Nov 17, 2023

In Defense of Multipolarity

The idea of multipolarity is provoking heated debate. In fact, the term is more of a general concept and a guiding principle than a direct description of how things are.

US President Joe Biden, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other during the first working session of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 15, 2022.
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New world disorder: This is by now a commonplace of strategic debate. Great power rivalries and conflicts between different social systems are undermining the Western liberal rules-based world order, which had been accompanied by American global hegemony, at least since the end of the Cold War. On this, most agree. Where controversy starts is on the question of what order the world is moving toward, and indeed what order it should be moving toward.

On this question, Germany’s National Security Strategy offers an answer. “The 21st century world is a multipolar world,” says Olaf Scholz’s foreword. By using this phrase, the German chancellor re-emphasizes what he and other members of the German government have often stressed: Germany’s foreign and security policy is based on a model of multipolarity, and this is above all a pragmatic reaction to shifts in power over the past two decades.

This new orientation has been subject to criticism—sometimes harsh criticism—on a number of grounds. These critical perspectives broadly divide into three categories.

Criticism of “Polarity” as a Term and as an Idea

First, the concept of polarity itself has drawn severe criticism within international relations theory. Among other things, this critique suggests that its focus on states neglects the importance of non-state and supranational actors. It has also been suggested that since the idea of polarity derives from the natural sciences, it brings with it a mode of binary thinking, centered on repulsion and attraction. Space does not allow for a comprehensive review of this theoretical debate in this essay. However, in the following, it should be borne in mind that the discussion of multipolarity refers solely to interstate relations; this in no way negates the fact that other patterns of ordering international relations exist outside the realm of states.

Moreover, political discussion of polarity has long since separated from the original scientific context of the term, where the term can be understood literally. Had it not, it would be impossible to speak of more than two poles.

However, the real controversy over polarity in international relations is not to be found in theoretical debates, but rather in political disputes. So, we should first focus our attention on criticisms of the multipolarity model, starting with suggestions that the model itself is unrealistic. According to this view, only two countries have the long-term potential to form poles, and for some time these two powers have been engaged in a conflict with normative-systemic stakes, which is also marked by a struggle for hegemony. These two powers are, of course, the United States, previously the democratic hegemon, and China, its authoritarian challenger. Everyone else must choose to join one side or the other; Germany and Europe, goes this argument, have no alternative but to side with the United States.

From this idea of polarity are derived notions of an inevitably bipolar world order are derived. But for one thing this ignores the considerable differentiation of political systems around the world. Between Norway and North Korea there is a wide range of very distinctively constituted states. Only a minority of these can clearly be assigned to categories of democracy or autocracy. And even states that are unquestionably democratic or autocratic do not necessarily want to be assigned to one or other camp in a bipolar hegemonic conflict. Moreover, the bipolar worldview occludes another reality: Tensions between liberal-democratic and authoritarian-populist social models influence their respective domestic policies, as well as interstate relations. The boundary between illiberal democracy and moderate authoritarianism is fluid and porous, it could be crossed not only in Asia and Africa, but even in Europe and the United States.

Differentiating Between Modes of Power

In addition, assumptions that we will face an inevitable return to a bipolar world order ignore the differentiation of power resources, both in functional and geographical terms. The last 25 years have seen a clear relativization of the military, economic, and political power of the United States and Europe, as well as the normative and cultural appeal of the two regions. Although the United States still possesses the world’s strongest military capability, its withdrawal from Afghanistan has highlighted the limits to that military power. In addition, Washington is now less willing to make use of its forces around the world.

For its part, China seems unwilling to fill this gap and is also experiencing a slowdown in its economic growth, after decades of unstoppable upward momentum. At the same time, the role of other large countries—India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Turkey, possibly joined in future by Nigeria, Vietnam or Mexico—is much more important than it was during and immediately after the Cold War. More than anything else, this increasing importance of potential powers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa speaks against any new conceptual division of the world into two distinct camps.  

This second point of criticism suggests that the model of multipolarity raises false and sometimes dangerous expectations. There are three perspectives from which this objection is usually raised. One of these begins with China and Russia’s advocacy for multipolarity. Both countries aggressively combine a multipolar model with concrete demands to revise the existing world order. Officially, both countries still base this view on the UN Charter, but both have been plausibly accused of using multipolarity to implicitly justify the right of “polar” countries to have spheres of influences, in which they enforce their own understanding of law and order. When Germany uses the term “multipolarity,” they can take this as a signal that Berlin accepts this implicit claim or even agrees with them on the need for a revision of the world order.

At the same time, however, the commitment to multipolarity is also seen as synonymous with relativizing the importance of the transatlantic alliance, a position now also adopted by some in Washington. The implication is that when Germany speaks of multipolarity—and even more so when France uses this term—then first and foremost with the intention of making Europe itself a pole, rather than forming a common pole with the United States. This connects with the final critical perspective on multipolarity’s creation of false expectations. This viewpoint suggests that Europe, or more precisely the European Union, is not in a position to form a pole, at least not in its current condition—and Germany not at all. For this reason alone, goes this argument, talk of multipolarity is not in Europe’s interests.

