World Order

Spheres of influcence between the Western Worl...
Spheres of influcence between the Western World and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Power in global politics

The Specification requirements are as follows. Candidates need to have thorough knowledge and understanding of the following:


Global Order MInd MApThe nature of power

power as capacity (military strength; economic development; population size; level of literacy and skills; geographical factors, etc); structural power (ability to affect the ‘rules of the game, influence via organisations and international regimes);

‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power (ability to reward or punish (military/economic power) vs co-optive power;

The growing importance of soft power; rise of ‘smart’ power), etc.

Classification of states – great powers (features of; examples); superpowers (features of; examples); hegemon and hegemony (features of, examples); emerging powers (features of, examples), etc.

Debating decline of military power – decline of inter-state war and rise of economic power (impact of globalization, etc); difficulty of resolving conflict by military means (‘intractable’ terrorist threats, insurgency or ‘new’ wars, etc); military power as irreducible core of state sovereignty;

The need to respond to new security threats, etc.

Changing nature of world order

Cold War world order – Cold War bipolarity; implications of bipolarity (structural dynamics of bipolarity; balance-of-power theory); Cold War ‘balance of terror’);

collapse of the Cold War (role of ‘new’ Cold War and Reaganite anti-communism; structural weakness of Soviet communism;

role of Gorbachev and Soviet reformers; significance for realism and liberalism).

( Note: historical questions will not be set on the rise and fall of Cold War bipolarity.)

Post-Cold War world order – The ‘new world order‘ (the ‘liberal moment’); fate of the ‘new world order (rise of ethnic conflict and civil wars, etc).

US hegemony and world order – nature of hegemony; rise of US hegemony (basis of US power; neoconservative project for unipolar world);

implications of unipolarity (tendency towards unilateralism; benign hegemony (hegemonic stability theory, Pax Americana, etc) vs oppressive or ‘predatory’ hegemony (American empire, Chomsky, etc);

implications of ‘war on terror’ for world order; decline of US power? (loss of ‘soft’ power; ineffectiveness of ‘hard’ power; decline of relative economic power, etc).

21st century world order – rise of multipolarity; nature and structural dynamics of multipolarity (global conflict and instability (anarchic multipolarity) vs peace and reconciliation (multilateral multipolarity);

implications of rise of China and India and revival of Russia tendencies (China as a superpower (the new hegemon?);

possibility of conflict between the USA and China; shift from West to East; major powers and ‘new’ Cold War (Russia vs the West?); democracy vs authoritarianism; implications of globalization for world order; impact of global economic crisis on balance of power, etc.


  • A concept most commonly associated with the cold war era (c.1945-1949)
  • The structure and development of the international system was heavily shaped and influenced by superpower relations during the cold war period
  • Each of the two main blocs was organised according to power, ideology and regimes
  • The concept of bipolarity exists in distinction to the concept of multipolarity where there are a minimum of three and perhaps many more spheres of influence
  • In military term the two blocs possessed enormous capability which in formed the idea of MAD. It is sometimes argued that this mutually assured destruction prevented the cold war from escalating into a ‘hot’ one
  • However, there were military exchanges between east and west, most notably  those which took place in Korea, Vietnam, Africa and Latin America over most of the period of the cold war. Here the superpowers either sought to maintain or extend their spheres of influence.
  • It is also the case that the concept overestimates the degree of internal cohesion within the blocs. It should be remembered that French – U.S. relations have often been strained and that France left NATO in 1966. Also The Soviet Union used tanks to crush popular rebellions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
  • The concept itself is somewhat flawed as it lacks a perspective on other international developments such as de-colonisation and underdevelopment.

Past Questions:


To what extent was the Bipolar International order more stable than the multipolar order?

When, and in what ways, was international politics best seen as bipolar?


What are the implications of Bi-polarity and multipolarity for global order?


  • A type of international system with a minimum of three actors with substantial power potential to act upon and shape the international order
  • These actors could be states but equally blocs or coalitions
  • Waltz (1979) argued that international systems characterised by multipolarity, rather than bipolarity are inherently unstable
  • The criteria for substantial power potential are as follows:






Where a state or non state actor can act upon and shape the international system in all of these areas it may be regarded possessing superpower or polar potential. Where a minimum of three actors has this range of influence then the international order is characterised as multipolar.

