By Amit R. Saksena
As history will show, realists will argue, and the liberals will nibble on their thumbs, unipolarity often exhibits symptoms of the wave function collapse, a quantum mechanics term which essentially means the return of an object to an initial level, after elevating due to external build-up (factors indirectly affected by the object). Metaphorically applying this definition to the context of sovereign states, gives us the root cause of all the major events which have molded our global politics into its present state. Be it the World Wars, atomic bomb, democratization or the Cold War, history is abounding with examples of unipolarity being only a passing stage in a vicious circle of this global game.
At its climax, the Cold War saw the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., and the United States left as the only superpower in the world. The world order was reset, and amidst extreme chaos and failing governments, the United States emerged as a beacon of hope. Freshly independent states wanted to rebuild themselves in America’s image. Nations worldwide went into a frenzied state of enhancing their economic and politico-social conditions. The underlying principle was simple. The United States was perceived as an individual hegemon. And states, dubious of the hegemon’s intentions, vied to enhance their own influence and security. As neoliberalism dictates, the singular rise of a nation state forces the others to balance its influence, which in turn can only be achieved by individually augmenting their own influence.
Such is also the case of smaller nations, which experience extremely high growth rates due to the catch-up effect, and in the process, get aspirations for their own national interests. Smaller powers need not spend as much as the big powers on defense, or global initiatives, and can use that to budget for economic and societal development (Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, S. Africa, etc.). In case of R&D, the smaller states can merely acquire the latest technology, or in the least, receive assistance from allied states to procure it, thus saving the time and money initially spent on developing it (Russia-India/U.S-S.Korea, etc.). With a number of such nations functioning in close proximity to one another, a race to impose dominance in a region initiates, often leading to political and/or military clashes (see the Indo-Pak nuclear tests, 1998). The solo hegemon, apprehensive of such development as a threat to itself, would then try to counter these rising states by forming alliances either with them (China-Pak), or against them (China-India). In either case, unipolarity has transitioned into multipolarity. This new alliance will now be a hegemon, and have a catalytic effect on a third state, or a group of states, which would again begin the process of balancing the alliance’s power and influence, thus starting a Domino Effect in the region specifically, and in the world as a whole.
Also, the initial big power, in the wake of these developments, may try to coerce the rising powers into agreeing to international frameworks which can be puppeteered by it (the League of Nations, United Nations). This persuasive tendency may make the smaller powers even more vary of the hegemon, and boycott the frameworks altogether, weakening the hegemon’s influence even further (N. Korea, India and Pakistan against the NPT).
Unipolarity is, thus, only a repetitive stage in world politics. Undeniably, it will always be followed by multipolarity, which is more of a defensive mechanism to unipolarity, as opposed to a different world order. The World Wars were a result of many great nations vying for influence and power in a multipolar world. So it can be said that unipolarity is an unfortunate outcome of multipolarity. This balance between the two is the fundamental clockwork of world politics.
Amit R. Saksena is an independent researcher and member of the Wikistrat analytic community from New Delhi. He tweets @arsaksena.