A multipolar world has long become a reality. We are already living in a new world order, the contours of which we are not fully aware of. An adequate understanding of the new order requires a clear understanding of what exactly we mean by a multipolar world, and what kind of multipolarity we are dealing with today. This new world can be called “asynchronous multipolarity,” writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev.
Since the late 1990s, the concept of multipolarity has become one of the central ones for the Russian foreign policy doctrine. The multipolar world was opposed to the unipolar hegemony of the United States and its allies on the world stage. Modern international relations were perceived as a transition from the unipolarity slipping out of Washington’s hands to a more just and pluralistic system. Such a system had to be based, on the one hand, on the fundamental role of the UN, and, on the other, on the authority and independence of the leading world powers, including Russia. The idea of a multipolar world was supported by a number of large countries such as India and China. Even Western experts did not reject the very possibility of a multipolar world, considering it as one of the scenarios for a possible future.
The concept of multipolarity in some ways began to acquire the features of an ideal picture of the future world order. Meanwhile, a multipolar world has long become a reality. We are already living in a new world order, the contours of which we are not fully aware of. An adequate understanding of the new order requires a clear understanding of what exactly we mean by a multipolar world, and what kind of multipolarity we are dealing with today. This new world can be called “asynchronous multipolarity”.
The realities of international relations are such that their different segments resemble a new order at different speeds and at different times. A multipolar world cannot simply emerge on a given Monday or Thursday. Some elements of the order coalesce more quickly than others. Today we are dealing with just such asynchronous dynamics. The different rate of change of individual elements of the supporting structure generates friction and resistance. In order to at least partially manage changes, an understanding of their control parameters and development vectors is required.
The concept of “polarity” in international relations entered into academic circulation in the late 1970s. The growth of its popularity was associated with the theoretical developments of the American Kenneth Walts, a major proponent of the neorealist theory of international relations. In the Soviet Union, and then in Russia, the concept also received its development in the form of a structural-system theory. Neorealists assumed that the behaviour of states in the international arena is determined not only and not so much by their respective interests, but by the established structure of the world order. It is the structure that sets the contours of national interests and strategies. In turn, the structure is determined by the distribution of power potential among the major powers.
Depending on this distribution, it is possible to typologise the structure of the international system. It can be unipolar (the concentration of a significant share of power in the hands of one power, with the others possessing relatively limited capabilities); bipolar (the concentration of power in two competing powers with the others possessing relatively limited capabilities, their grouping around two centres of power); multipolar (the concentration of power in a few major powers or their alliances). The strategies of large, medium and small powers in these three different structures will differ from each other. A multipolar structure generates the greatest variability in strategies.
If the world order is determined by the distribution of power, then the question naturally arises: what exactly constitutes this power? Neorealists believed that the concept of power should be reduced to military potential and the ability to ensure one’s military security. If the state does not have such opportunities, then the rest of the achievements can simply be reset in the event of an armed conflict or a crisis in relations with other countries. Therefore, neorealists deliberately excluded questions of the economy or the development of human capital. Subsequently, the experience of the Soviet Union showed that such a narrow understanding of the governing parameters of the world order can be erroneous. The USSR achieved impressive results in terms of military build-up, but collapsed due to a cumulative set of economic imbalances and internal problems.
However, it is clear that no theoretical model can take into account the entire possible set of factors. Every model has a limited set of parameters. But the complexity of the modern world suggests that, in addition to military power, other factors must be kept in mind. Ultimately, defence capability requires a resource base, which in turn relies on economic capabilities and human resources. In some cases, military potential may outpace resource capabilities. In certain emergency circumstances, states are forced to jump above their heads — to build up their military power in spite of resource limitations. In other cases, the resource base may exceed the defence capabilities. Such states have a reserve of resources for further building up their military potential. Modern multipolarity should be assessed taking into account such complexity; the asynchronicity of the parameters of power both in the hands of individual states and in the system of international relations as a whole.
