WS 502 Polarity & Warfare Chad KOHALYK


Polarity & Warfare

A weak attraction
As the Cold War progressed and states worldwide aligned themselves with the world’s two new superpowers, academics pondered whether a new kind of stability had arisen in the aftermath of the Second World War. While filled with tension, the Cold War seemed to put a damper on the outbreak of conflicts around the world. Influenced by the rise of systemic theorizing in the social sciences political scientists asked if the landscape of the international system, contoured by massively powerful states, could be the determinant of conflict. Heavenly bodies orbiting one another can be analyzed, and interactions predicted, by mathematical equations and laws of physics. Could an understanding of international structural geography aid in the forecasting of state outcomes and the ability to predict war and atrocity? It was a lofty and difficult question to answer that lead to a debate over the general stability of systems with numerous great powers versus systems with only two powers, reflective of the international environment at the time. Political scientist Kenneth Waltz threw oil on the fire in the early 1960s by suggesting in the face of overwhelming tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, that the world was headed for a "stability seldom known" to last throughout the 20th century. He argued that the propensity of war was determined by the number of great powers, i.e. poles, in the system. 1 The debate over the the stability of bipolar or multipolar systems flared dur1 2

ing the 1960s and 1970s, but was left unresolved. Empirical evidence was anything but conclusive. Though after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, polarity and stability became a major topic of inquiry once again. With only one superpower remaining how would other states in the international system react? Would balance-of-power politics require them to align themselves against the United States, or could the United States maintain it’s “Unipolar Moment”? Beyond Realism In his 1979 book Theory of International Politics Kenneth Waltz proposed that the interaction of states could be explained through a system-level theory. Waltz shifted focus from the behaviour of individual states and concentrated on their actions in relation to their position with other structural elements, or countries of varying national power, within the international system. Waltz posited that the international structure constrains the actions of states, thus outcomes of state interaction can be predicted by an understanding of the make up of the system. Structural realism, or neorealism, shares the main assumptions of classical realism: states are unitary, rational actors within an anarchic international system seeking security and acting in their own self-interest. Structural realists argue that since anarchical systems are devoid of an all-powerful actor that commands obedience from other actors, states must look

out for their own security. Survival is dependent on preventing the rise of one state or coalition of states from being able to subordinate others. States therefore must be sensitive to changing capabilities of other states as a matter of survival, and must strive to counterbalance changes in relative power by either expanding their own capabilities or forming coalitions. Thus the international system has a predisposition to balanceof-power behaviour among its actors, characterized by the never-ending recurrence of balancing equilibria. While classical realists such as Machiavelli argued that balance-of-power politics was a strategy to pursue, neorealists differ only in perspective by saying that the balancing of power is a natural mechanism of the international structure. As time progresses and balance or near-balance of power between dominant states within a system is achieved, structural realists argue that the actions of states will become more aligned. Waltz suggested that this phenomenon is evidenced in the similar structural placement of the Soviet Union and the United States resulting in the convergence of their armament policies, military doctrines and conduct of interventions. This principle could also be applied to foreign policy choices other than war such as free trade, which would not occur if the powerful states in the system chose protectionism. Structural realism is a wide-ranging research program from which a large variety of theories and explanations of foreign policy can be developed. In the case of the foreign policy choice of war Waltz argued that polarity alone could explain the level of instability in the world. His suggestion in 1964 that the world was bipolar and therefore stable was very controversial, and led to a number of attempts to attack or defend his position. Size matters The identification of “Great Powers”, or poles in the international system, was a matter of common sense during the Cold War. Kenneth Waltz noted that “since the Treaty of Westphalia, there have never been more than eight great powers.”2 But in asking the question “How many poles is best?” political scientists had to decide on a definition of what makes a pole. Measuring state power with any intention of precision is

Kenneth Waltz. “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” Daedalus 93, 3 (1964). p.901 Ibid. p.901

WS 502 Polarity & Warfare Chad KOHALYK


a decidedly difficult task. Although for the purposes of determining poles within a system it is not necessary to rank states in an ordinal fashion, but only to identify the greatest powers. Waltz proposed that under the conditions of bipolarity, no third power would be able to challenge the top two. He also went on to argue that to qualify as a pole a state must be measured in terms of size of population, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence. Ted Hopf pointed out that military strength “is the resultant of the other six elements, not an equivalent part of a bundle of power.”3 He simplified criteria when examining the distribution of power in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, basing polar status on the just three characteristics: population, government revenue and military power (in terms of soldiers and ships). Hopf calculated the totals of each characteristic and attributed pole status to actors who held a disproportionate amount of power within the system. The top two states in the system, the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, counted for more than 50% of the system’s population, economics and military power.

