Today’s world is dominated not by one or two or even several powers, but rather is influenced by dozens of state and nonstate actors exercising various kinds of power. A 20th century dominated first by a few states, then, during the Cold War, by two states, and finally by American preeminence at the Cold War’s end, has given way to a 21st century dominated by no one. Call it nonpolar.
Three factors have brought this about. First, some states have gained power in tandem with their increased economic clout. Second, globalization has weakened the role of all states by enabling other entities to amass substantial power. And, third, American foreign policy has accelerated the relative decline of the United States vis-a-vis others. The result is a world in which power is increasingly distributed rather than concentrated.
The emergence of a nonpolar world could prove to be mostly negative, making it more difficult to generate collective responses to pressing regional and global challenges. More decision-makers make it more difficult to make decisions. Nonpolarity also increases both the number and potential severity of threats, be they rogue states, terrorist groups, or militias.
Still, if nonpolarity is inevitable, its character is not. A great deal can and should be done to shape the nonpolar world. But order will not emerge on its own. On the contrary, left to its own devices, a nonpolar world will become messier over time.