In the light of power distribution among states, the discipline of International Relations introduces three international systems: unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity. The relative power of states, which can be defined as the ability to influence others’ actions, determines their hierarchical position in the international arena. The presence of a single superpower demonstrates a unipolar system whereas the rivalry between two superpowers indicates a bipolar system. Finally, the existence of many great powers represents a multipolar system. Despite the ongoing debate on these systems’ durability and stability, this paper suggests that analyzing these systems as a repeating cycle would be more convenient.
Unipolarity is a position in which one state is superior to others in terms of power as it possesses a significant part of resources. In a unipolar system, existence of multiple states is possible, however, the hegemon has no challengers in the international arena. This is because the hegemon has a level of power that other states cannot match even if by banding together. The position of the United States in the post-Cold War period is an example of unipolarity. With the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the bipolar system was disrupted due to the absence of competition between the US and USSR as two poles. As a result, the United States became the hegemon, owning the largest economic, political, and military resources. According to some scholars, especially proponents of the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the unipolar system is the most stable and durable system that can endure peace. After the Cold War, the raw power advantage of the United States means that an important source of conflict in previous systems is absent: hegemonic rivalry over leadership of the international system because no other major power is in a position to follow any policy that depends for its success on prevailing against the United States in a war or an extended rivalry (Wohlforth, 1999, p. 8). This indicates that since the major powers will not be willing to challenge the hegemon, and the hegemon has the resources to direct any conflict among them, unipolar systems tend to be more durable and peaceful.
Bipolarity is a system of international order in which two competing powers control the global economic, military, and political relations as the other states choose to ally with one of them. In this system, the international order is based on the rivalry and conflict between the two superpowers. The Cold War era, when global affairs were shaped according to the dynamics between US and USSR, is a commonly used example of a bipolar system. Kenneth Waltz emphasizes the durability and stability of a bipolar system by saying that “Unbalanced power, whoever wields it, is a potential danger to others” (Waltz, 2000, p.28). During the Cold War, the actions and alliances of the US and USSR balanced each other in terms of their ability to influence, therefore, imposing restrictions on the motives of one another and the remaining states.
Multipolarity refers to a power distribution in which more than two equally powerful states contend for dominance. In this system, states can adjust their relationship by their own will. Throughout history, the multipolar system was the most frequently occurring ones. The Concert of Europe from 1814 to 1914, in which the great powers of Europe managed to preserve the status quo. According to scholars such as Hans Morgenthau, multi-polar systems are more stable than other polarity forms, since the major powers can benefit power through alliances and small wars that do not directly challenge other powers (Tomja, 2014, p. 60). Great powers’ hierarchical position might change over time, however, in the presence of equal powers, like in the case of the Concert of Europe, no state can take the risk to challenge others. Therefore, the tendency to keep the status quo increases, which is resulting in stability and durability.
In terms of International Relations, stability can be defined as the likelihood of a system to preserve all of its defining features without a massive armed conflict whereas durability means the ability of a system to exist in the presence of pressure. It is a fact that all three systems have distinct advantages and disadvantages. However, rather than focusing on stability and durability, it would be more pertinent to evaluate the way how these systems reproduce each other. States’ economic, military, political, and social capabilities determine their power and hierarchical position in the international arena. Since the flow of capital and distribution of power among states change over time, the hierarchical order shifts as well. This means that the international system changes, and it can be said that polarity is a cycle. England, France, Habsburg Empire, and Ottoman Empire were almost equally great powers from 1495 to 1521. After that, a rivalry occurred between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. The international order in which Ottoman Empire had a superior position, transformed into a multipolar system that will endure until 1945. This multipolar period witnessed World War I and World War II. Following that, the Cold War started as a result of the contest between the US and the USSR. This turned into a system where the US became a superpower. Finally, with the rise of Russia, China, India, and other powers, it can be said that the transition to a multipolar system has started again. The instability caused by each system leads to a change in the power distribution and results in a continuous cycle.
Tomja, A. (2014). Polarity and International System Consequences. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research and Development, 1, 57–61.
Waltz, K. N. (2000). Structural realism after the Cold War. International Security, 25(1), 5–41. https://doi.org/10.1162/016228800560372
Wohlforth, W. C. (1999). The stability of a Unipolar World. International Security, 24(1), 5–41. https://doi.org/10.1162/016228899560031
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