Similar techniques have been used in other studies. It is important to note that great powers must score well on a number of attributes, whereas would-be great powers will be characterized by an uneven distribution of attributes. North Korea may be able to field the largest military in the world, but that does not make it a superpower. Two to tango A bipolar system is characterized by two relatively equal powers, each maneuvering to gain power over the other while simultaneously countering the opponent’s moves for power. Elimination of the other power may be an option, if the risks are calculated to be acceptable. Other actors may be present, but are either nonaligned and do not threaten the two dominant poles, or are too weak militarily to tip the balance of power in one way or another. Both great powers will compete for smaller powers to join their bloc or prevent them from joining the enemy bloc. In bipolar systems hostility between the two dominant powers is particularly pronounced, contributing to an extreme “them and us” attitude, and “each great power possesses a relatively clear set of beliefs about its limitations and the origins of its problems.”4

Advocates of bipolar systems contend that since the nature of bipolarity means there is an equivalent distribution of power, competitor powers must monitor closely any and all events that may change the power equilibrium, and strive to maintain stability. System poles become vested system managers in the tiniest of world affairs, intent on limiting conflicts within their sphere of influence so that they may not affect the balance of power vis-a-vis their competitor. Also, with such a small number of managers problems prove to be easier to administer. Bipolarity proponents argue that recurrent crises will substitute outright warfare, therefore lowering the instances of war and instability across the globe whereas multipolar systems offer more potential for conflict. Such a balance is illustrated historically in the confrontations of Rome versus Carthage and the United States against the Soviet Union. The more the merrier Proponents of multipolarity argue that “peace by crisis in bipolarity structures is, at best, a dubious and perhaps very dangerous manner of conducting policy.”5 Bipolar systems by their very nature are zero-sum, and thus more prone to conflict. Due to the proliferation of power over a number of poles hostility between powers will be less intense. States must spread their attention across numerous competitor states, thereby lessening the chance for an arms race, a condition that bipolar systems are particularly susceptible to. The most prominent challengers to Waltz’s bipolar argument, Karl Deutch and J. David Singer, contended that the number of possible interactions between poles increases disproportionately to the number of poles in the system, represented by the equation N(N-1)/2, where N is the number of countries in the system. 6 This indicates the existence of numerous coalition possibilities and a flexible balance-of-power system, which while may lead to sporadic conflict between subsets of states, will not produce an extreme build-up of tension in the system as a whole.

Figure 1: Distribution of Power in Bipolar Europe, 1521-59 Population State millions Habsburg Empire Ottoman Empire France England Venice TOTAL Average 30.4 21.0 17.0 6.0 1.6 76.0 15.2 % 40 28 22 8 2 100 20 ‘000 62 (200+) 74 (200+) 32 (20) 31 (100) 12 (100) 211 (620+) 42 (124) % 29 (32) 35 (32+) 15 (3) 15 (16) 6 (16) 100 (100) 20 (20) M, ducats 8.5 9.5 5.0 2.1 1.5 26.2 5.3 % 32 36 19 8 6 100 20 Soldiers (Ships) Revenue

Source: Ted Hopf, “Polarity, Military Balance & War,” American Political Science Review 85, 2 (1991). p. 480

3 4 5 6

Ted Hopf. “Polarity, Military Balance & War,” American Political Science Review 85, 2 (1991). p. 478 Patrick James. “Structural Realism and the Causes of War.” Mershon International Studies Review, 39, 2 (1995). p. 184. Manus Midlarsky. “Hierarchical Equilibria and the Long-Run Instability of Multipolar Systems,” Handbook of War Studies (1990). p. 63 Karl Deutsch and J. David Singer. “Multipolar Power Systems and International Stability.” World Politics, 16, 3 (1964). p. 394-5.

