19 March 2023

America Is Too Scared of the Multipolar World

Stephen M. Walt

The Biden administration is striving for a unipolar order that no longer exists.

After the United States moved from the darkness of the Cold War into the pleasant glow of the so-called unipolar moment, a diverse array of scholars, pundits, and world leaders began predicting, yearning for, or actively seeking a return to a multipolar world. Not surprisingly, Russian and Chinese leaders have long expressed a desire for a more multipolar order, as have the leaders of emerging powers such as India or Brazil. More interestingly, so have important U.S. allies. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder warned of the "undeniable danger" of U.S. unilateralism, and former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine once declared that "the entire foreign policy of France … is aimed at making the world of tomorrow composed of several poles, not just one." Current French President Emmanuel Macron's support for European unity and strategic autonomy reveals a similar impulse.

Surprise, surprise: U.S. leaders don't agree. They prefer the expansive opportunities and gratifying status that come from being the indispensable power, and they have been loath to abandon a position of unchallenged primacy. Back in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration prepared a defense guidance document calling for active efforts to prevent the emergence of peer competitors anywhere in the world. The various National Security Strategy documents issued by Republicans and Democrats in subsequent years have all extolled the need to maintain U.S. primacy, even when they acknowledge the return of great power competition. Prominent academics have weighed in too—some arguing that U.S. primacy is "essential to the future of freedom," and good for the United States and the world alike. I've contributed to this view myself, writing in 2005 that "the central aim of U.S. grand strategy should be to preserve its position of primacy for as long as possible." (My advice on how to achieve that goal was ignored, however.)

Although the Biden administration recognizes that we are back in a world of several great powers, it seems nostalgic for the brief era when the United States didn't face peer competitors. Hence its vigorous reassertion of "U.S. leadership," its desire to inflict a military defeat on Russia that will leave it too weak to cause trouble in the future, and its efforts to stifle China's rise by restricting Beijing's access to critical technological inputs while subsidizing the U.S. semiconductor industry.

Even if these efforts succeed (and there's no guarantee they will), restoring unipolarity is probably impossible. We are going to end up in 1) a bipolar world (with the United States and China as the two poles) or 2) a lopsided version of multipolarity where the United States is first among a set of unequal but still significant major powers (China, Russia, India, possibly Brazil, and conceivably a rearmed Japan and Germany).

What sort of world would that be? International relations theorists are divided on this question. Classical realists such as Hans Morgenthau believed multipolar systems were less war-prone because states could realign to contain dangerous aggressors and deter war. For them, flexibility of alignment was a virtue. Structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz or John Mearsheimer argued the opposite. They believed bipolar systems were in fact more stable because the danger of miscalculation was reduced; the two main powers knew the other would automatically oppose any serious attempt to alter the status quo. Moreover, the two main powers were not as dependent on allied support and could keep their clients in line when necessary. For structural realists, the flexibility inherent in a multipolar order creates greater uncertainty and makes it more likely that a revisionist power will think it can alter the status quo before the others can combine to stop it....

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