  • The above criteria are also indices of superpower status but again all four are required
  • Whereas as bipolarity concentrates on east –west issues as the basis for the international order a

multi-polar approach examines a wider range of issues such as Northern Hemisphere dominance over the global economy as being equally important in shaping the international order.

  • Arguments have surfaced that the international order is less multipolar than it is unipolar with the United States the one remaining superpower. In military terms U.S. hegemony is unquestioned as is its desire and intent to use it. Pressure groups with close ties to the Bush White House have founded The ‘New American Century”

“…Established in the spring of 1997, the Project for the New American Century is a non-profit, educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership…” 

  • The end of the cold war has prompted a debate over whether we are now entering an inherently unstable multipolar international order. The matter is extremely complex. In economic terms the EU, Japan and the U.S. are seen as the key poles with other actors such as the ‘tiger economies’ possessing near pole status.
  • Regional powers such as Pakistan can exert tremendous influence on the international order especially where they are seen to be vital to the strategic interests of the U.S.A.
  • The transition from a bipolar to a multipolar era predates the end of the cold war. There is the question of whether this in more or less stable than the era of bipolarity

Past Questions:


Is International politics now multipolar?


What are the implications of Bi-polarity and multipolarity for global order?


  • Evans (1998) defines unipolarity as

“ …a type of system or structure with one pole or polar actor being identified as predominant in shaping and influencing the international order…”

  • An actor being defines as any entity which plays an identifiable role in international relations. Although the term lacks precision it possesses sufficient flexibility and scope to overcome the limitations of the term state.
  • The unipolar actor need not be a state. Historically they have tended to be multinational empires.
  • Unipolar systems are likely to be stable where there is widespread consensus throughout the system as argued by hegemonial stability theory.
  • The ending of the cold war has prompted some speculation that the U.S. is now the only superpower and in its willingness to exert this power and influence to shape the international order it is the centre of a unipolar order.
  • At the end of the cold war Francis Fukuyama wrote that we are at the ‘…end of history…’ where economic liberalism and liberal democracy would triumph and spread across the globe.
  • Equally however the ‘…end of history thesis…’ could just as easily provide the underpinnings of a multipolar order in international relations.
  • The real question is the extent of American military, economic, diplomatic, political and cultural influence across the globe and the intent of the U.S. in the exercise of such power whether unilaterally or in concert with other actors (multilateralism).

Let us first take a look 2 PREZIS one dealing with The State and Foreign Policy and the other dealing with Power and 21st Century World Order

Watch Putin, Russia and the West

Putin, Russia & The West


Short Answer Questions

What are the implications of bipolarity for global order? (15 Marks)

In a bipolar international system two states or two coalitions of states dominate.

Bipolarity is mainly associated with the Cold War period as the international system revolved around two superpowers, the USSR and the USA.

Other states defined their foreign policies in terms of their relationships with the superpowers.

International systems are subject to change, and some analysts argue that the increased permanence of alliances leading to bipolarity make major conflicts inevitable.

Institutions designed to ensure peace in a multipolar world such as the League of Nations and the United Nations then become impotent as the bipolar blocs prepare for conflict.

However it is also argued that there is too much flexibility in a multipolar system and peace depends on the willingness of states to form alliances when their national interest may suggest neutrality or isolation is preferred.

Arguably the bipolar Cold War proved that a tense peace is preferable to the conflicts found under multipolarity.

AO1: Comprehensive and detailed knowledge and understanding of bipolarity as a concept in global politics. Knowledge of the impact of bipolarity on global order, using examples, and in particular knowledge of the confrontational international system that develops with rival power blocs and a zero-sum power struggle.

AO2: Sophisticated analysis of the impact of bipolarity on the international system. Answers will assess the argument that bipolarity brings security because international relations are dominated by two powers or power blocs. Discussion will also analyse the extent to which bipolarity makes conflict more likely because of inevitable confrontation between the superpowers. Of course, nuclear weapons and MAD have made the argument that bipolarity makes conflict inevitable redundant.

How does global governance differ from world government?

