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The Coming and Going of the Unipolar World

Coral Bell *

Paper presented at the Australian Defence College,

Weston Creek, Canberra
16 April 2007

The unipolar world; that is the world of unchallenged US paramountcy in the society of
states, was with us only rather briefly—for approximately 10 years, from January 1992 until
September 2001. The first of those dates, the beginning of unipolarity, marks the dissolution
of the old Soviet Union at the end of December 1991, and the emergence of a much weaker
Russia, and 14 other sovereignties, from its ruins. The second date, obviously, marks the
traumatic challenge, by a non-state actor, not only to US power, but to the entire global
structure of which it was the paramount power. That traumatic challenge came not only from
a 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 else
could have anticipated the way in which that moment would end. The journalist concerned
was a neo-conservative, and there were others among that ideological group who believed
unipolarity could be made to last much longer, maybe even forever, by Washington’s
discouraging other sovereign states from attaining any real equality of power (especially
military power) with the United States.

For the first eight months of 2001, before 11 September 2001, that aspiration had looked
almost possible. China was, and still is, a long way from being able to even consider a
military challenge. Russia, though still in possession of a vast nuclear strike-capacity, was
then in such a state of internal malaise that it seemed likely to take decades to recover. The
European Union and Japan, though both economically powerful, had no reason to try to
match the United States militarily. Both had lived comfortably enough under the US nuclear
umbrella, 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 a
member of the Australian Diplomatic Service. She was awarded an Order of Australia (AO) in 2005. Dr Bell's
research interests are mainly in crisis management and the interaction of strategic, economic and diplomatic
factors 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 was co-published
by The Diplomat magazine and Sydney-based Longueville Books, and her monograph Living with Giants (a study
of Australian policy in a changing world power-balance) was published as a Strategy paper by the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in April 2005. She also authored a chapter entitled 'The International System and
Changing Strategic Norms' in Ball and Ayson (eds), Strategy and Security in the Asia-Pacific, Allen & Unwin,
Melbourne, 2006’.

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The intelligence services of the Western powers knew quite a lot about bin Laden and the
jihadists. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) indeed had supported him with weaponry
after 1979, because of his role in the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They
had been conscious, moreover, ever since the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in
1983, that the US presence in Muslim lands was a source of Islamist rage and resentment.
There had been an attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and an attack on the
USS Cole in Aden Harbour, Yemen in 2000. But very few people, even in the CIA, then
believed that the jihadists’ capabilities could ever match their ambitions. So they did not, as
was said after 11 September 2001, ‘connect the dots’.

Thus the foundations of the unipolar world seemed, to many people at that time, strong
enough to sustain it for a few decades. The rise and rise of US paramountcy had then been
going on for more than a century, from the time of the war with Spain in 1898, and in all
those 100-plus years, was hardly met with a check. Early in the 20th century, the United
States overtook Britain in naval power, and after 1945 it was very much the dominant
economic power in the world, only rivalled by the European Union until the rise and rise of
China and India very late in the century. And its diplomatic clout of course reflected its
economic and military ascendancy. So, in 2000, one could say that the unipolar world rested
on three apparently very sturdy pillars: US unequalled military capacity, its long-sustained
economic ascendancy (then also unrivalled), and its worldwide diplomatic clout.

The story of the years since is the story of how those three pillars have become eroded
rapidly, especially over the last four years. I will talk about the demographic and economic
changes later, but the most surprising aspect of the change was to me on the military side,
and I know that must be of most professional interest to you, so let us look at it first.

In retrospect, high noon for US military ascendancy was clearly at the time of the Kosovo
Campaign of 1999. The Europeans (who had originally claimed that they were the natural
crisis-managers for the long-running Balkan crisis) were obliged to acknowledge their
continuing dependence on US power by needing to call in the United States Air Force
(USAF) to induce Serbia to take its troops out of Kosovo, a small province of only about
2 million people, which should have been quite manageable by the Europeans themselves.
The USAF bombing in Serbia forced Slobodan Milosevic to the conference table in about
8 weeks, without a single casualty among its air-crew, even though Serbia had considerable
air-defences. American capacity looked invincible, and the Europeans ridiculously weak. This
was particularly the case for the Russians. Serbia had been their old ally, and a fellow-Slav
Orthodox protectorate from earlier centuries. The policymakers in the Kremlin did make a bid
of sorts for influence on the outcome, but it came to nothing much. China too was beginning
its rise to diplomatic influence as well as economic stardom, but was not then expected to
have much influence outside East Asia.

