Author: Côme Carpentier de Gourdon – 029/2019
Multipolarity is an often alleged feature of the evolving architecture of the modern world, especially since the 2007/08 crisis which deeply affected dominant western economies and boosted the comparative rise of China, India, Russia and other emerging nations in relative terms.
Yet by definition a planet or a star has only two poles since there is only one polar axis. However some planets have various Suns
A long-held axiom of international relations and world order theories is that multipolarity is inherently unstable and therefore short-lived. It eventually leads to a new bipolar balance or confrontation, whereby all lesser powers choose willy nilly one of two sides. The freedom of action for them is gradually curtailed by the influence of the two hegemons. For instance many international observers aver that Asian and other countries are now under increasing pressure to align themselves either with the USA or with China and that some have already elected or been compelled to choose sides, usually according to geographical, economic and ideological old or recent positions: Japan, Indonesia and Australia with the United States and North Korea, Iran and Venezuela with China to name a few. That summary observation however does not reflect the complexity of the situation and the many nuances that distinguish national policies between them. There are several outliers who are ‘in between’ or try to remain or become ‘bi-polar’ (no derogatory meaning implied) such as India, Turkey, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines and, increasingly Germany, France and Italy despite the appearances of decades long subordination to Washington with regard to some of them. For many states, fast growing business and financial ties to China are challenging traditional strategic dependence on the United States. Russia itself keeps its options open to balance out the preponderant influence of Beijing in the economic realm by seeking to improve relations with Europe and take advantage of President Trump’s personal interest in ‘doing business’ with Moscow.
This fluid and unstable state of affairs may evolve either into a direct conflict between the two alleged ‘hegemons’, the USA and China if the heating trade war takes a more militaristic turn, or it may lead to a modus vivendi between Washington, Beijing (the predicted G-2) and the states in their respective spheres of influence, similar to the bipolar balance of terror mitigated by détente which marked the four decades after the second world war.
It should be noted however that the equation between the two greatest powers of today is substantially different from the relationship that was established between the USSR and the USA. For one, as American policy-makers have highlighted, China is not a ‘Caucasian’ (i.e. white, nominally and culturally Christian) state and civilization and it is the first time in more than six centuries that a white Judeo-Christian power’s dominance is being threatened by a nation which is not of the same stock. We are all remember how Japan, another non-white nation was ruthlessly punished and cut down to size on at least two occasions when it became too powerful, the first time militarily in the nineteen forties and the second in the eighties through various constraining economic and monetary measures.
Unlike Russia which was a member of the ‘Concert of Europe” at least since 1700 and often an ally of various western countries, England in particular, and then the USA throughout the 18th, 19th and even the first part of the 20th century, China was vanquished, humiliated and substantially occupied by Euro-American powers from the early 1800s although the Kuo Ming Tang regime, widely regarded as ‘pro-Christian’ was supported by the US before and during World War II.
Secondly in certain areas of science, technology and even more so in the economic realm due to its dynamism and rapid absorption of the most advanced knowledge and practices China has proven to be far more challenging to the USA and the West than the Soviet Union which was hobbled by a cumbersome and ineffective centralized bureaucratic and ideological system, conceived in the 19th century, that eventually spelt its doom while providing the American polity with considerable comparative advantage.
There is still a realistic hope that China and the United States will, perhaps under a post-Trump administration in Washington, work out a compromise that would amount to the cherished Chinese concept of a ‘win win’ agreement between them. Such an outcome would reflect the need to take into account the existence of other powerful and prosperous states and associations of states in Asia and Europe (Russia, India, Japan, Vietnam, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, UNASUR, the EU, ASEAN) that can maintain a balance of power between the two predominant countries and incite them to avoid a confrontation that would fatally weaken them and possibly deprive them of the support of traditional allies. If the tension between China and the US breaks out into some kind of shooting match, there is indeed a strong possibility that many countries will seek to remain neutral and that alliances such as NATO and even the US-Japan-South Korean defence compact will dissolve.
Another prospect, in the grim event of a rush to war between the Bald Eagle and the Dragon is that no major state will be able to stay on the fence and that the western alliance will reunite behind their leader while China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and a few other like-minded or dependent states, mainly in Central and South Asia will stick together against the old ‘colonial imperialists’.
The present geopolitical configuration however confirms many lessons of modern and ancient history regarding the fact that in practice states congregate around one of the two more powerful ones, especially in dangerous times of upheaval and change in order to find protection. Russia and China have come together to face the common American threat, attracting in their orbit other states, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey which were or are being attacked or beleaguered by the US and its satellites. On the other hand smaller nations near Russia and China (or in Iran’s neighbourhood) have tended to seek a rapprochement with the US through both economic and defence-related agreements in order to gain greater freedom and establish a balance of power around them.
In conclusion the high degree of ecological, political and economic disruption and uncertainty that the world is experiencing nowadays can result in a grand bargain in the style of the Congress of Vienna – a geopolitical and environmental pact for common survival – given the diminishing abilities of the US and the lingering Chinese insecurity about its new and still fragile clout. Alternatively the turmoil can rise to the point of chaos and trigger waves of internecine civilian conflicts and inter-state wars of the kinds that have affected many countries in the last decades, from Central America to Indochina, whether or not they are compounded with a direct global conflict between the heartland hegemons and the ‘oceanic power’ envisioned by geopoliticians of Mackinder’s school.
Theories are like astrological charts. They map out celestial configurations and outline possible consequences but cannot provide certainty about the future.
Côme Carpentier de Gourdon – Convener of the Editorial Board of the World Affairs Journal and Research Associate, IISES, Vienna.