Visualisation of relations and metadata within archival documents of the now defunct League of Nations.

A new balance of power: the end of the unipolar world

Never bet against the United States of America […] the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs.

So warned the former president of the United States of America, Barack Obama. He spoke these words during an address at the US Air Force Academy. Political and economic leaders the planet over pay special attention to the actions and statements of key US persons and institutions. It’s clear why. The world’s economy and balance of power hinges on that one “indispensable nation”, hegemon, or unipolar power. Its president was once self-titled as “leader of the free world”. The term is not simply indication of hubris, it caps off a necessary narrative for a ruling class with imperial ambitions.

The unfree world was presumably some manner of miscreant, populated by “rogue states”. This explains why the US ruling class had to take charge, to bring world peace and prosperity under their self-ascribed goodness. If it wasn’t this myth, it would have had to be another. No system of domination can long escape rebellious civil and international war without the instruments of legitimation. These would need to be embedded within an assemblage of institutional, administrative, instructional and ideological mechanisms.

Obama’s 2012 speech also includes the following:

I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs. That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st.

Barack Obama’s 2012 speech to US Air Force Academy.

By now, the 20th century appears stale. With its passing has come a new epoch marked by querulous transition. The “global institutions of the 20th century” have not met “the challenges of the 21st”. At least, they haven’t done so in favour of those who wish to maintain the previously established way of things. It’s also painfully clear that things were not and are not moving in favour of the mass of people either. Perhaps the most visible problem has been the plague of concentrated power now growing more unequal in almost all quarters of the planet.

However, change is underway as new organs are forming as and within institutions tied to the relation between territorial states. They’re minted by various actors. These include the US, Europe, the Transatlantic Alliance, China, Russia.

It remains to be seen if (1) the body of the 21st century global order will have the US as its crowned head, (2) whether it will be a Frankenstein’s monster of ill fitting regional blocs, (3) or whether a novel universal system will be established.

The planet balanced by the bayonets of world powers. Illustrated by Honore Daumier, "L’Equilibre Europea" (1866).

(1) Renaissance of US empire

This scenario is a reboot of the old, adapted to meet the conditions of the new century, but maintains US supremacy. Obama’s speech serves as a reminder that this was the script according to which affairs were generally run since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although he claims that the future will retain US unipolarity, he actually leaves the door open to a version of option 3, as I’ll soon explain.

(2) Frankenstein’s monster

This scenario would see the US lose its singular command over the world’s affairs. Its apparatus of control would no longer serve the purpose. Its preferred ‘rules based system’ could no longer be used to unilaterally impose its will on the rest of the world. The existing apparatus would then be replaced by a multitude of overlapping regional blocs that relate to one another yet are also regularly at odds or in contradiction with one another.

This is a different sort of internationalisation: the blocs are internally unified and externally intersect as interdependent but distinct assemblies. They would be made distinct by an enforced disparity of economic value regimes that include markets that are disaggregated from today’s globalised markets. For example, by incompatible payment systems, the ejection of the US dollar as the world’s singular currency without its replacement with another unitary medium, by incompatible mass freight infrastructure, and so on.

The blocs would have their own internal hierarchies of core to peripheral members, such as a US, a Germany-France, and a China dominated bloc that include junior partners and vassals. Between them may rest weaker partnered blocs and ‘neutral’ zones of territory. These would be  stroked by the contradictions of intense inter-bloc competition as well as maintained by these same competitors as ‘neutral’ buffers.

If this scenario did come to pass, it’s likely more accurate to call it a long transition rather than a lasting new regime.

The reason for this is that today’s world is dominated by one transnational organism which is founded upon an economic bedrock (capital) and supported by a corresponding political framework. Together, they constitute the political economic system of capitalism. Here, I assume that either capitalism doesn’t now collapse or that it isn’t replaced by a regression into feudalism (I don’t see how feudalism could be possible). I also assume that it’s not soon to be replaced by a wholly new or other internationalist system (such as socialism). Capitalism is inherently international. Its internal mechanism constantly tends toward expansion in scope and depth. This tendency and its consequences are sometimes called globalisation. In the past, other terms were preferred: the world economy or world capitalism.

Woodrow Wilson, that early 20th century US president sometimes credited with introducing his era’s international regime, spoke of this, saying:

Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.

(3) A new regime

In this scenario, a new globalisation takes hold. The regime would remain universal, formally applied to the world and any exception from this understood as errant, rogue, temporary, or marginal. There are two forms of this: either a new territorial state claims the throne lost by the US or a multipolar regime is put in place with its own international systems of exchange, and so on.

In either of these two version, it may appear that some elements of the old system remain, and that’s bound to be the case. However, the circulatory system as a whole would be transformed.

Obama’s previously quoted speech leaves the door open to this form of multipolarity. This is because many of the US strategists were aware that they couldn’t maintain singular global dominance for ever. The plan among these strategists was to use the period during which “no other nation can play the role that [they] play in global affairs” in order to shape “the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st.”

This recognises that there would come a time during which the US could no longer act unilaterally, that it could be thwarted by others in a multipolar world order. However, if the US was the chief architect of this future order, then it could try to make sure that it would become the most important of all the powers.  This could be done by turning the preferred instruments and institutions of the US ruling class and of its core allies into the the world’s medium of relations. This would give them at least an indirect seat at the various tables of council throughout the world. They would have an advantage over all others.

What’s now happening

There’s a redistribution of power taking place. The existing global order primarily rests upon a multitudinous framework that’s battered by changing circumstances. There’s heavy strain as it’s pulled this way and that by emergent forces as well as by internal contradictions.

The European Union is changing, the US ruling class are fighting among themselves, their Transatlantic Alliance is convulsed, China has risen to new heights of international power, Russia is no longer totally routed, West Asia / Middle East is terribly squeezed by the forces of change, and the global economic supply chain is in flux.

Key US dominated institutions are still indispensable but this is not assured. Large to small powers openly question the validity or the sustainability of these assemblages.

Power remains in the hands of the ruling class yet its balance and form are unstable inasmuch as its precise distribution among groupings of the ruling class is in question . The emergence of a international regime does seem to be on its way, one whose appearance is preceded by a period of insulated regional blocs. I think that no single power can feasibly take charge and impose a new unipolar order. The future appears multipolar. This change is in time with the transforming conditions of capitalism, whose economic system struggles and strains under the weight of its own contradictions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll Up