The international order is akin to the science fiction character Dr. Who—it periodically is destroyed, only to reemerge in an altered form. Certain core features are retained; the Classical Greek historian Thucydides observed that political actors are motivated by fear, honor, and interest, and that remains the ruling principle of international politics.
Unless human nature alters fundamentally, that will be true in the future as it was two and a half millennia ago. Other systemic characteristics, however, are malleable, and the structure of the new order thus may differ radically from that of its predecessor.
In the twentieth century, the international order was destroyed twice, the first time mainly through the application of organized violence on a gargantuan scale. The events of 1914-1945 transformed a system with numerous great powers vying for regional and global influence into a bipolar one centered on two superpowers; several former great powers (France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan) became junior partners in a US-led structure of alliances. In the 1960s, the People’s Republic of China attempted, mainly through the aggressive dispersion of Maoist ideology, to become a third “pole” in global politics. However, China at that point lacked the financial and military resources necessary to secure sustained global influence. Thus, even China ultimately embraced the United States as a de facto ally.
The second reorganization of global affairs, happily, involved surprisingly little violence, as the demise of the Warsaw Pact, and then the Soviet Union itself, left the United States as a lone colossus dominating a now-unipolar international system. The newly established Russian Federation was in a period of economic and social chaos, while China and, especially, India were still in the early stages of transition from dire poverty to affluence.
Although many American policymakers hubristically assumed that unipolarity would endure for their lifetime and far beyond, this was never plausible; under the conditions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, unipolarity was fated to have a short half-life. Both the bipolar and unipolar orders had emerged by default—the former because all the great powers but two were defeated or financially broken, the latter because the USSR self-immolated before new actors were capable of bearing great power burdens. However, today numerous large countries are prospering economically, producing an increasing number of well-educated and productive citizens, and otherwise laying the foundation for an enhanced international status.
Unipolarity was bearable in the short-term even for Beijing and Moscow because both assumed, correctly, that Washington would show a degree of circumspection in attempting to impose its will on them. Thus, American global quasi-hegemony was irritating, but not a threat to their survival as functionally independent actors. Unsurprisingly, though, as China grew wealthier and Russia stabilized under the Putin regime, these powers became more assertive and increasingly willing to challenge the United States. Indeed, in the last decade Russia has fought two limited wars against weaker neighbors with Western-oriented governments, in both cases effectively daring Washington to back its friends. In both cases, the American response might generously be described as restrained. The world no longer appears unipolar if one is sitting in Tbilisi or Kiev.
The slow demise of unipolarity does not mean that the United States has entered into terminal decline. Indeed, it is likely that at mid-century it still will be the greatest individual power. To effectively exercise influence, it will, however, have to adapt to a military-diplomatic dynamic far more complex and changeable than the binary one of the Cold War. While China and Russia have emerged as rivals to the United States—and many Chinese and Russian policymakers clearly consider America an outright enemy—even allies such as Japan are constructing foreign policy frameworks in which Washington’s role is less central. For example, Tokyo has increasingly attempted to counterbalance China by strengthening its bilateral relationships with Southeast Asian countries, while also becoming more assertive in pressing its territorial claims in the East China Sea.
As it matures, this new multipolar system increasingly will resemble the world of 1914 in certain respects, though in others it will be quite dissimilar. The most fundamental difference will be that the physical and cultural geography of the “old multipolarity” was Eurocentric. While two of the great states, the United States and Japan, were not physically centered in Europe, the former was essentially European culturally, while, from the 1868 Meiji Restoration onward, the latter consciously modeled itself on European counterparts. Most of the powers had vast holdings outside Europe, and the struggle for hegemony over Western and Central Europe was intertwined with the quest for global hegemony. This was the age that the great British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) dubbed the “Columbian Epoch.” The emerging multipolar system instead will be physically centered on the giant “meta-region” that might be called Eastern Eurasia: the Asia-Pacific, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and most of the Asian portion of Russia. Several of the great powers will be “local” to Eastern Eurasia, although the United States is an obvious exception.
At this point, one also can discern two other plausible great power candidates from outside the meta-region. One is Brazil, whose leaders desire a larger global role. However, they do not yet appear to have a clear conception of what precisely that role would be, much less to have accepted the fact that truly great powers must maintain, and be willing to use, large, expensive military establishments. The other is the European Union, which clearly has the economic and population resources to be a very powerful actor. However, unless the EU’s component states are willing to fully sign over their military and foreign policy decisionmaking authority to Brussels (a prospect that seemed more plausible twenty years ago than it does today), the EU will never be a potent force in shaping the international security environment.
The great powers geographically located in Eastern Eurasia likely will include China, India, and a Japan ever-more independent of Washington’s direction. (Russia is a unique case, as much of its territory is in Eastern Eurasia, but the great bulk of its population is east the Urals). The “ecosystem” of power politics in Eastern Eurasia will be rich, with medium powers such as South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, and Indonesia—the latter also a possible great power candidate in a few decades—pursuing their own interests and playing a major role in shaping the system. While those states now formally allied to the United States likely will remain so, it is unlikely that an American-led “Asian NATO” focused on China will develop. From the perspective of its neighbors, China is worryingly strong. However, Eastern Eurasia is not the war-shattered Europe of the late 1940s; counterbalancing China will not require that its countries compromise their foreign policy autonomy by becoming acquiescent junior partners to the United States.
The comparison with 1914 invariably raises the question of whether a Third World War will occur. It is impossible to give a certain answer to the question, but the concern is warranted. The age of great power warfare may have ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the evidence for that proposition is rather thin. A record of seventy years without a great power conflict is unprecedented, but for most of that time a mere two capitals determined whether or not a cataclysmic war would occur, and in the following unipolar period no major country would have dared to fight the United States. In a dynamic multipolar environment, many states will have a “vote,” even relatively minor ones. After all, the catalyst for the First World War was a terrorist assassination that led to a standoff between a small power and a decrepit Austrian Empire.
It is to be hoped that the new multipolar world will develop in a healthy manner, with interstate competition being managed in a fashion that diffuses potentially violent conflicts. In order to do this, however, there first must be a recognition that multipolarity actually isemerging, and that the world’s countries must be prepared to function in a complex strategic environment that is quite dissimilar from the rather simple bipolar and unipolar orders of the recent past. If the world’s states meet this challenge, humanity perhaps, for the first time, will experience an international order in which great power war is no longer an intrinsic feature of the international system. In the past, it certainly was: peace might prevail for a time, but these periods were just breathing spaces between violent struggles for dominance. Given the social and technological changes that have occurred in the decades since the last war—particularly the proliferation of nuclear weapons to an increasing number actors (a process likely to continue in the future)—it may finally be the case that great power war can be avoided perpetually. If that is the case, it is the most important change in the essential character of international relations since the state itself arose out of the mists of prehistory.