Governance, broadly, refers to the various ways in which social life is co-ordinated, of which government is merely one.

Global governance refers to the various processes through which decision-making and co-operation at a global level is facilitated, operating through multilateral systems of regulation.

At the heart of the emerging system of global governance is the UN and its various bodies, together with the institutions of global economic governance, notably the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF.

Rather than imposing their will on individual states, the processes provide the framework for the development of intergovernmental relationships, reflecting a growing acceptance of global interdependence.

Global governance does not only involve intergovernmental bodies, but also the participation of non-governmental actors such as NGOs, national corporations, global capital markets, citizens’ movements and so on.

World government, by contrast, refers to the idea of centralised authority operating through a single, supranational body.

Strictly speaking, such a government would involve the establishment of a monopoly of the use of force worldwide, as well as the surrendering of sovereignty by individual states.

However, the most versions of world government are based on the idea of world federalism, in which the central authority is vested with supreme authority in relation to certain functions, while state governments continue to have jurisdiction in relation to other functions.

While global governance aims to containing the pressures generated by anarchy, world government would banish anarchy altogether by establishing and enforcing an international rule of law, sometimes seen as world law.

Although the League of Nations and the United Nations were often presented as early prototypes of world government, neither has come close to realising this goal.

Define hegemony, and explain its significance for global order.

Hegemony, in broader terms, means dominance or leadership. Within the international system, a state may be considered a ‘hegemon’ if it is so powerful economically and militarily that it is a dominant influence on the domestic and foreign policies of other states.

Following Gramsci, hegemony also implies ideological leadership and the domination of an actor’s values and ideas, creating ‘hegemonic consent’ amongst other actors.

It is possible to have a regional hegemon or a global hegemon (as many believe the USA has been since the end of the Cold War).

Hegemony may have one of two implications for global order. Realists and some neo- liberals have argued that a hegemon is necessary to create stability and order within a liberal market economy, thereby bringing benefit to all the states within such an economy.

It does this by enforcing the rules of the economic game, the USA could be said to do this through the role of the dollar as an international currency and by its influence over the institutions of global economic governance.

This is called hegemonic stability theory.

By contrast, hegemony can be said to stimulate resentment and hostility, particularly amongst second-level powers, who may have an incentive to unite to undermine the hegemonic power.

In this case, hegemony may lead to conflict and disorder, possibly through shifting patterns of alliances. Hegemonic powers remain dominant in part through their ability to prevent anti-hegemonic alliances being formed amongst second-level powers.

What is the balance of power, and how effective is it in preventing war?

The balance of power can be defined in a variety of different ways, including the following:

An even distribution of power between rival power blocs.

The existing distribution of power, which may be even or uneven. A policy designed to
achieve an even or more even balance of power.

An inherent tendency in international politics to produce an even distribution of power.

Views about the capacity of the balance of power to prevent war diverge, however:

Realists argue that the balance of power is the surest, and perhaps only, guarantee that war can be avoided.

Its value is that an even distribution of power, whether brought about naturally or as a consequence of statecraft, prevents the triumph of dominant powers.

Powers will be deterred from attacking others only if they have reason to believe they will be unsuccessful.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the balance of power merely legitimises state egoism and fosters the growth of military power.

In this view, the balance of power is a cause of intensifying tension and possibly war, based upon a mind-set of competition, rivalry and distrust.

What are the implications of bipolarity for global order? (15 marks)

Bipolarity is the tendency for the international system to revolve around two poles (major power blocs).

Bipolarity is often associated specifically with the Cold War and the so-called ‘superpower era’.

Two quite different views of the implications of bipolarity for global order have been developed:

Realists have associated bipolarity with peace and stability.

This is because a bipolar system tends to result in a balance of power as each of the major power blocs is concerned to consolidate control over its own ‘sphere of influence’.

Instabilities resulting from shifting alliances are therefore minimised.

Conflict between major power blocs is accepted as counter-productive, as in the ‘balance of terror’ during the Cold War period.

Liberal theorists on the other hand, have sometimes argued that bipolarity is inherently unstable as it leads to intensifying rivalry between major power blocks, as demonstrated by sustained ‘vertical’ nuclear proliferation during the Cold War.

