Why the World is Not Becoming Multipolar

29 june 2018

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. He is also the president of the Information Scholarship Education Center (ISE) and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute.

Resume: Multilateralism Instead of Multipolarity

In Russia, the concept of multipolarity is usually associated with Yevgeny Primakov. Indeed, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation marked the start of the transition to multipolarity as a key trend in contemporary international life back in 1996.[i] During his visit to New Delhi as Prime Minister in late 1998, Primakov proposed a plan of trilateral cooperation between Russia, China, and India (RIC) as a practical mechanism for promoting global multipolarity. Sergey Lavrov has also stressed Primakov’s outstanding role in developing the concept of a multipolar world.

Western international relations experts will hardly agree to give priority to the Russian scholar and politician. As a rule, they trace the emergence of the concept of multipolarity to the mid-1970s. The roots of multipolarity are found in the rapid rise of the economies of Western Europe and Japan, in the United States’ defeat in Vietnam, in the energy crisis of 1973–1974, and in other trends of global politics that do not fit into the rigid framework of the bipolar world. The establishment in 1973 of the Trilateral Commission intended to encourage and improve relations between North America, Western Europe, and Eastern Asia also reflected the idea that multipolarity was coming into being, if not already fact.[ii]

Chinese historians, in turn, can claim their own version of multipolarity (duojihua) that emerged in the early 1990s and can be traced to the theoretical works of Mao Zedong. In China, the world was expected to transition from unipolar to multipolar via a “hybrid” global political structure that combines elements of both the past and future world systems.[iii]

Regardless of how we date the birth of multipolarity as a concept and whom we hail as its pioneer, the concept clearly is not a recent invention, but an intellectual product of the 20th century. It would seem that over the decades that have passed since it was proposed, multipolarity should have evolved from a hypothesis into a full-fledged theory. As regards political practice, intuition suggests that, over the course of several decades, the multipolar world should have finally taken shape as a new global political system with relevant norms, institutions, and procedures.

Yet something clearly went wrong. The world is not behaving as the founders had predicted.

Elusive Multipolarity

In October 2016, twenty years after Yevgeny Primakov’ policy article was published in the journal International Affairs, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, during which he commented, “I certainly hope that… the world really will become more multipolar, and that the views of all actors in the international community will be taken into account.” Six months prior to that, Putin noted the role of the United States in international relations: “America is a great power, today perhaps the only superpower. We accept this.” That is, even though a multipolar world is the desirable world system, presently it is too early to say that the “unipolar moment” has been completely overcome.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, following the general logic and even the style of Yevgeny Primakov’s narrative of 20 years ago, also spoke about the start of a transition to multipolarity and the completion of the process in some indefinite future: “… A change of eras is always a lengthy process. It will continue for a long time.” As an additional complication, Lavrov emphasized the staunch resistance of the proponents of the old world order: “There are active attempts to hinder the process primarily on the part of those who used to dominate the world, who wish to preserve their domination in new conditions as well, and, generally speaking, to enshrine their domination forever.”

This logic is hard to dispute. Yet some questions remain.

First, the historical experience of the previous centuries offers no examples of an old world gradually transforming into a new one over time. The changes in the world order that took place in 1815, 1919, and 1945 were not evolutionary, but imposed by revolutionary (forcible) means and stemmed from large-scale armed conflicts that had preceded them. The new world order was always built by the victors in their own interests. Of course, we may suppose that humanity has become wiser and more humane over the last 100–200 years, though not everyone would agree. Yet even if that is true, surely all attempts to “gradually” transition to a multipolar world would be the same as trying to alleviate the pain of a beloved pet dog by cutting off its tail piece by piece.

Second, if we take as given that the transition to a multipolar world will become an extended process spread over, say, five decades (1995–2045), this leads to the depressing conclusion that humanity will remain in the “grey area” between the old and new world orders until the middle of the 21st century. This “grey area” is clearly not a particularly comfortable or safe place. It is easy to predict that it will lack clear rules of the game, understandable and generally recognized principles of the functioning of the international system, and numerous conflicts between the emerging “poles.” The system may even split into individual fragments and its “poles” will become self-isolated in their regional or continental subsystems. Can we afford several decades in the “grey zone” without subjecting humanity to extreme risks?