The Gulf War of 1991 had already created on impression in the world that victory in hostilities
would inevitably go swiftly and almost without cost to US power, especially for the USAF, and
Kosovo seemed to confirm it. So as I implied earlier, as the new century opened, American
paramountcy in a unipolar world looked to many people as if it might last forever. A few
policymakers, mostly in the Pentagon rather than the State Department or the CIA, felt that it
could and should be made to do so. You can see a hint of that in the National Security
Strategy of the United States of America ( of
September 2002.

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Those of you who are interested in US military doctrine, and I guess that is most of you,
might like to consider the probability that those previous 10 years, 1992–2002, of almost
unbroken military success for US forces, must have been a contributing factor in Donald
Rumsfeld’s decision to mount the invasion of Iraq with what many US generals thought from
the start were seriously inadequate land forces, and with no apparent consideration of the
needs of the occupation, as against the initial drive to Baghdad, which as I am sure you all
remember took only three weeks, and led the President to proclaim victory, in effect, at the
beginning of May 2003, four years ago, from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. But that
was actually just the beginning of the asymmetric war, which has been with us in Iraq and
Afghanistan ever since.

As there are already whole libraries of books about what went wrong in Iraq, I will not linger
on that point. We need also to consider the years of the mostly bipolar balance of power, the
years of the Cold War, from 1946 to 1989, and why they ended as they did, in a period of
unipolarity. Some commentators are rather given to forecasting a new Cold War, a bit later
this century, between the United States and China, and I want to explain why I do not think
that to be likely. Basically it is because the next balance of power will be multipolar which,
although more complex than a bipolar balance, will allow for more diplomatic adjustment.

The reason I say that the military balance of power in the world was mostly but not always
bipolar during those 43 years of the Cold War was that China sometimes added an element
of tripolarity to the balance, by swinging this way or the other. For the first nine years after
Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, China defined itself as a close ally of the Soviet Union,
so in those years there was no ambiguity in its stance. However, in 1958 Mao began to
quarrel with Nikita Khrushchev, who at that time was Josef Stalin’s successor at the Kremlin,
so the Sino-Soviet alliance really began to fall apart after only eight years. The reason they
quarrelled was very significant as it was over basic strategy in the Cold War, which indicates
that Mao’s views were already then for more hawkish than those coming from Moscow.

At the time there was (as usual) a crisis in the Middle East, and (as later) it concerned regime
change in Iraq. In 1958, there occurred the first military coup, the one which removed the
Hashemite constitutional monarchy, installed by the British (mostly Winston Churchill and
T.E. Lawrence) way back after the First World War. It was run at the time by an individual
called Nuri Pasha al-Said, who had actually ridden with Lawrence, but he and the monarchy
were butchered by the new military autocracy. The United States and Britain were so worried
by what was happening that they sent troops to Lebanon, and the British went into Jordan. At
about the same time, there was another crisis going on in the Pacific, in the Taiwan Strait,
over two little islands—Quemoy and Matsu—which are very close to the mainland, but are
still held by Taiwan, even now, 50 years on.

What happened back then was that Mao wanted Khrushchev to take some vigorous action in
the Middle East, but Khrushchev, who understood much better the significance of American
nuclear superiority, refused, very sensibly, to do so. In terms of the then existing Sino-Soviet
alliance, this meant that Moscow began to understand that it had a rather dangerous ally in
China, and Mao became resentful that Moscow was not going to take any risks on behalf of
China’s interests. So the alliance decayed little by little over the next 11 years until, by 1969,
Beijing and Moscow appeared close to hostilities—over a small border island called Zhenbao
(which the Russians call Damansky).

