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The Coming Multipolar World?

It occurs to me that when I posted on the National Intelligence Council's Mapping the Global Future exercise I managed not to discuss the report's main theme -- that economic growth in India and China along with the broadening and deepening of the UN are going to create a world 15 years from now in which the US is still preeminent, but less preeminent. We're looking, in other words, at the coming multipolarity. I'm not sure how useful it is to pretend to know what future economic growth trends in China will be, but assuming the general form of the predictions is right, I still find the analysis somewhat confused.

First off, we ought to broadly distinguish between the economic and the military realms. As you can see in this draft (PDF) of Dan Drezner's forthcoming Who Rules?, in purely economic terms the world already is multipolar. The "great powers" of global economic regulation are the players with very large domestic markets, to wit: the United States and the European Union, with Japan counting as a kind of second-tier player. When these actors agree, everyone else must follow. When they disagree, coordination fails to emerge. The growth of China and India will alter this dynamic somewhat, but since the US is already non-hegemonic it can hardly end American hegemony. Now if you did get a standoff between a US-EU "Western" bloc and a Japan-China-India "Asian" bloc, that would be interesting. But it's pretty hard to see why that would happen. The main possible change in dynamic I can see is that maybe a combination of the US (or the EU) with Japan and China and India would have enough market power to muscle over the EU (or the US) and produce a uniform result, whereas under present conditions a split like that would simply remain a split. Maybe.

In military terms, I think there's also less here than meets the eye. As India and China get richer, their militaries will grow more powerful. But it's not as if the American military is so powerful right now that we can credibly threaten to invade China or India (or the EU, for that matter). American global military supremacy simply doesn't take the form of giving the ability to just muscle anybody around. In practice, only fairly ramshackle nations like Serbia and Iraq can really be subdued by the force of our conventional arms. Nothing about Sino-Indian growth is going to change that. What makes us special is basically that we have a unique ability to deploy our power on a global scale. The United States is nowhere near Serbia or Iraq, and yet that fact has done little to nothing to hinder our ability to beat those countries in wars. Where we're having serious problems in Iraq, the sheer distance still isn't relevant to the problems. Nothing about Sino-Indian growth is going to reduce our capacity to deploy power globally, nor will it degrade our already pretty poor abilities in the field of post-conflict reconstruction.

The only possible change here would be if China or India were to somehow acquire the ability to deploy power in this manner. That would certainly have important results, but it's hard to see it happening. The gap right now between Chinese and Indian military capacities is huge and, in fact, growing. China is nowhere near acquiring a large fleet of aircraft carriers, for example, and as far as I can tell no one even thinks they're trying to acquire one. What's more, the United States has a global network of military bases and other facilities. China not only has none, but doesn't seem to me to have any ability to acquire one. I've been reading Man, The State, and War and the excerpts of A Theory of International Politics included in Neorealism and Its Critics lately, but this seems to be one area in which regime type clearly does matter. Barring some radical change in the nature of the Chinese polity, no country in, say, South America is going to host PRC military facilities in the way that South Korea and Japan do in East Asia.

At best, China and/or India might acquire greater military capacities vis-à-vis their neighbors. But looking around the scene, it's hard to see dramatic shifts here, either. Mostly, China neighbors India and vice-versa. If either engages in a big military buildup, their armies will probably be geared toward fighting/deterring each other and nothing will happen. The only live issue I can see here is that maybe China could acquire the capacity to credibly threaten an invasion of Taiwan. Since that seems to be the real question on the table, I think it's worth addressing directly, which the NIC report doesn't. Instead, they have a vague allusion to Japan needing to choose between strategies of balancing China and bandwagoning with it. But what is the content of this Sino-Japanese conflict supposed to be? And what is China supposed to be able to threaten to do to Japan that it can't already threaten (i.e., launch nuclear missles at it)? I'm not an enthusiast about paranoid "must encircle China" theories of 21st century security policy, but this is in part because it would be so damn easy to do if it really became necessary. You've got a potential democratic Asia coalition anchored by India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan joined by others as circumstances permit and underwritten from afar by the USA. China's got nothing but access to outdated Russian military equipment.

As I see it, the only real reason to think there might be a retreat from US unipolarity (insofar as that's really what we've got, as I noted above the list of countries we can't really go to war with is quite long and involves the majority of the world's population) is that we might not want to continue dedicating such a large portion of our economy to the Department of Defense. Expenditures on Social Security and public sector health care are both certain to rise as a proportion of GDP, and expenditures on education are likely to do so as well. That money will have to come from somewhere. My guess is that it won't all come from higher taxes, some of it will come from the military taking a smaller share of the national economic pie. As to how much smaller, I won't hazard a guess. By 2020, probably not enough to generate qualitative change in our global power-projection capacity. Further down the road, very probably.

