America Is Navigating a Bipolar Era Amid a Growing Chinese Threat

November 27, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: National SecurityChinaMilitaryEconomyDiplomacy

America Is Navigating a Bipolar Era Amid a Growing Chinese Threat

Naturally, the Chinese Communist Party would like to enjoy the benefits of a much more assertive foreign policy approach without either the risks or the costs of one. It’s up to the United States and its allies to ensure that those costs and those risks are not minimal.


The conventional wisdom has been that this is a multipolar era. A few brave souls respond that we still live in a one-superpower world. But what if the international order we’re headed toward is neither of these things and instead bipolar

A bipolar international system is one in which two great powers stand head and shoulders above all others, due to sheer material capabilities. It’s worth clarifying how to tell such a system from others. Multipolarity, strictly speaking, does not simply refer to a system with multiple significant actors or centers of power. Almost any system has multiple such centers. Rather, multipolarity refers to a system with three or more great powers of roughly similar capabilities, even if asymmetrical. The European state system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was genuinely multipolar, though Napoleon tried to change that. 


Unipolarity, while commonly taken to refer to one state in an all-powerful position, means no such thing. No state is or ever has been all-powerful. Rather, unipolarity refers to a system with one state in a different league from all of the others by virtue of far superior economic and military capabilities. Superpowers are states that have a global military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological presence. A world with one superpower is a unipolar world. A closely related term is primacy, used to refer to a system where one state enjoys capabilities well beyond those of any competitor. Primacy is a condition. It is not a strategy. 

The international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz argued that a bipolar system is more stable than a multipolar one because there is less room for misunderstanding. System-wide great-power warfare, therefore, becomes less likely. In July 1914, for example, there were all kinds of opportunities for miscalculation of intent between leading European capitals, feeding into military escalation. The October 1962 missile crisis, by contrast, had an underlying clarity to it. The logic of bilateral communication between the two superpowers, combined with the terrifying prospect of nuclear weapons use, contributed to that clarity, making a peaceful outcome more likely. At least this was Waltz’s argument. 

The logic of a bipolar system is also very much shaped by the relative speed whereby a rising challenger catches up and surpasses any dominant power. Theorists of power transition suggest that the most dangerous moment is when a major challenger achieves overall capabilities roughly equal to its rival. At that moment, a challenger may be tempted to press its advantage in ways that make violent conflict more likely. Or as others have argued, the previously dominant power might be tempted to go to war in order to maintain its position. This was Thucydides’ one-sentence explanation for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” 

Among students of international relations, there is broad agreement that China’s relative share of material capabilities has risen dramatically over the past thirty years. Less clear is where exactly that leaves us. In The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics, Norwegian scholar Oystein Tunsjo offers his own distinct answer: we already live in a bipolar world. 

Tunsjo rests his striking claim on several interrelated arguments. First, he points out that China’s gross domestic product is comparable to that of the United States, larger once purchasing power parity is factored in. China’s military expenditures, while still well behind America’s, are also in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Weighing together reasonable measures of hard power, China and the United States must therefore be considered genuine peers, roughly equal overall. Second, Tunsjo suggests that the gap between China and any other major power is so great as to invalidate claims of a multipolar system. Russia, India, and Japan may have impressive capabilities, but they are nowhere near China in that regard. Nor is the European Union, which does not act as a single unit on most matters of high politics. This leaves China and the United States in a league by themselvesthe very definition of a bipolar system. 

Building on Waltz’s insights, Tunsjo goes on to argue that a bipolar system dominated by China and the United States will be relatively stable, unlikely to escalate into a system-wide war. That is, the prospect of nuclear war, combined with bilateral communication between Washington and Beijing, will make any full-blown catastrophic conflict unappetizing to both sides. At the same time, Tunsjo fully recognizes that we will increasingly enter into a period of intensified great-power rivalry between China and the United States. And the geography of this rivalry will give it a different quality from past Soviet-American competition. America’s relative strengths at sea, China’s relative strengths on land, and their inability to fully come to grips will limit the worldwide escalation of this rivalry. At the same time, Tunsjo believes that a localized military conflict between the two sides in the South and East China Seas is a real possibility, for the very same reason.

Tunsjo’s thesis is an excellent starting point for stimulating debate over the material basis of today’s world order. It’s also a good example of what a structural realist approach can offer. Structural realists point out that the international system is in many ways an anarchy, with no overarching power to enforce the law. This inevitably has an impact on the foreign policy of individual states. To put it bluntly, the nature of the international system forces states to look out for their own interests. Some structural realists, such as John Mearsheimer, go further, suggesting that the foreign policy behavior of individual states can be explained largely by referring to these systemic pressures, without factoring in domestic-level causes. It’s worth noting that Waltz never claimed this. He simply pointed out, quite rightly, that the foreign policy choices of individual states are constrained by the basic nature of the international systemand by the distribution of power within it. Here, Tunsjo has more in common with Waltz than with Mearsheimer. That is, Tunsjo points out new structural realities, and some of their likely implications, without claiming to fully explain either Chinese or American foreign policy. 

Since most observers of world politics are interested not only in questions of international structure but in the foreign policy decisions of particular states, this leaves us with some questions regarding Tunsjo’s useful framework. Specifically: what important aspects of the emerging Sino-American rivalry are missing from his analysis? And how might this new bipolar order be impacted by features unique to China and its government? 

Daniel Blumenthal’s new book, The China Nightmare, tackles those very questions. Without taking a position on the issue of bipolarity per se, he illuminates aspects of Chinese foreign policy that grow out of its peculiar domestic regime and shows why they are relevant to Sino-American competition. 

The value-added of Blumenthal’s analysis really lies in two connected insights. First, he points out that China is governed not only by a single-party dictatorship but a Leninist one. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses longstanding Leninist techniques, at home and abroad, to keep itself in power, promote its own prestige, and serve the material interest of its leading members. These techniques of course include disinformation, deception, subversion, violent suppression, and ruthless crackdown against opponents. The CCP has overseen astonishing economic feats over the past forty years, but at the same time cannot fully liberalize on that front for fear of political effects. The party is hypersensitive to criticism and truly afraid of internal domestic challenges. It offers a model appealing to dictators: apparent stability, power, and economic growth without freedom. Flourishing democracies around the country’s perimeter, such as Taiwan, are a standing threat to that model. In a word, the Chinese Communist Party must try to make the world safe for autocracy. Inevitably, this impacts its foreign policy approach.

The second insight of Blumenthal’s book, unusual among observers, is that the very nature of the CCP regime may doom China to soon decline in relative material terms. The CCP’s inability to produce a balanced economy, its repressive domestic security preoccupations, its frustration of some basic human aspirations, all leave it surprisingly fragile and brittle, despite an impressive front. And this has major implications for its future place in the international system, at the most practical level. A Communist China that peaks, and then begins to decline, in power-political terms, will be less able to promote its interests overseas. Yet it may also be tempted to lash out and secure those interests while it still can, fearing continued decline alongside growing domestic threats at home. For the CCP, suggests Blumenthal, this is the nightmare scenarioand it may also be a nightmare for us. 

Any country’s geographic position, combined with its share of hard power in the international system, helps to explain its foreign policy choices. It’s not surprising that a country possessing the material capabilities that China now has would also choose to define its interests more broadly than it once did. Such a rising challenger inevitably produces tension with the world’s only superpower. If this amounts to a bipolar system, then that system will reveal certain distinct characteristics. That is what structural realists suggest, and they’re right. But an earlier generation of realists, including George Kennan, recognized that regime type can also have a dramatic impact on a given state’s foreign policy. For that matter, Thucydides recognized the same thing.