Third, do we even have sufficient grounds to say that the world is moving towards multipolarity, even if this movement is slow, inconsistent, and sporadic? Could we, for instance, conclude that today, the European Union is closer to being a full-fledged and independent global “pole” than it was ten years ago? Can we assert that, over the last decade, Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America have made significant progress towards the status of a collective “pole”? Is it possible to say that as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) expanded, the group increased its capability to act on a consolidated stance on the international stage? If we are not yet prepared to give an unequivocal “yes” to all these questions, then we do not have the right to say that the world is steadily moving towards multipolarity.

Over the years, multipolarity has become like a distant horizon that keeps receding as we move towards it. Could we not, therefore, apply Eduard Bernstein’s famous saying that “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing” to multipolarity? That is, could we perceive multipolarity not as a full-fledged alternative to the existing world order, but as a mechanism for correcting the weakest and most vulnerable elements of this order?

“The Concert of Europe” 200 Years On

Adherents of multipolarity like to cite the “Concert of Europe,” the Vienna System of international relations established in Europe in the early 19th century after the Napoleonic wars. This system was truly multipolar; it did indeed help preserve peace in Europe for a long time. Historians debate the precise date at which the system collapsed: 1853 (the start of the Crimean War), 1871 (the Franco-Prussian War) or 1914 (the First World War). In any case, after 1815, the 19th century was relatively peaceful for Europe, particularly when compared to the disastrous 20th century.

Could the “Concert of Europe” be repeated 200 years later, this time in the global, rather than the European, context?

Let us start with the fact that the members of the “Concert of Europe,” despite being very different states, were still comparable in power and influence militarily, politically, and economically. The cosmopolitan European elites remained largely homogeneous (European monarchies in the 19th century were essentially one extended family), spoke the same language (French), professed the same faith (Christianity), and were in general part of the same cultural tradition (the European Enlightenment). Of even greater importance is the fact that the members of the “Concert of Europe” did not have radical, irreconcilable differences in their views on the desirable future of European politics, at least until the rapid rise of Prussia and the subsequent unification of Germany.

Today, the situation is drastically different. The potential members of a unipolar system have fundamentally different political weight. The United States has a greater weight in today’s international system than the British Empire had in European politics in the 19th century. The global elite is heterogeneous, and there are profound differences in their cultural archetypes and basic values. In the 19th century, the differences between the members of the “concert” pertained to specific issues in European politics, to the “manual tuning” of the complicated European mechanism. In the 21st century, the differences between the great powers pertain to the very foundations of the world order, the basic principles of international law, and even more important questions such as justice, legitimacy, and the “great meanings” of history.

On the other hand, the Concert of Europe was so successful largely due to its flexibility. Great European powers could afford the luxury of promptly changing the configuration of unions, coalitions, and alliances to maintain the overall balance of the system. For instance, France was one of Russia’s main adversaries in the Crimean War. Just a year later, after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, Russia and France embarked upon a phase of active rapprochement, which resulted in Russia’s final break with Austria and Austria’s defeat in its 1859 conflict with France.

Could we imagine such flexibility today? Could we suppose that over the course of two or three years, Russia would be capable of swapping its current partnership with China for an alliance with the United States? Or that the European Union, as it faces increasing pressure from the United States, would re-orient itself towards strategic cooperation with Moscow? Such scenarios look improbable at best and absurd at worst. Alas, the leaders of great powers today do not have the flexibility that is absolutely necessary to maintain a stable multipolar world order.

At the end of our short historical sketch, we can ask another curious question. Why did the 1814–1815 Congress of Vienna result in a stable European order, while the 1919 Treaty of Versailles became meaningless 15 years after it was signed? How is it possible that the members of the anti-France coalition were capable of magnanimity towards their former enemy, while members of the anti-German coalition were not? Was it because George Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson were more stupid or bloodthirsty than Alexander I, Klemens von Metternich, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand?

Of course not. It is just that the Concert of Europe was created by autocratic monarchs, while the Treaty of Versailles was designed by leaders of western democracies. The latter were far more dependent on national public sentiment than their predecessors were a century earlier. And the public sentiments of nations that had experienced four years of suffering, unprecedented privations, and losses demanded that the Germans be punished in the harshest and most uncompromising manner. And this is what the victors ultimately did, thus planting the seeds of the global carnage that was to come.