From the point of view of the distribution of military power potentials, the modern world has long been multipolar. We can argue that the United States is still ahead of all other countries combined in terms of its military spending; it has the ability to project its power around the world, and it has the most trained and technically professional army. At the same time, the United States cannot arbitrarily unleash a military conflict against a number of powers without the risk of huge and unacceptable losses. China is rapidly building up its military power; it will be difficult to defeat it even if we don’t factor in nuclear weapons. One can imagine a local defeat of China, but not its total defeat. The conflict with Russia does not promise to be an easy ride either, even if NATO attacks Russia with all its might. Here, a rapid transition from a conventional conflict to a nuclear one is quite likely. In the event of NATO aggression, Moscow will not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons with the prospect of escalating to a strategic level. Even a US attack against weaker adversaries like North Korea or Iran promises serious losses. North Korea may well use its existing nuclear potential, albeit with the prospect of complete destruction after a retaliatory strike. Iran can be damaged by bombing, but occupying the country in the way that Iraq was occupied would cost a lot of blood. Nine of this means that it is pointless for the United States to maintain and build up its military machine.
There is a wide range of political tasks that it can solve quite successfully — from containment to local “surgical” operations. However, on a global scale, it is no longer possible to talk about US military hegemony. Other centres of power are also limited in solving their tasks by military means, especially if large powers stand behind medium or small states. The success of a possible military operation by the PRC to resolve the Taiwan issue is far from predetermined, due to the active deterrent role of the United States. Large-scale military and financial support for Ukraine from the United States and its allies has made it difficult for Russia to meet the objectives of its Special Military Operation. In turn, active Russian military assistance to the Syrian government has effectively blocked the attempts of other external players to achieve their goals in the Syrian civil conflict.
From the point of view of the ratio between military power and its resource base, the modern multipolar world looks even more complicated. The United States is already spending enormous resources on defence. Almost all key military and dual technologies are in the hands of the United States. It has a diversified economy. The current conflict in Ukraine has illustrated the limitations of industrial capabilities to immediately meet the needs of large-scale military operations in Ukraine. However, the Americans have the resources to overcome such a deficit. In addition, the United States has at its disposal significant human capital in the form of an army of engineers and qualified personnel, including those “imported” from abroad. The defence potential of the PRC also relies on a significant resource base, which allows it to be significantly increased if necessary. China lags behind the US in a number of critical technologies, but is rapidly catching up.
Beijing has in its hands a developed industrial base, a sharply strengthened engineering school, and a large number of skilled and disciplined workers. India’s options are more limited, as there are both technological and financial limitations. However, the pace of industrial and technological development, demographic potential and growing human capital make India the most important player of the future. Finally, we should single out several “sleeping” powers that were for a long time under the US military umbrella, which did not have strategic autonomy, and had no incentive for anticipatory military development.
However, the “sleepers” have accumulated extensive industrial, technological, financial and human resources. Here we are talking about Germany and some other European countries, as well as Japan and South Korea. They can afford much more impressive potential in comparison with what they have. The conflict in Ukraine has become a pretext for building up their military potential. It can be strengthened by industrial and technological cooperation within the European Union and NATO, as well as bilateral alliances with the United States.
In Russia, the situation is more complicated. The country has all the necessary natural resources. Its economy remains among the top ten in the world, despite the sanctions. Moscow does not boast the technological capacity of the United States, but it has at its disposal a number of critical military technologies, including nuclear weaponry and long-range missiles. Russia’s greatest vulnerability is its industrial and human potential. Overcoming industrial decline will take time and require colossal will and the concentration of resources. Despite leading positions in the natural sciences, the country is in dire need of engineers and skilled industrial workers. The brain drain of the early 1990s and now the migration outflow of 2022 exacerbate the problem. Here, too, there is the problem of the effectiveness of administrative institutions and corruption still remaining at a high level. “Restoring order” via directive methods and harsh repressions is a possible scenario. But it will be hardly possible to repeat Stalin’s modernisation in the current conditions, despite the widespread revisionist re-embrace of Stalin as a leader. The country simply does not have the demographic resources, ideology, or personnel reserve.
Modernisation through reckless inclusion in Western-centric globalisation has also proven to be a dead end. To maintain its international role over the long term, Russia will need large-scale industrial modernisation based on other principles. The existing groundwork and capabilities will allow it to remain a major military power in the foreseeable future, but the crisis in relations with the West and the conflict in Ukraine will require an ever greater exertion of forces beyond the limits of resource capabilities.
