Unipolarity and Multipolarity in the International System

September 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

I spent part of today reading through two important pieces (some would say canonical pieces in International Relations theory) on the stability of an international system characterized by multipolarity or unipolarity. A great debate in international relations is centered on the argument of whether we currently inhabit a unipolar or multi-polar system, obviously with the United States as the focus of the unipolar world (if that is what exists). My purpose here is not to discuss whether we live in  multi-polar or unipolar system (incidentally, I’m of the mindset that we live in a multi-polar world), I am interested in taking up the notion of stability. Stability is defined by a maintenance of the status quo, without adding or subtracting the core number of great powers in the international system.

The pieces, full citations below, construct basic syllogisms that argue on either side. Kenneth Waltz argues, in essence, that a bipolar world is in fact the most stable and durable for peace in the international system. His major contribution to this syllogism is the idea that, in a multi-polar world there are more opportunities for miscalculations between the many alliances and groupings that form, leading to more instability.

Singer & Deutsch argue that a multi-polar 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.

Although Waltz’s logic is much stronger and presents a difficult obstacle to overcome in trying to break it down, I would have to side with Singer & Deutsch because I do see multi-polar systems, with their increased opportunities for cooperation and interaction to be far more stable and conducive to peaceful interaction than bipolar systems.

Of course, all of these calculations and theories are complicated ten-fold in reality with the question of terrorism, non-state actors, rogue states and non-military inputs. None the less, I think it’s a worthwhile analysis.

– Waltz, Theory of International Politics, ch. 8. (R)

– Karl Deutsch and J. David Singer, “Multipolar Systems and International Stability,” World Politics, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Apr. 1964), pp. 390-406. (R)

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