WS 502 Polarity & Warfare Chad KOHALYK

Figure 2: Instability in Europe Frequency and severity of wars during 15-16th C. Severity (deaths per war-year) 11,000 10,000

Tripolar systems are ideal since the third power can play a balancing role preventing conflict. A third emerging superpower that chooses not to enter into alliance with either of the dominant powers is in the position to reap the benefits of good relations with both main powers in the form of concessions. Alternatively, if two of the three superpowers are considered “emerging” they may ally against the dominant power and the system would quickly degrade into a bipolar system. Stable tripolar systems are not readily evinced in history as they are tricky to maintain. Some suggest that nearing the end of the Cold War China played the role of balancing third power between the United States and the Soviet Union. 7 Definitely maybe Empirical evidence clearly supporting either bipolarity or multipolarity as more stable has remained elusive. Historical research has produced only mixed results. Ted Hopf’s examination of 15th and 16th century Europe found that the bipolar era of 1521-59 dominated by the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires was only marginally more stable than that multipolar era between 1495-1521, as influenced by Austria, England, France, Spain, the Ottoman Empire and Venice. In the multipolar era there were 26 discrete wars, averaging 27 months in duration and totaling 58 war-years. The bipolar years had 26 wars, averaging 28 months for a total of 59 years. Hardly a significant variance. 8 Michael Brecker compared four distinct 20th century systems and found that 20 percent of conflicts that occurred were in the multipolar period (19181939), compared to 24 percent in the bipolar period (1945-1962). Manus Midlarsky on the otherhand maintains that Thompson (1986) and Levy (1985) illus-

Polarity Type

Freq. (%)

Multipolar 1495-1521 Bipolar 1521-59

63 53

Source: Ted Hopf, “Polarity, Military Balance & War,” American Political Science Review 85, 2 (1991). p. 478-9,

trate bipolarity “to be decisively more stable than multipolarity.”9 Patrick James points out a number of other studies with conflicting findings, and notes the interesting results of Charles Ostrom and Joan Aldtrich (1978) who found that “the probability of war to be ‘moderately large’ with two poles, minimal with three, greater with four and five, and drastically lower with six.”10 This suggests that the relationship between the number of poles and level of stability may be curvilinear, with war more likely at both very low and moderately high levels of polarization.
Figure 3: Curveball Possible propensity of conflict in relation to number of poles in the international system

Meanwhile, Richard Rosecrance, searching for some middle ground, suggested that multipolarity was associated with a higher frequency of war and bipolarity with greater severity. Waltz argued back that in nearly all cases of bipolarity relative peace prevailed, and that multipolarity inherently contained instabilities that were likely to lead to very severe wars. 11 All this confusion has lead some theorists to question the effect of system elements on conflict propensity in the first place. Jack Levy assembled a list of great power wars between 1495 and 1975 using data from the Correlates of War Project12 and analyzed three indicators: (1) frequency of war in a given period, (2) magnitude or total number of years of each war; and (3) severity of each war in terms of fatalities. He concluded that it was not the number of poles in the system, but the differences in power between great powers that accounted for instability. 13 The finding that differences in distribution of power leads to a higher chance of conflict seems to have been generally accepted, but unfortunately did not end the debate: Manus Midlarsky countered with the argument that inequalities between poles are far more likely under a multipolar system and thus bipolarity is a more stable international structure. A time and a place No study as yet has resulted in undeniable evidence for one theory or the other. Studies into the effects of polarity are faced with difficult methodological problems and challenges. Firstly there is the problem of geography, not only in the sense that most of the historical data in the literature is Eurocentric, but also in that it has the potential to obscure regional patterns within the system. For example, in a multipolar system a few states might be partaking in a majority of wars, skewing the data for the entire sys-

# Poles →

7 8 9

John T. O’Rourke. International Politics on the World Stage (1999). p. 62

Hopf, p. 487.
Midlarsky, p. 63. James, p. 186. Midlarsky, p. 63. Correlates of War Project. Online, Jack S. Levy. “Size and Stability in the Modern Great Power System.” International Interactions (1984). p. 349.

