Abstract: Nations and intergovernmental organisations must consider the real possibility of moving into a world without a global hegemon. The core assumptions that underpin realist thought can directly be challenged by presenting an alternative approach to non-polarity. This could be through questioning what might occur if nations moved from a world in which polarity remains a major tool for understanding interstate relations and security matters. Further work is necessary to explore the full implications of what entering a non-polar world could mean and possible outcomes for such events.
Problem Statement: What would global security look like without competition between key global players such as the People’s Republic of China and the United States?
So What?: Nations and intergovernmental organisations should prepare for the real possibility that the international community could be moving into a world without a global hegemon or world order. As such, they should recognise the potential for a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape and are urged to strategically acknowledge the importance of what this would mean. More research is still needed to explore the implications for and of this moving forward.
Humankind has moved rapidly from a period of relatively controlled geopolitical dominance towards a more fluid and unpredictable situation. This has posed a question to global leadership: what would it mean to be leaderless, and what role could anarchy play in such matters? Examining the assumptions that make up most of the academic discourse within International Relations and Security Studies remains important in trying to tackle said dilemma.
From this geopolitical fluidity, the transition from U.S.-led geopolitical dominance, shown in the ‘unipolar moment’, to that of either bipolarity or multipolarity has come about. This re-emergence, however, has not directly focused on an unexplored possibility that could explain the evolving trends that might occur. Humankind is entering a post-polar world out of the emergence of a leaderless world structure. There is the possibility, too, that neither the U.S. nor the the People’s Republic of China become the sole global superpower which then dominates the world and its structures”.  The likelihood of this occurring remains relatively high, as explored further on. Put differently, “it is entirely possibly that within the next two decades, international relations could be entering a period of no singular global superpower at all”.
Humankind is entering a post-polar world out of the emergence of a leaderless world structure.
The Non-Polar Moment
The most traditional forms of realism propose three forms of polar systems. These are unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar (The Big Three). There is a strong possibility that we as a global community are transitioning into a fourth and separate world system. This fourth and relatively unexplored world system could mean that anything that enables the opportunity for either a superpower or regional power to establish itself will not be able to occur in the foreseeable future.
It can also historically be explained by the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the emergence of the U.S. as the leading superpower within global politics. For lack of better words, it was a generational image of a defining dominant nation within both international relations and security circles. From this, it was widely acknowledged and regarded that Krauthammer coined the' unipolar moment' in the aftermath of the Cold War. This meant that there was a period when the U.S. was the sole dominant centre of global power/polarity. This unipolar moment is more accurately considered part of a much larger ‘global power moment’.
This global power moment is in reference to the time period mentioned above, which entailed the ability for nations to directly and accurately project their power abroad or outside their region. This ability to project power will presumably but steadily decline in the following decades due to the subsequent decrease in the three core vectors of human development (Demography, Technology and Ideology). When combined, one could argue that the three polar systems allowed for the creation of the global power moment itself. Specifically, that would be from the start of the 19th until the end of the 20th century. Following that line of thought, the future was affected by the three aforementioned pillars somewhat like this:
Demography: this means having a strongly structured and or growing population, one that allows a nation to act expansively towards other states and use those human resources to achieve its political goals.
Technology: the rise of scientific innovations, allowing stronger military actions to happen against other nations. To date, it has granted nations the ability to directly project power abroad, which, before this, would have only been able to occur locally or at a regional level.
Ideology: the third core vector of human development. That means the development of philosophies that justify the creation of a distinct mindset or “zeitgeist” that culturally explains a nation’s actions.
These three core vectors of development are built into a general human trend and assumption of ‘more’, within this great power moment. Existing systems are built into the understanding of more people, more technology development, and more growth, along with possessing generated ideologies that rationalise such actions. What this does, in turn, is help define a linear progression of human history and help develop an understanding of interstate relations.
Existing systems are built into the understanding of more people, more technology development, and more growth, along with possessing generated ideologies that rationalise such actions.
Nevertheless, this understanding is currently considered insufficient; the justification for this is based on developing a fourth vector to help comprehend power distribution. This vector is that of non-polarity, meaning a non-power-centred world structure. From this, the idea or concept of non-polarity is not original. Previously, it was deconstructed by Haass, Manning and Stuenkel, and, in their context, refers to a direct absence of global polarity within any of the Big Three polar systems.
Prior academics have shown that non-polarity is the absence of absolute power being asserted within a place and time but continues to exist within other big three polar systems. The current world diverges from the idea of multipolar in one core way. There are several centres of power, many of which are non-state actors. As a result, power and polarity can be found in many different areas and within many different actors. This argument expands on Strange’s (1996) contributions, who disputed that polarity was transferring from nations to global marketplaces and non-state actors.
A notable example is non-state players who act against more established powers, these can include terrorist and insurgent groups/organisations. Non-polarity itself being “a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power”. From this, a more adequate understanding of non-polarity is required. Additionally, it should be argued that non-polarity is rather a direct lack of centres of power that can exist and arise from nations. Because of this, this feature of non-polarity infers the minimisation of a nation’s ability to meaningfully engage in structural competition, which in turn describes a state of post-polarity realism presenting itself.
