Illusions of a New Bipolarity


There is a certain foreign political dimension to the COVID-19 pandemic that is beginning to rear its head with increasing frequency and can thus explain the current behaviour of states on the international stage. Coronavirus plays two largely contradictory roles – it accelerates some processes while at the same time putting the brakes on, or even halting, others. The former include, among other things, the geopolitical plans of a number of states, while the latter includes finding solutions to global socioeconomic problems and domestic political processes. One area in which events are accelerating is the rivalry between the United States and China, which has prompted many to start talking about a “new bipolarity.” Are we really seeing a revival of bipolarity, but in a modern form? That is, in the true definition of the word – is the world being split into two antagonistic systems?

It has become the norm in the mainstream media, especially those media outlets that push the liberal political agenda, to separate the world into two camps. “China is on the way up and, thanks to Trump’s trade war,” CNN tells us, “the world is heading for an us-versus-them universe […] There will be two camps, pro-America; pro-China […]” Let us be clear, we are not talking about escalating tensions between two states here, but rather between two “camps.”

And now let us not forget that the only bipolarity that we have ever experienced was in the form of the U.S.–Soviet confrontation during the Cold Warю It was marked by a gradual stabilization of international relations that culminated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. In other words, the logic of bipolarity entailed not only rivalry between the two global centres of power, but also their joint activities to eliminate the threat of a major armed confrontation. However, relations between Washington and Beijing appear to be heading in a completely different direction. According to Graham Allison “[W]ar between the U.S. and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized.” [3] It thus follows that interaction between China and the United States will lead to loosening, rather than a stabilization, of international relations.

There is a more optimistic scenario, too, which would involve Washington agreeing to coexist with Beijing in a “competition without catastrophe” [4]. The problem with this scenario is that any large-scale “rebalancing” will have to be carried out on conditions set by the United States [5]. However, given the current circumstances, such a rebalancing can only be achieved in a climate of equality or, what is more likely, under conditions that suit China. In order for this to happen, American foreign policy needs to return to some semblance of realism. But that’s another story.

Are there any favourable “external conditions” for a bipolar world to take shape? Is there anything in the current international climate that would convince us to place our trust in China and the United States as the countries that are expected to lead these new poles? We should keep in mind that, during the Cold War, East and West continued to develop actively. Today, both China and the United States are shoulder deep in globalization. But just look at what is happening to globalization. Economic, informational, technological and other forms of competition are only growing, and what used to be a self-regulating economic process is turning into a political instrument for suppressing business competitors, with unreasonable restrictions, the extraterritorial application of national laws and actions in circumvention of the WTO rules in the name of “national security” becoming the norm. Many of the problems that led to the global financial crisis in 2008–2009 have not been properly addressed. And the coronavirus pandemic promises even harder times. It turns out that that, in its current manifestation, globalization is not a process that Washington or Beijing are able to steer, rather, it is a phenomenon that makes it increasingly difficult for China and the United States to pursue their respective goals.

Some proponents of a new bipolarity might concede that deglobalization processes are indeed taking place right now, but in no way does this prove that the world is not being split in two and becoming bipolar in nature once again. The answer to this would be that none of the world’s most respected economists would challenge the idea that globalization is a representation of the interdependence of the modern world. We are talking about the specific ultra-liberal form of globalization that has dominated for the last 30 or 40 years exhausting its usefulness. There is no objective reason to expect a return to the old kind of bipolarity, which functioned as two parts of the world that existed almost in complete isolation from each other socially and economically under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite all the current trade, financial and sanctions wars, the global nature of the market cannot be dismantled and returned to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the European Economic Community, for example, which in any case had little to do with one another.

It thus follows that China and the United States are destined to have close economic ties, yet at the same time are sliding towards confrontation. And neither the first nor the second circumstance was characteristic of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It turns out that the United States and China cannot exist in economic isolation from one another, nor can they build a kind of economic interdependence that would suit both sides, which has led to a kind of acute “ischemia” in the rivalry between the two countries. Even at the embryonic stage, this kind of bipolarity cannot offer stability to the world or anything that would even remotely resemble U.S.–Soviet relations.

One of the reasons why the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States grew into a standoff between two poles was that external contours emerged in the form of the socialist and capitalist camps, respectively. The events of the past 20 years show that the West, in the previous sense of the word, no longer exists. The dominance and economic might of the United States are very much on the decline, as its ability to use force effectively and maintain its leading technological status in a respectable way. Even the United Kingdom, traditionally Washington’s closest ally, refused to support the White House in its war against the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. According to the people of Japan, Canada, Germany and France, the United States poses a greater threat to their respective countries than Russia and (with the exception of Japan) China [6].

It is unclear exactly where the boundaries of the West begin and end. It is turning into a dual-core system with centres in Washington and the European Union that are undergoing a kind of strategic decoupling [7]. The United States has, since the presidency of George W. Bush, pursued a course of monetizing and pragmatizing relations with its allies, strategically leaving Europe. The European Union is trying to shed its image as a purely economic centre of power through the idea of strategic autonomy and a common strategic culture. Europe will never again be the focus of the United States’ attention, writes Foreign Affairs, and so must ensure the survival of its own model in order to stake a claim to global leadership.

As for China’s external contours, there is nothing here that resembles the socialist camp that existed under the auspices of the USSR. Political and ideological cohesion was key to the bipolarity that we witnessed during the Cold War. China has long surpassed the Soviet Union in terms of its economic influence, but politically Beijing has very few allies, especially when it comes to an out and out confrontation with the United States. This is perhaps the biggest difference between what we are witnessing today and the bipolarity of the past – when superpowers are not surrounding themselves with ideological blocs, bipolarity becomes nothing but two states getting into a bickering match, albeit with certain global attributes. China has perhaps one true strategic partner, and that is Russia. The United States, on the other hand, has many allies, although many of them, including France and Germany, are tired of being of their forced dependence on Washington.