Clearly, over the last hundred years, politicians have grown even more dependent on the smallest fluctuations in public opinion. Unfortunately, the chances of seeing new examples of Alexander’s magnanimity and Metternich’s insight today are slim. To paraphrase Pushkin, we can say that “political populism and multipolarity are two things incompatible.”

The “Gangsters” and “Molls” of the Multipolar World

A famous cliché in international relations (attributed to a variety of authors, from Otto von Bismarck to Stanley Kubrick) states that on the global stage, large states act as gangsters and small states act as molls. The concept of a multipolar world is geared towards the “gangsters” and ignores the “molls.” Not every state and not even every coalition of states has the right to claim the status of a “pole” in the international system.

The adherents of multipolarity believe that most contemporary states are simply incapable of independently ensuring their own security and economic growth, not to mention making a significant contribution to shaping the new world order.[iv] Thus, in both the current and future multipolar world, only a handful of countries have “true sovereignty,” while others sacrifice this sovereignty in the name of security, prosperity, or even plain survival.[v]

At the time of the Concert of Europe, the “gangsters” could successfully control the “molls” who depended on them, and the number of “molls” was relatively small. Two centuries later, the situation has changed drastically. Today, there are about 200 states that are members of the UN, and then there are unrecognized states and non-state actors. Therefore, the majority of members of international relations in the new multipolar world has been assigned the unenviable role of extras or observers.

Even if we ignore the moral and ethical deficiency of such a world order, there are grave doubts that such a project is feasible, especially given mounting problems in current military, political, and economic unions and the sharp rise of nationalism that affects both great powers and small and medium-sized countries.

The adherents of multipolarity probably think that the “poles” of the new world order will form naturally, that the “molls” will rush into the arms of neighbouring “gangsters” out of love rather than by coercion. That is, they will be driven by geographic proximity, economic expediency, common history, cultural similarities, etc. Unfortunately, historical experience would suggest the contrary. French-speaking Flanders has for centuries fended off the obtrusive patronage of Paris; Portugal has for an equally long time striven to distance itself from the geographically and culturally close Spain; and for some reason, Vietnam has failed to appreciate the advantages of belonging to China’s “pole.” It would be best to not even recall the state of relations between Russia and once “brotherly” Ukraine.

If the “molls” are forced to turn to the “gangsters” for protection, they clearly prefer “gangsters” from a remote neighbourhood rather than from their own street. Generally speaking, such preferences are sometimes somewhat logical. And if this is the case, then “poles” can only be formed “voluntarily under duress,” as the Russian saying goes – and in the 21st century, such foundations have dubious stability.

One gets the impression that the Russian discourse about the impending multipolar world confuses the notions of legal equality (“equal rights”) and actual equality (identity as the ultimate equality). States cannot actually be equal to each other: their size, resources, and capabilities, as well as their economic, military, and political potential, differ too greatly. Yet the apparent inequality of states does not necessarily mean that they should also have different basic rights. There is the principle of all citizens being equal before the law regardless of the differences in social status, property, education, and talents.

Old Bipolarity Billed as New Multipolarity

The differences in the current situation compared to that of the early 19th century are too obvious to attempt to restore the “classical” multipolarity. It would seem that, in one way or another, the adherents of multipolarity also realize this. If we take a closer, more careful look at the discourse in Russia today describing the “new” multipolarity of the 21st century, the magnificent multipolar façade often disguises the same steel-and-concrete bipolar structure of global politics, reflecting the Soviet mentality that has not been entirely overcome.

The “new bipolarity” manifests in all kinds of ways. Consider, for instance, the “East–West” dichotomy, a confrontation between “maritime” and “continental” powers, a clash between the “liberal” and “conservative” worlds, or even the opposition between the United States and the rest of the world. Whatever its external manifestation, the essence remains the same, like in the old Soviet joke about a worker from a factory manufacturing prams who complains, “Whenever I try to assemble a pram, I end up with a Kalashnikov.”

We cannot say with absolute certainty that the world will never go back to the bipolarity of the 20th century. In any case, the possible bipolarity that could result from the impending U.S.–China confrontation is more realistic than going back to the multipolarity of the 19th century. Nevertheless, attempts to combine elements of multipolarity and bipolarity in a single structure is a doomed enterprise. These two approaches to global politics are too different in their basic paradigms. Multipolarity and bipolarity are two radically different worldviews.