Humans are presented with the idea of a ‘non-polar moment’, which comes out of the above-stated direct lack of polarity. The non-polar moment inverts the meaning of the unipolar moment found with the U.S. in the aftermath of the Cold War, which was part of the wider period of Pax Americana (after WWII). This contrasts with the traditional idea: instead of having a singular hegemonic power that dominates power distribution across global politics, there is no direct power source to assert itself within the system. Conceptually, this non-polar moment could be viewed as a system where states are placed into a situation in which they are limited to being able to act outwardly. A reason why they could be limited is the demographic constraints being placed on a nation from being able to strategically influence another nation, alongside maintaining an ideology that allows nations to justify such actions.
The non-polar moment inverts the meaning of the unipolar moment found with the U.S. in the aftermath of the Cold War, which was part of the wider period of Pax Americana.
The outcomes of such a world have not been fully studied, with the global community moving from a system to one without any distributors of power or ability to influence other nations. In fact, assuming these structural conditions, -that nations need to acquire hegemony and are themselves perpetually stunted-, the scenario is similar to having a ladder that is missing its first few steps. From this, one can also see this structural condition as the contrast to a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ situation, with the great power reduction. Because of this, the non-polar moment could symbolise the next, fourth stage for nations to transition to part of a much wider post-polarity form of realism that could develop.
The implications for this highlight a relevant gap within the current literature, the need to examine both the key structural and unit-level conditions that currently are present. This is what it might mean to be part of a wider ‘a global tribe without a leader’, something which a form of post-polarity realism might suggest.
A Global Tribe Without a Leader
To examine the circumstances for which post-polarity realism can occur, one must examine the conditions that define realism itself. Traditionally, for realism, the behaviours of states are as follows:
States act according to their self-interests;
States are rational in nature; and
States pursue power to help ensure their own survival.
What this shows is that there are several structures from within the Big Three polar systems. Kopalyan argues that the world structure transitions between the different stages. This can be shown by moving between interstate relations as bipolar towards multipolar, done by both nations and governments, which allows nations to re-establish themselves in accordance with their structural conditions within the world system. Kopalyan then continues to identify the absence of a consistent conceptualisation of non-polarity. This absence demonstrates a direct need for clarity and structured responses to the question of non-polarity.
As such, the transition between systems to non-polarity, to and from post-polarity will probably occur. The reason for this is the general decline in three core vectors of human development, which are part of complex unit-level structural factors occurring within states. The structural factors themselves are not helpful towards creating or maintaining any of the Big Three world systems. Ultimately, what this represents is a general decline in global stability itself which is occurring. An example of this is the reduction of international intergovernmental organisations across the globe and their inability to adequately manage or solve major structural issues like Climate Change, which affects all nations across the international community.
Firstly, this can be explained demographically because most nations currently live with below-replacement (and sub-replacement) fertility rates. In some cases, they have even entered a state of terminal demographic decline. This is best symbolised in nations like Japan, Russia, and the PRC, which have terminal demographics alongside most of the European continent. The continuation of such outcomes also affects other nations outside of this traditional image, with nations like Thailand and Türkiye suffering similar issues. Contrasted globally, one can compare it to the dramatic inverse fertility rates found within Sub-Saharan Africa.
Secondly, with technology, one can observe a high level of development which has produced a widespread benefit for nations. Nevertheless, it has also contributed to a decline in the preservation of being able to transition between the Big Three systems. Technological developments have produced obstacles to generating coherence between governments and their citizenry. For example, social media allows for the generation of mass misinformation that can be used to create issues within nations from other countries and non-state actors. Additionally, it has meant that nations are placed permanently into a state of insecurity because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The results mean there can never be any true sense or permanence in the idea of security due to the effects of WMDs and their spillover effects. Subsequently, technological development has placed economic hurdles for nations within the current world order through record levels of debt, which has placed further strain on the validity of the current global economic system in being able to maintain itself.
Technological developments have produced obstacles to generating coherence between governments and their citizenry.
The final core vector of human development is ideology and its decline. This has been shown with a reduction in the growth of new ideologies and philosophies used to understand and address world issues. This is an extension of scholars like Toynbee and Spengler, whose literature has also claimed that ideologically, the world has witnessed a general reduction in abstract thought and problem-solving. This ideological decline has most substantially occurred in the Western World.
The outcomes of the reduction in these human development vectors demonstrate a potential next stage in global restructuring. Unfortunately, only little data can be sourced to explain what a global world order could look like without a proverbial ‘king on the throne’ exists. Nearly all acquired data is built into a ‘traditional’ understanding of a realist world order. This understanding is largely correct. Nevertheless, the core assumption built into our post-WWII consensus is out of date.
This is the concept that we as nations will continue falling back into and transitioning between the traditional Big Three polar systems. This indeed contrasts with moving into a fourth non-polar world structure. Traditionally, states have transitioned between the Big Three world systems. This can only occur when all three vectors of human development are positive, when now, in reality, all three are in decline.