And at that point, there appeared in Washington a new and resourceful foreign policymaker,
Dr Henry Kissinger, who actually understood how to manage the balance of power, and the
strategy of détente as a mode of swaying it in the direction you wanted it to go. So, first he
constructed a détente with the weaker of Americas two potential adversaries—China—
starting with a visit to Beijing in 1971; then came a détente with Moscow in the mid-1970s. By
then, the balance was trilateral, and Washington was on better terms with Beijing and

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Moscow than either was with the other. Yet, as I am sure you all remember, by 1974, Nixon
had been removed from power over Watergate, and his successor, Gerald Ford, had only a
year or so to go. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected.

The crisis over Iran, the fall of the Shah in 1979, and the subsequent hostage crisis, so
overshadowed his time that Carter was not really able to do much, despite good intentions
and a senior foreign policy adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has been entirely right about
Iraq. So the central balance wavered a bit between bilateral and trilateral in the next few

But the truly decisive moment for our contemporary world had actually happened in 1976,
though its importance was not apparent for several years. Mao died that year, and was
succeeded by Deng Xiaoping. Mao’s closest associates, the ‘Gang of Four’, went to jail
within a month, and Deng was visiting Washington by 1978, and proclaiming ‘To get rich is
glorious’, a view with which every capitalist can agree. So China actually began its economic
revolution about 15 years before either Russia or India. Out of that Chinese economic
revolution has grown the current close economic interdependence between China and the
United States.

This interdependence is an enormously important factor in keeping the current balance of

power stable, and reducing the probability of a cold war between the United States and
China, along the lines of that which existed between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In fact, it is largely economic and demographic changes which have created the current
global balance. To my mind it is made up of six great powers: the United States, the
European Union, China, India, Russia and Japan, with the United States undoubtedly the
paramount power for the foreseeable future, because it alone has a full quota of all three
varieties of power: economic, military and diplomatic.

The European Union has plenty of economic power and much diplomatic clout because of
that, together with two nuclear powers (Britain and France) and a large number of well-
trained conventional forces within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Yet it lacks
many US capacities, especially in air power, and is clearly unwilling to spend its funds on
acquiring them.

China, obviously, also has a lot of economic power these days. According to Goldman
Sachs, it will be the largest economy in the world by 2042. It is building strategic assets, but
continues to seriously lack things like power-projection capacity, a blue-water navy and such.

India is also growing very fast, both demographically and economically. It will have a larger
population than China by mid-century, and the structure will be more conducive to further
economic growth than that of China. Incidentally, the advent of China and India as the largest
populations and economies in the world is nothing new, historically speaking. According to
economic historians, China and India were probably the largest economies in the world as
late as 1842.

India could be a very valuable ally in Asia, as President George W. Bush seems to have
realised lately, but it has serious vulnerabilities, the enmity with Pakistan, and a very large
Muslim minority. Moreover, the Indian Government will not be anyone’s ‘cat’s paw’. It will be
guided by Indian national interests, which may not always coincide with those of the United

Russia still has a massive nuclear strike capacity, although it is rather ill-kept. It is the only
country that currently could still deliver a really devastating attack on the US homeland,
though only of course at the cost of having its own cities destroyed. It is now growing quite
fast economically, and its assets in gas and oil give it much diplomatic bargaining power,

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especially in the European Union. In some ways Russia seems to me to have more options
in the future balance than any of the other five. To China, it could offer a strategic
partnership, like the old Sino-Soviet alliance, and that would make a large change in the
global balance of power. Alternatively, it could offer the same to India, against China. It
could, however, also define itself as a European power, cultivate the relationship with NATO,
and even negotiate to join the European Union, which would be economically beneficial to
both sides and, strategically, would expand the nuclear powers within the European Union to
three, with one of them—Russia—holding massive stocks. Of course, this would only happen
if the Atlantic Alliance had broken down completely. I will address that possibility in a