The main thing to worry about, I think, is not that putative rivals will grow too strong, but that potential friends won't be as strong as they could be. American military spending should probably shrink over the medium to long term. It would be nice if that didn't just result in a global anarchy. If the other rich democracies spent a sum somewhere between what they're spending now and what we're spending now, then the overall capabilities of the free world would be enhanced, the burden on America lessened, and we could have a more even sharing of the decision-making, less crazy overreactions on our part, less resentments and blowback from elsewhere, and a bunch of other good stuff.

But I don't really believe in long-term forecasting, so take this all with several grains, etc., etc., just thought I'd throw my two cents in. For all we really know, China will suffer a massive political upheaval between now and 2020, or the United States will be forced into a debt default, or aliens will arrive, or the Middle East will be dominated by a belt of dynamic Shiite democracies, or God knows what else. Weird and wacky stuff happens, and it's all pretty unpredictable. Nobody I'm aware of sat around in January 1990 and accurately predicted what things are looking like in 2005.

February 2, 2005 | Permalink


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» It's All Semantics, Isn't It? from The Defeatist
I would have found this post by Matthew Yglesias far more interesting (and perhaps more relevant) if it had been entitled, "The Coming Bi-Polar World." [Read More]

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Tracked on Feb 3, 2005 5:10:11 PM


I just posted a piece that touches on the rapidly changing global landscape and the end of the "unipolar moment."

"On the Wrong Side of History"

This is a follow up to an earlier piece:

"The End of the Unilateral Moment: Five Global Challenges for a New American Internalism"

Posted by: Jon | Feb 2, 2005 12:05:19 AM

I'd say the only thing you don't address here is the possibility of the EU developing the ability to project their military might at least regionally. (ie: the middle east)

Posted by: Asteele | Feb 2, 2005 12:07:02 AM

"...aliens will arrive..."

We already have.

Posted by: Mr. Grey | Feb 2, 2005 12:15:17 AM

From an ethnic standpoint, the world is still pretty unipolar. The 1 billion whites in the world 915% of world population) earned about $27 trillion of the world's $51 trillion GNP (54%), and, due to the year-by-year cumulative effect of such a high group GMP, actually control about 70% of world wealth.

The only challenge comes from the East Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan), who, seen as a meta-ethnic group, comprise around 1/4 of the world's population (1.6 billion people) and about 1/4 of the GNP in 2004 (around $12 trillion).

The other major ethnic groups in the world are still far, far behind (Southeast Asians, South Asians, Arabs, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.

So, from an ethnic economic standpoint, it is a unipolar world that might become bipolar in a couple of decades or might not, but I don't see a third group emerging as a serious member of the club for a long, long time.

Posted by: anon | Feb 2, 2005 12:22:18 AM

Many of the theories about fearing China center around China's relationship with a weakening Russia, which you don't really mention, with China either having designs on its underpopulated but oil-rich Asian provinces. As China continues to grow and global oil resources continue to be stretched, could a more aggressive seek to fill the power vacuum left by the U.S.S.R. by laying claim to Siberia or at the very least make Russia a satellite of sorts?


Posted by: Sean | Feb 2, 2005 1:35:10 AM

This report is a little goofy. It states that:

"Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and South Africa also are poised to achieve economic growth"

Russia, yes, Indonesia and Brazil, maybe a little, but South Africa is poised for nothing much beyond collapse.

Posted by: anon | Feb 2, 2005 1:51:24 AM

Poor South Africa...it probably would have fairly good prospects for growth if it weren't for the AIDs epidemic. Its government, though, is really trying to do whatever it can to help the country's economy. And it's done okay. South Africa will probably muddle through. It won't have phenomenal economic growth, but it can be expected to, at the very least, do better than other sub-saharan African economies and, perhaps, compete with the growth rates of developed world economies. I certainly wouldn't say its on the brink of collapse.

Posted by: Sean | Feb 2, 2005 2:07:14 AM

Is it me or has multipolarity recently been promoted from simple chiracian-gaullist-whydotheyhateus lunacy to a topic worth discussion?

Posted by: yabonn | Feb 2, 2005 4:23:56 AM

OK, 15 years, but what about 25... or 50... or 100. Matt is right that it's awfully hard to predict the future, but I'm cautiously optimistic that much of Asia at least will become substantially more productive and richer over this time period. So I see it as inevitable that China and India will be huge players on the world stage, and the US will be, proportionally, smaller.

