© 2007 The Australian National University
The Coming and Going of the Unipolar World
Paper presented at the Australian Defence College,Weston Creek, Canberra16 April 2007
The unipolar world; that is the world of
US paramountcy in the society ofstates, was with us only rather briefly—for approximately 10 years, from January 1992 untilSeptember 2001. The first of those dates, the beginning of unipolarity, marks the dissolutionof the old Soviet Union at the end of December 1991, and the emergence of a much weakerRussia, and 14 other sovereignties, from its ruins. The second date, obviously, marks thetraumatic challenge, by a non-state actor, not only to US power, but to the entire globalstructure of which it was the paramount power. That traumatic challenge came not only froma non-state actor, but from a newly-potent force in the Islamic, the non-Western, world—a jihadist movement headed by a stateless (originally Saudi) millionaire, Osama bin Laden,under the protection of a group of Islamic militants in Afghanistan.The brevity of those 10 years of unipolarity would not have come as a surprise to the US journalist who first gave the term its currency. He called his article ‘The Unipolar Moment’,and ‘moment’ is an appropriate term for 10 years in history. But neither he nor anyone elsecould have anticipated the way in which that moment would end. The journalist concernedwas a neo-conservative, and there were others among that ideological group who believedunipolarity could be made to last much longer, maybe even forever, by Washington’sdiscouraging other sovereign states from attaining any real equality of power (especiallymilitary power) with the United States.For the first eight months of 2001, before 11 September 2001, that aspiration had lookedalmost possible. China was, and still is, a long way from being able to even consider amilitary challenge. Russia, though still in possession of a vast nuclear strike-capacity, wasthen in such a state of internal malaise that it seemed likely to take decades to recover. TheEuropean Union and Japan, though both economically powerful, had no reason to try tomatch the United States militarily. Both had lived comfortably enough under the US nuclearumbrella, which saved them a lot of defence costs.So, no challenge from a rival great power to US paramountcy.
Dr Coral Bell
was formerly Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex (UK), and earlier amember of the Australian Diplomatic Service. She was awarded an Order of Australia (AO) in 2005. Dr Bell'sresearch interests are mainly in crisis management and the interaction of strategic, economic and diplomaticfactors in international politics, especially as they affect US and Australian foreign policies. Her latest book entitled
A World Out of Balance: American Power and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century
magazine and Sydney-based Longueville Books, and her monograph
Living with Giants
(a studyof Australian policy in a changing world power-balance) was published as a Strategy paper by the AustralianStrategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in April 2005. She also authored a chapter entitled 'The International System andChanging Strategic Norms' in Ball and Ayson (eds),
Strategy and Security in the Asia-Pacific
, Allen & Unwin,Melbourne, 2006’.