• Unipolarity is used to describe the power structure when one superpower dominates alone.  Unipolarity in international politics is a distribution of power in which one state exercises most of the cultural, economic, and military influence.

Three features characteristics of Unipole:

  • Unipolarity is an interstate system and not an empire. Unipolarity implies the existence of many juridically equal non-states, something that an empire denies. In empires, inter-societal divide-and-rule practices replace interstate balance-of-power dynamics.
  • Unipolarity is anarchical. Anarchy results from the incomplete power preponderance of the unipole. A great power cannot exert a positive control everywhere in the world. Therefore, relatively weaker countries have the freedom to pursue policy preferences independent of the unipole. The power projection limitations of the unipole is a distinguishing characteristic between unipolar and hegemonic systems.
  • Unipolar systems possess only one great power and face no competition. If a competitor emerges, the international system is no longer unipolar. The United States is the only “pole” to possess global interests.

USA as Unipole after Cold War:

  • The end of the Cold War meant that the previous decades’ superpower rivalry now had ended. There was no longer the “traditional” East vs. West conflict.
  • America’s victory in the Cold War in 1989 resulted in a new role that it had to play in international politics. In fact, the United States, due to the effectiveness of its capitalist system and since it had propelled in fostering the economic recovery of its allies in Western Europe and Japan, it had also achieved great status as the worlds’s only superpower.
  • Even during the Cold War years, when American power was rivalled by that of the Soviet Union, the United States considered itself as the superior power and, therefore, the leader of the world. But the urge for a leadership role, the maintenance of its position as the “number one power” and “the sole remaining superpower”, sometimes compared to that of ancient Rome, has become much more pronounced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were no real challengers to their hegemonic position. This allowed greater room for the superpower to maneuver and to get involved in international issues that not necessarily coincided with national interest.
  • After the Cold War, the 1990s saw the longest economic expansion in modern U.S. history. Originating in U.S. defense networks, the Internet spread to international academic networks, and then to the public in the 1990s, greatly impacting the global economy, society, and culture.
  • Beginning in 1994, the U.S. participates in the world’s largest trade bloc in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), linking 450 million people producing $17 trillion worth of goods and services.
  • The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled the Untied States to extend its security umbrella to Central and Eastern Europe and thereby consolidate its influence over Europe as a whole. The fears of Russia on the east and the united Germany on the west led the three Central European countries viz. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, to hold a meeting in Visegrad, near Budapest in February 1991 and demand a closer integration with West European security organisations. In December 1991, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) created a new institution, viz. North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as an interim arrangement until it was able to fulfil the desire of erstwhile adversaries in Central Europe to join NATO as new members, or got security guarantees from it.
  • The structure of power in the international system determines the role of institutions. NATO, for example, is often cited as an institution that has outlived its original mandate—preventing a Soviet onslaught of Western Europe. NATO’s continued existence conveniently “illustrates how international institutions are created and maintained by stronger states (e.g., the United States) to serve their perceived and misperceived interests.”

Why other great powers decided not to balance against the United States after the Cold War ended?

  • Realist predictions of power balancing did not bear fruit because the United States engaged in strategic restraint after World War II, thereby convincing weaker states that it was more interested in cooperation rather than domination.
  • U.S. strategic restraint allowed weaker countries to participate in the make-up of the post-war world order, which limited opportunities for the United States to exploit total power advantages. While the United States could have unilaterally engaged in unfettered power projection, it decided instead to “lock in” its advantage by establishing an enduring institutional order, gave weaker countries a voice, reduced great power uncertainly, and mitigated the security dilemma. The liberal basis of U.S. hegemony—a transparent democratic political system—has made it easier for other countries to accept the post-war order. American hegemony is reluctant, open, and highly institutionalized—or in a word, liberal and short of large-scale war.
  • A key to U.S. pre-eminence is “command of the commons—command of the sea, space, and air.”

Is Unipolarity Peaceful?

  • Unipolarity is peaceful because it favors the absence of war among great powers and comparatively low levels of competition for prestige or security. This idea is based on hegemonic stability theory and balance of power theory.
  • Hegemonic stability theory stipulates that “powerful states foster international orders that are stable until differential growth in power produces a dissatisfied state with the capability to challenge the dominant state for leadership. The clearer and larger the concentration of power in the leading state, the more peaceful the international order associated with it will be.”
  • Balance of power theory stipulates that as long as the international system remains unipolar, balance of power theory creates peace. Therefore one pole is best, and security competition among the great powers should be minimal. Unipolarity generates few incentives for security and prestige competition among great powers.
  • Though great power war is impossible in unipolar world but unipolar systems provide incentives for two other types of war: those pitting the sole great power against a relatively weaker state and those exclusively involving weaker states. This type of war was endemic in Cold War. The United States has been at war for thirteen of the twenty-two years since the end of the Cold War. The first two decades of unipolarity, which make up less than 10 percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation’s total time at war.
  • Democracies seldom fight democracies. But democracies are more likely to initiate wars against non-democracies because the former believes the latter must become democratized so as make the democratic peace more robust. Thus, the spread of democracy can decrease the amount of war in the world.
  • Economic interdependence promotes peace. But this causal logic is backward: Peace can promote economic interdependence. Peace abounds when a political monopoly on force, or a favorable balance of power, prevents revisionist powers from altering the status quo. After all, strong economic interdependence did not prevent war in 1914.