10 11 12 13

WS 502 Polarity & Warfare Chad KOHALYK

Figure 4: The Player’s Club Nuclear stockpiles US Russia UK France China Israel India Pakistan North Korea 10,640 16,000 200 350 400 (?) 200 110-150 200 13-15 (?)

tem and hiding the fact that most of the powers experienced few wars. 14 Secondly, finding comparable cases in different chronological periods is exceedingly difficult not only due to change in technology, but also the lack of available sources. Comparing the bipolarity of the Soviet Union and United States dominated system to the system of Rome and Carthage is tough when one must discount nuclear weapons and cannot make use of accurate sources on population, GDP, armed forces and severity of wars in terms of accurate battledeaths. The alternative is to look at regional as opposed to global systems within a similar timeframe, but this raises questions regarding the hierarchical interactions between regional and supra-regional polar systems. The actions of regional polar states are not only constrained by their local competitors, but also by their supra-regional pole. This is an influence that does not affect global poles, rendering any comparison suspect. The presence of nuclear weapons themselves is a challenge when examining the historical stability of bipolar systems. In 1964 Kenneth Waltz asserted that nuclear weapons consolidated bipolarity in the Cold War by making the two strongest states still more powerful, but since bipolarity preceded the two-power nuclear competition, the weapons themselves could not be credited solely with the stability of the international system. He argued that the build-up of conventional forces would have simply replaced nuclear detente. 15 There is no doubt that a conventional arms race was both possible and probable, but the bipolar stability that lasted out the Cold War was affected deeply by policies based specifically on nuclear stockpiles and "mutually assured destruction." Even current policy is being determined by the proliferation and construction of nuclear weapons. Nothing like this existed in the past. Thus comparing the nuclear age with ages gone by necessitates a stretch of the imagination. Lastly, the rise of intergovernmental organizations since the mid-19th century proves a troublesome asymmetry when comparing different historical periods.

cally diminished as power was dispersed to a number of other centers including Europe, Japan and China. It seemed the first multipolar system was upon us in a half century. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer argued differently asserting that the world was not becoming multipolar, but unipolar:16
There is today no lack of second-rank powers. Germany and Japan are economic dynamos. Britain and France can deploy diplomatic and to some extent military assets. The Soviet Union possesses several elements of power – military, diplomatic and political – but all are in rapid decline. There is but one first-rate power and no prospect in the immediate future of any power to rival it.

Source:, Jan 2005

IGOs are more than just alliances between states for security purposes or otherwise, yet lack all the distinct power characteristics of states. By their very nature they possess only a one-sided attribute of power, whether military, political or economic.Intergovernmental organizations cannot be considered as great powers in the strict sense of possessing superior "population, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence." Even so, they do have an effect on the interactions between great powers. The United Nations proved an invaluable forum for communication between the US and the USSR, helping them to achieve the equilibrium necessary for the "peace by crisis" maintained throughout the Cold War. Institutions such as these did not exist in previous bipolar periods; yet another hurdle for historical comparison. Thus, in the face of such methodological obstacles, the polarity debate seemed to trail off in the late 1970s. Then came a new development, and the polarity of the system changed completely. One is the loneliest number The post-Cold War era brought hope that the threat of war would be dramati-

With nearly one third of the world's GDP, the third largest population and a military force that far outstrips any possible competitor it is evident that the United States is the world's sole superpower. Waltz's condition of bipolarity, that no third power would be able to challenge the top two, could be applied appropriately to the current international structure, except in this instance there is only one power. Of course there still remain a number of other great powers in the post-Cold War system. Regional systems may contain a number of poles. But if conflict were to get out of hand, spreading and threatening the global interests of the United States, disagreements will be settled by intervention on behalf of the superpower. Ultimately the system is unipolar. Unipolar systems are rare in history: only the ancient Roman, Mongolian and Chinese empires controlled all or most of the established societies in the known world. Unipolar systems are considered transitional stages in international structure: the rise of new powers is only a matter of time. Waltz and others predicted that a multipolar system would materialize early in the 21st century, within 10-20 years after the end of the Cold War. 17 Unipolar systems obviously lack great power war, but are characterized by

14 15 16 17

James, p. 189. Waltz, p. 885-6, 907. Charles Krauthammer. “The Unipolar Moment.” Foreign Affairs 70, 1 (1990/91). Michael Mastanduno. “Preserving the Unipolar Moment.” International Security 21 (Spring 97). p. 53.