Can the Russia–China tandem stake a claim to being one of the blocs in the new bipolar world? Probably not. As a rule, the poles can have only one indisputable leader. China–Russia relations are largely asymmetrical in favour of China, although they are far from being subordinate. Neither side is willing to let the other assume the role of leader. And let us not forget that the two countries pursue strategies that do not always coincide: the military and political standoff between China and the United States is largely focused in the South China and East China seas, thousands of miles away from Russia. Russia does not have any interests in that region. Yet it is precisely here that China’s most vulnerable geopolitical sore spots are located (Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Paracel and the Spratly Islands). Russia has a zone of strategic tension of its own to the west, far away from China.

Another thing that we should keep in mind is that bipolarity was only possible in a world that was already split along ideological lines. But the confrontation between socialism and capitalism is a thing of the past, and value differences have also receded into the background, making way for realpolitik and geopolitics [8]. Without an ideological confrontation, it is impossible to recreate the necessary conditions for the world to split into two camps. It is true that China and the United States have fundamentally different values and political systems, as was the case with the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But these contradictions run nowhere near as deep. The United States remains convinced of its exclusivity and its God-given right to global leadership [9]. China, on the other hand, does not demonstrate any kind of messianism and, unlike the Soviet Union, it does not promote socialist and communist ideas. Beijing does not rely on hackneyed ideological phrases, rather, it points to the effectiveness of its development model. The inescapable growth of competition between Beijing and Washington is not due to the irreconcilability of ideologies, but rather to their geopolitical incompatibility, and this is simply not enough for the confrontation to transmute into a bloc-based rivalry.

Yet many are still enticed by discussions of a new bipolarity, and there are many reasons why. Let us outline a few of them. First, the world order that existed during the Cold War was relatively simple. Second, people are motivated by anti-Chinese sentiments. That is, many associate the bipolarity of the Cold War with the eventual victory of one of the sides, and they hope that the United States will defeat China in much the same way that it defeated the Soviet Union. Third, it would seem that those who still believe in the return of a consolidated West under the leadership of the United States and the emergence of an anti-Western bloc led by China and neighbouring Russia see U.S.–China bipolarity as a viable option. Such conclusions are normally based on the immature and ideologically motivated idea of the world being split into “liberal democracies” on the one hand and “authoritarian regimes” on the other.

If the idea of a new bipolarity is untenable, then the possibility of a new Cold War, that is, the appearance of elements of the political, military, financial and economic confrontation between Russia and the West, has also no substance behind. The phenomenon of the Cold War is inseparable from the post-War conditions that led to the emergence of U.S.–Soviet bipolarity. Its key parameters are well known and almost none of them have been recreated. No one makes the claim today that there is a new geopolitical rift between Russia and the United States, and thus the West. The phrase “New Cold War” would still make sense with regard to the trajectory along which China and the United States are currently travelling. However, even then it is used rarely, and mostly by Washington [10]. Again, we need to keep in mind that the Cold War as an element of U.S.–Soviet bipolarity was a path to a certain balance of interests, and not a slippery slope towards an open confrontation.

As for relations between Russia and the European Union, I dare say that, even given the depressing strategies pursued by both sides, the principle of a new bipolarity has not taken root. It is only under extreme duress and with extreme reluctance that the European Union has taken any steps against China. This was laid bare for all to see in the tragicomic story involving the EU report on disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The handling of the coronavirus is leaving more and more people in Europe with no illusions about the United States and the “shining city upon a hill,” or indeed about the far-reaching ambitions harboured by Brussels. The point of view that the current state of relations with Moscow will only make the situation worse has been argued very articulately in a number of analytical works [11], not to mention by a number of politicians in Europe. The pandemic has led to a certain opportunistic surge in anti-Russia and anti-China rhetoric. But it works far better on the European Union’s less blinkered view of the world than it does on neoliberal apologetics, which in many ways perverts legacy of liberal thought.

[1] Pence M. Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China. The Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018. Perlez J. Pence’s China Speech Seen as Portent of ‘New Cold.

War,’” The New York Times, 5 October 2018. Rogin J. Pence: “It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War.”

Washington Post, 13 November 2018.

[2] Monaghan A. Dealing with the Russians. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.

[3] Allison G. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017, p. xvii.

[4] Campbell K. M. and J. Sullivan. Competition Without Catastrophe. How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China // Foreign Affairs, September–October 2019.

[5] Campbell K. M. The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. New York, Twelve, 2016.

[6] Munich Security Report 2019, p. 7.

[7] Gromyko, A. A Splintered West: The Consequences for the Euro-Atlantic // Contemporary Europe, No. 4, 2018, pp. 5–16.

[8] The return of geopolitics had been a topic of discussion long before Donald Trump moved into the White House. See, for example, Larrabee S. Russia, Ukraine, and Central Europe: The Return of Geopolitics // Journal of International Affairs, No. 2. Spring–Summer 2010, pp. 33–52.

[9] The idea of American leadership appears 36 times in the country’s 32-page National Security Strategy for 2015.

[10] Pence M. Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China. The Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018. Perlez J. Pence’s China Speech Seen as Portent of ‘New Cold War,’” The New York Times, 5 October 2018. Rogin J. Pence: “It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War.” Washington Post, 13 November 2018.

[11] Monaghan A. Dealing with the Russians. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.

From our partner RIAC

Alexey Gromyko
Alexey Gromyko
Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), RAS Corresponding Member, RIAC member


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