Essay Questions (45 marks)

To what extent is the global system now multipolar?

Multipolarity refers to an international system in which there are three or more power centres. However, there is debate about whether the contemporary system is now best described as unipolar or as multipolar.

A unipolar global system is one in which there is a single pre-eminent state. Many have argued that the end of the Cold War can be seen as the ‘unipolar moment’, the end of an era of superpower bipolarity and the birth of the world in which the USA stood as the sole superpower.

Some have seen this as the creation of some kind of ‘American empire’, a trend resulting from US economic successors during the 1990s, coupled with the ongoing difficulties of other competitors, such as Japan, Russia and the EU.

The USA’s unassailable position in global affairs was evident in the unilateralist tendency of US foreign policy, particularly following the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and in particular by the so-called ‘war on terror’.

This has been interpreted as an attempt to preserve and reinforce the USA’s ‘benevolent global hegemony’ through a kind of ‘new’ imperialism that was based on unrivalled military strength, the USA’s strength in promoting democracy worldwide, and an interventionist foreign policy that was based on the idea of ‘regime change’, achieved by military means and possible through pre- emptive attack.

These tendencies were a clear indication of the existence of unipolarity.

However, the ‘unipolar moment’ in world politics may have passed, partly due to the tendency of the USA to succumb to the problem of imperial over-reach.

Although the USA accounts for around 50 per cent of global defence spending, its proportion of GDP is well below 50 per cent and declining in relative terms.

The economic fragility of the USA has been further illustrated by the global economic crisis that started in 2008.

The rise of China, India and other new powers creates the prospect either of the return of some form of bipolarity, in which global politics in the twenty-first century will be characterised by Sino-US relations, or the emergence of a truly multipolar system consisting of five or possibly more major world actors.

China’s rapid economic progress, its growing military capacity and its greater involvement in global affairs, Africa and elsewhere all demonstrate that the global system can no longer be seen as unipolar.

Other rising powers include India, Brazil and Russia. Trends towards multipolarity can also be seen in the implications of globalisation and the rise of non-state actors ranging from transnational corporations to terrorist groups and new social movements.

In this view, globalisation has strengthened a tendency towards pluralism in global politics, highlighted by the permeability of the state and the dispersal of power amongst governmental and non-governmental actors.

Finally, growing interdependence and the effects of the information and communication revolution have, arguably, changed the nature of power itself and made it more difficult for power to be concentrated in a small number of hands.

This is evident in the declining significance of ‘hard’ power, particularly military power, and the growing importance of ‘soft’ power.

To what extent has the rise of emerging powers altered the nature of world order? (45 Marks)

The growth of emerging powers, such as China, India and Brazil, can be seen to have altered the nature of world order in important ways.

In particular, it has created conditions of growing multipolarity, in which global power is divided amongst three or more major states.

Such a view is underpinned by economic developments, notably the fact that the balance of power in the world economy has shifted from the West to the East, especially due to the combined influence of China, India and Japan.

Such trends also have a political or diplomatic character, as reflected in the growing importance of bodies such as the G20 and the BRICs countries.

However, others argue that emerging powers have yet to fundamentally alter the nature of world order.

In most cases, this is based upon the view that none of these powers is yet strong enough to challenge the USA as the global hegemon.

The USA remains the world’s largest economy and has a still impressive global lead in ‘hitech’ production. Similarly, its military lead over the rest of the world is still considerable, being the only power that can sustain major military involvements in two or more parts of the world at the same time.

As the global hegemon, the USA also continues to exert disproportional structural power through its influence over a variety of institutions of global governance.

Global order (Thanks Mike….EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS)

USA and the Neo-Conservatives

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar era of the Cold War, some (neo)realists found themselves collectively at a loss as to what the United States should do in the circumstances of its newly-found hegemonic power. Some urged forbearance, since, they warned, the ‘unipolar moment’ would not last: other major powers, such as Japan, Germany, or China, would soon come to resent American primacy, and would emerge as challengers to it, ending in multipolarity (Waltz 1993; Waltz 2000; Layne 1993). Other neorealists saw unipolarity as more durable, and so long as the United States actively engaged the other major powers to reassure them of its benign intentions, hegemony could be prolonged (Mastanduno 1997). Yet still others regarded United States predominance as virtually unassailable—an unprecedented position in world history—and a unique opportunity to project American power and interests globally (Krauthammer 1990-1991; 2002; Wohlforth 1999).