This is one of the reasons I'm so vexed with the current administration's policies towards international institutions. Yes, they're often a joke. Yes, they've become a safety valve for third world anger. Yes, they're not accountable. Whose fault is that? Ours. We built these institutions and we ought to be working hard to make them accountable and to build something that reflects our values (I mean, our true and enduring values) and our interests. Our lack of respect for the UN et al. may in part be justified but it just makes matters worse. It's true that the Europeans don't help us out much here (they seem to think it's ok to empower unaccountable political structures) but maybe they would if we actually made it clear that we would work with them to empower these institutions if they work with us to make them accountable.

End of vent. The point is, when India and China take the place of Europe and America, it would be awfully nice if they were engaged in a network of international institutions they saw as in their own interests that also served ours.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Feb 2, 2005 7:51:54 AM

The 20th century has been called the American Century because we went from a frontier nation to the major world power during that time. Whose century will this be? Will it be that of China or India or Russia? (Never make the mistake that so many others have fatally made of underestimating the Russians. Russia may be a backward nation but Russians are not a backward people.)

It’s interesting that the idea that the U.S. may become “less preeminent” was the driving force behind the Necons hidden agenda that is currently being exercised in Iraq. Rather than stand on the sidelines and watch the U.S. loose its current preeminence, they seem to want to go in and blow the whole thing themselves.

Posted by: scout29c | Feb 2, 2005 8:23:44 AM

Well, simply an excellent post.

1) One might presume that China understands its position, and will attempt hegemony etc via soft power and economic influence. We are seeing this already in ME, Africa, and I think a little in South America.

"The 20th century has been called the American Century because we went from a frontier nation to the major world power during that time."

2) IIRC, by the time of the Civil War, the US was the number one steel & iron producer in the world, and dominant in int'l sales of railroad engines, as an example. Tho by choice we were not militariy dominant 1850-1950, and so less politically influential in a direct sense, I think our economic power is consistently underrated for that period. It might be useful to study say 1875-1925 for ideas on how China-East Asia will act during the next couple of generations.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 2, 2005 8:37:07 AM

My guess is that it won't all come from higher taxes, some of it will come from the military taking a smaller share of the national economic pie. As to how much smaller, I won't hazard a guess. By 2020, probably not enough to generate qualitative change in our global power-projection capacity. Further down the road, very probably.

Interesting piece, Matt, which I'm going to re-read slowly when I have more time. I think the excerpt of your words above pretty much sums up what's been going on with US defense spending, over the long term, for nearly half a century. I expect that to continue. The US can still have a kick-assingly strong military while spending an ever-diminishing portion of national output on defense, so long as its economy grows robustly. In fact, I can't think of a better way to muck up US prosperity and economic prospects than a long term, sharpish increase in the percentage of GDP taken by the Pentagon.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Feb 2, 2005 8:58:26 AM

Man, the State, and War
Theory of International Politics
Neorealism and Its Critics

Wow, Matt, you must have some time on your hands. Otherwise, I can not see why you would want to read those works. Simply put, they say very little about anything in practice (other than anecdotely).

Also, Man, the State, and War is better than TIP. And if you want to drive yourself mad, read Richard Ashley's piece in Neorealism and Its Critics.

Posted by: Me | Feb 2, 2005 9:05:18 AM

I think in the middle you hit on it. The US is likely to remain unchallenged in terms of global power projection. But China (and perhaps India and the EU) are likely to achieve equality in their neighborhoods. RIght now, it's a unipolar world because not only in the US the only country with credible power projection capabilities, we can project enough power to (with any regional ally) destroy the military of any country in the world.

In 25 years or so, that's probably not the case. China would be able to defend themselves against us, and fight to a draw or a victory in a war in Taiwan or Korea. Whether this is something that we really need to worry about i sopen to question.

Oh, as far as other flashpoints with China, I believe there are also some islands to the north of Japan that are disputed between the two countries. Not sure it's enough to start a fight over, but IIRC some lucrative fishing rights are involved.

Posted by: Doug Turnbull | Feb 2, 2005 9:32:44 AM

So deficits really don't matter and gross mismanagement cannot significantly adversely effect the preeminence of the US.

Whatever the military power of the US in comparison to the rest of the world, the continued misallocation of American resources adds uncertainty to the next 15 years. The rest of the world will not have to play catch-up if the American political leaders are determined to make poor investments.

