What India Can Teach the U.S. About Multipolarity

What India Can Teach the U.S. About Multipolarity

Understanding power distribution in purely “zero-sum-game” terms is not the best approach to a multipolar world.


The idea of an emerging multipolar world order has become a buzzword in the post-pandemic global geopolitical discourse. Politicians, strategic experts, diplomats, and business leaders from diverse backgrounds solemnly intone that multipolarity is the future of world order. Among them, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres suggested that “the post-Cold War period is over, and we are moving towards a new global order and a multipolar world.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in his nation’s National Security Strategy, wrote that “the global order is changing, new centers of power are emerging, and the world in the 21st century is multipolar.”

Russia and China proclaimed the imminence of the multipolar world order in a joint statement from February 2022 and the deliberations at BRICS+ and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Other proponents of a multipolar world order include Brazilian president Lula Da Silva, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the European Union (EU) representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borell.


Is this rapidly congealing piece of conventional wisdom true? Is the world really moving from unipolarity to multipolarity? There are varying opinions on the subject.

Jo Inge Bekkevold, a former Norwegian diplomat, argues in a Foreign Policy article from last year that the world shows more signs of bipolarity and “it is simply a myth that today’s world is anywhere close to multipolar.”

Using the matrix of military and economic indicators, he summarizes that only two powers (i.e., the United States and China) have the “economic size, military might, and global leverage to constitute a pole.” The two powers account for about half of the world’s defense expenditure, and their combined GDP nearly “equals the 33-next largest economies of the world.” Although India was the third largest spender on defense in 2021, according to the SIPRI database, its total expenditure is only one-fourth of China’s. Japan has the third largest economy, but its GDP is less than one-fourth of China’s. Germany, India, France, and the UK’s shares are even smaller than that of Japan. Of the challenges emanating from blocs like the EU, BRICS, and the RIC (Russia, India, and China) Forum, Bekkevold contends that these organizations are not coherent. They are a divided lot and suffer from internal rivalries.

Refuting the rigid criteria centered on economic and military indicators, Emma Ashford and Evan Cooper of the Stimson Center disagree with Bekkevold’s claims and argue for multipolarity. In a paper published by the Stimson Center, they conclude that “The United States simply does not hold the level of military and economic power it did during the early decades of the Cold War. Nor does today’s China match the Soviet Union at its peak.”

Hugh De Santis, a former U.S. diplomat, in a National Interest article, discusses at length how the ongoing geopolitical transformation is leading us towards a multipolar world, where power is no longer confined to one or two powerful states and is more diffused among several powerful nations followed by the middle powers jockeying for the same position. With 750 military bases spread over eighty countries and a vast network of alliances, treaties, strategic partnerships, and technologically advanced armed forces, the U.S. military footprint has no parallel. However, even with such a globe-spanning fighting force, Washington, DC failed to 1) deter Russia from invading Ukraine, 2) achieve a decisive victory over the Taliban, 3) check China in the Taiwan straits, and 4) force rogue states like Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programs. 

In particular, the Ukraine war has severely dented U.S. credibility. There are serious doubts among the NATO members about the United States’ commitment to protecting their sovereignty. China emerged as the largest beneficiary as the war made Russia and China close strategic partners, further weakening the U.S. position. Russia’s recent gains on the Ukrainian front seem to have convinced the U.S. experts in the Republican camp that pushing Russia further into the Chinese camp will be a diplomatic disaster. A Trump victory could mean a new approach. But, it may be too late if Russia secures its gains by November.

The United States’ main adversary, China, is modernizing its army at an alarming pace, expanding its nuclear arsenal, developing ICBMs, SLBM (long-range sea-launched ballistic missiles), 350 new missile silos, and DF-17 medium-range missiles with hypersonic glide vehicles. China has the world’s largest navy equipped with nuclear submarines and SLBMs that can target several states of the American mainland. Beijing is also building military bases in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific.

Russia, America’s traditional adversary, with its expected growth rate of 2.6 percent in 2024, is also developing its arsenal, modernizing the Iskandar M short-range ballistic missile, 9M729 cruise missile, and developing Sarmat ICBM and nuclear-powered drones releasable from the submarines. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea are also cozying up to Russia and China, which will likely lead to them getting access to high-end missile and satellite technology. In the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union controlled 40 percent of the global military and economic power; however, today, the share for China and the United States has come down to 30 percent.

In terms of economics, Moscow and Washington, with their allies, owned 88 percent of global GDP in 1950. However, today, their share is only 57 percent. The U.S. share of the worldwide GDP has halved from 50 percent in 1950 to marginally higher than 25 percent today at the market exchange rates. In PPP terms, it is only 15 percent, whereas Asia-Pacific countries’ share stands at 45 percent, of which China contributes 19 percent. Likewise, American universities and corporations are also being challenged in the top ten rankings by emerging economic heavyweights like China and India. In a Times Higher Education survey, the number of American universities in the top 100 rankings declined from forty-three in 2018 to thirty-four in 2022. According to the Forbes global list of corporations, there were eleven American and zero Chinese corporations in the top twenty rankings. In the 2023 Forbes list, American firms in the top twenty numbered only nine, while China’s had risen to six. Today, India, having emerged as the fifth-largest economy at market prices and third-largest at PPP, accounts for 7.5 percent of global GDP.

China is also chipping away at America’s technological dominance. In 1960, U.S. investment in R&D was 69 percent of the global investment, which has shrunk to 25 percent in 2020. On the other hand, China’s share has increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2020. Moreover, China boasts the highest number of patents and the largest market for electric vehicles. On the other hand, China is suffering from a slow growth rate because of the lack of domestic demand, declining exports, an aging population, and a dictatorial government. However, China maintains a lead as the largest trading partner for 120 countries and America’s third-largest export market. It is also the largest purchaser of American bonds. Controlling 70 percent of the extraction and 90 percent of the processing of rare earth minerals, China also has overwhelming control over global supply chains.

Heavily sanctioned countries like Iran also have not been reined in yet. Tehran has increased uranium enrichment by up to 60 percent, close to weapons-grade level. It has signed a twenty-five-year comprehensive cooperation agreement with China. With its array of proxy terrorist groups like the Houthis and Hezbollah, Tehran has emerged as a major player in the Middle East. It is also supplying drones to Russia. Turkey’s Erdogan nurtures dreams to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Its dealings with the United States and the West are highly transactional, not of servility and docility. Though Ankara has supported the inclusion of Sweden in NATO, it has refused to buckle under U.S. pressure in supporting sanctions against Russia. 

India, an emerging middle power in the league of Turkey and Brazil, also refused to follow the American diktat on the Ukraine conflict and refused to condemn Russia. Despite U.S. pressure, India continued to buy the discounted Russian oil and maintain its robust trade relations with China. However, to balance China, its prime adversary, New Delhi has joined the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other mini-laterals drawn up on Washington’s initiative.

Finally, one can always talk about the rise of new blocs like BRICS and SCO and alternate multilateral institutions like BRICS Investment Bank, China Infrastructure Investment Bank, and global China-led strategic connectivity projects like BRI challenging the Western-led liberal/democratic world order. However, besides these rival and alternate institutions, the chinks in the armor of the United States and its allies are also markedly visible. There are significant apprehensions among the European states about the future of NATO and the U.S. response to Russia and China if Trump comes to power. Germany has already allotted €100 billion for a revamp of military spending. The possibility of EU members developing their own defense capabilities, including the acquisition of nuclear capabilities against perceived Russian revisionism, is strong and aligns well with other multipolar trends.