From the point of view of the ratio between defence potential and resource base, Poland and Ukraine have proven to be quite remarkable. Poland is undergoing active militarisation, clearly outstripping the pace of other European NATO members. The big question is how long Warsaw will be able to maintain such a pace solely on its own. As for Ukraine, today the country is largely an externally provided-for military camp, held together by radical nationalist mobilisation. Here the level of militarisation is far ahead of its own capabilities; its human and industrial potential has been undermined by migration and military operations.
Along with the ratio of military power and its resource base, the complexity of the modern world order is also determined by the fact that not only military force can be used as a weapon. It is here that the asynchrony of the world order manifests itself most prominently. If militarily the world became multipolar long ago, then in some other areas the distribution of power potentials is of a different nature.
In global finance, the dominance of US banks and the US dollar as a means of payment and reserve currency still remains high. However, the policy of large-scale financial and economic sanctions has already launched the process of diversifying settlements. Russia is willy-nilly forced to be in the forefront. Moving away from Western currencies is a matter of survival for Moscow. So far, the US and the EU are leaving a narrow “window” for settlements in dollars and euros with Russian counterparties. But the “window”, which has taken the form of a handful of banks that have not yet fallen prey to sanctions, can close at any moment. Sanctions against Russia make other countries think about them, too. What if tomorrow they find themselves in Russia’s predicament? China has long and silently been preparing its financial system for a geopolitical shock scenario.
There is a lot to learn from our Russian colleagues here — the Bank of Russia and the Ministry of Finance did a lot to create an autonomous financial system even before the start of the of the Special Operation in Ukraine. At the same time, there is no revolution in world finance yet. The “world majority”, including China and India, continues to use the dollar and the established algorithms for financial transactions. If in military terms the world has long become multipolar, then in global finance the United States still retains leadership. The global technological presence of the West also remains tangible. Yes, China has made a powerful leap forward, but Western licenses, know-how, critical components and finished products are still present in global supply chains. Given Russia’s large-scale export controls, here, too, one has to be at the forefront of breaking out of such chains. But the “world majority” is also not seeking to abandon them.
Another area of competition is the digital space. Western digital giants have managed to establish themselves as key players in the global networks of digital services. The experience of the conflict in Ukraine has shown that Western digital services can be used to solve political problems. The Russian bet on its own digital platforms is natural and inevitable. China abandoned Western services long before Russia, creating its own digital ecosystem. Both Russia and China can become exporters of “digital sovereignty”, that is, provide third countries with their platforms to diversify existing services. The Western digital giants will retain their nodal positions in the global network, but large holes have already appeared in the network itself in the form of Russia and China.
Finally, we should mention informational influence and “soft power”. Western media have long lost their role as monopolists in the global market, but their role still remains formidable. The distribution of “soft power” is more difficult to assess, as well as the parameters that describe it. It is obvious, however, that the Western infrastructure of the struggle for minds in the form of an education system, exchange programmes, university rankings, databases of publications, and much more remains exceptional. The English language retains its position as a means of international communication, and Western mass culture is ubiquitous, despite attempts at local cultural rebuff. In Russia itself, the conflict with the West has not led to the abandonment of the de facto “Western” way of life, especially since this way of life itself does not have a single set of characteristics; even within the same country (for example, the United States), it can vary from boundless liberalism to strict conservatism.
The bottom line is that we are dealing with an extremely complex model of the world order. From the point of view of military potential, the world has already become multipolar. Key centres of power possess different resource capabilities in terms of maintaining and building up their military capabilities. Here Russia has to solve serious problems connected with its modernisation. At the same time, multipolarity in the field of security is not synchronized with the capabilities of states in other areas. The West continues to exert significant influence on global finance and supply chains. While new poles may not be emerging in the field of digital infrastructure, then at least we are observing the departure of such major players as Russia and China from the global Western-centric digital environment, with the prospect of exporting “digital sovereignty” services. In the field of information and “soft power”, Western influence remains strong, although it is difficult to assess it as “unipolar” due to the variety of components and the ambiguity of their connection with real politics. The asynchronous distribution of power parameters is an important characteristic of the modern world order. The further doctrinal development of the concept of multipolarity necessitates that we take this circumstance into account.