At first the US chose the second position, attempting to engage multilaterally with other countries. However, things changed, and during the Bush administration the neo-cons increasingly took the third path.

The position emphasising that the US was a global hegemon almost unique in the history of the world seems to have been that of the Bush administration (2000-2008) – ‘Rome on the Potomac’. Thus, Krauthammer (who was a neo-con theorist) argued that we were entering into a unipolar era, with the USA taking the lead. The idea, floated at the time, that the global ‘North’ contained several poles of power, collaborating on a multilateral basis was, for him, an illusion. The first Gulf War was therefore a case of ‘pseudo-multilateralism’. The US essentially acted alone, with the alliance offering merely the impression of multilateral action. In terms of military power, the US towers over other nations.

He goes on to suggest that, because the US is a commercial, trading nation it has worldwide interests which need to be defended. He is certain that there will be times when these interests will be threatened and require protection. The US should be prepared to avert any threats to destabilise the existing system. The assumption here might be that preservation of the current system is in the interest of every state (that stability in and of itself is good, and/or, that the US is a benign power and is much more preferable as global hegemon than most other states), or simply that the US should be ruthless in defending it’s superiority regardless of whether this is good for others.

Krauthammer was clear that US should resist its constant isolationist tendencies. One of the expressions of such isolationism originates from the realist foreign policy school because this school tends to define US interests in a ‘narrow and national manner’. That is, from his perspective, the US has no real alternative but to preserve the world balance of power. In order to do this it can’t withdraw into its shell.

It is very important to note that there is rather more to his position than just the aim of ensuring global stability. Krauthammer, along with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush (and Reagan before them) did not take on a purely realist position because they believed in the USA as a force for good (this is idealism – a foreign policy driven by ‘ideals’, such as freedom, democracy etc – as opposed to realism, which is much more concerned with the survival of the state, and may be very wary of foreign adventures to promote particular values). The USA was, and is, seen by many Americans (mainly, but not just those on the political right) as a righteous project. Terms such as ‘American exceptionalism’, and the ‘City on the hill’ (a religious analogy employed by, amongst others, Reagan), referred to this belief that the USA is a ‘special’ place – God’s chosen country. Other people around the world look up to America as a beacon. This has been a powerful element of the US collective imagination and clearly affects the way they engage with the rest of the world.

Krauthammer stressed that the USA has the responsibility of acting in a manner that may sometimes be unpopular. He argued that other states often have the luxury of not having to take on the responsibility that falls to the global hegemon;

‘The main reason we oppose the land mine treaty is that we need them in the demilitarised zone in Korea (between north and south). We (the USA) mans the line there. Sweden and France and Canada do not have to worry about a North Korean invasion killing thousands of their soldiers. As the unipolar power and thus guarantor of peace in places where Swedes do not tread, we need weapons that others do not. Being uniquely situated in the world we cannot afford the empty platitudes of allies not quite candid enough to admit that they live under the umbrella of American power. That often leaves us “isolated”.’

This neo-con position relies on the idea that US hegemony is essentially benign. It considers that the US operates in the ‘real world’, where there are identifiable threats to the future of free, democratic societies. They suggest that most of Europe has forgotten this, arguing that European countries rely on security cover from the USA.

Obviously there is substantial opposition to this point of view. Realists would object to the ‘idealism’ of the neo-cons. The desire to spread a particular set of values would be considered by many realists to be dangerous moralising. Some realists who just tend to concentrate on the structural features of global politics, argue that unipolarity creates its own opposition. Much depends on whether other states decide to ‘bandwagon’ or ‘balance’. Those who tend to argue that unipolarity is unsustainable in the long term suggest that balancing behaviour is most likely. This is because, as Heywood (p236) notes ‘in a context of anarchy, rising or major powers are an object of particular fear, as there is no constraint on how they may treat weaker states’. Those suggesting that US hegemony is benign, and acts in the interests of all (as do hegemonic stability theorists for instance) would perhaps align themselves more with the bandwagoning argument. See discussion below….