Classical multipolarity cannot have any rigid divisions between those who are right and those who are wrong, between friend and foe, between black and white. Foes may prove to be friends, those in the right and those in the wrong may swap places, and there is an entire range of shades of grey in the spectrum between black and white. A bipolar picture, on the contrary, always tends to be Manichean, when friends are always in the right and foes are invariably in the wrong. Friends are forgiven whatever they do, and foes are never forgiven. The notion of the collective West that is popular in Russia is also a vestige of the Soviet mentality. In no way does this fit in with the declared “multipolar” picture of the world, but it is very convenient for constructing the opposing notion of a “collective non-West.”

Familiar stereotypes of the Soviet mentality stubbornly bring us back to bipolar logic and deprive us of the opportunity to take advantage of managing a complex multipolar construction even in those instances when such opportunities present themselves. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Russian policies in the Middle East are one such exception, as it is the Donald Trump administration that has been caught in the trap of a bipolar worldview there, while Russia, having taken the preferred position of regional referee, has thus far succeeded in manoeuvring among the various regional players. Russia has been less successful in the Russia–China–India triangle that Yevgeny Primakov had once promoted as the foundation of a multipolar world: the equilateral Russia–China–India triangle is slowly but steadily evolving towards a military alliance between Russia and China.

Overcoming the remnants of bipolar logic is a necessary but insufficient condition for a successful foreign policy. It would seem that the successful use of multipolar approaches promises tactical successes at best. Strategic victories are possible if multipolarity is abandoned in favour of multilateralism.

Searching for a Balance in Open Systems

If we agree with the principle of states having equal rights in the international system, we should abandon the fundamentals of multipolarity. Directly or indirectly, multipolarity assumes that in the future world there will always be states or groups of states with special rights. That is, the privileges of force will be enshrined, just like the victors of World War II enshrined their privileges when establishing the UN system in 1945. However, the experience of 1945 cannot be repeated in 2018: today’s great powers have neither the authority nor the legitimacy nor the unanimity of the countries that had made the decisive contribution to victory in the bloodiest war in human history.

For the international system of the future to be stable and durable, there should be no radical differences between the victors and the vanquished, between “regular” and “privileged” members. Otherwise, any change in the global balance of power (and such changes will occur with increasing speed) will necessitate adjustments to the system, and we will thus go through crises over and over again.

How can we talk about consolidating the privilege of power in the new multipolar structure if this power is diffusing at breakneck pace before our very eyes? In the time of the Congress of Vienna, power was hierarchical and had a limited number of parameters. Today, traditional rigid hierarchies of power are rapidly losing the significance they once enjoyed, not because old components of national power no longer work, but because multiple new components are emerging in parallel.

For instance, South Korea cannot be considered a great power in the traditional sense, because it cannot ensure its own security without help from others. However, if we look at the wearable electronics sector, South Korea is more than a great power; in fact, it is one of two “super powers.” South Korea’s Samsung is the only company in the world that successfully competes with U.S. company Apple in the global smartphone market. From the point of view of the country’s global brand, its flagship Samsung Galaxy S9+ carries more weight than Russia’s flagship S-500 Prometey missile system.

Non-material measures of a state’s power are gaining ever greater importance. A country’s reputation, its “credit history” – which is so easy to undermine yet so hard to restore – is becoming progressively more valuable. Stalin’s famous phrase about the Pope (“The Pope? How many divisions does he have?”) looks more like political antiquity than political cynicism.

If the notion of a state’s power is becoming more equivocal and takes into account an increasing number of parameters, then we inevitably face the problem of determining the new balance of power in global politics. Determining a multipolar balance of power is in general an extremely difficult enterprise even when the number of parameters used is rigidly set. For instance, what is a stable multipolar nuclear balance? What is multilateral nuclear containment? When the number of power parameters tends to infinity, the task of building a stable multipolar balance becomes impossible to solve. Attempting to balance an open system with a permanently growing number of independent variables is the same as attempting to transform a living cell into a dead crystal.

Multilateralism Instead of Multipolarity

A stable system of global politics assumes it will not be entirely fair to more powerful players, as it limits the interests of those players in favour of weaker players and the stability of the system as a whole. Any federative state redistributes resources from prosperous regions to depressive ones: prosperous regions are forced to pay more to preserve the integrity and stability of the federation. Or consider, for instance, that traffic rules in cities are far more restrictive to cutting-edge Lamborghini supercars. Lamborghini drivers are forced to sacrifice most of their “automotive sovereignty” to ensure safety and order on the road.