There is undoubtedly something to all three objections against the supposedly false expectations raised by multipolarity. However, it is possible to make counter-arguments against all three. One does not need to forgo a useful and powerful concept simply because major opponents use it in a certain way, or because partners tend to view it negatively. Instead, this should be an invitation to define this term for yourself and clarify the expectations associated with it. Skepticism about the European Union’s ability to form a pole with global appeal is less about the bloc’s potential, and more about its ongoing failure to leverage its power in political terms. This failure presents a clear challenge for political restructuring, not a general abandonment of that project. We will return to this question below.

There is a third and final criticism of multipolarity, closely related to the first two. This critique suggests that Germany should not use the multipolarity model, not because it is unrealistic or raises false expectations, but because it represents a departure from previous commitments to the rules-based multilateral world order, which has brought success to Germany more than almost any other country.

This criticism of multipolarity points out that, protected by the United States’ security hegemony, and with multilateral institutions guaranteeing reliable diplomatic, trade, and financial relations, Germany has used the peace dividend to stabilize its social system, while also opening up markets worldwide and building global value chains. Germany’s prosperity is based largely on its export-oriented economy. Even if this order is now, admittedly, in crisis— as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial market crises, Chinese revisionism, Russian imperialism, and the increasing ineffectiveness of multilateral organizations—German foreign and security policy, goes this argument, must above all commit itself to revitalizing and strengthening it.

However, these demands that Germany has to strengthen the rules-based international order by any means ignore two vital viewpoints. The majority of the potential international powers mentioned above, as well as many smaller nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, regard the former rules-based international order as having been defined by a small group of North American and European states in the first decade after World War II, at a historical moment when they did not exist as independent states or were too insignificant to have their voices heard. A second perspective suggests that the “inventors” of the rules-based liberal world order apply double standards when enforcing it. These two perceptions, coupled with the shift in power described above, mean any revival of a rules-based world order would require its partial renegotiation. This would in turn demand considerable willingness to compromise on the part of Western liberal systems.

A Bipolar World?

If a revitalized rules-based world order cannot be achieved for the foreseeable future or would require unacceptable concessions from Western liberal systems, wouldn’t a bipolar world order present a better alternative?

The advantages of a bipolar world system seem obvious: at first glance, such an arrangement promises security and stability. A North American-European power bloc, expanded to include states like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and others, would continue to prosper under the protective umbrella of US military dominance, and would not, to any great degree, be subject to open challenges from the other power bloc, presumably led by China. Bipolarity would mean relative stability: it would structure relationships between the two blocs, making them reliable. It would also enable states outside the two main blocs to clearly position themselves.

However, these apparent advantages are deceptive. The expectation of security is based on an assumption of continued US willingness to act as an ultimate guarantor of security, and its capacity to do so. However, socio-political polarization in the United States and European experiences of the Trump administration rightly cast doubt on this assumption, as does the increasing perception within American society that the country is overwhelmed and has been actively harmed by this global role.

The Problems with Bipolarity

The Cold War gave us 40 years of bipolarity: This experience suggests that expectations of stability are at best weak, and at worst pure cynicism. The relative stability between the blocs until 1990 did not prevent the world being twice taken to the edge of nuclear escalation. This period also saw millions of deaths in proxy conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other countries. Moreover, this stability went hand in hand with repression within the authoritarian states of the Eastern bloc.

It is not only the highly questionable advantages of a bipolar world which makes it an unsuitable model of reference for German foreign and security policy. We must add to this the costs and disadvantages of such a system. Great power rivalries and systemic competition already create substantial difficulties in overcoming global challenges. Bipolarity would make it even more difficult. We can get a foretaste of this from the COP27 climate negotiations, blockades in the UN Security Council, and the general paralysis of the WTO. Renewed confrontation between global blocs would make consensus and compromise on how to cope with climate change, biodiversity, pandemics, debt, and migration extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Bipolarity would also mean withdrawing from markets and restructuring value chains, a process already under way in some areas of technology policy. For some time, the term “decoupling” has been used for this process. The economic consequences of decoupling from China would be enormous for Germany and would become even greater if other authoritarian states were to form a solid bloc with China. These economic costs would in turn have extremely high social consequences in Germany, including job losses in export-oriented companies, as well as higher prices for consumer goods and intermediate products. The eventual decline in economic wellbeing would in turn have considerable destabilizing effects on the political system.

Finally, if Europe were to form a bloc with the United States, the continent would again be placed in the role of junior partner, a subordinate role that would extend to all policy areas, not just security policy. A junior role might at times seem acceptable, if, as currently, the senior partner behaves as a benevolent hegemon, taking into account its partners’ interests and ideas. But the role would be far harder to sustain if the senior partner were to demand unconditional loyalty, seeking Europe’s involvement in trade wars and questionable military operations.

A Correct Understanding of Multipolarity

Bipolar bloc confrontation thus comes with severe disadvantages, while any revival of the Western liberal rule-based order seems improbable for the foreseeable future. Likewise, a version of rules-based order that was revised by authoritarian states would be hardly acceptable for liberal democracies. All of these conditions make multipolarity a desirable fallback position, albeit of a temporary character. But what would this kind of multipolar order look like? It would have six characteristics:

First, poles are states or groupings of states that develop their own distinct set of rules and can attract other countries through their cultural and economic appeal (soft power) or exert influence on them through political, economic or military power (hard power).