Hegemonic stability theory:

Some realists believe that the existence of a hegemonic power tends to create opposition, and that hegemony cannot therefore last for more than a short period of time. Others disagree. In both neorealist (e.g. Gilpin 1987) and neoliberal (e.g. Keohane 1989) versions of hegemonic stability theory (HST), it is argued that the rule of the hegemon results in net benefits for all states, large and small.

However, Gilpin & Keohane, the originators of the HST term, actually thought that the USA acted as a real hegemon for only a short period of time,

“For two decades following the Second World War, the United States, largely for political and security reasons, subordinated many of its parochial economic interests to the economic well-being of its alliance partners…In the late 1960’s, however, the US began to pursue economic policies that were more self-centred…(and) by the 1980’s, the US was pursuing protectionist, macroeconomic, and other policies that could be identified as appropriate to….’a predatory hegemon’.” (Gilpin)

Snidal adds that there is “no longer any reason to assume that the distribution of benefits favors smaller states” (Snidal 1985). Thus, the suggestion has been that ‘real’ hegemony is essentially benign – that it accommodates the interests of those covered by its security umbrella. Now though, so the argument goes, the US is a hegemon of a whole different, rather unpleasant type. This raises the question of whether the original alleged advantage of hegemony, stability, will be as attractive to the subordinate powers in the relationship.

To take one example, from the early 1980s, the IMF and World Bank came under the control of the ‘Washington Consensus’, in which neoliberal principles were taken to new heights. Originally founded with a mission that was guided by Keynesian economic policies, aimed at stimulating global aggregate demand, they now became increasingly supply-side oriented, and determined to affect the restructuration of both macro- and micro- aspects of states’ economies. In many cases, these new policies were failures. According to Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank Senior Vice President and Chief Economist,

“[I]n spite of IMF’s efforts during the past quarter century, crises around the world have been more frequent and (with the exception of the Great Depression) deeper. By some reckonings, close to a hundred countries have faced crises. Worse, many of the policies that the IMF pushed, in particular, premature capital market liberalization, have contributed to global instability. And once a country was in crisis, IMF funds and programs not only failed to stabilize the situation but in many cases actually made matters worse, especially for the poor. The IMF failed in its original mission of promoting global stability” (Stiglitz 2002, p. 15).

Michael Mann defines hegemony in the following terms; “a word which indicates that imperial power establishes ‘the rules of the game’ by which others routinely play (structural power, in the terminology). They (the others, the subordinates) may come to also approve of the rules as well, so that hegemony becomes genuinely legitimate. But the basis of hegemony is more a matter-of-fact acceptance of things ‘as they are’. Then people’s own everyday actions help reproduce the dominance without much thought.’ (Note- hegemony does not therefore mean quite the same thing as unipolarity….unipolarity is just a statement about capacity, it does not say anything about whether the power is legitimate or not, benign or malign).

He notes that the problem for the US is that “hegemony should be an invisible hand, lying behind the accepted rules of the game. The catch is that to be hegemonic, the US might have to play by the rules. An empire based on highly visible militarism abandons the rules and so risks losing hegemony. Joseph Nye expressed this as the pursuit of ‘hard’ power threatening America’s ‘soft’ power.”

So the suggestion is that hegemony can only really be maintained with large doses of consent. Consent, in political terminology, translates as legitimacy.

Is the US an empire? If it is, is this a good thing? The neo-cons say yes, because the world is a dangerous place and the US is essentially benevolent (hence all the stuff about American exceptionalism – they believe that the US has something special to offer the world…the world looks up to the US…they want to live there etc). Others (liberals such as Nye for instance) would perhaps agree that the US could be benign, but that blatantly pushing its own agenda as the neo-cons have done is not the best way to sustain a hegemonic position.

Those who say, yes, the US is an empire, but no it is not a good thing (ie Chomsky), are suspicious of American power. They feel that US domination does not just exist, rather it is perpetuated by US behaviour. It attempts, aggressively, to sustain its place as the predominant power. He would suggest that the result of hegemony is domination (although you couldn’t say that he is coming at the problem from the same direction as many realists, he arrives at the same conclusion – any hegemon will tend to attempt to impose itself on others, and understandably creates resistance).