Finally, we come to Japan. It is clearly the most vulnerable of the five to the rising power of
China, and is fully conscious of that fact. China has many old grudges against it, dating from
the 1930s. So it clings very visibly to the US alliance. Yet the current Japanese Prime
Minister, Shinzo Abe, seems much less adroit diplomatically than his predecessor, Junichiro
Koizumi, and the Japanese have to reflect that Washington might not always identify its
national interests with those of Japan. After all, until 1949, China was its chosen friend in
Asia. If the US-Japan relationship ever seriously deteriorated, I think Japan might well decide
to have its own nuclear arsenal, and that would cause a crisis in the entire Pacific alliance

Despite all this, Washington’s decisions will remain the most vital factor in world politics. The
leader of an alliance system has to convince the other governments in that alliance that its
strategic choices will be wise and prudent, and will take into consideration the interests of the
rest of that system. You would have to search hard to find many decision-makers in either
Europe or Asia who would currently argue that the Bush Administration has been either wise
or prudent in its strategic choices. The choice of war with Iraq seems to me, as to many
strategic analysts in the United States, one of the most disastrous strategic errors in US
history. It represents a classic case, in my view, of the wrong choice of battlefield, and an
underestimation of the enemy.

Yet there will be new policymakers in the White House by late January 2009, and America’s
allies are carefully scrutinising the alternative possibilities. On the current signals coming
from Washington, Republicans as well as Democrats are retreating rapidly from the
unilateralism and military hubris that marked the years 2002–2004 and led Washington into
Iraq. So, Rumsfeld is gone and his replacement, Robert Gates, appears a model of reason,
most of the neo-conservatives have also left (or are rapidly deserting the sinking ship of the
Bush Administration) and Dick Cheney is under a cloud. The word ‘impeachment’ has been
heard in Congress (from Democratic Senator Russ Feingold), while Republican Senator
Chuck Hagel is bluntly critical of Bush.

The US Secretary of State, Dr Condoleezza Rice, is carefully cultivating possible allies.

Washington has discovered that it needs Russia to help cope with Iran, China to help cope
with North Korea, and the Europeans to help fill the ranks of the NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Once it has decided to cut its losses in Iraq, the first strategic task will be to shore up the
position in Afghanistan, and for that it is clearly also going to need Pakistan, Russia and the
Central Asians. So, whoever is in the White House, he or she is going to need hardworking
people in the National Security Council, and the Departments of both State and Defense.

To get back to the global balance of power, it is already more multipolar than it has ever
been since the 19th century. Since 1905, when the old system began to collapse, the
decision-makers of the great powers have never had a viable, stable multipolar balance to
work in. Only the Europeans (including the Russians) have a sort of institutional memory,
within their foreign policy archives, of how to work such a system to best advantage for their
respective national interests.

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Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the current and prospective decision-makers of the great
powers can emulate, in this 21st century, the success of their predecessors in the 19th
century, who managed to avoid hegemonial war for 99 years. Hegemonial war is the most
disastrous kind, war between the great powers to determine the rank-order between them.
The 20th century saw three such wars—the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War
(which really took the form of a Third World War). It also saw the beginning of the fourth—
what might be termed the Jihadists’ War—a war which is also certainly about the order of
power in the world.

The way by which the people running the world in 1815, after the end of the Napoleonic
Wars, managed to avoid such disasters was that, on the basis of a multipolar balance of
power which was pretty stable until 1870, they erected a Concert of Powers. This was not a
formal legal organisation like the current United Nations, but merely a system of regular
diplomatic consultation between the great powers to settle the crises of the day.

The reason why I think the same kind of system could work for this century is that the basic
distribution of power, on which all such systems rest, is quite similar. Then there were five
great powers, as against the current six, but also two emerging great powers (the United
States and Japan), just as at the moment there are two emerging great powers (China and
India). There were then also, just as now, several marginal or near great powers, whose
interests and calculations had to be taken into account by the great powers. Then they were
the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Spain, and the three other European empires of the time (Dutch,
Belgian and Portuguese). Now they are the emerging powers like Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran,
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Brazil, all of which are either strategically or economically vital
to the great powers. So, altogether, 12 or so major governments are involved, or potentially
involved, in the central dramas of world politics in both periods. It makes, as I said, for a
more complex system; but also for one with more capacity for diplomatic nuances and