This is not to take away from realism as a cornerstone theoretical approach to understanding and explaining state behaviour. Realism and its core tenets are still correct on a conceptual and theoretical level and will remain so. Indeed, what unites all branches of realism is this core assumption of civilisation from within the system and that it will directly affect polarity. These structures are assumed to remain in place, presenting one major question. This question is shown upon investigating the current bipolar connection between both major superpowers, in this case, between the U.S. and the PRC. Kissinger argues that “almost as if according to some natural law, in every century, there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system per its own values.” It can be seen in the direct aftermath of the declining U.S., which is moving away from the unipolar moment it found itself in during the 1990s, into a more insecure and complex multipolar present. This present currently defines Sino-U.S. relations and has set the tone for most conversations about the future of global politics. Such a worldview encapsulates how academics have traditionally viewed bipolar strategic competition, with one side winning and the other losing. This bipolarity between these superpowers has often left the question of which will eventually dominate the other. Will the U.S. curtail and contain a rising PRC, or will the PRC come out as the global hegemon overstepping U.S. supremacy?
Realism and its core tenets are still correct on a conceptual and theoretical level and will remain so. Indeed, what unites all branches of realism is this core assumption of civilisation from within the system and that it will directly affect polarity.
Consequently and presently, there remains a distinct possibility that both superpowers could collapse together or separately within a short period of each other. This collapse is regardless of their nation’s relative power or economic interdependence. It could rather be:
The PRC could easily decline because of several core factors. Demographically, the nation’s one-child policy has dramatically reduced the population. The results could place great strain on the nation's viability. Politically, there is a very real chance that there could be major internal strife due to competing factional elements within the central government. Economically, housing debt could cause an economic crash to occur.
For the U.S., this same could occur. The nation has its own economic issues and internal political problems. This, in turn, might also place great pressure on the future viability of the country moving forward.
Still, the implications for both nations remain deeply complex and fluid as to what will ultimately occur. From this, any definite outcomes currently remain unclear and speculative.
Within most traditional Western circles, the conclusion for the bipolar competition will only result in a transition towards either of the two remaining world systems. Either one power becomes hegemonic, resulting in unipolarity, or, in contrast, as nations move into a multipolar system, where several powers vie for security. Nevertheless, this transition cannot currently occur if both superpowers within the bipolar system collapse at the same time. This is regardless of whether their respective collapses are connected or not. As both superpowers are in a relative decline, they themselves contribute to a total decline of power across the world system. From this, with the rise of global interdependence between states, when a superpower collapses, it has long-term implications for the other superpower and those caught in between. If both superpowers collapse, it would give us a world system with no definitive power centre and a global tribe without a leader.
This decline would go beyond being in a state of ‘posthegemony’, where there is a singular or bipolar superpower, the core source of polarity amongst nations, towards that of a non-polar world. This means a transition into a world without the ability to develop an organised world system from a full hegemonic collapse. With the collapse of bipolarity and the inability to transition towards either of the traditional remaining world systems, as previously mentioned, this would be like all nations being perpetually stunted in their ability to develop, like a ladder with the first ten steps missing. All nations would collectively struggle to get up the first few steps back into some form of structural normalcy. It could, for decades, prevent any attempt to transition back into the traditional realm of the Big Three world systems.
With the collapse of bipolarity and the inability to transition towards either of the traditional remaining world systems, as previously mentioned, this would be like all nations being perpetually stunted in their ability to develop, like a ladder with the first ten steps missing.
The result/consequence of any collapse directly caused by a link between economic, demographic and political failings would become a global death spiral, potentially dragging nearly all other nations down with its collapse. That considered another question would arise: if we as an international community structurally face a non-polar moment on a theoretical level, what might the aftermath look like for states and interstate relations?
Rising and Falling Powers
This aspect of how the international community and academia view the international sphere could yield a vital understanding of what may happen within the next few years and likely decades, will need to constantly reassess the core assumptions behind our pre-existing thoughts. One core assumption is that nations are either rising or falling. However, it may be worth remembering that it is entirely possible that both bipolar powers could easily decline significantly at any point, for multiple different reasons and factors. The outcomes would have substantial implications for the world as a whole.
It may be worth remembering that it is entirely possible that both bipolar powers could easily decline significantly at any point, for multiple different reasons and factors.
Ultimately, it implies that the international community will need to reevaluate how issues like polarity are viewed, and continue to explore the possibility of entering a fourth polar world - non-polar- and address the possibility that some form of post-polarity realism might begin to conceptualise. Nations and intergovernmental organisations should, at the least, attempt to consider or acclimatise to the real possibility of transforming into a world without a global hegemon or world order.
Nathan Wilson is a master’s graduate from the University of Glasgow in Global Security. He previously studied at the University of Stirling and Lingnan University in Hong Kong. His research expertise is centred around Indo-Pacific Security, Sino-ASEAN Relations, and Chinese Foreign Policy. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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