Kenneth Waltz, from whose work much of the bipolar/multipolar debate originates, argues, in essence, that a bipolar world is in fact the most stable and durable for peace in the international system. For him, in a multi-polar world there are more opportunities for miscalculations between the many alliances and groupings that form, leading to more instability. He considers the post 1945 era as a test case of ‘bipolarity as relative stability’, and 1650 – 1945 as a, rather long, era of unstable multipolarity.

There are a number of possible criticisms of Waltz’s theory. First, it has been suggested that the post 1945 era was not actually bipolar at all. China was a major player in world affairs, and Sino-Soviet relations were not good (China and the USSR actually experienced significant direct military clashes in 1969 – the USSR felt it necessary to allocate a massive military force on their eastern frontier). The US eventually begun to cultivate relations with China in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s (see Nixon’s visit in 1972). This all, arguably, impacted on the Cold War relationship between the US and the Soviet Union, and in the eventual demise of the latter. We could, therefore, suggest that the world was to some extent at least, tripolar during this period.

Second, and perhaps more important as a criticism, is Waltz’s idea that multipolar systems are more likely to lead to miscalculations about capabilities and intentions of other states. In a bipolar world, in contrast, ‘uncertainty lessens and calculations are easier to make’. He does suggest that bipolar systems can make ‘overreaction’ more likely, but this is less serious than the possible miscalculations that can take place in multipolarity. One of his main examples is the start of the 1st World War. He argues that the outbreak of war was due to a series of miscalculations by Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and France. But one could argue that what took place was the result of both miscalculation and overreaction by all parties to the conflict. These categories (miscalculation, overreaction) are just not clear enough criteria to use to determine the relative stability of particular periods of history.

Third, and perhaps most telling as a criticism, is that there was one factor present since 1945 that could have been far more significant than whether the system was bipolar or multipolar. That factor was nuclear weapons. It could have been the presence of this special class of military capability rather than the bipolar situation that ensured relative stability (it must be noted at this point that Waltz may have been unaware how close the Soviet Union came to firing a nuclear weapon during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 {the details of quite how close a Soviet submarine came to firing a nuclear missile only emerged in 2002} …so if that was stability, God help us!).

Waltz has revised his views slightly. He now considers the presence of nuclear weapons to be of equal importance to the bipolar structure of the international system in ensuring ‘the longest peace yet known’ (again, he seems to forget the huge number of wars, of all kinds, that have taken place, and continue to take place – possibly because they are in the global south? Since 1998 approximately 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo {DRC}…the world’s deadliest conflict since the 2nd World War). This relaxed view of other kinds of conflict (basically, he ignores them) comes from his realist perspective. The ‘real’ problems of global order centre on relations between states. From this perspective it is possible to see the world as relatively peaceful (although even this ignores ie the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980’s).


Singer and Deutsch suggest that a multipolar system is in fact more stable because the major powers have more incentive and opportunity for cooperation and are more likely to have their attention diffused from just focusing on one polar antagonist. Most neo-realists argue, however, that it creates greater uncertainty about the behaviour of other states and is, therefore less likely to produce order and security (see all discussions about multipolarity in notes on shareflow and in textbook).

These arguments tend still to think in terms of realism (and scepticism in the globalisation debates). Other theories of global order which take the (alleged) processes of globalisation much more seriously may argue that, while these debates are important, there are other things going on in the world. For instance, ‘global order’ may increasingly be emerging via state and non-state actors creating a myriad network of global governance structures. Here is Heywood (p233), ‘Three broader developments have supported the fragmentation and pluralisation of global power, and perhaps suggest that all state-centric models of world order (bipolar, unipolar and multipolar) are outmoded. The first of these developments is unfolding globalisation….the second development is the growing trend towards global and sometimes regional government….finally (these trends) have both had the effect of strengthening the role of non-state actors in world affairs (TNCs, NGOs, terrorist networks, international crime syndicates etc etc). Thus, the debate above could well be limited and slightly anachronistic. Or at least it is just one debate amongst many.


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