WS 502 Polarity & Warfare Chad KOHALYK
Figure 5: Poles du jour Abridged list of world powers State USA China India Russia Japan Source: The Economist Population millions 288.5 1294.4 1041.1 143.8 127.5 Armed Forces (Reserves) ‘000 1414 (1259) 2270 (550) 1298 (535) 988 (2400) 240 (47) GDP $bn 10383.1 1266.1 510.2 346.5 3993.4


poses is "soft balancing" through the United Nations Security Council. Despite recent blows to its international legitimacy, it is likely that the dominant position of the United States will remain beyond the original forecast of Waltz and others. Moderately attractive results The relationship between the number of poles and level of conflict in a system remains obscure. There may be subtle effects on the equality of power distributed across poles, thereby affecting stability indirectly. After decades of theorizing, researching and arguing a conclusion has not been attained. Was it all for naught? Not at all. Although structural realism has had a harrowing time trying to explain international conflict in system level terms, it has influenced other areas of international relations theory, having a profound impact on the development of its main rivals: liberalism and constructivism. Besides the ongoing discussion about the stability of unipolarity, the polarity debate has also lived on in another lively form as power transition theory. The future of stability in the international system may be unforeseeable but as Nobel laureate Sir William Bragg once noted, "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them."

"small wars" such as interventions as well as background conflicts of a mostly domestic nationalistic or ethnic nature. Krauthammer argues that the only challenge to the solitary pole, and thus threat to the stability of the international system, is the "weapon state." Weapon states are those that do not possess power across a spectrum "in terms of size of population, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence," but in fact lack most of these characteristics. They pursue nuclear weapons as a way to "leapfrog history" in order to be able to challenge a so-called Western-imposed order. 18 These states could in no way survive a nuclear stand-off, and consider nuclear capability as a way to deter an intervening conventional force, so prevalent in the post-Cold War world. Of course there is an added fear that weapons states may pass technology or knowledge onto non-state actors to carry out attacks, and hopefully elude retribution. Intergovernmental organizations play an interesting role in this new unipolar world. Kenneth Waltz's assertion that "the skillful foreign policy ... is designed to gain an advantage over one state without antagonizing others and frightening them into united action"19 could be applied to the United States vis-a-vis its international legitimacy as threatened by the organizing principle of IGOs in trying to balance the weaker many against the stronger one. Michael Mastunduno encourages the US to play a delicate game of "balance-of-threat" politics and not "succumb to the arrogance of power" in order to maintain its unipolar status. "It is ironic that in a unipolar setting the
18 19 20

dominant state, less constrained by other great powers, must constrain itself."20 Thus far the 10 to 20 year lifespan of the "unipolar moment" has held firm. China, America's most feared potential near-peer competitor still has substantial development to undergo before it may challenge the US. India, currently a close ally of America, is much further behind China in terms of economic and military power, and although the remilitarization of pacifist Japan seems imminent, it is unlikely that Tokyo would balance against America in the foreseeable future. The leaves Russia, who scores high on population, number of troops and stockpiled nuclear weapons, but whose floundering economy is still trying to comes to terms with the free market, and shake off the incapacitating effects of communism. The only threat Russia
Cited Works

Karl Deutsch & J. David Singer. “Multipolar Power Systems and International Stability.” World Politics, 16, 3 (1964). The Economist, Pocket World in Figures (2005). Ted Hopf, “Polarity, Military Balance & War,” American Political Science Review, 85, 2 (1991). Patrick James. “Structural Realism and the Causes of War.” Mershon International Studies Review, 39, 2 (1995). Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment.” Foreign Affairs 70, 1 (1990/91). Jack S. Levy, “Size and Stability in the Modern Great Power System.” International Interactions (1984). Michael Mastanduno, “Preserving the Unipolar Moment.” International Security 21 (Spring 97). John J. Mearsheimer, The Trajedy of Great Power Politics (2001). Manus Midlarsky, “Hierarchical Equilibria and the Long-Run Instability of Multipolar Systems,” Handbook of War Studies (1990). John T. O’Rourke, International Politics on the World Stage (1999). Kenneth Waltz, “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” Daedalus 93, 3 (1964). Correlates of War Project. Online, Online,

Krauthammer, p. 31. Waltz, p. 884. Mastunduno, p. 85.

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