In some intellectual corners of the world, the discussion begins with an effort to designate the present-day world as ‘multipolar’. Taking a lead from the fact that multiple states now have the power capability to exert or assert influence in international affairs, countries such as China, Russia, France and even India are mentioned to substantiate their viewpoint. Looking at these countries’ resource endowment, military strength, and political stability, various ideas are floated to prove the point. Theoretically speaking, the world could claim to be structurally multipolar if a few countries possess the ability to assert or exert power to effect significant changes. The world is considered multipolar if for instance, the US, China, or Russia could influence other countries’ actions in the international arena, without having to worry about the ‘seen’ or ‘unforeseen’ reactions. They argue that the world is not unipolar if Russia could annex Crimea or invade Ukraine under the watchful eyes of the United States of America.
Unipolarity denotes a single state that dominates the world singlehandedly while projecting and promoting its own national interest. A superpower could therefore shape world events without any outside help as it possesses the requisite economic or military power or both. Japan with its healthy economy could not be termed as a superpower as it lacks superior military capability. The US owes Japan around one trillion dollars but still enjoys a superpower status simply because of its superior military and technological capabilities. During the Victoria era, the United Kingdom and soon after the WWII, the United States of America could be termed as superpowers despite having disagreement on the criteria. Simply put, a superpower at a given time is accepted as such if it could not be ignored by the world in solving international issues. If Iraq and Afghanistan could be bombed for as long as the desired results were not achieved, without facing any open resistance from another power- the world at that time could be seen as unipolar.
Bipolarity denotes an international order that comes into existence when two militarily strong powers compete in controlling global political, military, or economic relations while other states try to align themselves with one or the other power. In this set-up, the dynamics of the world are defined and shaped through the rivalry and conflict that existed between these superpowers. The Cold War era saw the US and USSR balancing or unbalancing each other’s ability to influence regional or global affairs. Indeed, it was a bipolar world during the anxious times of the Cold War whereby the rivalry between Moscow and Washington defined the next course of action. The important point here to note is that both powers might not have possessed the same ingredients but still could have competed, thereby excelling in different aspects of power politics.
Which kind of a world are we living in 2023? Going by the explanations put forward by many political scientists around the world, it is a unipolar world gradually moving towards multipolarity. The power zones created by the US, or its national interests negate this seemingly fascinating idea. The ongoing war between Hamas and Israel is a pertinent example that the world presently has only one superpower. If President Joe Biden urges the NATO countries to forestall China’s advancement particularly in trade related matters, other powers follow suit- at least verbally. If after staying in Afghanistan for twenty-years and admitting they could not achieve the stated goals, no one took Washington to the International Court of Justice for any alleged crimes it committed. What does it mean? The world is neither bipolar nor multipolar. Nor is it moving towards multipolarity any time soon. The success of Abraham Accords and recognition of Israel by some die-hard Muslim countries is another testament of America’s supremacy. Had Hamas not attacked Israel on Oct 7, the deal between Israel and KSA would also have gotten through by now.
China’s huge investment in its endeavour to influence global affairs through its non-hegemonistic, primarily economic and trade-based policies, has already announced its arrival at the world stage as the next superpower. In addition to its economic and military prowess, if it acquires compatible technological competence in the coming years, even its rivals would have to admit the ensuing reality as a fact. Long-term strategic partnership with Russia makes China a formidable competitor for the US and EU. In case things go beyond control particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, the West would be faced with certain hard choices before pondering over a head-on collision. The question is: Would the bipolar or multipolar status of the world have any significance in this dreadful scenario? Moreover, would the ultimate winner in such a war be able to establish or sustain its sole superpower status for long?
The intangible blocs dividing the world into the Global North and South or the East and West have necessitated the emergence of recent alliances such as QUAD and I2U2. As the idea is to either safeguard individual national interests or get a piece of the pie subsequently, one will not be surprised to see the surfacing of such military-orientated alliances in the upcoming years as well. The reasons to join or not join such alliances may differ but the fact remains that all eyes are on the next move that any of the major powers have in mind. As no one has a clear idea about the future, political scientists are likely to continue the guessing game. Multipolar? No, unipolar. In fact, bipolar…!!
That brings us to an important question. How critical is it to designate the world? Apart from providing various presenters with their first talking point in any presentation on geo-politics or geo-economics, how beneficial is it for the world to designate the present or future world as unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar? To be more specific, what difference would it make to the Global South and countries like Pakistan if the world was multipolar or bipolar or unipolar? How far would the ground realities of a country’s eco-political or defence capabilities be molded or changed accordingly? How different would Pakistan’s options be in a unipolar world with those of the multipolar or bipolar? It hardly matters…!
Let the strongest amongst them fight for any desired status. Let time decide who wields how much power now or tomorrow. Secondly, a country like Pakistan has virtually no role to play when it comes to superpower rivalry. Gone are the days when one could play a role in bringing two opposing powers to a negotiating table. Pakistan should let the world remain undesignated and focus on its own development and the welfare of its own people. Secondly, let us think of a Pakistan beyond our official tenures. Finally, when it comes to the crunch, any kind of world, may it be unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar- will have to deal with the unthinkable results another World War could effectively produce, all by itself. Everyone knows it. Albert Einstein summed it up aptly when he observed that ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’