Polarity in international relations

Polarity in international relations

Polarity in international relations is any of the various ways in which power is distributed within the international system. It describes the nature of the international system at any given period of time. One generally distinguishes four types of systems: Unipolarity, Bipolarity, Tripolarity, and Multipolarity, for four or more centers of power. The type of system is completely dependent on the distribution of power and influence of states in a region or internationally.



NATO accounts for over 70% of global military expenditure,[1] with the United States alone accounting for 43% of global military expenditure.[2]

Unipolarity in international politics is a distribution of power in which there is one state with most of the cultural, economic, and military influence. This is different from hegemony since a hegemon may not have total control of the sea ports or "commons".

Examples of unipolarity

The most recent example of a unipolar world has been one dominated by the United States since 1991, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other states and empires in the past have dominated their known worlds in a unipolar fashion. Some examples are below. Note that most of the cases as well as the dates given are open to some debate.


Bipolarity is a distribution of power in which two states have the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence internationally or regionally. Often, spheres of influence would develop. For example, in the Cold War, most Western and democratic states would fall under the influence of the USA, while most Communist states would fall under the influence of the USSR. After this, the two powers will normally maneuver for the support of the unclaimed areas.

This map shows two essential global spheres during the Cold War in 1959. Consult the legend on the map for more details.


Regional examples

Multi-state examples of bipolarity

The bipolar system can be said to extend to much larger systems, such as alliances or organizations, which would not be considered nation-states, but would still have power concentrated in two primary groups.

In both World Wars, much of the world, and especially Europe, the United States and Japan had been divided into two respective spheres – one case being the Axis and Allies of World War II (1939–1945) – and the division of power between the Central Powers and Allied Powers during World War I (1914–1918). Neutral nations, however, may have caused what may be assessed as an example of tripolarity as well within both of the conflicts.


Multipolarity is a distribution of power in which more than two nation-states have nearly equal amounts of military, cultural, and economic influence.

Empires of the world in 1910.

Opinions on the stability of multipolarity differ. Classical realist theorists, such as Hans Morgenthau and E. H. Carr, hold that multipolar systems are more stable than bipolar systems, as great powers can gain power through alliances and petty wars that do not directly challenge other powers; in bipolar systems, classical realists argue, this is not possible. On the other hand, the neorealist focus on security and invert the formula: states in a multipolar system can focus their fears on any number of other powers and, misjudging the intentions of other states, unnecessarily compromise their security, while states in a bipolar system always focus their fears on one other power, meaning that at worst the powers will miscalculate the force required to counter threats and spend slightly too much on the operation. However, due to the complexity of mutually assured destruction scenarios, with nuclear weapons, multipolar systems may be more stable than bipolar systems even in the neorealist analysis. This system tends to have many shifting alliances until one of two things happens. Either a balance of power is struck, and neither side wants to attack the other, or one side will attack the other because it either fears the potential of the new alliance, or it feels that it can defeat the other side.

One of the major implications of an international system with any number of poles, including a multipolar system, is that international decisions will often be made for strategic reasons to maintain a balance of power rather than out of ideological or historical reasons.

The Eastern Mediterranean Hellenistic kingdoms of the 3rd century BC, which grew out of Alexander the Great's empire, formed a good example of a multipolar political world. Macedonia (Antigonids), Syria (Seleucids), Egypt (Ptolemies) vied with one another and states such as Pergamon, Parthia and the La Tene Celts in shifting alliances for domination of the region. Combinations against the strongest state kept any one from establishing hegemony, but eventually left all weakened enough to be dominated by Rome from the mid-2nd century BC.[3]

The 'Concert of Europe,' a period from after the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean War, was an example of peaceful multipolarity (the great powers of Europe assembled regularly to discuss international and domestic issues). World War I, World War II, the Thirty Years War, the Warring States Period, the Three Kingdoms period and the tripartite division between Song Dynasty/Liao Dynasty/Jin Dynasty/Yuan Dynasty are all examples of a wartime multipolarity.

Multipolarity today

Those claiming that the world is multipolar fall into two main camps. A "superpower is something of the past" view holds that the USA and USSR in the Cold War were in fact superpowers, but argues that due to the complex economic interdependencies on the international scale and the creation of a global village, the concept of one or more states gaining enough power to claim superpower status is antiquated. The rival view is that even throughout the Cold War, neither the USA nor the USSR were superpowers, but were actually dependent on the smaller states in their "spheres of influence."

While the US has a great deal of economic clout and has influenced the culture of many nations, their dependency on foreign investors and reliance on foreign trade have created a mutual economic dependency between developed and developing nations. According to those who believe the world is multipolar, this interdependency means the US can't be called a superpower as it isn't self-sufficient and relies on the global community to sustain its people's quality of life. These interdependencies also apply to diplomacy. Considering the complex state of world affairs and the military might of some developing nations, it has become increasingly difficult to engage in foreign policy if it is not supported by other nations. The diplomatic and economic factors that bind the globe together can sometimes make it difficult to act unilaterally, however alliances exist and the US is largely considered to be the sole superpower due to its unchallenged strength and influence, which would suggest a more unipolar world (despite globalization).[4][5][6][7][8]

Jacques Chirac, President of France from 1995 to 2007, was a great proponent of the view of a multipolar world. It is possible that this view stems from historical and cultural conflicts between France and the United Kingdom, which have led to distrust of "Anglo Saxon" nations, such as the USA.


Nonpolarity is an international system with numerous centers of power but no center dominates any other centre. Centers of power can be nation-states, corporations, non-governmental organizations, terrorist groups, and such. Power is found in many hands and many places.[9]

Measuring the power concentration

The Correlates of War uses a systemic concentration of power formula to calculate the polarity of a given great power system. The formula was developed by J. David Singer et al. in 1972.[10]

 \text{Concentration}_t = \sqrt{\frac{\sum_{i=1}^{N_t} (S_{it})^2 - \frac{1}{N_t}}{1 - \frac{1}{N_t}}}
  • Nt = the number of states in the great power system at time t
  • Sit = the proportion of power possessed by state i at time t (must be a decimal figure)
S = the proportion of power possessed
i = the state of which the proportion of control over the system's power is being measured
t = the time at which the concentration of resources (i.e. power) is being calculated
  • \sum_{i=1}^n (S_{it})^2 = the sum of the proportion of power possessed by all states in the great power system

The closer the resulting concentration is to zero, the more evenly divided power is. The closer to 1, the more concentrated power is. There is a general but not strict correlation between concentration and polarity. It is rare to find a result over 0.5, but a result between 0.4 and 0.5 usually indicates a unipolar system, while a result between 0.2 and 0.4 usually indicated a bipolar or multipolar system. Concentration can be plotted over time, so that the fluctuations and trends in concentration can be observed.

See also


  • Thompson, William R. On Global War: Historical–Structural Approaches to World Politics. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 209–210.


External links

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