The Near-Unipolar World Reconsidered

Above 200

Figure 1. Countries rescaled by the number of people earning more than $200 dollars a day in 2002. Source: WorldMapper.Org.

This is an ongoing conversation with Ted Fertik.

Thanks for the link man. Tooze (2014) was an amazing read! I want to talk about two things. First, I am going to shamelessly insist that I was right about the role of near-unipolarity in Tooze’s schema. Second, I want to talk about how near-unipolarity relates to the history of the twentieth century. All quotes are from Tooze (2014) unless otherwise specified.

“In the wake of World War I think the stakes were higher.” Why were they higher? “What was at stake was a new global order under the sign of what has been variously referred to as ultraimperialism, American hegemony, or Empire”; that Churchill described as “the pyramids of peace” (quoted in The Deluge). [Emphasis mine.]

The “central challenge facing the German political elite” was the “sheer scale of twentieth-century Anglo-American economic predominance.” Tooze shows that the interwar order was one of unabashed Anglo-American cohegemony. The “main question” of the international politics of the interwar era is “how to understand the insurgency against the order.” More pertinently, the question facing the Germans was should they “conform and assimilate themselves to its power” or “mount an insurgency against it”?

“We must view that struggle as more asymmetric, and thus as an expression of the combined and uneven development of the international system…” [Emphasis mine.]

“Neither the international relations of the interwar period, nor World War II itself are well-described by models…derived from the more truly multipolar world of the late nineteenth century.

I contended that the world from the close of the nineteenth century to the rise of China in the 2000s was secretly near-unipolar. I presented GDP numbers and argued that GDP was a good enough measure to detect near-unipolarity. But I also have strong historical reasons to think carefully about near-unipolarity—as the quotes from Tooze above suggest.

When I say near-unipolar, I mean that there is a especially strong state in the system such that no state could hope to prevail against it in a war or an extended rivalry; that there is no doubt about the identity of the strongest state in the system; and that when statesmen evaluate great power war and great power military alliances they had to care a great deal about the unipole’s position—computations on the outcome of great power war and confrontation premised on the unipole’s disinterest have to be thrown out of the window if the unipole weighs in the balance.

Note again that this is a weak definition. It just means that there is a football in a pile of tennis balls. The unipole may not even have a standing army. It may or may not exercise influence abroad. A lesser great power may run the maritime world and lesser great powers may worry much more about each other (especially their strong neighbours) than the unipole. In fact, if the unipole is insular and isolationist, it may not cause the other great powers any headaches at all. Indeed, they may even make fun of its extant weakness.

However, in a near-unipolar world, such disdain is contingent on the foreign policy of the unipole. Were the unipole to mobilize its war potential and be willing to use force on the world stage, the lesser great powers would have to eat their insulting words. Moreover, lesser great powers threatened by each other can be expected to try to secure the protection of the unipole. An alliance with the unipole is, after all, very useful given the rule of force in world affairs. The unipole may therefore get pulled into other people’s fights despite itself. Even insularity and isolationism thus do not completely thwart the gravitational pull exerted by the unipole.

One could write a convincing history of the twentieth century in this frame of reference. The philosophy of history that such a work requires is almost insultingly straightforward. The basic fact of near-polarity serves as the single explanatory variable. That is, the twentieth century as the story of the clarification of the real balance of forces. Or history catching up with the secret topology of the world.

In this frame of reference, the outcomes of the main great power confrontations of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were more or less known in advance. The game had, in fact, been rigged from the get go.

What explains the British surrender of naval preponderance in the Western Hemisphere in 1900? What explains the results of 1918? What explains the Washington Naval Conference of 1922? The stability of the interwar European order in the 1920s? The breakdown of that order and the turn to radicalism in 1931? The startling fact that not the winner but the power that basically sat out the Second World War dictated the postwar order? The outright capitulation of the second ranked power in the so-called bipolar world in 1989? All these questions have a single answer: The fact of the asymmetric size of the football.

Is it possible to construct a tighter, more parsimonious narrative frame? Is it not, then, a quite compelling frame of reference?


Tooze, Adam. “The Sense of a Vacuum.” Historical Materialism 22.3-4 (2014): 351-370.


The Unipolar World Reconsidered


Nuno Monteiro’s Theory of Unipolar Politics is breathtaking in its ambition. Consciously titled after Waltz’ Theory of International Politics, this book attempts to lay out a theory of international politics in a unipolar world. There is much to admire here; especially the clarity with which Monteiro has laid out his argument. In what follows, we will first discuss his basic premises and the key moving parts in his theory.  And then we will critically examine Monteiro’s proposed grand-strategy for the United States.

