How "the multipolar world" came to be.
The multipolar world has become a global reality, recognized as a near certainty by no less an authority than the U.S. intelligence community. But it wasn't always such. For most of its geopolitical life, "multipolar" has been a synonym for America-bashing, whether by erstwhile allies in the Cold War or an anxious Russia grappling with its post-superpower status. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once bragged of the United States as the world's "indispensable nation"; today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promises to tilt the balance "away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world."
The multipolar world has become a global reality, recognized as a near certainty by no less an authority than the U.S. intelligence community. But it wasn’t always such. For most of its geopolitical life, "multipolar" has been a synonym for America-bashing, whether by erstwhile allies in the Cold War or an anxious Russia grappling with its post-superpower status. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once bragged of the United States as the world’s "indispensable nation"; today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promises to tilt the balance "away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world."
circa 1350 to circa 1900: Although the term is not yet in use, Europe remains for centuries basically a multipolar world: Several countries vie for dominance, but none reigns supreme for more than a few decades at a time.
March 5, 1946: Winston Churchill‘s "Iron Curtain" speech heralds the start of the Cold War, rendering the geopolitical world bipolar overnight. Refusing to take sides, five countries found the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955 under the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
1969: "Our deepest challenge," U.S. national security advisor Henry Kissinger writes, will be "to base order on political multipolarity even though overwhelming military strength will remain with the two superpowers." A year later, President Richard Nixon articulates the Nixon Doctrine, which seeks to exploit diplomatic divisions to reduce America’s military commitments.
January 8, 1978: French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing describes his differences with U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a "means to attain our grand objective, namely, the organization of a multipolar world which will not be limited by the decisions made by two superpowers alone."
1987: In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale University historian Paul Kennedy predicts the balance of military power will shift over the coming 20 to 30 years, creating a truly multipolar world around 2009. "If the patterns of history are any guide, the multipolar economic balance will begin to shift the military balances," he later tells the New York Times.
December 25, 1991: The Soviet Union ceases to exist, eliminating the second Cold War "pole" and launching a debate about the new world order. "Global politics," Samuel Huntington argues later in Foreign Affairs, "is now passing through one or two uni-multipolar decades before it enters a truly multipolar 21st century."
April 23, 1997: Fear of U.S. unipolarity inspires China and Russia to sign a "Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order" in Moscow.
February 2, 2000: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who earlier dubbed the United States the "indispensable nation," claims the U.S. is not looking to "establish and enforce" a unipolar world. Economic integration, she says, has already created "the kind of world that might even be called ‘multipolar.’"
Spring 2003: Calling for a "multipolar world" becomes a euphemism for opposing the Iraq war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair warns that French President Jacques Chirac‘s multipolar vision, and his prolific use of the term, is "dangerous and destabilizing."
January 26, 2007: A New York Times editorial describes the "emergence of a multipolar world," with China taking "a parallel place at the table along with other centers of power, like Brussels or Tokyo."
November 20, 2008: In its "Global Trends 2025" report, the U.S. National Intelligence Council declares the advent of a "global multipolar system" as one of the world’s "relative certainties" within two decades.
2009: U.S. President Barack Obama takes office with what many deem a multipolar worldview, prioritizing rising powers such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia. "We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in a July address.
July 22, 2009: "We are trying to build a multipolar world," U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden declares in a speech in Ukraine.
Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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