The second reason why I am relatively optimistic about the possibility of such a system
working for this century is that all the problems which are going to confront current and
prospective decision-makers come from outside their own circle. In order of immediacy, they
are the jihadists’ war; the problems likely to arise from climate change, which are even
greater, and not much further off; and the problem of nuclear proliferation. All the great
powers have something to fear from the jihadists, all of them have a great deal to fear from
climate-change, and none want to share their nuclear club with newcomers. A common fear
is the strongest kind of diplomatic glue, and these three fears ought to be enough to induce
the great powers to set their own rivalries and grudges ‘on the back burner’ for quite a while.
Note that I am not saying they will forget them; rather that they will be much lower down the
list of priorities. And none of those three common problems is anywhere near a solution.
They will be with the entire society of states for a long time yet and, indeed, at present, the
status of all three problems seems to be deteriorating rather than improving.

Before I finish, I wish to return to a related point. There is another great change in world
politics, which has coincided with the end of the unipolar world. Asian scholars, especially
those from India, call it ‘the end of the Vasco da Gama era’. By that they mean the end of the
era of Western ascendancy over the non-Western world, an ascendancy whose beginning
they date from the voyages of the great Western navigators, Christopher Columbus,
Ferdinand Magellan and da Gama. That era lasted a lot longer than unipolarity—500 years in
fact—from the symbolic dates of 1492 to 2001. During those five centuries, the great
civilisations of the non-Western world (Chinese, Indian, and Islamic) were heavily
overshadowed by the Western powers. And in that era the norms (‘expected and required
behaviour’) of the society were established and written into law by Western rulers and their
lawyers. So we have to ask ourselves, will those norms survive in a society of states so
much less Western in its membership?

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Only time will tell, but I am very optimistic that India and China will adapt fairly readily to most
of them. The basic concept is so old that it is still usually expressed in Latin as ‘cuius regio,
eius religio’ (translated here as ‘the ruler gets to make the rules in his own domain’). This
concept is in fact more cherished in China and many other former Third World sovereignties
than it is in the West, where it has been much eroded by newer concepts like ‘human
security’. But the real problem is reconciling the Islamic concept of the ‘umma’ (the
community, world-wide, of believers) with the traditional concept of the society of states as a
community of basically mostly secular and religiously diverse equal sovereignties. It was
easier to gloss over in the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire could be regarded as the
sovereign political embodiment of Islam, and was made formally a member of the Concert of
Powers in 1856, though it was never really quite a full member of the club.

Finally, to sum up, I think we can see the next landscape of world politics glimmering through
this lingering twilight of the unipolar world. It will, to my mind, be a world of six great powers:
the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, and Japan. The United States
will still be the paramount power, as Britain was for most of the 19th century, but in a
multipolar world, not the unipolar world in which it had no challengers. Always optimistic, I
believe we can see signals from Washington (even in this lame-duck period of the Bush
Administration) that many US policymakers understand this change and are adapting to it.
Unilateralism appears on the out.

As well as the great powers, and the usual assortment of middle and minor powers, there will
be (in a society of states that runs to almost 200 sovereignties, some of which are very small)
as many as 14 emerging major powers. These will be so large demographically and
economically that they will carry considerable clout, diplomatically and strategically.
According to UN demographers there will, by mid-century, 19 or 20 countries of over
100 million people, many of which will be growing fast economically.

There is to my mind a diplomatic technique already flexible enough to cope with this
prospective process of change. It is usually called the Group of Eight (G8), but it can be
incarnated as the G20 (though this is currently only for economic issues, so attendance is
limited to Treasurers). (The most recent G20 Summit was held in Melbourne in November
2006.) China and India have been invited to attend the last few meetings of the more
important G8 as guests. When they have become full members, which would turn it into the
G10, I would regard their meetings as a rough first approximation of a Concert of Powers for
the 21st century. Actually the process by which it has come into being is surprisingly similar to
that which created the old 19th century version. Both began as a Group of Four: Britain,
Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1815, as compared with Britain, the United States, France and
Germany in 1975. If future decision-makers do as well as their distant predecessors, who
avoided hegemonial war for 99 years (1815–1914), the world will have much to be
thankful for.

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