Monteiro’s calls a state a great power if it has (1) “a plausible chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against the most powerful state in the system” and (2) “the ability to engage unaided in sustained politico-military operations in at least one other relevant region of the globe beyond its own, on a level similar to the most powerful state in the system.” (p. 44) The double condition creates three types of states in the international system: great powers who satisfy both conditions, major powers who only satisfy only the first, and minor powers who satisfy neither.  Monteiro muddles the definition by introducing the nuclear revolution into the equation. His idea is that since any state with a second-strike capability has a good chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against the most powerful state in the system, all nuclear states should be considered major powers — which he then proceeds to do. I disagree with this characterization for two reasons.

First, mere possession of nuclear bombs does not equal a second-strike capability. For example, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa have the bombs, but none of them have a second-strike capability against the unipole: They are in no position to deliver a devastating counter-blow after absorbing a surprise US first-strike since the continental US is far outside the reach of their longest-range platforms. Second, the real test of a major power in a unipolar world is that its geopolitical weight compels the unipole to consult it before contemplating any major politico-military action in its region. Any credible roster of major powers today must include China, Russia, Germany, and Japan; while necessarily excluding Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. In other words, minor powers cannot become major powers simply by acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

A key connecting thread of the book is that a unipolar world in a nuclear age generates systematic conflict between the unipole and minor powers. Since there are no other great powers to turn to for protection against the overwhelming strength of the unipole, minor powers can ensure their survival only by acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, the unipole wants to prevent their acquisition of a deterrent because it undercuts its own freedom of action. Monteiro reasons that the unipole cannot credibly commit to not exercise its overwhelming power against minor powers. And given the incentives facing minor powers in a unipolar world, minor powers cannot credibly commit not to acquire a deterrent either. The dynamic is thus fraught with risk. Often, the unipole will find it necessary to launch a preventive war. A unipolar world will therefore likely feature many small wars involving the unipole generated by this mechanism and so is far from peaceful. Given America’s efforts against nuclear proliferation, this is not an unreasonable logic to pursue. Is it right? I will now make the case that the argument is much less compelling that it looks.

Nuclear weapons do protect weak states against outright conquest by the unipole. This is because in order to conquer the weak state, the unipole must amass a land army near the territory of the state, which is then exposed to a credible nuclear threat. The United States cannot make a credible threat to mount an invasion of, say, North Korea not because North Korea has a second-strike capability against the unipole but because US forces would be exposed to a nuclear strike if they tried to conquer North Korea. It is thus true that proliferation takes regime change off the table for the unipole and thereby curtails its freedom of action. But this is hardly a strong incentive for preventive war. Indeed, the gains from preventing proliferation are unlikely to ever be commensurate with the direct costs of a small war. After North Korea acquired a small nuclear arsenal, US plans for a possible invasion had to be shelved. But the United States still found it easy to deter North Korea from threatening South Korea or Japan. Had Saddam acquired a deterrent before 2003, the United States would surely not have invaded. However, the US would still have been in a position to continue to impose an embargo on Iraq and deter Saddam from harming US protectorates in the gulf.

More generally, there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding about what nuclear weapons can and cannot do for a state in a unipolar world. A nuclear weapons state cannot be conquered by the unipole. But that does not mean that a nuclear weapons state cannot be embargoed or contained. Nor does it mean that a nuclear weapons state can threaten the regional status quo defended by the unipole. Indeed, the possession of a deterrent does not even allow the weapons state to deter violations of its territorial sovereignty by the unipole. Threats of nuclear retaliation are simply not credible unless the survival of the state itself is at stake. Had Saddam been in possession of a hundred nuclear warheads when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US would still have been able to kick him out of Kuwait. He would not have dared to use the bombs because he could be assured that the US response would wipe Iraq off the map.

The case for minor powers to acquire a nuclear deterrent in a unipolar world is indeed compelling. The case for the unipole to launch a preventive war to thwart proliferation is considerably weaker. And despite the drama surrounding proliferation by rogue states, there is good evidence to show that the United States in fact looked the other way as many states — including India, Pakistan, France, Israel, and South Africa — proliferated. So the empirical case for this mechanism is not as watertight as it looks either.