Posted by: Todd | Feb 2, 2005 10:37:23 AM

"If the other rich democracies spent a sum somewhere between what they're spending now and what we're spending now, then the overall capabilities of the free world would be enhanced, the burden on America lessened, and we could have a more even sharing of the decision-making, less crazy overreactions on our part, less resentments and blowback from elsewhere, and a bunch of other good stuff."

Yea, let's encourage Germany and the rest of Europe rearm. That's what we need.

Personally, your views in my opinion are why Dems are losing ground so much.

Posted by: Chad | Feb 2, 2005 11:10:29 AM

I'm curious why Matthew thinks that the US will have to decrease its relative spending on defense while simultaneously (i) thinking that China and India will be able to materially increase their defense spending and (ii) hoping that the EU will be able to moderately increase their their defense spending.

Posted by: Al | Feb 2, 2005 11:14:27 AM

Matt, I think you're mis-reading the world economically. The American Dream is worn out. The Europeans are trying to build their own, and will probably succeed. The Chinese, well, being who they are, are going to dominate SE Asia culturally. India has never had such ideological power or ambition, being a mishmash of states itself. China, even more than the US, could care less about the international order when it doesn't serve its needs, and would hardly have built the current one if it had the choice. And it does consider that it has the choice (unlike India for example). What the West needs to realize is that with China in the fore, the Westernization of the world is over. The Chinese have never accepted and never will accept Western values, and the peoples of the surrounding regions will kowtow as they always did (more or less), while Americans continue to argue if evolution exists. America might have military power, and economic power, but it does not have cultural power any more except by virtue of a vacuum that is rapidly being filled. The American Moment is over.

Posted by: Momentous | Feb 2, 2005 11:26:09 AM

Matt, about what china can do to threaten japan....

The USA has been pressuring japan to handle more of its own defense. And so japan now has a navy that's almost the strength of one US fleet, of which we have five. Meanwhile china has been building a strong "whitewater" navy, that can hope to be strong with support from chinese land-based aircraft etc. As they get that working they can then build a navy that can extend their reach further. Presumably that will result in an arms race with japan, though the japanese might accept US guarantees instead of continuing to sink money into their navy. If the chinese navy got strong and we didn't build up strength to oppose them (maybe they wouldn't loan us the money to?) and neither did japan, they could control the water around japan. Of course they'd let everything through, but they wouldn't have to. Maybe Japan would take up the slack.

The immediate result is that US influence in the region declines. The japanese don't like having nuclear-armed US warships in their harbors. The stronger they are the less they have to tolerate it. Their reluctance doesn't have to be completely overt, and would not be at first.

When the chinese fleet is locally stronger than one US fleet, we don't look like such a threat when we visit south korea. We could send two fleets, or strengthen the seventh fleet. But then, the more independent the japanese feel the less certain we can be that in a fight they wouldn't join the other side. In a way it's silly to consider such things among nuclear powers, but admirals think that way. How far can we intimidate people with MAD?

Would japan develop nukes? They could do it quick if they wanted to. While they're our dependency and we promise to nuke their attackers, they won't.

If it turns to japan or china or both dominating the china sea, it's still a regional power that can stop us in that region. South korea would need to make peace with one or both of them, or try to play them off against each other; we wouldn't be much help. Similarly taiwan. Maybe vietnam etc. You were saying china has nothing but access to outdated russian equipment -- but they have access to a lot of our best stuff. They've been buying select US companies and getting our IP. Their electronics are catching up; they can move faster and skip steps. Our navy is based around aircraft carriers to project force, theirs is built around missile cruisers to kill carriers etc.

Meanwhile our ability to *afford* a world-dominant navy is decreasing. A few weeks ago I talked with a naval contractor whose budgets were getting cut 10% to free up funds for the war effort. He supplied aircraft carriers and they were getting reduced maintenance etc. Well, but we *could* budget more money for the military. Couldn't we? I dunno. Johnson tried to fund vietnam and his "war on poverty" at the same time and fudged the numbers; he got weird economic problems from it leading to Nixon's price freezes etc. Maybe Bush is trying it a different way by running a war on the cheap.

Looking back this doesn't look as coherent as I'd like and I'm not ready to revise now. I hope it makes sense enough.

Posted by: J Thomas | Feb 2, 2005 11:26:37 AM

Good post.

The short form is: "The world is already multipolar, except for the US's unique ability to project offensive force, which is overrated."

When I read the 2002 National Security Strategy, that was more or less my reaction. The last two and a half years has just confirmed it.

The whole dittohead ultra-nationalist thing is really just anger in having to come to terms with this. The US public has been told they are ultra-powerful for so long that it burns to find out it is all exaggerated.

