Polarity in international relations
is a description of the distribution of power within the international system. It describes the nature of the international system at any given period of time. There are three types of systems, Unipolarity, Bipolarity, and Multipolarity. The type of system is completely dependent on the distribution of power and influence of states in a region or internationally.
Unipolarity in international politics describes a distribution of power in which there is one state with most of the cultural, economic, and military influence. This is also called a hegemony or hyperpower.
Examples of Unipolarity
A true unipolarity that has influence all over the known world is difficult to form prior to the Age of Discovery
due to the lack of communication and information regarding other nations. Therefore, all the examples of this list, except the last two, are examples of regional unipolarity.
- The Egyptan Empire, from 3150 BC to 664 BC (approximate dates, there was a slow break down of the kingdom in the end).
- The Greeks, from 776 to 146 BC (In 332 BC the Persian ruler Mazaces handed Egypt over to Alexander the Great without a fight. and in 146 BC Greece was conquered by Rome and became part of the Roman Empire).
- The Persian Empire from 550 BC to 330 BC - From Central Asia to Macedonia, including Northern Africa and South Asia.
- The Roman Empire from 31 BC to the 5th century - Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor.
- Chinese Empires in the 1st century B.C.-3rd century A.D., 6th-8th century A.D., and 14th-18th century A.D. - Mainly China proper, at times stretching to as far as Central Asia, Mongolia, India and Southeast Asia.
- Mongolian Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries - All across Asia and to Eastern Europe and Egypt.
- The Byzantine Empire, 6th century onwards until its gradual decline and replacement by the Ottoman Empire - Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia Minor, with influence reaching to as far as Spain at times. Exists as a bipolarity with the Western Roman Empire before its fall.
- The Ottoman Empire, from the 15th to the 17th centuries - same as above.
- The French Empire, during the reigns of Louis XIV and Napoleon I
- The British Empire from the end of Napoleonic Wars - beginning of the 20th century
- The United States; with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States became the dominant military force in the world, along with considerable economic, cultural, and political influence.
Bipolarity in international politics describes a distribution of power in which two states have the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence internationally or regionally. Often, spheres of influence would develop. For example, in the Cold War, most Western and democratic states would fall under the influence of the USA, while most Communist states would fall under the influence of the USSR. After this, the two powers will normally maneuver for the support of the unclaimed areas.
Multi-state examples of Bipolarity
The bipolar system can be said to extend to much larger systems, such as alliances or organizations, which would not be considered nation-states, but would still have power concentrated in two primary groups.
In both World Wars, much of the world, and especially Europe, the United States and Japan had been divided into two respective spheres - one case being the Axis and Allies of World War II (1939-1945) - and the division of power between the Central Powers and Allied Powers during World War I (1914-1918). Neutral nations, however, may have caused what may be assessed as an example of tripolarity as well within both of the conflicts.
Multipolarity in international politics describes a distribution of power in which more than four nation-states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, and economic influence.
Opinions on the stability of multipolarity differ. Classical realist theorists, such as Hans Morgenthau and E. H. Carr hold that multipolar systems are more stable than bipolar systems, as great powers can gain power through alliances and petty wars that do not directly challenge other powers; in bipolar systems, classical realists argue, this is not possible. On the other hand, the neorealist focus on security inverts the the formula: states in a multipolar system can focus their fears on any number of other powers and, misjudging the intentions of other states, unnecessarily compromise their security, while states in a bipolar system always focus their fears on one other power, meaning that at worst the powers will miscalculate the force required to counter threats and spend slightly too much on the operation. However, due to the complexity of mutually assured destruction scenarios, with nuclear weapons, multipolar systems may be more stable than bipolar systems even in the neorealist analysis. This system tends to have many shifting alliances until one of two things happens. Either a balance of power is struck, and neither side wants to attack the other, or one side will attack the other because it either fears the potential of the new alliance, or it feels that it can defeat the other side.
One of the major implications of an international system with any number of poles, including a multipolar system, is that international decisions will often be made for strategic reasons to maintain a balance of power rather than out of ideological or historical reasons.
The 'Concert of Europe,' a period from after the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean War, was an example of peaceful multipolarity (the great powers of Europe assembled regularly to discuss international and domestic issues). World War I, World War II, the Thirty Years War, and the Warring States Period are all examples of a wartime multipolarity.
Those claiming that the world is multipolar fall into two main camps. A "superpower is something of the past" view holds that the USA and USSR in the Cold War were in fact superpowers, but argues that due to the complex economic interdependencies on the international scale and the creation of a global village, the concept of one or more states gaining enough power to claim superpower status is antiquated. The rival view is that even throughout the Cold War, neither the USA or the USSR were superpowers, but were actually dependent on the smaller states in their "spheres of influence."
While the US has a great deal of economic clout and has influenced the culture of many nations, their dependency on foreign investors and reliance on foreign trade have created a mutual economic dependency between developed and developing nations. According to those who believe the world is multipolar, this interdependency means the US can't be called a superpower as it isn't self-sufficient and relies on the global community to sustain its people's quality of life. These interdepencies also apply to diplomacy. Considering the complex state of world affairs and the military might of some developing nations, it has become increasingly difficult to engage in foreign policy if it is not supported by other nations. The diplomatic and economic factors that bind the global village together have created a state in which no nation or union can dominate the others.
Nonpolarity refers to an international system with numerous centers of power; no one center of power dominates. Centers of power can be Nation-states, corporations, non-governmental organizations, terrorist groups, and such. Power is found in many hands and many places.
Measuring the power concentration
The Correlates of War
uses a systemic concentration of power formula to calculate the polarity of a given great power
system. The formula was developed by J. David Singer
et al. in 1972.
- Concentrationt =
- Nt = the number of states in the great power system at time t
- Sit = the proportion of power possessed by state i at time t (must be a decimal figure)
- S = the proportion of power possessed
- i = the state of which the proportion of control over the system's power is being measured
- t = the time at which the concentration of resources (i.e. power) is being calculated
- = the sum of the proportion of power possessed by all states in the great power system
The closer the resulting concentration is to zero, the more evenly divided power is. The closer to 1, the more concentrated power is. There is a general but not strict correlation between concentration and polarity. It is rare to find a result over 0.5, but a result between 0.4 and 0.5 usually indicates a unipolar system, while a result between 0.2 and 0.4 usually indicated a bipolar or multipolar system. Concentration can be plotted over time, so that the fluctuations and trends in concentration can be observed.
concentration of power formula to calculate the polarity of a given great power system.
- Thompson, William R. On Global War: Historical-Structural Approaches to World Politics. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 209-210.