We now turn to Monteiro’s typology of grand-strategies for the unipole. The first and most obvious grand-strategy for the unipole is what Monteiro calls disengagement. The unipole leaves the other regions for others to bicker over and withdraws to its own region to enjoy its security and prosperity in ‘splendid isolation’. If the unipole is engaged in the world, it has to decide on two big questions. First, the unipole may either accommodate rising major powers by fostering an environment that allows them to grow rapidly, or it may try to contain them. Second, it may try to uphold the territorial and political status quo, or it may try to change the status quo to secure an even more favourable balance of power. We thus have five grand-strategies: disengagement, offensive accommodation, offensive containment, defensive accommodation, and defensive containment.

Disengagement has few conflict costs for the unipole. Since there are no other great powers, no state can threaten it in its own region. But other states will compete for the other regions which, Monteiro argues, will lead them to acquire more and more military capabilities until at least one emerges as a peer competitor of the unipole and thus bring the unipolar world to an end. Containment, whether offensive or defensive, also guarantees that the major power that is being contained will militarize until it becomes a peer of the unipole. Since the unipole would like the unipolar world to endure, the only question is therefore whether offensive accommodation is better than defensive accommodation or vice-versa. That is, whether the unipole should uphold the regional status quo or attempt to secure an even more favourable balance of power. The United States upended the status quo in Europe during the nineties by enlarging Nato all the way to Russia’s border. And the Bush administration upended the status quo in the Middle East by invading Iraq. In other regions and in other periods, the United States has largely followed defensive accommodation.

Monteiro reckons that defensive accommodation is the right grand-strategy for the unipole since it allows the unipole to maintain its power position essentially indefinitely. Because nuclear weapons guarantee the immediate survival of the major powers, while the accommodating international economic order fostered by the unipole ensures their long-term survival by increasing their latent power, major powers see no reason to acquire military capabilities that would threaten the unipole’s dominant power position. I do not find this argument persuasive. There is no reason to believe that major powers would not want the benefits that accrue to great powers. Specifically, it is hard to see how a state that has greater latent power than the unipole would be satisfied with a permanently unfavourable balance of power. The unipole’s overwhelming power position gives it leverage over other states that also value their autonomy and freedom of action. Why in the name of God would they not want the same perks as the sole great power?

More importantly, the status quo ante is the result of previous decisions by arms and reflects the balance of power between the successful states of the last hegemonic war. Rising states played little role in forging the international order and their interests are not  reflected in the status quo. And even if the rising states are satisfied with the status quo today, they are unlikely to remain so for long if they continue to rise. Eventually, they will acquire the wherewithal to change the status quo in their favour. For instance, it is hard to believe that once China has greater war potential than the United States, it would accept US primacy in maritime Asia. Why would it? Did the US accept British naval supremacy in the western hemisphere? No, the US essentially kicked the British out of the region as soon as it emerged as a great power at the turn of the century. (The Admiralty decided to surrender naval primacy in the western hemisphere in 1901.)

A grand-strategy that would allow for extending the unipolar world indefinitely simply does not exist. If the United States follows a grand-strategy of defensive accommodation, it would find itself constantly bleeding in small wars with minor powers that yield zero strategic gains in the global balance of power. Monteiro has it exactly the wrong way around. If offensive grand-strategies are ruled out, there is very little to gain from launching preventive wars to stave off proliferation by minor powers. Small wars are costly and have little strategic value; as the US found out in the Philippines, Indochina, and the Middle East. Moreover, by eroding the strength of the unipole and distracting it from the global balance of power, small wars may actually serve to undermine the unipole’s preponderance. The unipole should therefore avoid small wars unless there is a serious security threat—the Islamic State may be one such exception. Instead, the unipole should concentrate on maintaining its preponderance by investing in the capabilities required for waging bigger wars against bigger powers for bigger stakes.

A good grand-strategy for the unipole also has to take stock of the fact that maritime primacy allowed the United States to protect the plumbing of the world economy before and after the capitulation of the Soviet Union. The United States has been able to accomplish this vital task since the end of the Second World War; which explains the willingness of other major powers to follow the United States. Maintaining the US’ command of the global commons has thus been a great boon for the US and the world economy; and is thus definitely worth fighting for. Being peer-less by contrast, is not worth all that it is made out to be. Even after an exit from unipolarity, the United States can continue to lead the international system as long as it remains dominant in the maritime zone.

The first goal of a good grand-strategy should therefore be to extend US’ maritime supremacy beyond the exit from unipolarity. This would also be considerably easier to accomplish than extending unipolarity. In any case, the unipole has no viable strategy to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor. Specifically, the United States cannot indefinitely prevent China from challenging the US-dominated order in Asia. The question is not whether the unipolar world can endure, but for how long. And it is not even that important a question. The  really important question facing US policymakers is how to accommodate rising powers. In particular, When should the United States surrender primacy in Asia?