American Military Primacy:

  • From the period of the 1980s to the present, the United States maintained its global military supremacy by financing its military-industrial with financial deficits going into the billions of dollars or 4 % of the GDP. In fact, the United States outspent the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into bankruptcy.
  • By the end of the Cold War, the United States had put up the tab for most of the military operations in the unipolar era. For example, in Operation Desert Storm, (Gulf War 1991) the United States paid about over $60 billion while the hegemon coerced its allies to pay at least $54.6 billion. Japan, Saudi Arabia and Germany contributed to the operation. 
  • The United States has also led in financing most of the cost in other military operations such as Restore Hope in Somalia, Allied Force and Iraqi War.
  • The United States’ defense spending is “close to half of global military expenditures; a blue-water navy superior to all others combined; a chance at a splendid nuclear first strike over its erstwhile foe, Russia; a defense research and development budget that is 80 percent of the total defense expenditures of its most obvious future competitor, China; and unmatched global power-projection capabilities.
  • The United States is the only country in the early 21st century that possesses the ability to project military power on a global scale, providing it full command of the global commons. It is the only country that can deploy substantial amounts of military power virtually anywhere even in the face of armed opposition and keep it there for an indefinite period. More important to note is that even though the United States is currently in a serious deficit of more than $1.3 trillion, the United States can continue to sustain military operations for the long term. Even if the the United States, goes through a recession, it can assuage these economic shocks by levying taxes on the corporations and the upper classes. Such recurring to levy taxes to alleviate the effects of the economic recession occurred in the aftermath of the American victory in the Gulf War. George H.W. Bush sacrificed his presidency for not fulfilling his promise to not raise taxes. Second-tier powers such as China, Britain or even Russia would not be able to sustain military operations for two to three years without its economies suffering a pneumonia and being forced to withdraw for economic reasons. Even into the 21st century, the United States continues to outspend its second-tier powers.
  • Command of the commons is the key military enabler of the United States of the U.S. global power. At present time no state seems able to challenge the USA militarily. One of the reasons is that the USA is in a geographically advantageous situation compared to other countries. Relevant challengers like China, Japan, India, and Russia hold less favorable strategic positions as they are amidst more multipolar regions.
  • The overspending on defence that supersedes its rising competitors is done with the intention to prevent the rise of other powers like India, the European Union and China.
  • In today’s post-Cold War era, NATO only exists as a means to legitimate every American military action such as the one saw in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. Allies are needed to legitimate a particular course of action or to provide overseas facilitates. The continued existence of the North Atlantic Organization (NATO) was put into serious question with the demise of the USSR in 1991. Between 1989 and 1991, NATO’s mission changed from preparing to deter a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe to fighting terrorism drug trafficking, stalling ethnic cleansing in Europe (Operation Allied Force 1991) and curbing the illegitimate behaviour of dictators (Libya Operation in 2011). Europe continues to look to the United States for leadership in the alliance. 
  • The unipole has a great ability to pick and choose among different alliance partners. The hegemonic state obtains commitments from secondary states to participate within the post war order, and in return the hegemon places limits on the exercise of its power.
  • USA is engaged in certain Neo-Conservative impulses to maintain American hegemony. Bush(Senior) Administration formulated a policy that attempted to sustain American geo-political dominance well into the 21st century. This policy was called the 1992 Defence Guidance. The policy called for the sustenance of a military force, so powerful that it would discourage the rise of any other power.
  • In essence, during the unipolar era, America’s new mission reflected the main military philosophical precept of the Powell Doctrine, which was to intervene only when America’s interest were at stake, when the international order (i.e.-prevention destabilization in certain geographic regions) is threatened. Unfortunately, the Powell Doctrine failed to survive in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Second Gulf War of 2003).

Soft Power hegemony and Identity Crisis:

  • America’s projecting of soft power through culture such as music,food, sports, and the material desires that many people in the cold war wanted access to also resulted in a negative self-esteem to the people of the developing world. The material abundance and popular culture of the United States also resulted in ambivalence of theses peoples of both admiration for American culture and values, and also resentment against their governments for not providing them with access to these things that Americans possessed. Materialism and resentment of these peoples, since they could elicit social change in their countries, prompted them to emigrate to the United States either legally or illegally during the 1990s. Hence, one can say that American unipolar soft power is the cause of identity crisis to many people living abroad.