The future of the world order (if we are talking about order and not a game without rules or a “war of all against all”) should be sought in multilateralism instead of multipolarity. The two terms sound similar, but they differ in meaning. Multipolarity involves building a new world order on the basis of power, while multilateralism is based on interests. Multipolarity consolidates the privileges of leaders, while multilateralism creates additional opportunities for underachievers. A multipolar world is built from blocs that balance each other, while a multilateral world is built from complementary regimes. A multipolar world develops by periodically adjusting the balance of power, while a multilateral world develops by accumulating elements of mutual dependency and creating new levels of integration.

Unlike the multipolar world model, the multilateral model cannot rely on past experience, and in that respect it might appear idealistic and virtually unfeasible. However, individual elements of the model have already been tried in the practice of international relations. For instance, the principles of multilateralism — placing the interests of small and medium-sized countries in primary focus, prioritizing the common regulatory legal balance over the situational interests of the participants in the system — formed the basis for the construction of the European Union. Even though the European Union is not in great shape today and individual parts of this complex machine are clearly malfunctioning, hardly anyone would deny that it remains the most successful integration project implemented in the modern world.

For those who do not like the experience of European integration, it is worth looking for sprouts of new multilateralism elsewhere. Examples include the BRICS+ project and the “Community of Common Destiny.” Both initiatives attempt to avoid the over-complication, exclusivity, and rigidity of the European project by offering potential participants more diverse cooperation options. However, should these projects be successful, they will not bring the world any closer to “classical” multipolarity; on the contrary, they will take the world farther away from it.

The international community will have to somehow restore the regulatory framework of global politics that has been gravely undermined over recent decades, search for complex balances of interests at the regional and global levels, and build flexible regimes that regulate individual dimensions of global communication. Powerful states will have to make major concessions so that multilateral arrangements will be attractive for weak actors. A clean break will have to be made with the centuries-old relics of outdated mentalities, dubious historical analogies, and attractive yet meaningless geopolitical constructions.

The world of the future will be far more complex and contradictory than we thought it would be just 20 years ago. It will have a place for a multitude of diverse participants in global politics interacting in various formats. Multipolarity should go down in history as a justified intellectual and political reaction to the arrogance, haughtiness, and various excesses of the hapless builders of a unipolar world — nothing more and nothing less. With the twilight of the unipolar world, its opposite – multipolarity – will inevitably face its twilight as well.


[i] Primakov E. M. International Relations on the Eve of the 21st Century: Problems and Prospects. International Affairs. 1996 (10), pp. 3–13.

[ii] Curiously, at the turn of the century, the idea of multipolarity gained such traction in both the United States and Europe that Assistant to President George W. Bush for National Security Affairs Condoleezza Rice found it necessary to publish a lengthy article with detailed criticism of multipolarity as a concept of rivalry and potential conflicts, a concept that distracts humanity from tackling common constructive objectives. See: http://globalaffairs.ru/number/n_1564.

[iii] Seventh Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Qian Qichen stated that the world is still in a transitionary phase, and that the new model had not yet been completely shaped. However, an outline of international relations with one superpower and several great powers locked in relations of mutual dependency and strife has already emerged. This is the starting point of the system’s evolution to multipolarity. See Suisheng Zhao. Beijing’s Perceptions of the International System and Foreign Policy Adjustment after the Tiananmen Incident. / Suisheng Zhao (ed.), Chinese Foreign Policy. Pragmatism and Strategic Behavior. New York: East Gate Book, 2004, p. 142.

[iv] Dugin A. G. Theory of a Multipolar World. Moscow, 2013, pp. 16–19.

[v] President Vladimir Putin quite eloquently expounded this view of the world in his speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 2, 2017, “To reiterate, there are not so many countries that have sovereignty. Russia treasures its sovereignty, but not as a toy. We need sovereignty to protect our interests and to ensure our own development. India has sovereignty… However, there are not so many countries like India in the world. That is true. We should simply bear this in mind. India is one such country and so is China. I will not enumerate them all: There are other countries, too, but not many.” http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54667

} Page 1 of 5