In 2019, John Mearsheimer, an American Political Scientist, argued that the international system was shifting from unipolarity to multipolarity. The same thought was shared by India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar when he said, “The 21st-century world is becoming increasingly multipolar and is unlikely to return to bipolarity.” This thought certainly sparks some curiosity in the political science enthusiast in me and makes me wonder if there is some truth in this quote— are we moving towards a multipolar global political system or have we already reached there, and how can these structural changes change the way India is perceived in the world and what would be India’s actions in the changing global scenario?
Polarity is a concept in International Relations which refers to the various ways in which power is distributed in the International system. The distribution of power among nations and their relative influence in global politics shape the international political structure. Generally, polarity is distinguished among three types of systems:
A situation where international politics’ most power is centered around one state, which exercises most of the economic, cultural, and military influence. There is only one great power with virtually no competition. The structure is no longer unipolar once a competitor emerges. Numerous thinkers like M.G. Wells, William Gladstone believed in the supremacy of the United States of America in the 20th Century. Michael Beckley argues American primacy is vastly underestimated because power indices frequently fail to take into account GDP per capita in the US relative to other purportedly powerful states, such as China and India.
Bipolarity refers to the distribution of power between two powerful states that hold strong influence economically, culturally, and militarily in the international arena. Most of the time, these two nations will compete with each other dividing the whole world into two spheres. The most remarkable example is the Cold War, where one sphere was led by the USA supporting the ideology of capitalism, with most Western European nations supporting this ideology. In contrast, the other sphere was led by the USSR and its alliances supporting communism.
Multipolarity refers to the state of international structure, where power is distributed among several states, and more than two nations have an immense influence on the world.
There is another interesting type of international system that was propounded by Richard Haass, i.e., Nopolarity, which refers to the kind of international system that has numerous states that hold power but are not significant enough to dominate any other country. Also, these centers of power need not necessarily be states and can be non-state actors like NGOs, corporates, etc.
IS THE WORLD LEANING TOWARDS MULTIPOLARITY?
After the culmination of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the United States of America emerged as the sole dominant power in international global politics, according to some scholars. However, recently we have witnessed a lot of emerging centers of power like China, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, India, etc., that are giving tough competition to the dominance of the country.
This new world order leaves a lot of opportunities for greater cooperation and gives opportunities for states, especially the weaker states, to exercise their strategic autonomy and align themselves with more powerful countries and seek chances for greater development and security. This kind of international system also increases the scope of bargaining in global discourse where they can voice their opinions and also have some influence in shaping international norms and the working of some international institutions. But multipolarity has its risks, too— it may also lead to powerful nations manipulating the international scenario to their advantage and virtually controlling global norms and international institutions that could benefit them in one way or the other.
“Slowbalization” Report- Morgan Stanley
A report by Morgan Stanley in 2019 highlighted that the present geopolitical issues are bound to accelerate pre-existing trends that were a reason for slowing the process of globalization. In Morgan Stanley’s view, the world is diverging from its convergent social, economic, and political system that was heavily influenced by the USA (the phenomenon was called the “Washington Consensus”). He believed that if the structure of the world keeps changing in this direction, we will end up with a multipolar economic world.
According to Morgan Stanley, there are five important issues in the present international landscape that are driving the world towards multipolarity:
- The increasing US-China tensions. They are two of the major economic powers in the world right now, and though they have a crucial trade deal signed, the two nations still see each other as competition. The recent accusations of the USA that China was responsible for the pandemic and the formation of QUAD and AUKUS have created more differences between the two, and the situation is unlikely to improve.
- Europe lacks a clear mechanism to address challenges when it comes to maintaining relationships with the USA and China. The negotiations become too complicated when Europe has both the USA and China as its key customer and competitor. On the other hand, Japan, which holds a rivalry with China, rather than making strong relationships with other nations opposing China, has even more unstable customer bases and supply chains with them.
- There are various international organizations that are losing their value because of increasingly large and diverse membership as they undermine the decision-making process because of their consensus-based mechanisms that render negotiations a useless tool. “The transition from formal institutions to unilateral action and informal multilateralism is an indicator of a multipolar world.”
- Improved Sino-Russian relations, the emergence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, & the New Development Bank (previously known as the BRICS Bank) are unmistakable signs of a shift to a multipolar world, bringing forth alternatives to the Bretton Woods institutions and setting up a competition for influence between China and the US.
- The recent Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the unpreparedness of the USA’s response to a health emergency and has put a toll on industries which has forced them to geographically diversify their overseas supply chains.
Views of S. Jaishankar
S. Jaishankar, the Indian External Affairs Minister, strongly believes that the world is on the verge of transforming into a multipolar system, and it is now difficult to return to bipolarity. He also shared that this changing global landscape will bring India and the USA closer. S. Jaishankar shared his views in a foreign policy speech titled “Preparing for a Different Era” while addressing the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, in 2019.
He says that many nations function more independently now, and half of the twenty largest economies in the world are non-western, clearly stating the decrease in the influence of the western world.
“The reality is that the space yielded by the West has been occupied by many players, not solely China. Furthermore, both China and the US have a use for third parties, and the politics of the day will now drive multipolarity even faster.”
He also said that the countries that would benefit the most from this system would be the G-20 nations and other nations on par with G-20. Countries like Russia, France, or the United Kingdom are already developed and have an advantage, but they will also get a fresh boost along with nations like Brazil, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc., that will have more presence in the international arena.
“What will emerge is a more complex architecture, characterized by different degrees of competition, convergence, and coordination. It will be like playing Chinese Checkers with many more participants, but who are still arguing over the rules.”
INDIA’S POSITION IN THE CHANGING WORLD ORDER DYNAMICS
“Preparing for a more competitive and complex era will require a different mindset, and for a nation like India, it would be in addition to changes induced by its climb up the global power hierarchy.”
The European Union believes India plays a key role in the multipolar world and is working on a strategy to improve cooperation and partnership with India by focussing on sustainable modernization and common response to global and regional issues.
Recent years have seen a significant shift in India’s policy, moving from non-alignment to practicing multi-alignment. With India engaging with all the major powers in the world and integrating itself more with the global economy, India is creating conditions necessary to increase its global influence. India is seen as a natural leader that represents and gives a voice to the issues and interests of developing countries on a global platform. Thus, the world expects India to take a strong stand on global issues. Its deep interest in multilateralism can be seen in the call for the UN system reforms and promotion of multilateral international systems like the International Solar Alliance, Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, etc.
India is also seen as an emerging global economic power and is recognized as a key player in the IT revolution, and is leading the pharmaceutical, cement, steel, and space sectors. But India does need to overcome its institutional constraints such as improving the poverty level, decreasing the social gap, improving the education and health sectors, providing more gender and economic equality, etc., to truly evolve in a pluralistic society.
The global international system is certainly moving towards multipolarity and has created multiple centers of power. Whether the states are able to take advantage of a multipolar system or will face a drawback depends on a lot of factors like their relative power potential, demography, geography, autonomy, and able-leadership. In this new multipolar world, India has unmistakably emerged as a key player and has also emerged as the fastest-growing economy. It has procured an important position in the present global political arena. Although some scholars find it skeptical that India will be able to reach the level of China, India can still play a constructive role in the evolving multipolar world.
Written by: Aashna