Economic Implications of Unipolarity:

  •  The United States has both benefited and suffered from being a leader of the economic liberal order. The destruction of both the Western European and Japanese economies after World  War II permitted the victorious Americans to assist these economies to revive themselves, but at the same time, also dictated a new international political system.
  • United States has played two roles.The roles of the United States has created, maintained, defended and expanded a liberal economic order to serve economic and national security interests.The other role of the United States has its status as a superpower in obtaining goods and resources, such as oil.
  • However, although the United States is a major economic actor on the planet, its predominant show of strength, such as the U.S. Dollar, and its marketable economic products, such as cars and foodstuffs, America does not have that same economic leverage thanks to globalization, the economic rise of the People’s Republic of China and the rise of the Euro.
  • America emerging as one of the leading superpowers after World War II also came with certain responsibilities. Great powers have system maintenance responsibilities, whether the system is an international political order or the world economy. From the inception of the Bretton Woods system in 1945, which established the U.S. Dollar as the main international exchange, America has utilized its knowledge of economics and democratic values to create institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. United States utilized its economic power to save other nations from falling into the abyss of economic disaster, but also it has violated the economic sovereignty by legal extraterritoriality in punishing foreign firms.
  • The United States, during the Cold War and during the unipolar era, had three occasions had to intervene to save the world from a financial meltdown. During the 1980’s, as a result of the economic recession of the United States and neo-liberalist, Latin American economies plummeted and became engulfed in serious debt. Countries like Mexico and Argentina owed more that $300 billion which resulted in further devaluation of the the peso (both Mexican and Argentine). The loans that saved these economies from further disaster led further neo-liberalism, more austerity policies from these countries and the U.S. dictating how these. countries should pursue its economic destinies. Another case has been the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which also affected the economies of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia. Mexico, for the second time, had to be also rescued from further peso devaluation. Despite the U.S. economy reaching record decifit rates, the U.S. Dollar remained strong enough to rescue these ailing economies.
  • Another positive aspect of the U.S. economic primacy brought in a new era of globalization. In order for this to become a reality, the United States had to develop the Internet and create a spirit of interdependence among nations. Although a double-edged sword, globalization has fostered the creation of two free trade economic zones. These zones are the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union. The creation of these free trade zones have fostered prosperity and peace amongst the countries of South America and Europe.
  • Coercing other states to adhere to American economic policies was not the only weapon that the United States chooses to use to maintain the current system. In addition to reccuring to extraterritorial enforcement of the current international political economic system, the United States has utilized financial international institutions to coerce countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and some Asian countries to practice neo-liberalism at the detriment of their own citizens. The Clinton and Bush Administrations used American backed institutions like the IMF and World Bank to force liberalization and free trade. A small group of banks and economists, known as the Washington Consensus, championed neo-liberalists and austerity measuses that this group believe maintain freedom, democracy and maintain capitalist economies afloat in these regions of the world.Instead of injecting recovery in these economies, aggravating debt and continued social disparities in these countries has put American-style capitalism in serious question.

Geo-political Implications of unipolarity:

  • As America’s status of being most powerful on the planet, the United States began to demonstrate its arrogance and greed in attempting to protect their interests. A great example of this occurred on three occasions: Operation Desert Storm, the military operations in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. America, instead of propping democracies and redeveloping their infrastructure, it was installing the usual puppet inept rulers that do not enjoy popular support in their respective countries.
  • American unilateral motions have resulted in geo-political implications that is threatening its status as a unipolar power. Military operations during the late part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st Century has made nations think twice in perpuating the behavior of the United States. Revisionist states, coupled even with America’s allies, have utilized institutions to constrain American military power. The United States may continue to act its own way, but can no longer get its own  way.
  • Most importantly, USA have realized that hard balancing or military balancing the hegemon is costly, unproductive and not very sensible.
  • The most important act of weak states or second-tier powers has been to soft balance´against the unipole. Balance of power and realist theory also contend that states balance for survival and for maintaining political independence from the hegemon. Soft-balancing measures do not directly challenge a unipolar leader’s military preponderance, but they can delay, complicate, or increase the cost of using that extraordinary power. Forms of  soft balancing´include foot-dragging, buck-passing, free-riding and even playing brinkmanship against the hegemon. Other forms have been to deny use of territory just like Turkey did when it denied access to its territory or when both Russia and China failed to support operation Allied Force (Kosovo Operation). Therefore, soft balancing´is one of the options that certain states take in checking the power of the unipole. China is the only country on the planet that is close to balancing the United States militarily and economically.
  • Second-tier powers have used international political institutions to taint the image of the United States. The rules, norms that constitute the current international climate are thus especially resistant to the unilateral use of superior capabilities to drive outcomes. In today’s era of globalization, America needs more than ever the help of its allies. It cannot go to war or be successful without their collaboration. The list of global problems that America cannot resolve on its own will only continue to grow, thereby enhancing the need for, and benefits of, institutionalized cooperation over the long run.´Furthermore, not following or respecting these institutional traditions that the United States founded in 1945 will also put into doubt the reputation of these institutions.

