Gearing Up for a Multipolar World

Gearing Up for a Multipolar World

The more concretely people everywhere can envision a future of shared responsibility to preserve order in an interdependent world, the more likely the prospect is that the nascent multipolar era will be a stable one.

The war in Gaza has not only resulted in a ghastly loss of life for Israelis and Palestinians, but it has also added to the burdens the United States faces in a world it no longer dominates. Conflicts rage in Ukraine, Gaza, Myanmar, the Sahel, Sudan, and potentially in Taiwan and Iran. Right-wing populism is rising in rich and poor countries, dividing societies into militant camps of the people versus the elite. Three decades after the Cold War ended, the envisioned community of nations linked together by a rules-based system of international relations modeled on America’s liberal-democratic values now seems like a gossamer dream.

The convergence of regional crises and far-right populism presents a formidable challenge for the United States and the stewardship of President Joe Biden. As explained in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, global peace and prosperity require containing countries that combine authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy, strengthening alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and building partnerships in developing regions.

Alas, the Biden administration is seeing the trees but not the forest. Like every administration that has preceded it since the end of the Cold War, it is stovepiping the world into a discrete set of regional problems that it seeks to manage with rhetorical exhortation and technocratic ingenuity. What elected officials from the Left to the Right fail to see is that the turbulence we are experiencing is part of a panoramic upheaval on the part of emerging and developing states that seek a redistribution of global power. They may favor a rules-based order, as Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has said, so long as it does not compromise their interests. A “world order that is still very, very deeply Western,” he bluntly put it, is giving way to a multipolar world.

Although it is unclear what framework will emerge from the current geopolitical disorder, the United States must prepare for a world in which power politics rather than liberal ideals will prevail. To preserve international stability, the United States and the West will need to devise new rules of the road in concert with autocracies such as China and the middle powers so that they will become stakeholders in the global order they helped create.

Dominance and Decline

Military Might: For some scholars and policy analysts, multipolarity is an oversimplification of reality. Given the competition for primacy between the United States and China, political scientist and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Joseph S. Nye, Jr argues the world is also bipolar. On a military basis, he maintains, it is unipolar. To be sure, China is developing its nuclear arsenal, Nye points out, but America’s military footprint is unmatched. With 750 bases in eighty nations and a network of alliances and partnerships, the United States fields a technologically innovative fighting force that receives 12 percent of all federal spending.

Even so, the U.S. military might not have inhibited Russia from invading Ukraine or China from threatening to bring Taiwan under its control by force. Indeed, the prospect of a larger war in Europe or a clash with China has understandably prompted caution in Washington. Competition from America’s adversaries is still more worrisome. Despite slowing economic growth, China is steadily chipping away at America’s dominance. It is rapidly modernizing its military, including an expanding nuclear force of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the construction of some 350 new missile silos, longer-range sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and new DF-17 medium-range missiles equipped with hypersonic glide vehicles.

Benefiting from an average of more than 9 percent GDP growth since the late 1990s, China now possesses the world’s largest navy, one that aspires to blue-water capability. Its Jin-class nuclear submarines are equipped with longer-range SLBMs, which can target the northwestern part of the United States as well as Guam, Alaska, and Hawaii. Despite China’s sagging economic growth, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is projected to have 356 battle-ready vessels by 2033, while the United States expects a reduction of its fleet to 290 by the end of this decade. China persists in militarizing atolls and islets in the South China Sea and is expanding its military presence in the Middle East, Africa, and the South Pacific.

Russia’s militarily disastrous invasion of Ukraine aside, Moscow continues to update its nuclear force. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) anticipates economic growth of 2.6 percent in 2024 thanks to continued energy exports. Moreover, Russia will allocate one-third of its budgetary spending to defense this year. It plans to modernize the dual-capable Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system, which is deployed in Kaliningrad, and develop new delivery vehicles such as the land-based (and dual-capable) 9M729 cruise missile Washington has declared a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia is also developing the Sarmat ICBM, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, and a submersible nuclear-powered drone releasable from submarines to attack carrier groups and potentially cities along the U.S. coast.

Other U.S. adversaries’ military arsenals are also growing. Iran has increased its defense cooperation with Russia since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, including the supply of drones and possibly surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Iran intends to acquire Russian technology and military equipment to increase the accuracy and lethality of its short- and medium-range ballistic missile forces, naval forces, and air and defense assets. As for its nuclear program, Iran has increased its enrichment of uranium up to 60 percent uranium-235, which is close to weapons grade. To sustain combat operations in Ukraine, Russia has also turned to North Korea to supply it with artillery shells and other munitions such as rockers and howitzers. The price Kim Jong-un will likely demand for such assistance is Russian missile and satellite technology. With its successful test of a solid-fueled hypersonic missile, North Korea now has a delivery system with the range, reliability, and maneuverability to strike American territory. Although the size of its nuclear arsenal is unknown, it is estimated that North Korea could have enough fissile material for more than 100 weapons.

Economic Primacy: America is likewise the world’s paramount economic power. U.S. per capita income is 30 percent higher than that of Western Europe and 54 percent higher than that of Japan. At the end of the Cold War, the corresponding figures were 24 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Median wages continue to rise, as does productivity, because of the efficiency of labor and capital inputs. Immigration, the expansion and mobility of the workforce, and a high fertility rate (compared to other wealthy nations) have increased the working-age population by 30 percent over the past three decades, compared to 13 and 7 percent, respectively, for Europe and Japan.

Innovation in the workplace and skill levels have also risen. More American universities and corporations are considered among the world’s best than those of any other country. Six of the world’s ten biggest corporations in terms of sales, profits, and market value are American, according to Forbes magazine, and roughly half of the top twenty. Evaluated by market capitalization alone, eight of the top ten and sixteen of the top twenty are American.

The U.S. share of world GDP has been halved from the statistically aberrant 50 percent it enjoyed after World War II. The United States currently accounts for slightly more than 25 percent of world GDP at market exchange rates, a figure that has remained relatively constant since 1990. China and the European Union (EU) each represent roughly 18 percent, and the Asia-Pacific region’s share is about 37 percent. However, at purchasing power parity rates, America does not fare as well. In contrast to the Asia-Pacific’s share of 45 percent—19 percent of which is contributed by China—the United States, like the EU, represents about 15 percent of the total.

American universities and corporations also no longer enjoy the commanding heights they have in the past. The number of American universities in the top 100 declined from forty-three in the Times Higher Education survey of 2018 to thirty-four in the 2022 compendium. In the London-based Quacqarelli-Symonds study, American universities represented half of the top ten in 2022 as opposed to six in 2010, and ninety-one of the 177 reviewed in 2022 declined in rank. A comparable trend is discernible in the rankings of American corporations. Measured by market capitalization, American firms accounted for eight of the global top ten in 2022 versus six in 2000. Using metrics such as revenues, profits, and assets, however, Forbes ranked only three American corporations in the top ten and five in the top twenty in 2010. In the 2023 global list released by Forbes, China accounts for three of the top ten.

China is not the only rising economic power in the global transition. Although only one of its corporations is ranked in the world’s top fifty by Forbes, India accounts for nearly 7.5 percent of global GDP. It is now the world’s fifth-largest economy at market prices and third-largest in purchasing power parity. With a younger and highly educated labor force and annual economic growth forecasted by the IMF to exceed 6 percent over the next five years, Morgan Stanley expects India to become the third-largest economy by 2027, surpassing Germany and Japan.