from The Internationalist

Bipolarity is the Wrong Concept for U.S.-China Relations

U.S. Army and China's People's Liberation Army military personnel attend a closing ceremony of an exercise of "Disaster Management Exchange" near Nanjing, Jiangsu province in China on November 17, 2018.
U.S. Army and China's People's Liberation Army military personnel attend a closing ceremony of an exercise of "Disaster Management Exchange" near Nanjing, Jiangsu province in China on November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

When it comes to crafting policy, an all-consuming focus on bipolarity could be utterly disastrous. The Biden administration should junk the concept. 

December 11, 2020 9:17 am (EST)

U.S. Army and China's People's Liberation Army military personnel attend a closing ceremony of an exercise of "Disaster Management Exchange" near Nanjing, Jiangsu province in China on November 17, 2018.
U.S. Army and China's People's Liberation Army military personnel attend a closing ceremony of an exercise of "Disaster Management Exchange" near Nanjing, Jiangsu province in China on November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Brian K. Muzás, Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, where he directs the Center for United Nations and Global Governance Studies.

A two-superpower world is here again, and it should not matter. Disproportionate focus on China could distract the Biden administration from issues that ultimately matter more.

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History and Theory of International Relations

Specialists use the term “bipolarity” to describe the state of world politics when two powerful countries far outstrip all others. These two countries are called “superpowers” or “poles.” Just as the north and south poles stand at opposite ends of the world geographically, the two superpowers supposedly stand at opposite ends of the world politically.

With China’s rise, many affirm the arrival, and importance, of a bipolar world. Some foresee, even urge, a Cold War–style U.S.-Chinese relationship. Even those who do not still mine history for lessons on how to face China today.

Unfortunately, the two commonplace understandings of what bipolarity means for world peace are as opposed as any great power rivals.

Worse, history provides support for both irreconcilable understandings—and thus neither.

Furthermore, the supposedly unique character of bipolarity is useless for predicting world affairs.

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Finally, misapplication of this popular but flawed concept could incubate needless threats to peace and divert time and resources away from vital but less fashionable issues.

So, why care about bipolarity?

Some say a bipolar world is dynamic and war prone. They argue that military conflict is necessary to resolve rivalries since adversaries find themselves in dynamic, not static, equilibrium. The opportunity to exploit transient advantages might lead to war.

Others say a bipolar world is stable and predictable. They argue that military conflict arises primarily through miscalculation when adversaries wrongly assess their comparative power, resolve, and cohesion. Having only two contestants allegedly reduces the chance of such miscalculation.

The competition between Britain and France from the War of the Spanish Succession through the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763) illustrates the first view of bipolarity. The former war established that balancing power among countries was more important that dynastic rights. The latter was a hot war for global primacy which the British won.

The competition between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II illustrates the second view of bipolarity. Under the shadow of nuclear forces, both sides competed militarily and ideologically, but bipolarity ended not because of armed conflict but because of the economic implosion of the Soviet Union.

With China’s rise, bipolarity is either coming or already here. China’s economy and military are second only to those of the United States and are as large as the next several countries combined.

So, which understanding of bipolarity should guide the Biden administration’s policy toward China? Does today parallel the eighteenth or the twentieth century?

Neither: China is different, the world is different, and bipolarity is the wrong concept.

First, China is unlike the competitors in the above examples. China is not ideological the way the Soviet Union was, China has not invaded any nation since Vietnam in 1979, and China is more likely to abstain from, rather than obstruct, UN Security Council resolutions which it opposes. Further, China and the United States share fewer cultural affinities than France and Britain or even the United States and Soviet Union.

Moreover, the real wild cards facing the Biden administration are economic interdependence and global transnational issues that constrain even superpowers. China and the United States are economically interdependent in ways that France and Britain or the United States and Soviet Union were not. Moreover, climate change presents an existential threat every bit as devastating as thermonuclear war, to say nothing of grave matters like migration, human security, trafficking of people, human rights, sustainable development, and global health, all of which are more immediate and tangible than bipolar competition.

Finally, as a category of analysis, bipolarity gives no help in addressing the listed challenges because the concept unrealistically treats all countries except two as if they and their concerns, interests, choices, and populations do not matter.

True, some have argued that a new bipolarity arose when the Cold War thawed and globalization heated up. They claimed that the two new camps which arose either identified with or opposed the new world order not because of ideology but because of feelings of alienation brought about by the failure of globalization to respond to their aspirations. While these observations may bear on the rise of contemporary populisms, the camps in question are not countries, so calling these two sides “bipolar” stretches the term beyond its intended meaning.

These commentators are nevertheless right to draw attention to the importance of globalization, but their insight reinforces the point that bipolarity, no matter how it is understood, no longer matters, if indeed it ever did.

As important as the U.S.-Chinese relationship is, the Biden administration should do three things: junk the concept of bipolarity, avoid the temptation to fixate on China as a military and economic rival, and treat China with due care and attention without excluding or devaluing the many other threats to peace, security, and prosperity.

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