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).

Nor should one overlook that nations such as India and China also have very large populations with rising demands—populations that pressure their governments to improve their lot rather than spend resources on foreign adventures. Indeed, India’s low income per capita (a mere $1,340, which places India roughly on par with Papua New Guinea) is a much more telling figure than the size of its GDP. It still has widespread poverty; approximately 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day, and its infant-mortality rate is over twenty times that of Japan (roughly equal to that of Namibia). Brazil also has preoccupying domestic challenges, including crime and corruption.

While both Brazil and India have expressed aspirations to play the role of major powers and are seeking permanent membership on the UN Security Council, there are few signs that such seats will be allotted to them. This is one more indication that although these nations may wish to be considered powers, they are not impressing the power that be.

Indeed, even their roles as regional powers are so far rather limited. Brazil has been unable to help solve some of the major problems plaguing South America, such as violence from transnational drug gangs. Moreover, as Stewart Patrick has noted, “few South American countries recognize . . . Brazil as their leader.” India much more often clashes with its neighbors than leads them. Its frequent disputes with Pakistan are well-known, and India backed the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka and interfered in the internal affairs of Nepal and Bangladesh, gaining the animosity of these governments.

Several of the examples cited as evidence of the growing power of nations such as Brazil are actually cases in which they refused to contribute to or undermined the rule-based international order rather than playing supportive roles or working to reformulate the order. For instance, in May 2010, Brazil, working with Turkey, promoted a deal with Iran under which Iran agreed to ship 2,645 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for a medical research reactor. However, it was widely considered an “amateurish and ill timed” maneuver by Iran to stall the imposition of new UN sanctions. The deal was never implemented, nor did it succeed in halting the Security Council sanctions against Iran. It was mainly viewed as an effort to show defiance against the West and demonstrate an ability to act at variance with prevailing policy—but the attempted show of power ended up only revealing Turkey and Brazil’s limited leverage—all while annoying the international community.

In short, there are few signs of significant contributions to the international order from the “new powers,” and whatever pushback they have attempted against the U.S. superpower were not very consequential. Washington may generate less international power, but it does not follow that any other power—and certainly not a whole host of powers—are standing by to gain from or make up for the loss.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World, is forthcoming from Transaction this October.