Geo-economic implications of Unipolarity:

  • American global hegemony has caused serious geo-economic implications. The September 11th attacks against the economic global financial center, coupled with tax cuts and fighting two wars, has shocked the economic health of the United States. If the United States benefited greatly from globalization in the 1990’s, it has also suffered some economic setbacks due to its policies that have backfired and put America in a recession.
  • In addition to America’s increased expenditures on defense and its tax cuts for the wealthy, the unipole is hell bent on borrowing and living beyond its means. The world’s sole superpower and biggest national economy is addicted to borrowing and consuming . At the same time that foreign economies, mainly in East Asia, are addicted to lending and exporting.Therefore, interdependence and foreign direct independence has constrained America’s foreign policy agenda by making it more dependent on imports and debt holdings on foreign governments. Currently, both Japan and China hold bonds that total over trillions of dollars in U.S. debt. The United States has already found itself constrained geo-politically by not just the debt holdings that China possess on America, but also has leverage over U.S. geo- political intentions within China’s sphere of influence.
  • USA will worry about the intentions of stronger states and therefore, will pursue policies that will assist the weaker states in surviving. USA will form economic coalitions and pursue other policies to benefit them more than the dominant state attempting to coerce other states into following its policies. 
  • Blocs within both Latin America and Asia are attempting to pursue and search for alternatives to the American system of economic and social development for the respective regions. Other than forming financial blocs, states can inflict pressure on the unipole through financial means. For example, the European Union, with integration of 28 economies, has utilized the Euro to compete against the U.S. Dollar on the world market.
  • Finally, foreign direct investment and free trade, which initially was thought to generate economic growth, has backfired and made the United States more dependent on foreign goods. For example, foreign companies based in the United States has affected its national government to freely pursue certain foreign policy goals. Foreign owned companies can put America’s economy into detriment by withdrawing its investments should the governments of these companies feel that America’s policies do not concur with that of the other governments.

How long world will be unipolar?:

  • With no great power to check its adventurism, the United States will weaken itself by misusing its power internationally. Wide latitude of policy choices will allow the U.S. to act capriciously on the basis of internal political pressure and national ambition.
  • Second, even if the United States acts benevolently, states will still attempt to balance against it because the power asymmetry demands it: In a self-help system, states worry not about other states’ intentions as they do other states’ capabilities. Unbalanced power leaves weaker states feeling uneasy and gives them reason to strengthen their positions.
  • Balance of threat theory states that states or countries will attempt to balance against dominant states or powerful states. 
  • According to structural realists, unipolarity is unstable because it is progressing toward multipolarity, as other powers will seek to break the hegemony of the superpower. The strongest is never enough to always be master. Even though the superpower can restrain this development, at least in the short run, the power will eventually be weakened as a consequence of dominating other states. The USA has as an example, tried to clinch hegemonic power by keeping 100,000 troops stationed in Asia and Europe. By guaranteeing the safety of its allies, the USA has subdued the need for security for other states. This has prevented these states from participating in an arms race. However, the dominance is costly, and has limited the USA’s economic growth. In the longer term this will decrease U.S. power because other states do not have the same costs.
  • China as already beginning to counter U.S. power. U.S. unipolar moment is fleeting and multipolarity is already materializing.
  • This also depends on what kind of engagement (primacy or selective engagement) and what kind of hegemony (unilateralist version of hegemony, or a liberal, multilateral version of hegemony) USA possess. U.S. command of the commons (command of the sea, space, and air) provides a strong case for selective engagement. Bush Doctrine was problematic because it not only created unease among U.S. allies, but also caused others to ally against the United States. Securing the commons through selective engagement is a superior strategy because it is cost effective, it secures U.S. interests, and makes the nearly omnipresent U.S. military tolerable because it provides security guarantees to other nations.
  • In essence, America continues to yield economic and military power well into the 21 st century. Yet, the unipole faces serious difficulties when dealing with current and future threats.The United States is currently suffering from a recession and simultaneously, states since the advent of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is going to a major decline in projecting its power. Unilateral policies such as America’s incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan and lately, into Pakistan to finally liquidate Osama Bin Laden have resulted in the straining of relations with NATO countries. Unipolarity is likely to be short-lived because new great powers will emerge as the uneven growth process narrows the gap between the hegemon and the eligible states that are positioned to emerge as its competition. Therefore, unipolarity,is in the process of returning to a pre-World War II multipolar system and the United States being only a dominant hemispheric power.

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