The Myth of Multipolarity

Most of the so-called "new powers" aren't nearly as powerful as they seem.

One of the major pieces of conventional wisdom these days is that the United States is declining as a global power and that the world is moving toward a "multipolar" system in which many nations will have sway. As Robert Kagan reports, “when most people think of a post-American world, they think of a return to multipolarity—an international configuration of power where several powers exist in rough parity.” Charles Kupchan likewise postulates a weakening of U.S. primacy and the establishment of a multipolar world that will not have a “center of gravity” but will instead be characterized by a diffusion of power among several major world players.

China is said to lead the parade of the new powers, followed by oft-cited India and Brazil. All kinds of other countries, from Turkey and South Africa to Nigeria and Indonesia, also made it to the list. George Yeo Yong Boon, Singapore’s former minister of foreign affairs, sees “an enormous shift of power and influence in the world. It is mainly a story of the rise of China and India.” In 2010, then assistant secretary of state for public affairs P. J. Crowley called India “a great and emerging global power,” and President Obama has referred to India as “a rising power and a responsible global power.” A 2011 report by the Council on Foreign Relations recommended that Brazil be “counted among the world’s pivotal powers” and urged Washington to “recognize Brazil’s standing as a global actor.”

John Kampfner argues that “the ascent to global status of not just China, but Brazil and India, followed possibly by Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa, is in policy terms woefully under-appreciated.” Stewart Patrick lists Indonesia and Turkey among the emergent powers.

Actually, if one defines power as a political scientist does—the ability of one party to make another do what the first party wishes but the second party would rather not do—most of these new powers are rather weak. Some are at most regional and not global players, and others are able to hobble the United States a bit or make mischief but not seriously manage much of anything on a global scale.

One source of the rush to attribute power where little exists is due to the tendency to conflate big economies with big power. It is true, of course, that a country the size of China surely can field a much larger military force or apply more economic pressure than, say, East Timor or Luxembourg. However, power does not follow automatically from size.

Japan has one of the largest global economies (the third largest, behind only the United States and China) but generates little international power. Similarly, both Brazil and India’s power lag way behind their economic success.

When one combines the GDPs of its twenty-seven member states, the European Union’s economy outranks even that of the United States, but the EU also projects rather limited power. It played a minor role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the power of EU nations verged on “collective military irrelevance,” as former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it during the 2011 Libyan campaign. Although the campaign was spearheaded by France and Britain, NATO’s European members were highly dependent on U.S. military help to keep going. (The United States provided about three-quarters of the aerial tankers, without which NATO’s European strike fighters could not have reached their targets and returned to base, and when the European forces’ stock of precision-guided weapons ran low after only a couple of months, Washington had to provide the supplies).

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