What is the Difference Between Unipolarity, Bipolarity, and Multipolarity?

In the complex field of international relations, the concept of polarity refers to the current power structure of nations on the international stage. There are three types of polarity systems: unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity.

Here is a simple definition of each of the terms:

Unipolarity - a system in where a single nation holds dominance over much of the world; the United States found itself in this position after the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed

Bipolarity - an international system where two nations hold dominance over much of the world; this was the situation during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union each controlled large spheres of influence throughout the world

Multipolarity - a system in which more than two nations hold power over the world or regions; multiple superpowers

As of now, the current international power structure falls under a unipolar system in where the United States remains the dominant superpower in the world. This has been the case for the past 30 years, as the U.S. emerged as the victor in the decades-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. However, in recent years the U.S. has lost a lot of standing on the world stage, and it has not won a war in a very long time. The current unipolar system of the U.S. is showing signs of fracturing as other countries have grown in power, and have served to challenge this position. Countries such as China, India, Brazil and others have been growing in dominance (particularly economically) and have served to challenge the current unipolar position of the United States. However, as we can easily see throughout history, no nation can remain in power forever, with most of them coming to an end or devolving into a different system entirely. Two notable examples of this were the Roman Empire and the British Empire, who both were the dominant unipolar powers for many years before eventually losing this position. The Roman Empire divided into two separate empires, the east and west before collapsing entirely, while the British Empire went through a decolonization process in where it gave independence to many of its territories around the world.

Some have argued that a bipolar system, like the one that existed during the Cold War is actually a good system and can maintain international stability. As already mentioned, the Cold War era between the end of World War II and the falls of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union was bipolar in nature and resulted in relentless competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, with much of the rest of world forced to choose a side or being caught up in proxy wars between the two sole superpowers. Although there was some form of stability due to this arrangement and there were no global wars or large-scale conflicts, this system was still not beneficial. Forcing other countries to choose sides between the two superpowers and to serve as pawns for their greater agenda was not a good arrangement for many countries to be in. The bipolarity of the Cold War ignored the needs of many other nations, as the focus was mainly on the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As a result, the issues faced by many countries during this time were largely ignored, unless it favored the interests of one of the two superpowers. When the Cold War ended, the sudden emergence of many ethnic conflicts, genocides, and terrorism came to being as a result of the effects of the bipolar system.

Here at the Committee for Isolation Moderation, we advocate for a multipolar system in where the world power structure is dominated by multiple superpowers. This stance is in contrast to having a single dominant superpower maintaining power (as well as having the responsibility of maintaining peace and order) on the international stage. Other countries along with the U.S. (i.e., China, India, Brazil, Russia) should be allowed to continue to develop into a new multipolar system, which could transcend the narrow dichotomy of the bipolar Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and perhaps allow for more cooperation. With three or more superpowers in a multipolar world, there would likely be more of a tendency for powers to peacefully play other superpowers off of each other, siding with one superpower on an issue here and another superpower on an issue there. The ability to work with different superpowers, as opposed to having only one rival, may result in an entirely different, less hostile, and more cooperative dynamic than that which existed in the Cold War.

Some may argue that this type of system of multiple superpowers is not effective and will only lead to war amongst each other. Many have pointed to the long history of European wars while under a multipolar system as a reason for why this arrangement does not work. There may be some truth to this, however, with several examples throughout history having shown that an arrangement of multiple superpowers can actually lead to longstanding peace. For example, during most of the 1800s, from the first half of that century (starting from the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815) until the onset of the First World War, there was a state of relative peace in Europe, during which there was little conflict on the continent. This stretch amounted to almost a century of relative peace: a major accomplishment for Europe during that time, considering its long and violent history since the Roman Empire up until that time. Even during the Cold War, no large power ever went into a major war directly against another large power. These examples here prove that the concept of multiple superpowers can work to reduce or prevent conflict, and that it is not just an idealistic hope.

It has been often pointed out that a similar multipolar system also was responsible for producing the First World War. Yet it could be conversely argued that the First World War was started mainly due to the many “entangling alliances” into which many European nations got themselves involved with; this put them in a bind as when one nation was attacked, then its allies were bound to come to their defense. This problem is dealt with by the concept of the temporary military alliance, which does not force nations into a conflict, as these temporary alliances are only formed as needed, once a conflict is started or is imminent. Additionally, if one nation becomes too powerful and begins to threaten other nations, then a temporary military alliance can be formed to counter the threat. As noted earlier, this was the exact case of what happened during the Second World War: Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler had formed an alliance with other like-minded countries to pursue the goal of conquering large parts of the world with an alliance that became known as the Axis powers. Once the Axis powers successfully began taking over multiple countries in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, this naturally helped to create an opposing force that served as a means to balance their newfound power streak. They were countered by the Allied forces (consisting of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and others), which eventually led to the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers. The Soviet Union and the Western powers had little in common, but entered into a temporary military alliance to defeat the Axis powers; without such an alliance, it would have been very unlikely that neither the West nor the Soviet Union could have defeated the Axis powers alone. And since they had little in common with one another, in terms of political ideology and other reasons, they went their separate ways after the war rather than make commitments that were not in their interests or would never have been kept.

Also, the nearly 75-year NATO system has been credited with maintaining peace on the European continent for several decades, which is definitely a praiseworthy accomplishment. But also as mentioned, that alliance now shows signs of fracturing, and it must be noted here that there is no guarantee that this arrangement will continue to work over the long term. This is due to factors such as American public support for funding NATO may erode over time, and the Europeans themselves may decide that they no longer want an outside military bloc managing their affairs. This can be seen with a growing number of political parties and especially young Europeans themselves that have become increasingly hostile to U.S. foreign policy and European participation in American-led wars. Such trends can affect the alliance in profound ways over time. As recent events in Europe have shown us, people and nations naturally desire to control their own sovereignty over time, as well as seeking to limit outside influences in their own culture and borders.

As can be seen from the current international trends, the world is moving towards a more multipolar system as other countries continue to grow in power. This will happen simultaneously with the decline of the United States from its unipolar position. As this new multipolar arrangement begins to shape itself over the coming years, this is a system that we should support as it will lead to a better balance of power, and as a result, more peace.

If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, please get your own copy of Isolation Moderation.