The unanticipated wars originating in Ukraine and now Israel have only served to confirm, according to many, that the United States is drifting unerringly towards a multipolar world in which its power and influence is, at best, heavily constrained. Such a view, cogently expressed by Emma Ashford and Evan Cooper in Foreign Policy, is contested by those who claim a new bipolar order is emerging, and even by the occasional somewhat plaintive voices contending that America’s dominant period of unipolarity remains more or less intact.
None of these formulations, however we have suggested in an article published in Global Policy in what seems a lifetime ago in November 2022, capture usefully portray the current, and novel reality of what global order looks like. In fact, contending characterizations of various polarities reliant on traditional conceptions of power and processes have little utility in describing the current situation. China and the United States may remain the twin contesting poles in the global system. Nonetheless, states large and small, and intergovernmental organizations like the EU, have an unprecedented degree of autonomy. They can and do selectively side with either behemoth according to issue areas. Coalitions and more formal alliances are generally constructed on the basis of particular policy issues. They rarely carry across different issues. The primary characteristic of this system is therefore its unprecedented fluidity. Both Europeans and Asians side with China on one issue, the US on another or even resist both views on others.
The system is bifurcating (as opposed to bipolar). For sure, the US and China retain enormous capacities across the spheres of diplomacy, economy and security. Others (like the EU) may approximate them in one sphere. But no states come close to matching them in all three areas. But the flitting back-and-forth, the hedging, that is evident among many close allies of each makes the conceptual notion of stable polarities evident, for example, in the Cold War, not fit for purpose. Even the nonaligned, in what is now a most flexible of concepts, often do align with China or the US. But they do so of an issue specific basis dependent on the circumstances. Two quick examples here: South Africa conducts military drills with China and Russia, and yet remains a major trading partner of the USA. India, an extensively discussed example, buys Russian oil at the same time as it engages with the US over security agreements.
The global system is therefore bifurcating along two pivotal axes as China and the US try to mitigate the often awkward and faltering engagements and disengagements of others. With a few exceptions, such as Russia and North Korea, most states are expediently choosing a side according to the issue. Relations in the traditional sense are thus, at best, “fuzzy.” We live in the complicated era of “fuzzy bifurcation.”
The common attributes of the differing polarities
Our traditional classification of international relations as security, economic and dioplomatic share three common attributes.
First, all formulations in the last instance default to a focus on national security. Certainly, the conception of national security can vary, whether narrowly defined as the preparation for, and winning of wars, or more broadly defined to include accompanying security issues like technology, energy and human capital. In effect, some just focus on guns, others on know-how, guns, butter and oil. But ultimately, what all these discussions share is a belief that power, and influence, are about military capacity and the economic attributes that support that capacity.
Second, it is therefore no surprise that they commonly argue that traditional metrics of power today still have the same utility they had in the 20th Century. So, measuring things like the size and capacities of militaries still carries the greatest weight, even though countervailing examples such as Russia’s stuttering performance in Ukraine suggests otherwise. Of course, technological capacity has been added into the mix. But, then again, elements like cyber inevitably complicate that calculation because of unknown origins and unprecedented means to inflict harm in a grey zone “short of war.” Nonetheless, the short list remains the same: the size of a military, of an economy, technological capacity and prevailing human capital.
Third, they implicitly cling to the notion that alliances bind countries together in the same way that they always have. So, formulations like ‘the West against the rest’ imply a solidarity among liberal democracies that extends across different policy domains. If you are with me on national security then, it is assumed, you are with me on energy security and on broadly related, new securitized areas such as climate change. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Indeed, solidarity on one policy issue is no indicator nowadays of allegiance on another. Western states, for example, are as divided over the regulation of new technologies with significant security implications as they are preponderantly united over Ukraine. But even there, the fissures over exactly how to handle Russia are apparent, with Hungarian and Turkish accommodation to Putin in sharp contrast to the UK’s, Poland’s and the Baltic states belief that total victory is the only acceptable outcome.
The state of fuzzy bifurcation
So, if the traditional language of realism, with its emphasis on polarities and hard power, fails to adequately portray the new reality, then what does? Well, there is no doubt that all the metrics of hard power still point towards two states that stand head-and-shoulders above all potential competitors. China and the US have by far the largest militaries, economies, technological capacity and diplomatic reach. Furthermore, they alone possess those qualities in each sphere. In that sense, the world is indeed bifurcating. But it is not consolidating into two blocs Cold War style.
