strength compete for power and influence. These states are often uncertain of other states’ intentions, which increases the probability of military action. Also, the power balance in this type of system is changing constantly, as a result of changing alliances.
Multipolarity denotes the fundamental power structure in an international system dominated by several large powers, and is characterized by antagonism between these.
What we know as the classical era of power balance came as a result of planned big power politics. The Napoleonic Wars had led the great powers desiring to prevent similar events taking place in the future. After the defeat of France, the Congress of Vienna determined that five states should dominate world politics together, namely Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, France, and Austria-Hungary.
This power-sharing functioned well for 40 years, until other powers came into play and try to dominate politics. The instability of this system became manifest during the Crimean War (1853–56) when Russia invaded the Ottoman Empire and Britain and France joined forces to counter the Russians. Yet, the hardest blow to peace came with German power ambitions which ended in the First World War. This marked the end of Austria-Hungary.
Finally, the Second World War can be described as the coup de grâce for the multipolar system. This became the end of the European golden age. The end of multipolarity meant that a new challenger was to enter world power politics. Together with the Soviet Union, the United States was to dominate the global arena for the next half century.
A Period of Bipolarity (1945–89)
Bipolarity is used to denote the basic structure in the international system when it is dominated by two superpowers. This means that other states must ally themselves with one of the two major powers, which again limits their room to maneuver and thus result in more stable international politics.
The Cold War is considered as a relatively peaceful period of history, taking into account the absence of wars between the major powers. The bipolar balance of power was also a superpower rivalry between the East and the West, where fear and suspicion characterized the relationship between the two major powers, and confrontation (although not direct war between the two) was commonplace.
The superpowers supported different sides in conflicts during the Cold War, especially in Africa and Asia which often were the battlegrounds for rivalry between the two blocks. The total number of armed conflicts in this period was 115.
The Cold War ended after the Soviet economy had stagnated following their participation in the arms race with the USA, and also as a result of declining oil prices in the 1980s. A later attempt to introduce a market economy failed, the power of the communist party was undermined, East European countries declared independence, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and finally the world saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. When the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned in 1991 it marked the end of the bipolar era in world politics.
A Unipolar Future (1989–present)
Unipolarity is used to describe the power structure when one superpower dominates alone. The end of the Cold War meant that the previous decades’ superpower rivalry now had ended. There was no longer the “traditional” East vs. West conflict, at least not the way it had been earlier in the 20th century.
The United States surfaced as the sole dominating power in world politics as there were no real challengers to their hegemonic position. This allowed greater room for the superpower to maneuver and to get involved in international issues that not necessarily coincided with national interest. We can describe this new political situation as being unipolar.
Has the world become less stable following the end of the Cold War? According to structural realists unipolarity is unstable because it is progressing toward multipolarity, as other powers will seek to break the hegemony of the superpower. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) so eloquently put it: “The strongest is never enough to always be master.”
Even though the superpower can restrain this development, at least in the short run, the power will eventually be weakened as a consequence of dominating other states. The USA has as an example, tried to clinch hegemonic power by keeping 100,000 troops stationed in Asia and Europe. By guaranteeing the safety of its allies, the USA has subdued the need for security for other states.
This has prevented these states from participating in an arms race. However, the dominance is costly, and has limited the USA’s economic growth. In the longer term this will decrease U.S. power because other states do not have the same costs.
We agree that today’s unipolar balance of power is robust. At present time no state seems able to challenge the USA militarily. One of the reasons is that the USA is in a geographically advantageous situation compared to other countries. Relevant challengers like China, Japan, India, and Russia hold less favorable strategic positions as they are amidst more multipolar regions.
Yet, we also agree with Waltz that the USA will become weakened over time due to its over-commitment. But since the system is built around the power of the United States, it will continue to be in existence as long as the USA can attend to the world’s security needs. Unless something unexpected happens, the unipolar balance of power could have a long lifetime.
A whole range of conflicts erupted in the years following the end of the Cold War. Even so, in sum there has been a strong decline in the number of armed conflicts since 1992. The problem of terrorism has not been easy to solve for the USA. Serious terror attacks are the only form of armed conflicts that have increased in numbers. It is difficult to draw any real conclusions as to whether or not the world has become more stable after 1989.
The multipolar system was less stable than the bipolar, and resulted in two world wars. The bipolar era meant more stable international politics due to the dominance of the USA and the Soviet Union. The transition to today’s unipolar power structure has brought major changes to world politics, with the USA emerging as the sole superpower. The total number of armed conflicts has decreased, despite the increase in number of terror attacks. However, it can be argued that the world could again become militarily multipolar, with China and Russia as possible challengers to U.S. hegemonic dominance.
Lundestad, Eirik B. & Tor G. Jakobsen (2011) “Modern Conflicts: World Systems and Wars in Three Different Military Eras” in Tor G. Jakobsen (ed.) War: An Introduction to Theories and Research on Collective Violence. Hauppage, NY: Nova Publishers: 227–233.
Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
*Cover photo by by Expert Infantry