When we use a computer, a smartphone or a tablet, which we do on a daily basis, we as laymen tend to forget that we only interact with the surface of a very complex device – there are millions of things going on in the background, which we cannot see. Similarly, when dealing with political matters, there are many interconnected layers to take into account. One of the most fundamental aspects is the study of structures. The word structure can be understood in various ways, but in its purest form it is the basic framework that allows the functioning of politics. Since politics is defined as the effective and efficient allocation of scarce resources for achieving societal advancement, the fundamental structure designates a framework for the allocation of scarce resources.
Today, the whole world is based on the structural properties of the territorial nation-state. Basically, all of the Earth’s surface (except for the Antarctica) is ascribed to a certain group of people, which constitutes a sovereign entity. There are some modified models of governance in countries that are riddled by internal ethic conflict, which results in ambiguity about the territorial distribution of power. Moreover, there are some overseas colonies that do not fulfil all of the properties we would expect from a classical nation-state. However, even these cases are not so much different from the classical nation-state that it would be warranted to describe them as an exception. While the territorial nation-state determines some basic vertical properties within the country, the relationship between all nation-states is defined by the international structure, which is a horizontal construct. Just as two legal persons are, in theory, equal in front of a court, two states are, in theory, equal to one another in legal terms. However, this is just the case in theory. Often enough, we see that courts are biased against minorities, economically weak or marginalised groups, whereas corporations, economic elites or well-connected people are subject to favouritism.
In the international sphere, states are also subject to such biases. The examples for this are sheer endless: from China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, the founding of Israel, attribution of the Aegean Islands to Greece, to investor-state dispute settlement clauses in international treaties, economic sanctions on states and the constellation of the United Nations Security Council – the list is very long. Contrary to the vertical bias in national judicial systems, the international bias is a horizontal force that is either applied unilaterally or multilaterally against one or more states. For example, it is unlikely that a European state would sanction another European state, whereas it would be less reluctant to sanction a North African state. Interestingly, we can see that both quantity and quality of bias in the international system can greatly vary in correlation with the change of a very interesting variable: polarity.
By polarity, we mean the general distribution of power among states. As an analogy, we can think about the Gini-Coefficient, which tells us about the distribution of money within one country. Unfortunately, the concept of polarity is too complex to quantify it. Rather the international landscape of states is categorised as either unipolar, bipolar or multipolar. A unipolar state structure is a situation, in which one state has significantly more power than any other state. Here, the dominant state is an omnipresent factor in all other states’ policy processes. Currently, we are living in a unipolar global order with the United States of America (short: USA) as the sole dominant pole. Secondly, under a bipolar structure, there are two dominant states that are relatively equal in their military and economic strength. The most recent and best example for such a situation is the Cold War period, in which the Soviet Union and the USA were the dominant global actors that influenced political developments just by their presence. Finally, there is also the possibility that there are many regional power hubs across the globe, which are more or less equally strong – a situation we describe as multipolar. We can identify different eras of relatively balanced multipolarity, such as medieval Europe.
When thinking about polarity, it is important to think about power as a fixed amount that is somehow ‘out there’. Hence, polarity is an interesting structural property, because it alters states’ behaviour on the international plane, as well as their domestic political and economic capabilities, based on the allocation of power. In a unipolar system, the epicentre of power is concentrated in one state. Due to our knowledge of economic concepts on the means of reproduction, we know that more resources increase development capacities and, therefore, add to solidifying the hegemony. Naturally, the dominant state will ensure that allies will profit from this hegemony, while it will use the power to contain states that might compromise its dominance. As we can see today, the USA reinvests in its power by building military bases across the globe (around 1000 worldwide, while Russia is second place with around 20) and in its economy, sanctions countries that it perceives as dangerous to its power and lets ideologically close states like Canada, the European Union member states and Australia profit from its economic supremacy. In a bipolar order, the two superpowers try to pull as many states on their side as possible and win them as allies. Because of the destructive effects that a direct confrontation between the states would bring, the superpowers usually tend to export their conflicts to neutral territories in an attempt to annex them – a so-called proxy war. A bipolar state structure is further characterised by goal displacement, because both sides need to constantly battle to keep parity, while also exploiting their allies, which leads to neglecting societal progress as a whole.
Finally, there are multipolar structures – one or two strong actors per region (e.g. Brazil in Latin America or Egypt in North Africa. The main property is that the leading regional powers are less powerful in total, compared to the previous two systems, which also means that the power difference between a regional power and a regular regional actor is not that big; in other words, they are more equal. Also the regional powers are relatively equal horizontally. The biggest advantage is that international political attention is dispersed, because there are more actors to take into account when shaping international policy. This has the positive effect that states are more reluctant to take bold action and expand internationally, which automatically also increases domestic focus. Further, the power parity has a conflict-reducing effect. In a multipolar world, conflict is much costlier than in the other systems, which even require conflict to a certain extent to deter and solidify dominance. Consequently, with increasing cost of conflict, the cost of cooperation decreases and makes international cooperation more feasible. The European Union is ultimately an end-product of a multipolar state structure that has lasted for centuries. Also, multipolarity facilitates growth of other regional actors, since they are somewhat economically and politically protected by their regional power.
Looking at today’s international landscape, we can identify regions, like Northern parts of Latin America, West African states and the Turkic states in Central Asia, that desperately need 20-30 years of non-intervention to recollect themselves and elevate their societies. While their problems originate from the Cold War era, our current unipolar structure did little to improve their situation. A multipolar system might be the right environment for these and many other regions to catch up to the leading states in world. Returning to the assumption that there is a fixed amount of power (and wealth), the losers of a multipolar world would be the currently dominant powers like the USA, China, Japan, Germany, Great Britain and so on. However, in an attempt to achieve a more balanced political landscape, better environmental protection cooperation, more income equality and opportunities for everyone we cannot look at the interest of already advantaged states. Of course, they are not going to give up their power just like that, but nevertheless should we start realising that there are alternatives to the current order.