As Michael Shuman suggested, the world may be “splitting in two.” But there is no consistent alliance structure across issue areas. Beyond Ukraine, European powers and the US disagree on other security areas such as the European role in the Indo-Pacific – pointedly, infamously, the now understated but not forgotten issue of who should sell submarines to the Australians remains. So, allusions to a Cold War 2.0 are misplaced. There is no “Cold War conundrum.” Europeans may be wholly reliant on American material assistance for weaponry when it comes to Ukraine, even as their aid and budgetary assistance for Ukraine grows. Yet, unlike during the Cold War, this does not translate into a consistent support for the US position when it comes to other key policy areas. Indeed, if anything, the trend is the opposite. Emmanuel Macron insists that Europeans should resist becoming a vassal of the US, as Europe seeks to expand its strategic autonomy. It is the outlier examples, such as Russia’s growing dependence on China, that mistakenly gives credence to the assumption of bi-polar consolidation.
This language of autonomy is not just aspirational or rhetorical. It is evident in areas such as digitalization, where the European Union has set up guard rails designed to protect consumer privacy and avoid the kind of surreptitious collection of data that was evident in Cambridge Analytica’s scandalous harvesting of data in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election. Further afield, it is manifest in the EU’s protesting of the protectionist elements of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and support for maintaining free trade with China. And it is transparent in its willingness to entertain Chinese proposals when it comes to supporting climate change reform at various COP meetings.
That pattern extends beyond European efforts to become the third pillar of a trti-polar world. India’s declaration of its new great power status may be premature. But its dalliance with China and the US annoys both powers, as India embeds itself in security communities such as the Quad while refusing to join the sanction regime and becoming a primary destination for Russian oil. Vietnam signs a historic strategic partnership with the US while negotiating a secret Russian arms deal. The list of those who have refused to sign on to the western sanctions’ regime, from all of Africa and all but two Latin America states through to key “frenemies” like Saudi Arabia, is indicative of the constrained nature of American influence. US foreign policy makers have been warned of the increasingly non conformist behaviour of “awkward states” and “swing states”
China fairs little better than the US. Its leaders remain frustrated by its regional neighbors’ unwillingness to recognize its self-declared nine-dash line in the South China Sea or companion Air Defense Identification Zone, even as the People’s Republic remains their largest trading partner. Hedging between American security and Chinese trading has become the standard pattern de jour in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Indeed, in the Asia-Pacific, Australia is one of the very few countries those allied relationship with the US, across a variety of policy domains, even remotely resembles the historic relationship associated with any variant of “polarity.” And its governments, of both the right and the left, cleave to the US with singular vengeance and no sign, yet at least, of diverging from this path.
Both China and the US thus wrestle their respective flawed charm offensives. The Chinese falter when they regress into coercive “wolf diplomacy.” The Americans stumble when they unceremoniously withdraw from Afghanistan, consolidating the view that they are unreliable partners – a popular concern among Europeans now witnessing an American Congress unwilling to sanction aid for Ukraine.
The consequence is messy. But it leaves erstwhile allies and partners with a greater latitude to pursue their own interests than has historically been the case under any version of polarity. With no obvious historical precedent, relations are “fuzzy.”
Stick with the US on security and China on economics is one common version of hedging. But beyond those broad categories, hedging remains motivated by factors such as pandemic politics,food and energy security andthe question of the distribution of vaccines –– much of the Global South is still smarting over American and European hoarding of supplies and the inadequacy of the version that China provided. A comparable lack of ‘loyalty’ is likewise motivated by dissatisfaction over climate change, where the globe’s two biggest emitters seek to impose costs on those who use a fraction of fossil fuels. It is therefore little surprise that hedging, given this newfound latitude, has become a common strategic behavior across policy issues. The world may be bifurcating as Europe suffers from its usual centrifugal forces, India and Brazil remain in the realm of regionally influential but globally dependent powers, and Russia overreaches and undermines its own status and capacities in Ukraine. But the underlying pattern of relations are increasingly “fuzzy”. They are not tightly polar of any variety.
The consequences of this new fuzzy bifurcation are evident. For China and the US, it entails a struggle to attract support for their generally countervailing positions for the foreseeable future. The notion of a ‘reliable ally’ for the US may apply to Australia, Canada and the UK. And Russia, by its own choices, is pushed into an unlimited alliance with China. But when a host of supposed partners like Saudi Arabia won’t even sign up for the sanctions regime, then it is evident that wider reliability is a sparse commodity. The US must contest for support in every policy area, reliant more on its diplomatic tools and evident shared interests, and less on its military or coercive economic instruments and even less on its ideational appeal as the bastion of liberal values. Support in an existential battle between democracy and authoritarianism (even among non-authoritarian states) carries little sway.
It is an environment for which America is ill-prepared. Bumper sticker assumptions about “special relations” may reemerge during crises. But that kind of thinking is now challenged by a new expediency abroad. The US, a country that spends ten times as much on defense as it does on diplomacy, has to readjust its thinking to conform to a new, far more nuanced, reality. A new culture must take hold in Washington, one in which old assumptions about natural leadership, or indeed about a capacity for disengagement, now have little utility in addressing America’s major challenges. The world may be fuzzy, but American thinking must be clear.
About the authors:
- Richard Higgott is Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at the Brussels School of Governance
- Simon Reich is Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, USA