The irony is that US interests would be better served if the rest of the world understood how limited US power is.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 2, 2005 12:29:57 PM

China has one main strategic ambition: reunification with (or "liberation" of) Taiwan. All of their military planning is focused on this goal -- and countering any potential American military defense of the island.

I don't see them as having any other extra-territorial ambitions. They did once try invading Vietnam, but that didn't turn out very well, and it's doubtful that they'll attempt it again.

Should North Korea launch a desperation attack on the South, they will do so without Chinese assistance. I also doubt that a combined US - South Korean counter-assault would provoke a military response from Beijing, given the deteriorated state of relations between China and North Korea.

If I had to predict what would happen in China over the next 20 years, I would expect that a gradual liberalization of the mainland economy, coupled with continued rapid growth, will parallel a slow-motion democratic revolution. Eventually, China will be communist in name only -- and even that might change.

As China liberalizes, the possibility of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, along the lines of Hong Kong and Macau, will become more likely. Hopefully, this will happen BEFORE the mainland is too tempted by the military option.

The most likely option for Taiwan would be a gradual political re-integration, while maintaining a seperate economic model -- just like Hong Kong. But this will remain impossible as long as China remains rigidly authoritarian.

If China's economy should suddenly collapse, however, all bets are off.

I don't see any reason why China and India should become military rivals. They really don't have any major conflicting interests, aside from a minor border dispute in the Himalayan region.

India's main military focus has been, and will remain, Pakistan. This conflict will likely remain at the low-intensity level, with occasional flare-ups. I doubt very much that the conflict will ever go nuclear, but the possibility is there.

The main rivalry between these two giant nations will continue to be economic. Both are seeking to expand their market influence in Southeast Asia, and right now China appears to be in the lead.

But I wouldn't count India out just yet.

Posted by: SMASH | Feb 2, 2005 12:35:34 PM

With regards to EU versus US defense spending, it is true that the US is squandering a tremendous amount of money in defense.

However, the EU is squandering a tremendous amount of economic growth with regulations and taxes. French GDP growth last quarter was 0%, along with a nearly 10% unemployment rate.

The extent between the US and EU GDP growth is about a 1% difference - EU GDP growth rates look about 1.5% to 2%, US GDP growth rate is 3% to 3.5%. This will add up over time.

I think if the US chilled out militarilly, the US could add another 0.25% to 0.5% to its GDP growth.

Posted by: Mr. Econotarian | Feb 2, 2005 1:07:13 PM

Excellent post.

Your concern over whether other rich democracies will take on greater responsibility for their own security is deserved. A few paragraphs before that worry, you explained why they won't: they've tied their economy to the geriatric welfare state. It hardly seems advisable for the U.S. to do the same. While I could understand reductions in the U.S. defense budget, surely the bigger cuts must come in Medicare/Medicaid. As the Washington Post points out today, we're slowly but inexorably shifting dangerous volumes of wealth to the older folks. When you consider the long-term risks of this strategy vis-a-vis military preparation (again, think Europe, unable to police its own backyard, let alone engage in force projection further afield) wouldn't a responsible Democratic approach countenance some cuts to these programs? I elucidate here: http://gscobe.blogspot.com/2005/02/multipolarity-in-aging-world-in-course.html

I would also note that when the Bush administration proposed shifting the security burden to "rich democracies" in South Korea and Germany, with U.S. force redeployments, the move was met with widespread criticism - from Kerry among other Democratic notables.

Either way, excellent post.

Posted by: Gregory Scoblete | Feb 2, 2005 1:48:04 PM

India is slated to acquire a blue-water navy within a decade or two, giving them dominance of the Indian Ocean, which though they already possess, must be safeguarded from an ever-growing China. It will also complete, for the most part, their nuclear triad option. It's unclear exactly how much China spends on defense expeditures each year, but India's consistent expense of about 3% of GDP has been consistent for some time, and given their grown rate is most certainly sustainable.

Posted by: Neil | Feb 2, 2005 3:04:04 PM

American military spending should probably shrink over the medium to long term. It would be nice if that didn't just result in a global anarchy. If the other rich democracies spent a sum somewhere between what they're spending now and what we're spending now, then the overall capabilities of the free world would be enhanced, the burden on America lessened, and we could have a more even sharing of the decision-making, less crazy overreactions on our part, less resentments and blowback from elsewhere, and a bunch of other good stuff.

I'm just wondering if the architects of that report actually see that as a good thing. Maybe they are thinking our "allies" in Europe WILL become strong militarily and start obstructing us in ways they see fit. Not out of the realm of probability.

Posted by: Adrock | Feb 2, 2005 5:02:52 PM

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