Second, poles are not all of the same size. On a global level, the US and China are playing in a different league. Few other poles can or could claim to play a global role: the European Union and India, with the possible addition of a non-belligerent Russia, ASEAN, the Gulf states, Japan/South Korea, and less plausibly Brazil, Nigeria, and Indonesia. The impact of other poles is regionally limited (Nigeria in West Africa, Australia in the South Pacific, Turkey in the Near and Middle East) or is related to specific policy areas (Brazil in climate policy).

Third, poles are not equidistant from each other. For the foreseeable future, the EU will be closer to the United States than to any other pole. The distance between poles depends on their interests and their respective normative orientations. Relationships between them will be subject to a specific mixture of partnership, competition, and rivalry.

Fourth, poles are characterized by pronounced differences in their political, social, and economic order. The possibility that one pole could change the system of another is, by definition, very limited (see the first point). However, systems can and will change from within.

Fifth, multipolarity requires a minimum compliance with the rules of international law. Specifically, these include respect for basic human rights, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity, as well as renouncing the use of violence in conflicts. It follows that the influence of poles on other states (see the first point) is not the same thing as the creation of spheres of influence.

Sixth, a multipolar system is inherently unstable, since within such a system no pole and no international organization has the authority to enforce compliance with the rules and systemic differences. In addition, competing concepts of order create permanent pressure for change. For this reason, this is not a desirable lasting state of affairs. However, a stable, rules-based world order—which is advantageous from a European perspective—requires systemic convergence toward liberal democracy. What this specifically means is: if powerful authoritarian states have their systems changed by democratic reform movements, it may be possible to transform the multipolar order into a rules-based multilateral order.

Priorities for German Foreign Policy

These various characteristics of multipolarity suggest the following priority tasks for Germany’s foreign and security policy.

No EU member state can seek to form a pole on its own. Thus, Germany must accelerate its efforts to make the European Union an effective global pole and to enlarge the EU in accordance with its previous commitments. The EU is already undoubtedly a pole with regard to those European states that are not members, the Mediterranean, and large parts of Africa, as well as on climate, trade, and development policy. The key deficits currently lie in the EU’s decision-making structures and the processes of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as in the EU’s insufficient capacity to use military force.

With regard to the United States, the EU’s central task in its political communications with Washington is to make clear that advocating multipolarity and the strategic sovereignty of the EU pole does not mean it is turning away from the transatlantic alliance or calling NATO into question. Rather, the EU must emphasize that strengthening the European pillar will make the alliance more stable in terms of security policy. At the same time, however, it must communicate that an EU pole will pursue its own interests autonomously, in areas such as trade, energy, raw materials, and technology policy, as well as vis-à-vis other countries.

Because the EU pole will have systemic differences with other poles, the design of suitable interfaces for interaction with them will be another major task of German foreign policy. To give some examples: How can data exchange be organized between systems with fundamentally different ideas on data protection? What role can the state-controlled media, cultural institutions, and intermediary organizations of authoritarian states be allowed to have in liberal democracies? What role should state-owned companies from authoritarian countries have in market economies, and what kind of limits should be placed on state subsidies?

Another key task is to find the right balance between partnership, competition, and rivalry in relations with these states and to make them accept the compartmentalization of relations that goes along with it. Germany’s recently adopted China strategy contains hints about how to achieve the former, but its implementation depends on the success of the latter, namely getting China to accept that compartmentalization.

Challenges Facing Germany and France

The global importance of the EU as a pole depends largely on its success in maintaining intensive partnerships with other states. This requires better coordination of the diplomatic efforts of individual EU members with states outside the EU (“Team Europe”). Germany and France face particular challenges in this respect. However, managing relations in this way will require a range of attractive offers of cooperation: agreements on trade and investment, projects of the Global Gateway Initiative , partnerships on energy and raw materials, but also solidarity in difficult political situations and a willingness to cooperate on armaments.

The creation of a multipolar world order goes beyond bilateral relations. It must also encompass plurilateral and multilateral levels. Here, German foreign policy should proceed more selectively than before. It must pursue wide-ranging and forceful engagement in groups like the G7, where there is very substantial consensus on norms and values and congruence of interests, as well as in configurations dealing with urgent global challenges, including the COP process and the World Health Organization. It will also require substantial involvement in groups and organizations that enable global consensus-building, including the UN and the G20, and in coalitions of interest on specific policy areas. On the other hand, engagement should be more cautious in multilateral organizations that offer little prospect of progress beyond existing agreements: These include the WTO and one or the other sub-organization of the United Nations.

Systemic change in authoritarian states is a necessary prerequisite for a revitalization of the rules-based world order. This cannot be forced or imposed from outside, but that does not mean abandoning political and material support for those who seek to advance democratic and social change from within. For this reason, an important task for German foreign policy must be the promotion of democracy and human rights as well as cultural and scientific exchange.       

Stefan Mair is the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).